Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Tuesday Poem: For Fathers of Girls by Stephen Dunn

Having just been present at the birth of my grand-daughter, feeling aggrieved that her father was denied the right by British immigration, birth has been on my mind.  There aren't many poems about birth from the father's point of view.  And then I stumbled on this poem by Stephen Dunn at Garrison Keiller's Writers' Almanac. 

For Fathers of Girls by Stephen Dunn

for Susanne

When sperm leaves us
and we cockadoodledo
and our wives rise like morning

the children we start
are insignificant as bullets
that get lodged, say,

in a field somewhere
in the midwest.
If we are thinking then

it is probably of sleep
or the potency of rest, or
the one—hand catch we made

long ago at the peak of our lives.
Later, though, in a dream
we may imagine something in the womb

of our heads, neither boy nor girl,
nothing quite so simple . . . . .

To read more please click on this link  
Writers' Almanac - For Fathers of Girls  Copyright Stephen Dunn

And of course, there's the ultimate birth poem by Sharon Olds - The Language of the Brag.....Fabulous!!

Monday, 28 October 2013

Autumn on the River

I've been very quiet here recently - at first a week of baby-worshipping in London, and then laid low by a bug I picked up there.  I've watched a lot of very bad day-time TV from the sofa!  But the view from the window has been  better than the screen.  It's autumn here in Cumbria and the trees are beginning to turn on the river bank.

We missed the St Jude storm, luckily, but have had lots of rain and the river is running brown and high.
This taken minutes after the previous pic - but the sky had darkened and the sun vanished!

Can anyone tell me why this heron is behaving strangely on the river bank?

Despite the weather and the short days things are still managing to flourish outside in my wildly overgrown garden.  The Stanwell Perpetual rose is living up to its name -

And these winter aconites are a brilliant blue against the wall of the mill.

And how's this for a crop of mushrooms on an old tree stump next to the road?

I love autumn - the colours and the scents of woodsmoke and damp earth.  As a child I remember being taken to the chapel harvest festivals where the pulpit steps were piled high with mounds of apples and pears, tomatoes, leeks, pumpkins, beetroot, potatoes, and buckets of  flowers - mainly dahlias, chrysanthemums and sweet william. All of it home-grown and auctioned off for charity. We went home with bulging bags. The smell of the Bramley apples! It's not just my memory - home-grown really does smell different to the supermarket stuff.  Just thinking about it makes me feel hungry, so I'm obviously getting better!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Tuesday Poem: If You Are Lucky, by Michelle McGrane

Tuesday Poem: If You Are Lucky, by Michelle McGrane: If you are lucky you will carry one night with you for the rest of your life, a night like no other. You won't see it coming. For...

Michelle McGrane's collection 'A Suitable Girl', published by Pindrop, is one of my favourite collections from the last year or so.  'If you are lucky' is one of the big moments in the collection - sensual, and giving that tingle in the spine that honest poems do when they hit the spot!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Worrying times for digital authors

There's been a bit of upheaval on the internet over the past week.  Amazon had their Seller accounts hacked and all sellers had a notification from a 'fake' Amazon telling them that their money had not been paid and they should update their bank details.  Fortunately, being a suspicious character I didn't click any links and signed into my Amazon Seller Account in the normal way, to be told that, yes, someone had infiltrated their accounts and all our bank details and payments had been frozen.  Several frantic emails from Amazon to me followed, saying that fake emails had been sent, to be ignored and that 'we are fixing the problem, be patient'.  Then emails saying I'd been paid by mistake and that they were taking money back, then emails telling me the problem was fixed. What was fake and what was genuine?  No idea - they all looked the same.  I changed my passwords and hope now that it's all sorted.

At the same time, Kobo Writing Life suspended all 'indie' published books ostensibly  because of the fear of abusive content.  I've no problem with books being  vetted for abusive material, but it seems that they have taken this much, much further.  Small 'micro' publishers are also affected.  My partner Neil publishes four authors, including myself and all our titles are suspended.  It could be said that mine are 'self-published', but the other three are definitely not and this is very harmful.  Also, all four of us are published by the Big 6 (whose books are not suspended) and several of the books concerned are E-editions of books published in paperback by Penguin, Robert Hale and Constable. Most of mine are literary biography - a genre not renowned for its erotic content!   It could be said that Kobo are deliberately targeting Independent publishing of any kind, not just 'self' publishing, and this is a very worrying tactic for a company owned by WH Smith.

