My interview with Richard Milward

My interview with novelist Richard Milward is in the May edition of Bookslut. You can read it here: http://www.bookslut.com/features/2014_05_020639.phpmilward

 

Richard is the writer behind novels like Apples (2007), Ten Storey Love Song (2009) and Kimberly’s Capital Punishment (2012), who I was lucky enough to meet at a pub in Middlesbrough last Christmas. He told me about his next novel The Headaches, gave some great advice about writing, and was generally a good laugh.

Let me know what you think…?

“Don’t give up until you’re five years dead”: my interview with Mike Di Placido

Recently I was lucky enough to get an interview with Yorkshire poet, Mike Di Placido. He’s a really interesting guy – as you’d expect from his name, him being an ex-professional footballer, and his poem about a vacuum cleaner!Fringe-Valley-Press-Logo-200x200

You can read here my review of his first collection A Sixty-Watt Las Vegas... Or just buy it from Valley Press already, for god sake…

But for now, here’s a sneak peak of the interview, in all of its writerly glory:

In your first full collection, A Sixty-Watt Las Vegas, you seem to play a lot of roles: literary muser, romantic, social commentator, stand-up comic, to name a few. When you write poems, are you in a particular mood?

Well, I suppose the first thing to say, on writing poems, is that not many poems arrive fully-formed, although I always know exactly which ideas I want to pursue, otherwise I wouldn’t have jotted down the initial word or lines at all. I joke about my wallet being my filing cabinet, what with ideas, words and subject matter jotted down as they arrive on bits of paper! After that, the poem, which can be about absolutely anyone or anything, simply dictates the process. There is no set mood, other than a determination to be true to the subject matter and the tone of voice which it dictates, and which can be, and I hope often is, various.

I have spent years in writing classes, too. Here, the process is the same, just concentrated and more intense because of time limits, and I try not to think too much but just go for it. I usually find that even if I don’t produce the beginnings of a poem, many ideas are generated to work on later. One could muse on the existence of The Muse, but I like to keep things simple! I suppose being open to whatever is there is as good a definition as anything. The tone is dictated by that, as well as the characters and situations that one inhabits, so to speak . . .

Enjoy? Read the full interview here

Revolution is in the air! (And on your Kindle)

I co-edited the March issue of Myths of the Near Future magazine, an online literary magazine by under-25s. You can download it now onto any Kindle reader for less than £2, or just search “Myths of the Near Future Revolution”.

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It’s the first time I’ve edited a literary magazine, but was great fun and filled with new experiences. We held a launch event and open-mic event as part of the 2014 Student Writers’ Toolkit hosted by Writing West Midlands, and we were lucky enough to get an interview with one of Granta’s Best Novelists 2013 and John Llewellyn Rhys Prize winner, Evie Wyld. Plus there’s an article on Modernism in there, and an interview with me!

Here’s a sneak peak from my interview…

“What were you looking for in terms of style?” 

“Good question! I suppose it was the same as with any poem or short story, I went into it looking for literature that had impact. Hence the choice of ‘revolution’ as the theme, as it encourages writers to make work which is about urgency and immediacy and which is tense. I think this kind of impact is a real strength of writers under-25, where emotions are still very raw. We got through some incredible pieces, across poetry and fiction. I particularly love some lines from Richy Campbell’s poems, as he has really compact, economical couplets which are also kind of emotionally stunted: “Pigeons peck at pave-squashed gum,/hop tiles as I stagger to mid-platform.” On the other side, I’m awe of the emotional intensity of the pieces by Eliot Mason, those free-form poems which are all about repetition and disgust in the modern world, and with moody refrains like “enjoy it now/the revolution is about to start”. I tend to be more of a short fiction fan, so co-editing this issue has kind of opened my eyes too as to the diversity of great literature out there. As the wide range of work we’ve got in Myths shows, it’s not really about the style of the piece but about how well the words work semantically and poetically to create that impact.”

We are currently looking for submissions for issue 4 on the theme of ‘Money‘.

