Thursday, 8 May 2008

How to Win at Poetry Workshops

Oh dear. Reading this I laughed until I nearly wet myself. (And trust me, cringing and laughing simultaneously will test the bladder control of any woman over the age of fifteen.) It's all so true. And yet ...

One friend of mine has commented more than once with horror and distaste on my predilection for workshop groups. He is offended by the notion that you could read a person's poem a couple of times and then feel competent to offer criticism. (Dear man. And yet he's willing to be seen in my company occasionally!) I can understand his feelings – he is a meticulous craftsman, and believes (quite rightly) that coming to grips with a good poem is something that takes dedication and time. Not a committee meeting.

And yet ...

When I made the decision to start writing poetry "seriously", I was writing on my own. Reading heaps, and as widely as my local library would let me (and we are blessed with a very good library). I was ... ok. Not too bad. Editors would occasionally offer comments, and I would try to work from there. Then I heard about a local writing group, the Airing Cupboard.

It was a revelation. All these other people – real people – who also wrote poems. Who loved poetry. Who were knowledgeable and encouraging. Once a fortnight, I'd bring poems to the group. The good bits would be praised, and it was a wonderfully affirming experience. Exactly what I needed at that point.

And yet, and yet ...

After about a year I started to feel restless – I wanted some actual critiquing. Which wasn't what the Airing Cupboard was for. I knew that there were problems, that I wasn't writing high calibre poetry all the time (ok, or even very often). I wanted more. I needed more.

And I got it. Four other women had already formed a second group, intended to provide some real workshopping of/for each other's poems. And they asked me to join.  We've been meeting for the best part of ten years now, and this is the group that I take my work to on a regular basis. (I also belong to a couple of other groups who meet to read each other's work, with varying levels of critique involved). We all know each other's work and each other's weaknesses. And every one of us writes better poetry now than we did before we started meeting. Sometimes the discussions get quite heated (we prefer to think of it as "passionately engaged"), but there's something wonderfully  fulfilling about those sorts of discussions, even when we disagree. Quite often a new poem is born from them. I know that there are plenty of times when a poem has been saved.

The thing is, while all the points made by Jough Dempsey are perfectly valid – I've been guilty of all of them at some point or another, although never consciously intending malice – they ignore the fact that those exact same judgments can and probably will be leveled against your poem (lets pretend that most critics do remember the distinction between "you" and "your poem") by everyone else out there in the big, bad, poetry-reading world. Editors. Judges. Critics. Readers.

So maybe the way of thinking of even the most toxic workshops is as a form of vaccination. Building up your tolerance. Raising your immunity. Even, or especially, when they get it all completely wrong.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Library Thing Top 106 Unread Books

Like many other dedicated LibraryThingers, I've decided to succumb to the LT Top 106 Unread Books meme. WTF? Here's the explanation:
This meme has been going around for a while now: Top 106 unread books on LibraryThing. People are going through the top 106 books tagged "unread" on LT, and then marking which ones they've read, which they read for school, which they started but didn't finish, which are on their to read list, which they loathed, which they read more than once...
(For those of you who haven't heard of LibraryThing before ... oh boy, where to start. At its simplest, it's an online book cataloguing site. But it's so much more than that. Reviews, social networking, recommendations ... it's got the lot. As much or as little as you want it to have. You can even have a trial catalogue of up to 200 books for free. Go now and have a look. I'll still be here when you get back. Promise.)

Here are the rules: 
  • books you've read go in bold
  • books started but not finished are in italics
  • strikethrough for books you've read and hated, 
  • an *asterisk for books read multiple times, 
  • and underline is for books that are on your "yet to read" list.

So, from the most recent list that I have:

