Monday, 20 March 2017

Tuesday Poem: In the Village, Derek Walcott


Who has removed the typewriter from my desk,
so that I am a musician without his piano
with emptiness ahead as clear and grotesque
as another spring? My veins bud, and I am so
full of poems, a wastebasket of black wire.
The notes outside are visible; sparrows will
line antennae like staves, the way springs were,
but the roofs are cold and the great grey river
where a liner glides, huge as a winter hill,
moves imperceptibly like the accumulating
years. I have no reason to forgive her
for what I brought on myself. I am past hating,
past the longing for Italy where blowing snow
absolves and whitens a kneeling mountain range
outside Milan. Through glass, I am waiting
for the sound of a bird to unhinge the beginning
of spring, but my hands, my work, feel strange
without the rusty music of my machine. No words
for the Arctic liner moving down the Hudson, for the mange
of old snow moulting from the roofs. No poems. No birds.

Derek Walcott
excerpt from 'In The Village' 
White Egrets by Derek Walcott. Copyright © 2010 by Derek Walcott. 

Derek Walcott, who died a few days ago, was one of my favourite poets.  A Nobel prize-winner, like Seamus Heaney, he changed the landscape of poetry for the next generation.  I loved the way he wrote about his homeland, the ocean and about writing poetry - twisting these three strands together until they became one.   

Joseph Brodsky said of him that “For almost forty years his throbbing and relentless lines kept arriving in the English language like tidal waves, coagulating into an archipelago of poems without which the map of modern literature would effectively match wallpaper. He gives us more than himself or ‘a world’; he gives us a sense of infinity embodied in the language.”

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Failure of Biography - Katherine Mansfield and the anonymous author of 148 journals in a skip

How many of you out there write a journal?  I'm guessing quite a few.  I've been keeping one on and off since my sense of Self began to develop at around 13 or 14.  And, as I wanted to be a writer, I was fascinated by other writers' diaries.  The journals of Kathrine Mansfield, edited by her husband John Middleton Murry, were the first ones to really grab me by the metaphorical throat when I found them at the age of 17.  They had a raw, vulnerable quality that entranced me, though I never dreamt I would one day become her biographer and hold the originals in  my hands.
One of Katherine Mansfield's notebooks, a few months before she died.

They also gripped a young woman in Cambridge, who read Mansfield and had ambitions to become a writer or an artist. She kept a journal every day, recording her own life at great length for 60 years.

I've been reading Alexander Masters' intriguing book 'A Life Discarded', after hearing him talk about it at the Keswick Words by the Water festival.  A friend of Masters discovered 148 journals, written in an assortment of notebooks and diaries, thrown away in a skip beside a house that was being demolished in Cambridge.  Being a historian, the friend rescued them and they were eventually passed on to the biographer.  Masters was fascinated by the idea of writing the life of an 'unknown person'.

Initially he thought of the 'I' of the diaries as a man, but then the subject began menstruating and referring to the self as 'Not-Mary', so was obviously female.  She was writing a couple of thousand words a day, amounting to millions of words in total - a very daunting task for anyone to read - but Masters was hooked by the story.  Some of the journals were written as comic book strips and they were all illustrated with very competent drawings, just to add to their attraction.  The mystery deepened.
One of the 148 diaries found in a skip

Something very traumatic had happened to the writer of the diaries, who shrinks from a lively, curious, ambitious girl to a fearful, inadequate, reclusive older woman - a change revealed by the handwriting, which starts out bold and gradually gets smaller and smaller until it's only decipherable with a magnifying glass. Some trauma seemed to have occurred to halt 'Not-Mary's' emotional growth and it's there in the diaries, recorded without comment or reflection.  At 13 she fell in love with her piano teacher, the exacting, unsparingly cruel, 'E'.

