Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Poetry Aloud - 'Fox Running' and 'Sleepwalk on the Severn'

A watery bit of London

I spent two nights last week at the poetry library, tucked cosily away above the royal festival hall, reading poems aloud with strangers. The poetry library - celebrating its 60th birthday this week - experimented with this earlier in the year, with a joint reading of David Gascoyne’s 'Night Thoughts', which I wrote about here. I am so pleased that they have decided to try out this kind of night again, because it is such an easy, rewarding way to engage with poetry – something I really do believe is good for writers of any form.

‘Fox Running’ by Ken Smith seduced me with its title, fascinated as I am by the fox in folklore and associated fiction, and it did not disappoint. Because of the release of Sarah Hall’s BBC short story prize-winning ‘Mrs Fox’, which was based on a novella called ‘Lady into Fox’ by David Garnett (available online free here), I had been thinking a lot about fox-human transformations in literature. In Ken Smith’s poem, which in my ignorance I would describe as mixing elements of Gascoyne, Auden and Ted Hughes in terms of style and content, an urban fox traversing London seems to merge and morph into a man struggling to live in the city and in himself in the midst of Thatcherite disintegration.

The style leaps about, but never threatens the coherence of the piece. We encounter snippets of songs and sayings, political invective, lyrical flight, splintered memory, humour and the cold horror of depression, all threaded through an inventory of London places:

‘To Morden to Putney to Wandsworth/to Beckenham Junction/to Stockwell to Battersea Park/Where I was anyone anywhere/on hands and knees/who would crawl to the horizon/finding someone to say yes to.’

There are so many interesting parallels between this poem and Gascoyne’s ‘Night Thoughts’, I’d encourage anyone with a passing interest to read them side by side. I said of ‘Night Thoughts’ that it could have been evoking London in 2013, despite being written in the 1950s. The same can be said of Smith’s 'Fox Running', not just because of its references to Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes and the presence of that familiar, sinister urban fox, but because like Gascoyne he captures the loneliness that spreads beneath the frenetic activity: 

‘Among/the endless conversations, starts, stops,/unfinished lives’ biographies,/feints, gestures, cries, his life’s/plain furniture, a borrowed room/in Camden to begin again from nothing.’

Alice Oswald’s ‘Sleepwalk on the Severn’ is also a night poem, and also involves a kind of personification, in this case of the moon. It was quite a ride to travel through the world of this long poem by hearing it aloud in many voices. It is so rich, in images and ideas, that breaking it into spoken parts worked very well. Characters loom and fade, repeat and echo themselves, changing each time to reflect the moon’s phases.  We follow the writer and the moon, ‘two sleepwalkers’, out beside the Severn in each phase, and hear the moon speak, though her forlorn voice is replaced later in the poem by the voices of people, ‘some living, some dead, all based on real people from the Severn catchment.’

This mix of writer, moon and real people allows for shifts from the lyrical to the absurd to the comic – from ‘There are moon-beings sound-beings such as deer and half-deer’ to ‘enter to the right a married couple being washed downriver on a sofa’. I enjoyed the sheer variety of ways in which Oswald is able to evoke the moon and moonlight, and reading aloud meant that these washed over us, just time to engage with the image before it was replaced by another for a different moon phase – ‘Little light left on’, ‘shedding a weak, low battery light’, ‘A mere mouth/Not fully human’, ‘Maker of shadows snowface’, ‘the unseen shiny of one eye/Glinting in its hood’, ‘shedding a black and white television screen light which picks out loneliness’ - to list but a few.

This originality and density of expression is what I find so inspiring as a prose writer – it makes you realise how much harder you can push yourself to describe and your reader to  understand. ‘Sleepwalk on the Severn’ moves between poetry and prose, but even in the longer looser lines, ten people all reading them aloud together for the first time picked out the same rhythms to the phrases. This was a great reminder of how much rhythm and readability does matter even in prose, guiding the reader to certain words and images even if they are not aware of it.