Ten reasons why you must read Animals by Miles Salter

This review was originally published on Dead Ink.
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1. Because the second collection from Yorkshire poet Miles Salter, Animals, is such an incredible mystery. This is a 47-strong ‘mewling crowd’ which explores Britain’s suburbia, confronts capitalism and corruption and war and godlessness, and predicts terrifying (as well as mundane) post-apocalyptic futures. Salter’s various voices are charming and challenging, and their richness deepens with every reading.

2. A case in point: the inimitable ‘Ten Reasons Why This World Must End Soon’, a poem inspired, we are told, by ‘a phrase on a placard held by a religious gentleman in the centre of York in Summer 2011′. The poem is literally a numbered list, unrhymed and unlined. Its ‘ten reasons’ range from the obscure ’1) There are not enough elastic bands to go around’ to the pragmatic ’3) There are more of us people arriving each day’ in a typically Salterian flux between high and low style. This is bravado of the highest order, and at times the reader would be forgiven for asking: ‘Is this poetry?’ But Salter should be given the benefit of the doubt, especially as the poem epitomises his complex approach to the collection’s ‘animal’ theme.

3. Animals avoids any cliché or sentimentality about humanity and animals. This is definitely not a book of poems about gaggles of geese and herds of hippos, nor is it restricted to the blurb’s assertion, ‘the most dangerous animal of all – the human being’. Instead, Salter uses animals as a way to talk about much richer territory: whether humans are most humane when acting ideologically or individually, whether humans are nurtured or tamed by their societies, and most importantly for the lyricism of the poetry itself, whether humanity thrives or dies under order. Salter’s attention to the power of (dis)order is impeccable and subtle: ‘Ten Reasons’ slides from the casually coherent ‘why/because’ form into inexplicable poetry, giving us these as final lines.

9) Imagine it. No rock and roll. No stock market.

10) The dust. The light. The silence defeating stars.

This is the kind of animalism that Salter is interested in: it is feral, wild, disordered and chaotic, and—

4. He is expert enough to reflect this tension between order and chaos in his poems’ form as well as subject. For example, ‘The Horse Rider’s Code of Conduct’ evolves from the professional and perfunctory language of the ‘code’ (‘I understand that riding at any standard has inherent risk / and that all horses may react unpredictably on occasions’) into a nostalgic poetry from the perspective of the liberated rider:

We kept going for an hour and the whole
world seemed to flood through me and I yelled out in a language
I didn’t understand, and did not want to go back.

5. Polemic poetry. It seems unfashionable at the moment to write poems with a political, ethical or religious point. But many of Salter’s poems do have an argument that is described and demonstrated as if to convince the reader. Through some clever arrangement the collection almost tackles issues in groups of four or five poems. First religion, as in ‘Their Eyes Were Not Watching God’ which mocks the shallowness of people (‘because the deity / never turned up on a TV show like Britain’s Got Talent‘). Then consumerism, as in ‘The Only Thing I Had Left To Sell Was My Soul’ and ‘World Without End’ which warn against the excesses of Western culture (from the latter: ‘we bought that quiet, single-minded / mania every time, looting shops // with plastic or cash, cramming cars with food’). Then war:

Your Country Needs You to forget the rules
of cricket and become a man who sweats
and screams in his sleep, a man who beats
his wife and daughter

Often the trouble with polemic poetry is that if you disagree with the poet’s argument, it can scupper your relationship with the work entirely. Perhaps conscious of this, Salter includes enough poetic interest (note the misleading eye-rhyme of ‘sweats / beats’ above) to appease to even the most anti-theistic, pro-capitalist and pro-war reader.

6. Because these poems are funny. ‘School’ depicts a Battle Royale where ‘The final exam requires no writing, / but, happily, a single baseball bat/will be available to the group.’ In ‘Ears’ a man keeps a tin of ears and, on some nights, ‘Lighting a candle, he takes one, / from the box, holds it in his palm / and starts. ‘It’s like this,’ he says.’ Okay, well maybe these poems are darkly funny, but it is still another of Salter’s skills which makes this collection such a diverse and engaging beast.