Katherine Mansfield also fell in love as a teenager, with an older woman, but artist and mentor Edie Bendall was kinder and more understanding towards her protege.  Katherine quickly outgrew her. Not so 'Not-Mary'.  For two decades she desperately tried to please the unidentified 'E', believing, as she was told, that she was useless, ineffectual, that she would never achieve anything.  All the bitterness of 'E's' own wasted talent, sabotaged by WWII, was vented on a young, impressionable girl who was prepared to lay her life down like a mat to be trodden on.  The damage takes your breath away.  Not-Mary develops an eating disorder, agoraphobia, depression.  Her family don't seem to notice her distress.

It is always assumed that the author of the journals is dead - after all, isn't that when their effects get dumped in a skip?  Biographers spend a lot of time reading the diaries of dead people.  We are the 'unintended reader', who - according to Virginia Woolf - is always at the back of a writer's mind as they scribble down their inmost thoughts for posterity.  That may have been true for Katherine Mansfield, but it wasn't for the 'Not-Mary' of these notebooks, who admits:

'I just enjoy writing.  I enjoy the sound of the words . . . I just like the feeling of the pen on the page'.

The attraction for Alexander Masters was in not knowing who that person was and so unable to determine the truth or otherwise of the story that the journals unfolded. Because, normally, for the biographer, what matters is their reliability, how much can be verified.  But this is wrong, because it is the journal's own truth - the author's truth - that matters, written in that moment, in that situation, in that frame of mind.  The entries' contextual truths, in the light of current events, the point of view of other people in the life of the author, or the illuminations of hind-sight, are immaterial.  These exterior 'truths' are irrelevant to the emotional and personal reality of that momentary revelation.

It is the triumph of the character/subject, who constantly eludes the biographer.  Something in their refusal to be pinned down guarantees their immortality.  They remain themselves, enigmatic, unexplained.  The ultimate unreliable narrator and yet the author of the absolute truth about themselves.  Which is just as it should be.

Alexander Masters' book is deeply reflective and set me thinking about the very nature of journals, particularly those of ordinary people, who, not being famous, are never likely to believe they are going to be published at some point in the future.  Does this make them more confessional?

Katherine Mansfield at her desk.
The Katherine Mansfield journals, which contain some of her most startling writing, have been deciphered and annotated, first by Margaret Scott, scholar, librarian and Katherine Mansfield addict, and then re-edited by Mansfield scholar Gerri Kimber.   But still, Mansfield eludes us.  I read the originals in New Zealand, alongside Margaret Scott's (not published at the time) transcription because Mansfield's handwriting was so terrible. It was both a jigsaw puzzle (writers don't always use notebooks consecutively) and a detective game.  But it was always a moving and engrossing occupation.

Katherine also made little drawings to illustrate her diaries and letters.

As Alexander Masters found, the character of the writer is in the very notebooks they choose, the way they handle them, the character of the script and the doodles, the little reminders, the shopping lists, marmalade thumb prints and coffee rings, that hold the story of a life, not a literary myth.  This, you can tell yourself, holding the book as the author may have held it, is the very page they also held open and pressed between their fingers.  A hair, a flake of skin even, may still be trapped in the binding. You are touching their life.

When Masters had finished his book and drawn his conclusions, he went in search of the author's identity in order to get the permission of her estate to use quotes from the diaries. And that was where the revelations began, though I'm not going to spoil the plot by telling you what they were!  You'll just have to read it for yourself.

Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller,  by Kathleen Jones

Katherine Mansfield: The Early Years, by Gerri Kimber

The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks, transcribed by Margaret Scott 

Katherine Mansfield: The Diaries, edited by Gerri Kimber and Claire Davison

Remembering Derek Walcott - The Schooner Flight

One of my most loved poets has died - Derek Walcott, at the age of 87.  From a very young age, his poems stuck in my mind like grit.  I think partly because they are so full of longing - a yearning for a particular place.  I was a homesick girl and his poems resonated with that feeling.  But, more than that, they are full of the sea and the natural landscape and his words have a 'rightness' that makes him one of the greatest poets. There's a very good tribute to him in the Guardian today.  And if you would like to listen to him talking about the music that meant most to him, this is the link to BBC Radio 4. 

