Publishing: Time For More Sad Poetry

Book cover for Interrupted Verse, featuring a desert landscape and water-filled cauldera as viewed from above, drawn in pencil and coloured digitally

It’s here. Some of it is queer. A lot of it is, given the nature of the years 2016-2019 for both me and the artist who created the cover, about grief.

Interrupted Verse: Collected Poetry 2016-2019

There are also poems about yearning, about joy, about freedom, and about transition. There are poems which both are and are not about politics. There are poems which adhere to a strike rhyme scheme, and some which sneak assonance and consonance past you almost subconsciously. In reading them over for inclusion in this book, I have found rhythms I didn’t realise I was putting into my work, and recurring images which I very much did.

There are poems to commemorate both the dead of my acquaintance, and that of my friends, and those of the world in general, almost all of whom, barring my grandparents (to whom there are memorials), left far earlier than needed. But there are also poems to commemorate the joyful moments in the lives of the people I love, including, I suppose, me. I hope they can also be turned to the need for comfort, catharsis, challenge, and cheering up that you might have. Feel free to make yourself at home with them.


If, however, you are not interested in poetry at this point in your life, may I point your attention to the recently-released Architects of the Flesh, a novel which covers many of the same themes. 

Inspiration Station: Books That Stick

A key part of my BA Creative Writing was wider reading. We were give course excerpt readers for class discussion and usually quite exhaustive lists of suggested texts for reading around the subject, which I was apparently the only person to actually bother to read. These were usually intended to highlight things: how episodic fiction works, the difference between the episodic and the transformative, the nature of modernist vs postmodernist writing, different approaches to poetry, and so on. The following books were largely not on the reading list, but are just books which–for reasons other than the narrative they contained–have stuck with me and influenced me in some way.

Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker. I have reread these books many times and I still can’t quite put my finger on why they work so well for me when the rest of Barker’s novels, including ones in similar settings with similar themes, don’t. But initially I think I was taken by her use of language–specifically the incredible balance she strikes between clean, clear description that never goes overboard, poetic turns of phrase at moments of intense emotion, and not allowing the action to ever take place in what’s usually called a “white room”, even when she devotes only a sentence to scene-setting.

As Meat Loves Salt, Maria McCann. I have a great and powerful weakness for strong character voice, particularly first-person narrators, and particularly unreliable ones. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who plans to read it (and I definitely urge people to read it, with the caveat that it is frequently brutal and the narrator’s voice is a lot to handle), but the timing of exposure of information, the distortion produced by the emotions of the narrator, and his acute unreliability are all things I aspire to in terms of literary courage. I think I came closest to achieving that in Heavy, but no writer is ever satisfied fully with their past work.

The Debt To Pleasure, John Lanchester. This was recommended to me (by A.K. Larkwood, author of The Unspoken Name, in fact) on the basis of my voluble and impassioned reviews of As Meat Loves Salt. She (rightly) grasped that I liked narrators who were “unreliable, full of their own bullshit, and absolute dicks”, and pointed me at this debut novella by a culinary writer. It treads the line between literary murder mystery and cookbook memoirs, and I have never read anything else like it. In terms of showing me how to use narrator preoccupations to absolutely manipulate the audience and frame the story in a manner that I’d never have considered doing myself, it was an eye-opener. In a very odd way, a little like Matt Fraction’s celebrated dog’s-eye view issue of Hawkeye, or even that one Agatha Christie novel whose title I shan’t mention lest I spoil the plot. Linguistically this is also wonderful–writing a pretentious, self-involved asshole as a protagonist/narrator frees the author to go absolutely mad with language and really unleash the purple prose and pompous opinions. Again, something I am working up to finding the courage for myself.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov. Like the Regeneration books this is one I have returned to repeatedly and like them it is one that I consider a touchstone of literary aspiration. Every man and his dog has written about Nabokov’s borderline self-indulgent description, his anatomisation of a specific time and place in history, his eloquence. What fascinated me on first reading, and which now just impresses me with the skill with which it is done, is again the use of the perspective of a reprehensible person to tell you one thing, but to show you something else. Following the emotional narrative of Humbert Humbert, he “falls in love” with a very young girl and obsessively “courts” her and she “breaks his heart”. Following the physical narrative of the behaviour he himself observes, Dolores Haze is abducted and abused by the man who emotionally tormented her mother, until she escapes. A genuinely inspiring demonstration of how to use the narrator to conduct the same grooming behaviour on the reader as he does on the characters, and one which unsettles a lot of readers to the point of anger when they realise they’re complicit somehow.

It’s not solely unreliable first-person narrators, but I admit I am going to return to that theme.