7. The cover photo. Squirrels, boxing.

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8. Unlike a lot of poetry pamphlets or collections which look like they’ve been Canon-printed on recycled paper in the writer’s garage, this collection has the highest calibre of production values. The cover design is ingeniously simple, the paper is tactile and the typography is clean and professional. You might call that superficial, but it makes the reading experience into an actual experience. This quality is fast becoming the hallmark of Valley Press, a small Scarborough-based operation run by 26 year old Jamie McGarry.

9. For the sheer poetry of some of Salter’s lines. Examples include: ‘Outside, priceless birds were dancing in the breeze’ or ‘She unhooks the door three times / then places herself in the chamber of the day.’

10. Because you should get to know Salter. He organises York Literature Festival, plays music, and has written for BBC Radio, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Independent, etc. His other works include his debut poetry collection The Border (Valley Press, credited to Miles Cain), and A Song For Nicky Moon, which was shortlisted for The Times/Chicken House Children’s book award in 2010.

My favourite Christmas story: ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce

This article was first published by Liars’ League

6a00e551c6d2b28834019b02200aa1970c-800wiI first read ‘The Dead’—the last piece in James Joyce’s 1914 short story collection Dubliners— because someone told me it was much shorter than Ulysses. And thank God I did, because ‘The  Dead’  is essentially a jolly fantastic  story  about  a  family  gathering at Christmastime. It has all of the festive gripes that you would expect from the debut of a 22-year-old writer:

  • Having to put up with Irish nationalist grannies (“— And haven’t you your own land to visit, continued Miss Ivors, that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?”)
  • Wishing you were out in the snow, or in a food coma, or anywhere else “much more pleasant than at the supper-table!”
  • Putting your foot in it by saying something inappropriate, then trying to ‘gift’ yourself out of it.

But the beauty of the story is in its gradual movement away from the pettiness of the dining-table and towards tender remembering of past years, as in a  speech given by the protagonist, Gabriel:

“— But yet, continued Gabriel, his voice falling into a softer inflection, there are always in gatherings such as this sadder thoughts that will recur to our minds: thoughts of the past, of youth,  of changes, of absent faces that we miss here tonight. Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely withour work among the living. We have all of us living duties and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our strenuous endeavours.”

I have a suspicion that when — ninety-nine years later, this Christmas — we speak about “remembering people no longer with us”, our words will be somehow directly descended from Gabriel’s speech. Later, at home, as Gabriel’s wife recalls a boy she once loved who died at seventeen years old, and Gabriel finds that he knows nothing at all about his wife’s past, then Joyce is at his best: completely wrought and epiphanic. For such a well-known piece of literature, with one of the most quoted last sentences (you’ll have to read all 15,000  words to get there: no peeking!), this is a beautifully unassuming story. To me, it captures the weird mix of emotional intensity and sheer inanity that can only come at Christmastime.

You can read The Dead at this link: http://www.online-literature.com/james_joyce/958/

A question of genre

This article previously appeared on NAWE Young Writers’ Hub

Readers and writers often find themselves stuck in the same old genre, but would it be better to ask more of other forms? Jonathan Aldridge reflects on a very literary education, and wonders if he hasn’t been missing a trick…

I don’t think the question of genre ever came up at university. We studied novels, plays and poems which fell into the canon (by writers like Shakespeare, Dickens and Joyce) and which are called ‘classics’ in bookshops. Our faculty library was arranged by date (with surnames A-Z from 1500-1670, for example) instead of by genre like in a bookshop. And neither students nor tutors ever considered that there was more than one worthwhile genre, especially nothing that resembled sci-fi, romance, fantasy, crime or horror. Maybe studying gothic literature comes close, but even then we called it ‘the Gothic’ and referred to ‘tropes’ and ‘transcendence of boundaries’.

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Actually, the question of genre came up once. I remember a conversation with a South African literature tutor. We spent a lot of time studying Apartheid literature, learning about how authors wrote politics and war into high-end literature. So I ask what sort of literature South Africa is reading and writing now (twenty years since Apartheid ‘ended’) and my tutor says “Oh, genre fiction, mainly. A lot of crime novels.” That was the only time genre was ever mentioned. And to me, it cemented an idea that genre fiction was the product of a safe culture full of lazy readers (like the modern-day UK?), whereas meaningful literature was a response to and catalyst of social change (like modernism during the early 20th-century).