Just wanted to post this short sonnet-shaped excerpt from Star Apple Kingdom.  It's about sea fever and also about the poet's craft.

Derek Walcott on St Lucia [New Yorker]

The Schooner ‘Flight’

As I worked, watching the rotting waves come
past the bow that scissor the sea like milk,
I swear to you all, by my mother's milk,
by the stars that shall fly from tonight's furnace,
that I loved them, my children, my wife, my home;
I loved them as poets love the poetry
that kills them, as drowned sailors the sea.

You ever look up from some lonely beach
and see a far schooner? Well, when I write
this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt;
I go draw and knot every line as tight
as ropes in this rigging; in simple speech
my common language go be the wind,
my pages the sails of the schooner Flight.

Monday, 13 March 2017

An interesting American perspective on working life in the Lake District

I follow the blog of an American archaeologist who blogs under the name 'Bensozia'. He writes about some fascinating stuff, but this week I was very surprised to find that he's writing on the Lakeland shepherd James Rebanks whose book seems to be getting about a bit.  Bensozia approaches it with a comparison between working life in the USA and the rural idyll that Rebanks portrays in the north of England.  I'm not sure how many people (on either side of the Atlantic) would agree with what Ben has to say.

Blencathra - my own particular fells

". . . if you ask me why so many Americans prefer early retirement or disability to paid labor, I answer: read James Rebanks. Take a close look at what truly compelling work looks like. And then measure how far the sort of jobs available to most Americans fall short of it. People are abandoning work not because they are lazy or lack moral fiber, but because the work they could get is soul-destroying: mindlessly routine labor under the strict eye of domineering bosses, completely lacking in community or tradition, leading to nothing that you can hold in your hand or be proud that you have done.”

If you'd like to read everything that Ben has to say, here's the link to Bensozia. 

Oh, and if you'd like a really good Tuesday Poem on a suitable theme, why not take a look at 'Translating Mountains from the Gaelic' which is on Seren publishing's website at the moment.  It's from Yvonne Reddick's prize-winning pamphlet called 'Translating Mountains'.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Poetry Day at Words by the Water, Keswick

It's poetry day at the Words by the Water festival, Theatre by the Lake at Keswick and there's some fantastic poetry on offer.

First up is Helen Farish, reading from her new Bloodaxe collection 'The Dog of Memory' which has some intricate and beautiful new poems,  paired with Adam O'Riordan publicising  his collection, 'In the Flesh', (Chatto).   The covers of each book look very similar even though they're from different publishers, and I find myself wishing that they were more cheerful looking!

Adam's collection was published in 2010 and I find it curious that such an award-winning poet hasn't published another since, though he has written a collection of short stories 'The Burning Ground'.  My favourite from In the Flesh is 'Candle Moulds', written at Dove  Cottage, though it's not for the squeamish. It begins:

Pig fat, goose fat, tallow, they lie like corpses
in their narrow cots, fingers in a drowned
girl's glove, or barrels full of pistol shot. . .

Overlapping with Helen and Adam's reading, is another by Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton of Corbel Stone Press - at the forefront of the 'eco-poetry' movement.  They produce exquisite publications - this is the latest:-

Then it's the Eden poets turn - first is Jacci Bulman, promoting her first collection from Cinnamon Press, 'A Whole Day Through From Waking', followed by the rest of us, Josephine Dickinson, Mary Robinson, Alison Barr, Kim Moore, Nicola Jackson and myself - including readings from our new anthology 'Crossing the Wild'.

It's going to be a great day at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick - and if you're not doing anything this afternoon, why not come along?  Tickets for the Eden poets event is Free!!!