The Charioteer, Mary Renault. Another regular reread, and one that I treat like getting a particularly nice cake. I have the greatest respect for many of her works, but I think this one is probably the best. The characters are the most fully fleshed-out, the locational descriptions the most immersive and recognisible–although I can see that’s also because they’re more familiar, both due to personal experience and to ritual rereading.

One of the hallmarks of Renault’s work is implication: as a queer writer, she has the very particular talent of leaving things unsaid, but carefully hinted at. Not writing things, but writing around them, so that they appear inevitably in the white space in the centre–a bit like drawing only the shadows cast by physical objects, rather than the objects themselves. Some of this is delicacy–she got away with writing a gay romance in the 1950s by creating gaps for the sex and kissing that could be filled by the mind but were not even alluded to in ways people without the “code” would notice. Some of it is layers. Many of her sentences, dialogue in particular, are laden with multiple strata of meaning. Which ought to be a given, but is rarely the case. And because everything happens through the eyes of the point-of-view protagonist, in initial read-throughs the image of other characters is distorted. Is so-and-so really a horrible person or does the protagonist not like them because he considers them competition? Is so-and-so really a selfless paragon or is he just in love? And so on.

Another hallmark is rhythm. It’s hard to pinpoint and harder still to replicate (as a recent attempt at practicing iambic prose revealed, writing with an ear to spoken rhythm is not something I find easy at all), but there are passages of description in The Charioteer which read like poetry not only in their pastoral or romantic content but in their very stresses and alliterations and that is the lodestar by which I would very much like to steer the unforgivably ugly pedalo of my own prose.

Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, is another instance of “in it for the language”, in this case solely for the language. The social commentary bores me and the plot is tissue-thin: the real fascination comes from discovering how quickly Burgess can teach the reader to read an entirely new slang, purely through immersion and context. And, of course, it has a reprehensible, self-involved narrator with a strong voice, and we know by now that I like those.

The next three books all feature what I’d call location horror, or bad houses if you want to be really technical about it.

House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski. I don’t really know where to start with this. Narratively it deals with the uncanny, and with emotional landscapes reflected as physical landscapes, and about distortions of reality; it runs three levels of narrative simultaneously, really milking the “found manuscript” trope of late 19th/early 20th century SciFi with breathtaking chutzpah. I don’t think I quite had the spleen to pull off my attempts with that in The Circle. Danielewski’s eye-catching USP is of playing with what can be achieved with the form, something that I think as novellists we probably do the least of all the narrative media, and it’s a shame–because what he does with it absolutely works. Again, the borderline abuse of the reader in terms of using every method possible to unsettle, distract, and disorientate, from switching “level” of narrative to uncanny content to the degeneration in narration by the two narrators and their ultimate subject, is like an ad infinitum demonstration of those particular skills, and ones which I would like to cultivate. I am not sure, however, that I have the patience for the typesetting complexities of House of Leaves!

The House, Bentley Little. Another bad house book, this generally standard horror novel was my introduction to multiple ideas: unsexy sex, threatening sexuality, and the use of sexual threat/menace to confer discomfort and unease onto entirely nonsexual subjects.

Drawing Blood, Poppy Z Brite. A better example of bad house and sexual horror, the prose in this book sat at the hinterland between “atrociously purple” and “appropriately mauve”; it somehow fitted the settings, and the revoltingly lush descriptions worked well with the sense of rot both internal and external, as well as containing quite a poetic and evocative description of an orgasm.

The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall. Recommended to me on the basis of the noisy appreciation of House of Leaves, this does indeed have characteristics in common: a disoriented and, as we learn, grief-stricken protagonist; a permeable kind of reality; inventive typography which creates a sense of threat to the reader by rubbing thin the membrane between fiction and reality (perhaps an attempt at the equivalent of an actor in a Brechtian production making aggressive eye contact and saying, This may be a play, but if I hit you, it will hurt); and an underlying unfurling mystery. It’s a lot more palatable to consume and has a definite narrative somewhere in there, however. I’ll leave a link to the Wikipedia summary, which I’m not sure fully does it justice, but which uses all the correct terms. 

Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, G W Dahlquist. A compelling read with, as I’ll explain, an odd structural/pacing similarity to Annihilation, below. What I wanted to take from this, apart from the character-driven narration in multiple-PoV fiction, and the elaborate world-building (which was sketched out from three different perspectives to provide a fuller picture than one one allow for), was the sensation of constant movement. Glass Books is a long book that it is easy to race through because there is never any let-up in the action. Dahlquist appears to have taken the Chandler have a man enter with a gun edict very seriously, and claimed himself that his method was to “write characters into a hole, and force them to squirm out of it”; for someone who has a problem with extremely passive protagonists (which I only really think I began to break around Architects of the Flesh), this is a real goal. 