The internet is a dangerous place and Indie authors seem to be more vulnerable than most on its dark streets.  We need to make sure we keep up to date with the technology.  Cyber Censorship is an even more difficult issue.  I believe passionately in freedom of expression, but I don't want extreme violence and porn of any kind to be freely available to people innocently browsing the pages of the Kobo catalogue.  But what about all the other outlets? Are they going to follow suit?  Will we have to declare explicit content when we publish?  Will the rules be more stringent for independent authors than the Big 6?  What is clear is that there's more need than ever for Indie Authors to belong to groups that will help them out and give them more clout when it comes to challenging people like Kobo and Amazon.  I belong to the Alliance of Independent Authors, Awesome Indies and Authors Electric and it's quite comforting to be part of a tribe.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The long drive home

Finally back in England after a very long and tiring drive across Europe.  In Switzerland there were police road-blocks, apparently directed at lorries, which created queues of more than 2 hours at each location.  We lost almost 5 hours in stationary traffic.  And then there was snow - freshly fallen at low levels.  Winter has come early to Europe this year.

Southern France was cold and damp but very welcome.  We didn't get as far as we'd intended, but stopped at a pretty little town in Alsace called Colmar.
It's a chocolate box town in the old centre, but it's not a museum - very much a working place.  There are some wonderful crooked buildings - photographed early in the morning before we set off again.  We needed to cover a lot of miles to make the ferry in time.  There were torrential rain storms and gales in northern France, which made for some tense moments.

But we're finally home, tired but triumphant.  I'm here for a month, but Neil left this morning to go back to Italy - not wanting to waste the studio space he's rented to work on a new piece of marble.  But he was back this afternoon because they wouldn't let him out of the country on my passport!  Moral:  never pack when you're tired!!

Friday, 11 October 2013

Nobel Prize for Literature goes to Alice Munro

Congratulations to Alice Munro for being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.  It's another shot in the arm for the short story, since Alice Munro doesn't write anything else - she's sometimes been called the Chekhov of  Canada.  I love her stories and have often tried to analyse them - and failed!  They have a mysterious magic you can't explain by plot diagrams or character analysis.  But they make a gut-wrenching connection with the reader, tapping into some kind of universal knowledge of the human condition.

Congratulations, too, to my fellow Cumbrian Sarah Hall who has won the BBC National Short Story Prize with 'Mrs Fox' - described as 'a darkly erotic tale'.

Tomorrow we will be packing the car to leave Italy, driving all the way to the north of England, via the Zeebrugge-Hull ferry. We're aiming to arrive on Monday morning.  Just hoping for good weather and calm seas!

Monday, 7 October 2013

It's a book!

We've spent the last week putting the finishing touches to the Norman Nicholson biography.  Neil has been polishing the book design and tweaking the colours for the cover and I've been reading the book again and again and again for typos and punctuation errors.  Our big nightmare is that the book will arrive from the printers and we'll open it up and discover - oh horror!!! - that there is some really obvious mistake or omission on the first page.  So, for a week, the dining table has looked like this, and we've been eating outside or on our laps.

Putting a book like this together is complicated.  Neil is doing the text in InDesign and he's had to learn about crop-marks and gutters and a million things you don't realise you have to know about books!  We had to decide on what kind of paper to use (we've chosen book wove because it's thicker and has a nicer texture), whether to have the illustrations separately on glossy paper or in the text - we opted for the glossy sections, and what size the book should be.  We can't afford to print a hardback, so have gone for an 'enhanced' paperback - thick card cover with fold-in flaps and the big 'trade paperback' size.  Hopefully it will feel good and look good. This morning the files have been sent to the printers - a scary moment.  There's no going back now.

The little plaster object on the right is the maquette of Neil's latest sculpture, which he might now get time to finish!

Saturday, 5 October 2013

To cut a long story short - publishing short fiction

I'm blogging over at Authors Electric today, about the short story publishing scene for writers and readers. There's a new competition for crime writers and a free story . . . 