So, thanks once again to the poetry library for introducing me to wonderful poems. As one participant pointed out, taking part in the reading itself is like being a player in an orchestra; you attend to the piece in a different, more intense way. I will certainly remember these poems and return to them as to favourite pieces of music.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Work-write balance: the grass is always greener...

Surely I'd write more if I lived here?

Every week day, being of a naturally cantankerous disposition, I grizzle to myself on the way to work, counting through the writing projects I will not be able to pursue for the next eight hours while I earn money. I can easily extend the torture beyond the immediate need to be getting on with stories and research for my creative writing PhD. There are so many other things! That bird-cult novel I never finished, the second papercut book I want to make, the cycle of stories inspired by Lorca poems that isn’t even a cycle yet, consisting only of two...

I berate myself for choosing to work at a full time non-creative job, rather than compromising more for my art, and think of the writers I know who have found better ways, envying their courage, integrity, sheer creative productivity.

Except that we are all doing this. Here are some descriptions of real writers I know.

Writer number one has written novels around her day job, and so successful have they been, she has been able to stop working and write full time to complete novel number three. To me this sounds like heaven – all day to write! To her, the reduced pressure to just get on with it has meant she has struggled to write, spending many months revising plot and structure. She has productive days but gets angry with herself on days when she does not write anything. Writing full time is also lonely. She craves interaction, and suffers from that sense that her struggle is invisible.

Writer number two had novels published some years ago, and is now writing again, choosing to work part time to have just enough money for what he needs. To me this is brave and demonstrates integrity and self-belief as a writer; here is someone getting the time versus money balance right, sacrificing a bit but not too much in order to do what really matters. This writer doubts himself, thinks he should grow up and get a proper job, that this is no way to live as a grown-up in London. I suppose the risk weighs heavy on him – what if this does not pay off? The pressure to write a lot and well is immense.

Writer number three lives in the countryside and works from home as a freelance copywriter, spending as much of her spare time as possible writing short stories, and in literary conversation with her daughter who is applying to study English at university. To me this sounds both wonderful and sensible. Working from home cuts out all that travel time, you can stay in the creative zone, talk to someone who lives there about books. Furthermore, you get to practice writing even when you are doing your paid job! To her, writing all day for her work means it is very hard to then write again – and differently – in the evening. She would like more time to write but with freelance work it is risky to say no. Literature events in London are a journey away, and teenage daughters, however well-read and interesting, are time-consuming.

To a writer with a different set up, then, I may look lucky: I have pressure on me to write, including real deadlines, and quiet evenings in which to do so. My job is not creative so uses up none of the requisite juice, and provides enough to spend on writing courses, literary events, books. I have more ideas than I can use, rather than more time that I have to try to fill with ideas, which in a way is a nice problem to have.

It is one thing to figure out that a living cannot be made from writing literary fiction alone, but another to remain content with whatever compromise you reach in order to be able to keep writing. I’m aiming to teach, one day, to support my creative habit. In the meantime it is useful to remind myself as I clomp to the office that, whatever the writer’s situation, there are struggles involved, and the only thing to do is to keep at it. I won’t give up work, but neither will I give up the daydream of a hut in the forest, a bottomless jar of coffee and never-ending supply of coloured pens...

Monday, 14 October 2013

Acts of Literary Ventriloquism: Ned Kelly and Riddley Walker

Riddley Walker's world is mostly shadowy

Some time ago I started writing a blog post that was to explore why stories – and in particular characters – that I don’t enjoy often stick in my head for so long. Then on a recommendation I read Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, and was utterly seduced in a way I have not been since I read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Like Ned Kelly, Riddley has been haunting me ever since, so this is a positive post about the power of voice.

I was recommended this book after I discussed the difficulty of writing – as I am – about a place that doesn’t exist, with a dialect that is not real, but without having to declare my work ‘fantasy’. To my delight, at last night’s Booker Prize shortlist readings,  Jim Crace claimed that despite starting with real pieces of history (such as the enclosures, for his book Harvest) he then makes it all up, historical details, voices and all. Another writer who creates non-real world dialect voices in a place ‘just off the map’ is Jess Richards in her novel Snake Ropes (I’ve written about Jess here).