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Moore & Gibbons’ restriction in format and parallel narratives, with one illuminating the other are what I want to take from this, primarily. The response to restrictions is often considerable creativity (Lee Barnett’s Fast Fiction Challenge is one example, the fannish “drabble” format and the even more restrictive fifty-word micro-saga preceding the microfiction of Twitter accounts like T R Darling‘s falling into the same kind of restrictive category to intensifying degrees), or at the very least a way to break out of a rut.

The Filth, by Grant Morrison, Chris Weston and Gary Erskine. I could just have easily said The Invisibles, but The Filth demonstrates the same factor that I’m interested in without requiring an enormous and almost equally confusing companion book to make sense of it all (yes, I have read them both. No, I can’t say with any certainty that I have unpacked every aspect of the work, and no, I don’t think I even meant to).

When I talked further up this post about Danielewski being one of the few authors I’d encountered who really played with the specifics of the form, I was thinking back on comics like The Filth, like Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man, which use fourth-wall breaking as a technique–one which is especially effective in the comics medium. Other tricks from these books have been used elsewhere, in particular playing with the convention that in comics, space is time, and therefore it is possible for characters to step out of their constraints and affect their own actions and experiences by reaching into the past or future (an idea which in novels is exemplified by The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger). In common with other visual narrative media such as film, animation, and television, comics can also use visual narratives in parallel with verbal ones, something which Michael Moorcock, in conversation with Alan Moore (and referenced here) claimed influenced his own attempts to ensure multiple narratives were taking place within each sentence.

Discovering and working with the specific capacities of novels and short stories (and not episodic fiction unfortunately, despite the popularity of that form across multiple media including Twitter) is something I would also like to get back to, rather than fixating so much on plot-driven stories and standard narrative formats.

Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer. I read this because I saw the film and was highly intrigued by it. The book and the film are at best second cousins. Elements of the novella which I found especially compelling/attractive: intense sense of place, a similar compelling pace and unfurling mystery to Glass Books, married with the rising emotional intensity and uncanny nature of House of Leaves, with a highly detached and even nameless narrator; and, in terms of thematic content itself, I was pleased by how little interest the book had in explaining or taming the phenomena it describes. Although it provides humanising insight into the protagonist which breaks up and also heightens the weirdness of the current events, the events themselves are doggedly, confrontationally alien, something which I absolutely yearn for on the rare occasions I read science fiction.

Most of the Discworld series, Terry Pratchett. When I was reviewing Jojo Rabbit for a friend, I said that I didn’t think that it was so much a comedy as a story which used comedic tropes and colours to force the viewer not to  disengage and to lull them into a sense of tonal security so that they would be unable to defend their psyche against the actual message of the film. This is something I think that I first saw in the Discworld novels, as they began to go along: I always found them incredible funny as a teenager, but often that humour was a wedge to having a pertinent moral message firmly inserted. 

Diseasemaker’s Croup, Neil Gaiman. A short fiction piece which featured in Fragile Things, which experiments with the expectations of informative writing in a similar manner to House of Leaves’ annotations, or found manuscript format fiction in general (Documents in the Case, by Dorothy L Sayers, is a grand example of the epistolic approach to that form–wrapped of course in a murder mystery, my favourite kind of plot). In this instance, it takes the form of a recursive idea: it is a disease suffered by those who write about fictional diseases, written by someone with the fictional disease on which they are writing, and whose degeneration in the text mirrors the description as it is being written. This, I think, is one of the strengths of novels and short stories which is harder to replicate in other media.

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a trilogy in four parts, Douglas Adams (and, to an extent, the Dirk Gently books). From Douglas Adams, I learnt that you can break just about every conceivable “rule” of fiction if you do it hard enough and well enough. I learnt about zeugma, I learnt to love the present-but-detached narrator who also features in my childhood favourites, the Narnian Chronicles; and I learnt an enormous amount about comedic timing, litotes, comedic understatement and overstatement, contrasts–the real Anglo-Saxon and Greek nuts and bolts of writing. In future, I would like to bring back that playfulness, that metacommentary, and that committed, well-practiced but seemingly casual disregard and even contempt for “the rules” of writing.

Where from here?

To summarise: what I want to get back to. Unreliable narrators, always. Conflicting descriptions, always. Non-linear narrative is something I have played with very little outside of fanfic and would like to really indulge in. Meta-textuality, linguistic/rhetorical mirroring, and osmotic language teaching are things I would like to find ways of working into stories.