So if there’s a reason I only write and read ‘literary fiction’, it’s because that’s what they teach you. In university circles, no one asks any questions of genre fiction; and in popular circles, no one asks any questions of literary fiction. I think we should ask more questions of each other.

It was failing to broaden my bookshelf which meant my early writing failed. In my late teens and early twenties I had little life-experience and would have done well reading and writing young-adult fiction or sci-fi as a way of expanding my horizons. But instead I was emulating TS Eliot, Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, and I was trying to write free verse, villanelles and avant-garde short stories. I guess it taught me an appreciation of those forms, but what I wrote was bad. It was like making little models of Big Ben or the London Eye out of matchsticks: I didn’t have the skill or the material to do it properly.

I think my literary education left me slightly skewed—so when I came to write my first novel, Banes Of Boys And Girls, I was more concerned about how the thing fit in with the Bildungsroman tradition or explored the ‘politics of desire’, rather than how interesting the plot and characters were and, basically, how good it was (I do think it’s good). It’s a novel about coming-of-age and falling in love for the first time, so I could have been reading young-adult and romance fiction to see how they navigate that territory. But it didn’t occur to me.

So for my next projects I’m going to change. I’m going to ask more questions of genre fiction in the hope of diversifying my writing. So before I get around to writing the office novel that is going round my head, I’m going to read some ‘office romance’ novels as well as masterpieces like Something Happened by Joseph Heller.

I’m already starting to kick the habit, and remind myself that plenty of genre fiction has merit. I’ve held literary fiction on a bit of a pedestal. They (Wikipedia) say it isn’t even a genre in itself, but it still has its own conventions: complex characters, minimal plot, linguistic texture, introspective style, slower pace. Just like crime fiction has its rogue detectives, sympathetic villains, dramatic clauses and plot twists. There is plenty of bad literary fiction, where boring characters doing nothing, just as there are bad crime novels with hammy dialogue and stupid plots.

But there’s also the chance to learn from other forms. I’ll give you a couple of sentences which to me epitomise the best literary fiction, especially in its ability to re-imagine a regular occurrence. In Virginia Woolf’s short story ‘The Mark On The Wall’ the narrator has been thinking to herself uninterrupted until “something is getting in the way [...] Everything’s moving, falling, slipping, vanishing…. There is a vast upheaval of matter. Someone is standing over me and saying—”I’m going out to buy a newspaper.”” I like the idea that being interrupted from your private thoughts is “a vast upheaval of matter”: it’s really subjective and lightly melodramatic. You sense the narrator waking back into reality from a place of abstract thought. This is the cadence and mood you get from literary fiction; and the scene is typical too: domestic, psychological, nuanced.

I honestly don’t know what sort of sentence you get from genre fiction, but for the sake of my writing I need to find out. Maybe they can give the urgency, drama and scale which literary fiction lacks. My interest in genre fiction started recently, with something that Michael Crichton said in an interview with The Paris Review. He said that he was trying to write The Andromeda Strain (sci-fi) but couldn’t get it to be “factually persuasive”. So he “started thumbing through” We Are Not Alone by Walter Sullivan and “noticing the vocabulary, the cadences of nonfiction and how the structure of the sentences conveys a sense of reality that is not found in fiction.” I would advise anyone who reads only literary fiction (including myself) to ask more questions of genre fiction in order to find a new “vocabulary”, “cadence” and “structure”.

I don’t think I see myself writing an all-out genre fiction anytime soon, but I want to ask more questions of it. To learn new techniques and conventions beyond literary fiction; to use a sentence structure from sci-fi, or a plot framework from crime; to better my craft. That’s my answer, anyway.

Here Comes Everyone: The Heroes Issue

This review was first published by Sabotage Reviews.

