Monday, 31 March 2014

Writing...and monkeys

Writing...and monkeys

This is a post about writing, and that mystical art of “process”. Essentially it's a bunch of blog posts from various writers – known and unknown – about why they do what they do, and how it is they go about doing it. It's not a book of hints on “how to be a writer” or a set of tricks to get you motivated, so far as I can tell, but a glimpse inside the private lives of the freaks and geeks amongst us, those people who sit on their lonesome and scribble down what the voices in their heads tell them to say...

I received this calling to write a post on “the writing process” from Pippa Goldschmidt, and as the tradition dictates I shall now tell you a little about her:

Pippa is a professional astronomer, which to me makes her incredibly cool before she's even opened her mouth or put pen to paper. She is also the author of The Falling Sky, a novel which has received great acclaim and which I ignorantly still need to read. But I do know this: it's about a female astronomer whose discovery could unravel current understandings of The Big Bang. She is also a fine poet and I included her work in Where Rockets Burn Through:Contemporary Science Fiction Poems from the UK. If you've an interest in science and fiction then she's a definite go-to contemporary writer. Go, go check out her work and ramblings, go now! You can check out her site here, which includes her own post about the way she goes about getting the good words down and chucking the bad ones out.

And so the nebula has been passed on to me. The task is to answer four questions, so here we go...

Question 1: What am I working on?

Back in January I was rowing in Ha Long Bay, in northern Vietnam. A guide told me that on occasion, if you were lucky, monkeys could be seen climbing and chatting among the rocks. Now, I love monkeys. I love them a degree further than is probably sane. I've visited a monkey temple in India, fed a baby monkey in Thailand, I even have a t-shirt proclaiming my monkey love. And yet no monkeys appeared on those rocks. Imagine, if you can, my despair. I longed for those monkeys to voyage down, if only I could call to them in a voice they could understand, they would surely not deny me the pleasure of their company...

That's the long route to saying this: I'm writing a novel about families who can communicate with animals.

I'm also still writing poetry and will shortly be editing my upcoming collection The Green Dress Whose Girl is Sleeping (due for publication with Freight Books in 2015) with editor Andrew Philip.

Question 2: How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I'm perhaps most well known for my work in the sub-genre of Science Fiction Poetry, having published two pamphlets of my own (“The Last Refuge” from Forest Publications in 2009, and “Spaces of Their Own” from Stewed Rhubarb Press in 2013) and edited a book of contemporary sci-fi poems from the UK (“Where Rockets Burn Through” from Penned in the Margins, 2013). The science fictional element seems to have the ability to draw in new audiences, primarily fans of SF, which I am very happy about because it gets non-poetry-readers a bit more interested in poetry, as well as breaking apart some of the snobbishness of poetry and genre.

So far as the novel goes, it's a young adult book (of which there be many) but aside from the story line I've been trying to challenge notions of gender, race and class by inverting them. It's also a book about politics and power, which are subjects I think we tend to – incorrectly – shy away from when giving books to young people. It will include lots of monkeys.

Question 3: Why do I write what I do?

This is a question my mum would ask me. In terms of poetry, I write to distill my thoughts and to see what language can do, how it can change my perception. I think there's something almost scientific about poetry, it's a process of discovery, of experimentation, of refining and refracting, and re-examining the results. What comes out isn't necessarily what went in, the conclusion isn't necessarily the aim. And that's good because it bends the box and slaps you around the face a bit.

My novel feels more like an escape, a world I'd like to visit (although probably not live in). It's a chance to explore my characters and see who they become, as arsey and artsy as that sounds. Perhaps they're imaginary friends; I want to help them out, to lead them down uncertain paths and see what's on the other side.

In all honesty there's a financial element to novel writing too. Poetry is a labour of love, I know I'll never make my fortune from it. More people are willing to pick up a novel and to pay for it.

Question 4: How does your writing process work?

I have two rules when writing: don't do it when drunk, and don't do it when overly emotional. I break them both.