I am reminded by this list that Pass the Parcel, the longest and also first fully complete novel I wrote as an adult (I wrote two as a teenager and they were, as you might expect, not good), was something that I initially began as a way of working through a question I had about the way novels were structured. I didn’t answer it in that book, but what I did do was enjoy and explore creating a work of fiction without the preconceptions that had shackled me before and made it so hard to complete longer works.

There are a lot of questions to be raised about how stories work, how to tell them, and how I want to tell them.

Writing Exercise: From Art

This month I’m returning to some of the fundamentals of my writing degree and unstiffening underused writing muscles (and coincidentally repeatedly giving myself RSI) by revisiting those warm-up exercises I can remember from my classes. This is a version of one of them: in our classes we would have a painting projected onto the wall and use it as a starting point to write fiction for 10-15 minutes without stopping. As brief imaginative flights that go nowhere are not something I’m having trouble achieving, I adapted it to be about description, an area I find I’m lacking in lately.

05/01/2020 – The Wallace Collection

A Canaletto imitation by a Canaletto scholar hangs in the striped gallery, among a slew of others just like it. It is a model of perspective, painted by some pupil—“the school of Canaletto”—who seems to have recently learned the art of single-point perspective, and employed it with tedious regularity but exhaustive detail on the straight converging lines of the Piazza San Marco (kindly labelled).

Are the colours faded? I would assume so. Is the sky really so tepid over Venice? Surely on some days it is this weak dilution of blue, blotted with thin excuses for clouds, but that can hardly be the case every single day. And I know the robes of these 17th century Venetian traders and conversational pedestrians must have leeched their brilliance in the fading of madder—a more brilliant red mus surely have been intended. One can never accuse the early modern European of dowdiness unless he is a Protestant of some consideration devotion.

There are parasols like mushrooms springing up over what must be the tiny tables of market stalls. Of course no open space so carefully paved could be free of traders, but were their shades really so uniform in construction and hue? Is the replicability by a single hand here, as in Islamic art of the era, the sign of great craft at the time? Do we strive for identikit perfection rather than the contemporaneous Dutch verisimilitude?

A tower rises on the left like a rather gaudier version of the chimney stacks at what was once Battersea Power Station. I cannot take rectangular towers seriously. They aren’t defensible—my heart remains in the castle keeps I explored as a child, locked in, scarcely urban at all. Not like these eternally convivial, cosmopolitan Venetians on their square, here not sinking so swiftly into the lagoon as to require endless wellingtons but instead spaced out and sweeping, majestically but with cloaks that don’t pass the knee, across dry slabs dotted with little dogs and not one single pigeon.

That’s what does it, what really shocks me. I have just walked to this gallery past the serpentine, positively swarming with avian life—as I passed, a great crested grebe with his ruddy whiskers popped up between two mute swans and dived again. The reality of these birds, their living warm bodies and imperfect feather, fractal and exquisite, struck me like a slap of the cold water to my face. This pale, lukewarm attempted Canaletto, this Canalettese thing, has no pigeons.

I may not know Venice like I know London, but I know cities, and I know birds. There should be gulls. There must be starlings. Pupil. You are a fraud and you are indolent: give your piazza her birds. You insult her.

Writing Exercises: Taste & Travel

Returning to the fundamentals by executing writing exercises similar to the ones I was given at university nearly 20 years ago. The first was a 10 minute timed piece written while eating Christmas Cake, which was supposed to focus on the sense of taste. The second was a 15-minute timed piece written while on a train, meant to focus on the theme of travel. Neither have been edited.

03/01/2020

Sweet. It is above all things overpowering in its sweetness. That is in part the icing, white and soft, a paste of sugar set firm, with a dusting of edible gold pigment to hide the imperfections accrued by the process of rolling out on a less than perfectly clean chopping board with a less than perfectly clean pin. Then there is the almond taste of the marzipan—still very sweet, and somehow more fragrant, more condensed than real almonds—the essence of almonds. It is hard to describe marzipan’s taste without solely enumerating its components or slipping into flights of personal memory: the enormous moulded marzipan pig and received as a child which was almost but not quite enough to put me off the experience of the substance forever, being as it was a vast, unadulterated block of this overwhelmingly sweet, fragrant, off-yellow beige, shaped into a pig, soft and crumbling, a texture a little like cheese and a little like playdough. And yet I can still swallow it up. The other component is far more layered. It is the dark mustiness of the fruit lovingly soaked in alcohol for over a month, slowly fed until it is quite drunk, an inebriated matrice of rejuvenated grapes, orange peel, candied cherries, walnuts which have become sheer and juicy with sugar and booze, almost pickled in it, held together with the barest framework of spiced, crumbling cake, the excuse for the fruit. A drier concoction which separates the sweet-heavy pudding from the respectable confection—as if there was any difference. A Christmas cake is not so much a cake as a gestation, kept in the dark and pandered to, a kind of macerated fungus of indulgence—saved for weeks and then broken out to ungrateful, pre-sated mouths.