The Heroes Issue is the second offering of poetry, short stories, and non-fiction from an embryonic community-led magazine called Here Comes Everyone, and published by the not-for-profit Silhouette Press. As I am usually a sucker for the literary canon, I was excited to read the cutting-edge works of unknown writers: I expected vigorous, irreverent prose and compact, personal poetry.

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My expectations piqued during the editorial introduction, which—via Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Dambusters, Genghis Khan, and David Attenborough—teased out many of the key issues within the theme. Heroes, it was suggested, can be humanitarians, inventors, “people who brought great social change”, or more mysteriously “a facet of an idealised person who I wish I was”. There was considerable space given to the idea that it is one’s perception of heroism which is paramount over the hero himself, and it was promising to hear the editor muse that “an individual’s personal heroes can say much about them”.

As a literary blogger who has considered the role of heroism and ‘superhumanism’ in modern times, I think that this is a satisfactorily nuanced reading of the hero. So I suppose what I desired after this editorial was what anyone desires from a themed magazine: an impressive range of creative responses which combat, elude and explore the idea. Read individually, the pieces I was given didn’t really do this. The poetry was mainly a slightly flabby form of free verse, and approached the theme from the rather conventional perspectives of war heroes and celebrity culture. The short stories were a little underwhelming in their character/plot and literary texture: they tackled the “Olympian guts” it takes to jump into a swimming pool, the militant nationalism of “Ireland’s heroic martyrs”, and the everyday heroism of a busy father.

However, when read as a group, the pieces did begin to say something very interesting. They showed such a vast range of human emotion and expression that it made me feel like I was dipping into strangers’ minds as I passed them on the street: there was a woman who evidently fancied her martial arts instructor, a man who wished he were Perseus, and a man with separation anxiety retained since childhood. There were also some standout pieces, namely the ones which approached the theme in innovative, oblique ways—i.e. that alluded to heroes or heroism without having to write “he was a hero to me that day” or the like.

Emily Densten’s short story ‘Smile for me’ playfully describes the narrator’s imagined rant at a man who tells her to “smile, sweetheart” as she waits for a tube. I took her “dreamed” cathartic tirade (“I’m not here to be set decoration for you”) to be an exploration of everyday timidity; that is, why people can find it so difficult to “stand up for themselves, finally, for once”, let alone act heroically.

Another favourite was ‘Hard Times For Tolerance’ by Ben Nightingale, the first opinion piece by HCE’s regular columnist, which was a stinging defence of “freedom of speech” against “jihadis who would take it away from us [and] those among us who are determined we should cave in and give it away”. As I am a generally tolerant person, Mr. Nightingale had a hard task of convincing me that the best way of combating the religious intolerance of Islamist fundamentalism was with religious intolerance of Islam. However, his “consciousness-raising exercise”—supposing that the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon had instead been about The Koran—was entertaining enough to retain my attention in spite of his more controversial claims. Furthermore, HCE is evidently achieving its aim of creating a communal space for literary types, as contributor Eugene Egan has already commented on Mr. Nightgale’s piece online: “He made me question some of the things I’ve taken for granted which is excellent.”

On a less positive note, it was very off-putting to find multiple errors of spelling, punctuation and syntax. It detracts from the writing, betrays sloppy writing and neglectful editing, and produces an unpleasurable reading experience. Needless to say, if one is a literary type one should take care not to write “pixcelation” or “men who’s ambition”. Having said that, I was intrigued and amused by the image of pigeons cooing “Like wantons retuning home for supper”. I was happy to overlook the magazine’s slightly-lacking design—it hasn’t got the gothic style of Popshot magazine (‘Birth’ issue out now), nor the slick minimalism of Peninsula magazine (only one issue published, called ‘Visitation’)—but these mistakes are unforgivable.

All in all, Here Comes Everyone’s Heroes Issue is a promising prospect which just doesn’t quite get to where it wants. However, as a “network and resource point for people who want to get involved in the world of publishing and the arts”, HCE and Silhouette Press seem to be attempting something worthwhile; to which end, you can find out more at herecomeseveryone.me and @HereComesEvery1.