  1. *The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  2. *Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke
  3. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
  4. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
  5. Life of Pi : a novel – Yann Martel
  6. Don Quixote – Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra
  7. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  8. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  9. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
  10. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien
  11. Ulysses – James Joyce
  12. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
  13. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
  14. The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  15. *Catch-22: a novel – Joseph Heller
  16. *Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  17. The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood
  18. Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle I) – Neal Stephenson
  19. A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
  20. The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie
  21. Middlemarch – George Eliot
  22. Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books – Azar Nafisi
  23. *The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
  24. The Kor'an – Anonymous
  25. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  26. The Odyssey – Homer
  27. *The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer
  28. Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  29. The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Victor Hugo
  30. The Historian : a novel – Elizabeth Kostova
  31. Foucault's Pendulum – Umberto Eco
  32. Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
  33. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling – Henry Fielding
  34. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
  35. The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
  36. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
  37. The Iliad – Homer
  38. Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
  39. *Emma _ Jane Austen
  40. Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
  41. Sons and Lovers – D.H. Lawrence
  42. Gulliver's Travels _ Jonathan Swift
  43. The House of the Seven Gables – Nathaniel Hawthorne
  44. Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies – Jared Diamond
  45. Dracula – Bram Stoker
  46. Lady Chatterley's Lover – D.H. Lawrence
  47. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
  48. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
  49. The Once and Future King – T. H. White
  50. Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
  51. To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
  52. Mansfield Park – Jane Austen
  53. Oryx and Crake : a novel – Margaret Atwood
  54. *Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
  55. Labyrinth – Kate Mosse
  56. Tess of the D'Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
  57. Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed – Jared Diamond
  58. The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
  59. Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe
  60. Underworld – Don DeLillo
  61. Ivanhoe – Sir Walter Scott
  62. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  63. *Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
  64. *The Gormenghast Trilogy – Mervyn Peake
  65. The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells
  66. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
  67. The Origin of Species – Charles Darwin
  68. Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  69. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce
  70. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court – Mark Twain
  71. The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri
  72. The Inferno – Dante Alighieri
  73. Gravity's Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
  74. The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand
  75. Swann's Way – Marcel Proust
  76. The Poisonwood Bible : a novel – Barbara Kingsolver
  77. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay : a novel – Michael Chabon
  78. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
  79. The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
  80. Silas Marner – George Eliot
  81. *The Portrait of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
  82. The Man in the Iron Mask – Alexandre Dumas
  83. The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
  84. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
  85. The Confusion – Neal Stephenson
  86. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest – Ken Kesey
  87. *Frankenstein – Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
  88. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
  89. The System of the World – Neal Stephenson
  90. The Elegant Universe : superstrings, hidden dimensions, and… – Brian Greene
  91. Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson
  92. The Known World – Edward P. Jones
  93. The Time Traveler's Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  94. The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot
  95. The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
  96. Mason & Dixon – Thomas Pynchon
  97. Dubliners – James Joyce
  98. Les Mis̩rables РVictor Hugo
  99. The Bonesetter's Daughter – Amy Tan
  100. Infinite Jest : a novel – David Foster Wallace
  101. Lord Jim – Joseph Conrad
  102. Beloved : a novel – Toni Morrison
  103. Persuasion – Jane Austen
  104. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
  105. The Personal History of David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  106. Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller

Hmm, this could be embarrassing ... I need an extra category – "um, I thin I have, but I can't remember for sure, it was a long time ago". Oh, and "Never heard of it. Is it any good?"

How did you do?

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Kinked and tangled: Tiffany Atkinson's 'Kink and Particle'

I've been rereading a first book that was highly recommended to me a while back, Tiffany Atkinson's Kink and Particle (Seren, 2006). I've posted a proper review here on my website.
I have three main problems with this book. Her 'voice', her metaphor abuse and her endings.

She writes in that hip, sassy, streetwise voice that seems to be the current default voice of any female poet past puberty and pre-menopause. And as a stance gets boring pretty quickly. It just doesn't work for more than a couple of poems. (I'll give it to her for 'Photo from Belfast', but no more.) It becomes a really irritating mannerism.

She also has a habit of clogging up the stanzas with similes and metaphors until the reader glazes over. She rarely just 'describes' something, which is a pity, because some of her metaphors are brilliant – my tongue's a husband in a dress-shop ('In This One') is exactly right, as is drops [of blood] like pomegranate seeds, caught on her cuff ('Acts of Devotion'). But in the fifteen lines of 'Ynyslas', she crams the roof's black keys, with the soft flesh-bells of cattle, and the boatyard's dirty beats, plus synaptic crack of cock-crow, plus the sky's live tissue, and a havoc of sun. Possibly she was aiming for "intoxicating", but what she achieved was "intoxicated". And maybe it's just me, but some of her metaphors are too bizarre. One thing that writing haiku teaches you is that a too-clever metaphor risks supplanting the poem's internal cohesion with an awareness of the poet's cleverness. So I'm not sure what I'm meant to do in response to a metaphor like I work my cigarette like pornography ('Only so many ways') or we stretch from our vehicles like molluscs ('Nine Miles Stationary'). Applaud? Throw her a fish?

She also goes too many times for the Duffy ending – clipped. Telegraphic. Deliberately downbeat. Death. A Chardonnay hang-/ over. Heels. A damn good haircut. ('Nia, June 16'), or Brew/ dodgy wines come autumn. Laugh. Grow fat. ('No Warning'). But where Duffy uses this to underscore something that has been subtext in the poem, Atkinson has it undermine any depth the poem has managed to assemble. And it becomes yet another mannerism – you barely need to read the last two lines. You know how she'll say it, and the what will almost certainly be a recap of something already stated.

Ultimately it's probably a matter of personal preference. And the poems that I really liked – 'Tea', 'Photo from Belfast', 'Baby Sitting' and 'Paddling' – can't do enough to make the book matter to me.

Here's the test: having paid for it with my own money, if I left it by accident on a park bench, would I go back to look for it? And the answer is No.