04/01/2020

Travel, they said. Travel and your mind will open. The implication here is that the wealty, whose planes scar the sky in patterns of white on blue, whose thirsty engines scour the lands below for their fuel, must be the broadest-minded of our race, and the village-locked poor, travelling between home and work in a steady succession of shuttered images, are the narrow minds of rats in drainpipes. We forget, of course, that minds travel while we sleep.

Trains take routes pre-determined by our planners. By definition they take the road most-travelled. The same is true of their aerial counterparts, whipping through clouds that range far more freely than they ever will. Only on foot are we released. Only when I walk, one foot in front of the other, am I at liberty, in theory, to go where I please—providing I can escape the eyeballs of the state, providing the communities don’t bar their gates. I’m reminded when I take off, with music of the exact right beat in my ears, timing my footsteps to isochronicity, of the family myths: on one side the ever-walking footsteps of Romanchal came to circulate one island. On the other, travellers from Ireland stepped across the sea to settle in the South of England and stave off starvation. They settled into ruts and so have I. In theory I can lift up my boots and stalk anywhere desire takes me. I am as free as my healthy body and confident heart can let me be—and yet in practice my routes are as practiced as dance steps and ploughed deeper than the fields of my unwild nation. I have the English disease of habitual timidity; it is rare that habits change, rare that my feet range further than the same old streets. I try to challenge myself with new short-cuts but it’s not until I drag my slothful carcass to the outskirts of my beautiful city that the real freedom of having functional feet takes hold—across Epping Heath & into the seemingly boundless woods I plunge in every direction, my only objective to avoid other people, to escape all signs of humanity—replicating my dawn walks in the planation by my teenage home, when insomnia drove me out to startle the deer and slither down arsenic-strewn slag heaps in an attempt to walk my mind free of thoughts.

There is no impediment on my time one week in two. There is no chain keeping me from taking to the hills, to the valleys, to the downs, and the wood and the coast of this little island. For a fat lad I’m not short of stamina. What is keeping me so strictly controlled by these leylines of mundanity? The year ahead beckons: you may not be wealthy, but travel broadens your mind. Start walking and do your ancestors proud.

 

10 Minute Writing Exercise: Blind Writing

Premise: set a timer for 10 minutes and write continuously, without pause, on whatever pops into your head when you first put pen to paper.

02/01/2020

One morning in June, the sun failed to rise over the infamously picturesque rooftops of Paris. Instead of a low pale grey dawn, in which the sky, as always, took on lighter and lighter dove plumage, until it became instead a sliced orange flushed with pomegranate juice, it remained as violently black as the shattered remains of a bottle of typographer’s ink. Even the stars had vanished. Without the sunrise to guide them, the lazy pigeons remained asleep–but the Parisians and their tourist guests, who lived not by the clocks of the heavens but by the digital, atom-set numbers of their mobile phones, awoke to darkness, and were at first bewildered. Surely they must have mis-set their alarms, or failed to set a phone to the right time? Perhaps there was a lie-in to be had? They had clearly not gone blind, for the red LED glow of alarm clocks and the soft pale blue glow of mobile phones illuminated the bedrooms of Paris–followed, with increasing distress and irritation, by the overhead lights.

Slowly, Parisians poured onto the streets, their faces turned to the blackened skies, as one-by-one curiosity drove them beyond the mere act of peering out of their bedroom windows–perhaps, after all, it was a hoax?

And yet the skies remained as black as unmilked coffee, and the faces of Paris turned up in confusion. Texts were sent. Emails flew back and forth. Men in pyjamas on pavements frowned up at nothing. And soon the replies flooded in–it was not just Paris.

It was dark in Lyon. It was night in Nice. It was black in Marseille., in Calais, in Roscoff. The black lay upon Alsace. And still the replies came: sunrise shunned Geneva, Brussels, London. It was absent entirely no matter where in their appropriate time zone one inquired.

And, just as the concern reached a fever pitch, a pale green glow illuminated the black. Closer, and closer came these letters: in French, in German, in English–each set to its appropriate linguistic region, each alone in the sky.

They said: PLEASE HOLD.