'The short list for the BBC National Short Story Award has just been announced and it's a shocker!  There are no men on it... (David Gilmour take note)  At £15,000 this is one of the most valuable prizes in literature, and it emphasises the short story's status as a literary art form.  The high value we place on the short story is a big contrast with its lack of appeal as a commercial publishing prospect.  Fewer and fewer publishers are accepting them and then only as a gesture towards their best-selling authors.  Newspaper and magazine outlets have also dwindled.

But, readers like short stories and writers like writing them.  The result is a flourishing Indie-publishing scene for short fiction - not just in book form, but also in E-zines and blogs and Facebook groups.  People are reading Flash fiction on their mobile phones and downloading stories onto their I-pads from sites where you can read any kind of fiction from erotic to murderous, and cozy to experimental.  There are markets for the short story everywhere on the internet.  Unfortunately very few of them pay anything . . .' (To read more click here)

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

National Poetry Day: Talking to Seamus Heaney - Stepping Stones

It's National Poetry Day today in Britain, so, to celebrate, I thought I'd share some thoughts on Stepping Stones, edited by Dennis O'Driscoll, published by Faber. 

I'd started reading the late Dennis O'Driscoll's conversations with Seamus Heaney at the end of last year and I've been dipping into it for months (it's a big book), savouring the autobiographical narrative and the lively discussions on Life, Poetry, Irish politics and Everything.  But when Seamus Heaney so unexpectedly died, I went back to Stepping Stones and began reading again from the beginning with closer attention.  Suddenly, in the light of the poet's death, what he had to say seemed more definitive.

He addresses the question  'how should a poet live and write?  What is his relationship to be to his own voice, his own place, his literary heritage and his contemporary world?'  The pronoun is male, but the prose is inclusive. It's a journey into what Seamus called 'the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival - whether in one's poetry or one's life - turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination'.

I also bought Opened Ground - Seamus Heaney's Selected Poems - so that I could follow discussions of the individual poems, the histories of various collections, and the contexts of each piece of work. Somehow I managed to juggle backwards and forwards between the two books on my Kindle, absorbed in the poems and by Seamus' vivid account of the genesis of each poem and its reference points.

Seamus talks a lot about his childhood on the small farm in northern Ireland - the eldest of 9 children, living with parents and an aunt, crammed into accommodation that today would be thought suitable only for a family of four.  Brought up myself, on a small farm worked by horses, with no modern conveniences or machinery, I could see, effortlessly, the byres and the barns, the flagged floors and the old stoves.  I, too, lay awake listening to the horses stamping in the stable next door, the cows rattling their chains in the winter byres.  This is the stuff of Seamus' early poetry, the roots that nurtured him all his life. The farm kitchen is so real, I can smell the bread rising.

.... the sun stood
like a griddle cooling against the wall

of each long afternoon.
So, her hands scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove

sent its plaque of heat
against where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.

Now she dusts the board
with a goose's wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails

and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

He chose not to go to England to University and remained in Ireland, working initially as a teacher rather than an academic.  Though he accepted university posts as a poet in residence - notably in America and at Oxford - there's a marked distrust of academic life and the incestuous nature of the creative writing culture. Dennis asked him if he thought that a 'career-based life in the creative writing schools undermines poetry as a vocational activity'.  This is Seamus' response.

'For some people, certainly.  In the States during those sessions of questions from the audience when the visiting poet is asked about other poets he or she admires, the names given are rarely those of the great dead.  Usually you hear about people at other writing schools, people who are at the centre of webs, good enough representatives of the contemporary scene, but proof of what Donald Davie once termed - in another context - 'lowered sights and diminished expectations'.  There are times when you realise that the guild now consists as much of networkers as dreamworkers'. 

Dennis O'Driscoll asks the questions that readers want to have answers to, both public and private.  Where did Seamus sit in Northern Irish politics? What was his relationship with his family, his wife, the poetry community?  And the responses are beautifully  edited to preserve Seamus Heaney's natural voice - the flow of thought.

This is an autobiography - as told by Seamus Heaney to Dennis O'Driscoll - and it's not only magical to read, it illuminates the poetry.  Essential reading for all Heaney fans.  And - unlike some other expensive tomes - the Kindle edition is only £5.99.

Stepping Stones
Interviews with Seamus Heaney
Dennis O'Driscoll