In Riddley Walker, Hoban creates an ancient-feeling world in a future that hopefully will never exist (two thousand years after a 20th century nuclear holocaust), though as Will Self points out in the introduction, it ‘could be set in the ashes of any civilisation’. The place is intriguing and terrifying, but it is the lens through which we scour this landscape for friend and foe that grips. At first, you might think it would be hard to understand Riddley, let alone share the ache of his thoughts and cheer him on his quest. The first story Riddley tells us, on page two, begins:
“There is the Hart of the Wud in the Eusa Story that were a stag every 1 knows that. There is the hart of the wud meaning the veryes deap of it thats a nother thing.”

Language-wise, things do not get any easier. To read Riddley is to decipher, at first, idiom and culture and his particular way of seeing things, which is different from his contemporaries. As Will Self observes, this slows down your reading and thinking such that you share the ‘sensation of groping in the dark’ which is Riddley’s lot, as he struggles on a quest of understanding.

The voice that Hoban creates is utterly unique. There is an obvious way in which it is astonishing, being an entirely made-up dialect (based roughly on Kentish speech) within a made-up culture, where words and their meanings have been eroded by two thousand years and a lot of myth making. We encounter, for example, the 'Pry Mincer', whose political role is illuminated once you say that name out loud, but who spreads his propaganda via a derivation of a Punch and Judy show. But what also astonished me was the discovery that Hoban was American, only moving to England in 1969. Often the only way to understand Riddley is to speak his words aloud and hear them in a country drawl, then work back from there. This must have been even harder for a writer landing in the UK in adulthood, with no exposure to regional accents.

It was this revelation that made me think of Carey and True History of the Kelly Gang. Here, likewise, the reader is hypnotised by an entirely original, wild voice, and the more I thought about it, the more similar Ned and Riddley seemed to me. Both are on a kind of dual quest, moving through a violent, unforgiving world but at the same time trying to articulate something, to others and to themselves, and their thoughts rendered in a voice that requires the reader to leap almost into another language. This brings with it another way of thinking. I don’t believe I would have sympathised so profoundly with either of them if I had been reading their stories in the third person in standard English prose.

What knocked me off my seat after reading Carey’s novel, though, was the discovery of the Jerilderie Letter, which Carey read before creating Ned’s voice for himself. After falling for Ned myself through Carey’s rendering, to see such a similar voice coming straight from the man himself was a chilling and powerful experience. Of course, Carey fictionalised, effectively extrapolating an entire personality and mode of expression from this document, but reading the original Kelly made the author’s feat seem all the more impressive.

Carey said in interview that ‘the story of Ned Kelly, and the reason Australians still respond to him so passionately, is that he was not brutalised or diminished by his circumstances. Rather, he elevated himself, and inspired a particular people with his courage, wit and decency’. Exactly the same could be said of Riddley. He inspires passion, loyalty and love in a reader because he is trying so hard to decipher what really matters and make sense of the world in a familiar human way, but with a set of intellectual and practical obstacles that make understanding modern life look like a piece of cake.

Both Ned and Riddley write with a compelling urgency about their thoughts despite constant physical and political battles raging around them. I am not sure whether it is this that gives both these characters such humanity. It is a rare thing to feel such magnetism towards a character in fiction, but all the more incredible when the novel requires a glossary.

As a reader I have always enjoyed fiction that makes me work hard, and Riddley Walker certainly excels at that. In that respect it won’t appeal to everybody. As a writer, reading it gave me a welcome reminder that characters with made-up dialects, with homes in no particular space or time, are as interesting and worthwhile as any other kind, if created with conviction and, I think, love. I would hug both Ned and Riddley if I could, but more importantly they fascinate me. It is not just infuriating characters that stick in my mind, after all.