Thursday, 2 March 2017

World Book Day and the Plight of Authors in a Corporate Jungle

It's World Book Day today, when we're supposed to celebrate our favourite authors and the wonderful world of Books which, without authors would not exist.  Books are still very profitable for publishing houses and for a handful of celebrity authors.  As in ordinary life since the Great Crash of 2008, money has percolated upwards, enriching the top 1% at the expense of the other 99%.  Once upon a time, a portion of the income from best-sellers went to promote and develop authors further down the list who one day might become best-sellers.  Authors in the middle of the book-list were welcomed so long as they broke even - readers liked them and they kept a big slice of the reading public loyal to The Book.

But then publishing went corporate.  It wasn't about books any more, it was about the Bottom Line and keeping shareholders happy.  Big publishers bought up small publishers and there was blood on the floor throughout the industry, for editors as well as authors.

Mid-list authors were the first to be evicted in the transformation of the industry.  Slow burners which have, in the past, turned into publishing sensations, were out too. Catherine Cookson didn't get anywhere near it until her tenth book.  Imagine that today!  The culling of authors didn't get a lot of publicity.

Tracy Chevalier, President of the author's charity The Royal Literary Fund, describes the current plight of the typical author "who had some success in the 1990s":

 "She could live reasonably on advances and royalties from her growing backlist - not setting the literary world alight, perhaps, but solid. By 2010 however, her sales have dropped. She is not new or a celebrity, and doesn't produce the sexy hit her publishers crave. One day her agent tells her that they are not buying her next book. He finds her a smaller publisher, who pays a tiny advance and doesn't put a marketing budget behind the book, which sells poorly. That publisher doesn't offer another contract. Her agent drops her, regretfully. She gets her backlist back and self-publishes it on Amazon as ebooks. That helps, but not enough. She is too old to change careers entirely. The mortgage looms. Her income dips below her expenditure . . . . "

Tracy Chevalier probably doesn't have to worry!
This situation affects not just mid-list authors, but big literary prize-winners (including Hanif Kureishi). The Guardian tells the story of  one of them.

"Rupert Thomson is the author of nine novels, including The Insult (1996 Guardian Fiction Prize), which David Bowie chose for one of his 100 must-read books of all time, and Death of a Murderer, shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year awards in 2007. His most recent novel, Secrecy, was hailed as "chillingly brilliant" (Financial Times) and "bewitching" (Daily Mail). According to the Independent, "No one else writes quite like this in Britain today." Thomson has also been compared to JG Ballard, Elmore Leonard, Mervyn Peake and even Kafka. In short, he's an established and successful writer with an impressive body of work to his name."

His sixth novel was made into a film and his memoir won the Writers' Guild Prize for non-fiction. But he is one of the authors now over sixty and afraid for the future. "I don't buy anything. No clothes, no luxuries, nothing. I have no private income, no rich wife, no inheritance, no pension. I have nothing to look forward to. There's no safety net at all." 

Rupert Thomson - 'nothing to look forward to'. 

It seems we are returning to the insecurities of the 18th and 19th centuries when it was said of writers "They knew luxury, and they knew beggary, but they never knew comfort."  As one author who has been from bust to boom to bust, I can say that that is absolutely true.  There is no security at all, for even the biggest best-selling authors.  For anyone who wants to read my own story of betrayal and back-stabbing in the world of corporate publishing (the Catherine Cookson story), please click here.

I'm often asked for advice by new writers, or those who are writing, but have yet to publish.  My best advice?  Don't give up the day job!  One of the big ironies is that the day job for a writer is often tutoring creative writing at a university or college - encouraging others to compete with them in an increasingly crowded environment.  One poet I know told me, after a few glasses of wine, that they were very proud of the number of budding writers they'd deterred from the profession. I was shocked at the time and disapproving.  But now, I wonder if he was, in fact, doing them a kindness.  The book business has become a ruthless business.


If you're an author in difficulties, have you thought of making an application to the Royal Literary Fund?