A poem starts as a line in my head, I hear it first like a piece of music from a broken record that wants me to place the needle back on the groove. The poem grows from that line, I don't know what it is when I start it and it's not always clear by the end. Sometimes I am interested in the poem as an experiment. Hey what would happen if I wrote a bunch of one word poems, or a sequence of sonnets about sexbots? Sometimes it feels like more of an expulsion, to sweat something out and jar it. A nice jar of sweat. I try not to force out or overwork a poem, rather I just let them come as they will, sometimes a dozen in a day, other times nothing for months. I almost always work on a laptop: the appearance of the poem is very important to me and if I need to scratch things out with pen and paper its messiness would disturb me and throw me off the scent. Editing can take anywhere from minutes to months. In 2008 I started a poem that is just 25 words long, and I'm still not happy with it. That said, once I feel a poem is finished I don't like to touch it after about 5 years. That feels like I'm editing my old self, trying to pretend they didn't exist or that somehow the person I am now is a “better” poet, with more worthwhile things to say. And that seems very rude to Old-Me.

Writing a novel feels more planned out. Probably because I use a somewhat extensive plan. I know where things start, their potential endings, but not necessarily the finer details in between. The characters react and change, they think things over and respond. I can't plan that part of things because I don't know the characters well enough until they're faced with the dilemma, the romance, the massive murderous bear with platinum claws that chases after them. Redrafting prose is currently an enigma to me, although I imagine it will be copious.

If you've managed to get this far then well done! All that's left is to introduce the next writer, Colin McGuire. Colin has published a pamphlet of poems about sleep, "Everybody Lie Down and No One Gets Hurt" with Red Squirrel Press, and is well known around the Scottish spoken word scene. He has reached the finals of the BBC Poetry Slam and runs a regular poetry night in Edinburgh, called Talking Heids. He can be followed on his blog, here! A full length collection of Colin's work is due out this year.

Peace and monkeys be with you.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

"The Last Refuge" e-book

Hear ye, hear ye, "The Last Refuge" (my 2009 pamphlet of sci-fi poems from Forest Publications) is now available on e-book.

It includes poems about A.I in supermarket barcode scanners, Android birthday parties, a poem from the perspective of a nuclear warhead and more...

It's only £0.77 and is a nice little taster to get you in the mood for "Spaces of Their Own" if you don't already own it.

Buy it here.

Russell Jones

Sci-fi Poetry Awards news

Yarr, ye scurvy Earth Lovers. Whilst I wes washin me space britches in the seas of Neptune I happened me across a few award nominations. Take yer hypershovel and dig at em, afore they leech into that thar parallel universe. Yarr.

Yeh "Spaces of Their Own" has been nominated for a few things, check em out:

* "Spaces of Their Own" nominated for the Elgin Award.
Find the other nominees here

* "After the Moons" nominated for the Rhysling Award.
Check out the other potentials here

* "After the Moons", "Re-entry" and "The Ant Swap" long listed for the 9th annual Data Dump Award.

Russell Jones

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Listen to science fiction poems from Where Rockets Burn Through

The one-woman sci-fi poetry guru, Diane Severson Mori, has published an outstanding review of "Where Rockets Burn Through" and "Spaces of Their Own", on the Amazing Stories website.

It includes a big fat slice of sci-fi poetry recordings from a host of great contemporary poets, which I urge you to listen to RIGHT NOW.

Listen to poems by:

 Jane Irina McKie
 James McGonigal
 Sarah Hesketh
 Andy Jackson
 Simon Barraclough
 Jane Yolen
 Dilys Rose
 Aiko Harman
 Ian McLachlan
Kirsten Irving
Kona MacPhee
Bill Herbert
Andrew James Wilson
Claire Askew
Sue Guiney
Ron Butlin
Pippa Goldschmidt

Russell Jones

A poetry book review: Locust and Marlin by JL Williams

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Locust and Marlin
JL Williams
Shearsman Books

Our position in the world, and how we reflect on it, is one of the key concerns of this book. This seemed apt to me as I sat in the sunny March of Holyrood Park in Edinburgh, my dog panting at my side, Locust and Marlin getting grubbied by my mud slathered hands. It was a fine setting for reading this book (surrounded by volcanic hills, the hum of the city in the background, people walking to work) in which nature, god and our place in the universe are pondered. There is something quite transformative about reading a collection of poems in a relevant space, and the near-miracle of a Scottish sun made it all the sweeter.

If Williams reads this review then she may laugh at what I'm about to say, because when I bought the book at the Scottish Poetry Library I obsessed over this: the cover feels great. It's a peculiar thing to mention in a book review but the front and back of Locust and Marlin has a velvety finish that makes it pleasurable to hold. The cover image – a sea blue menagerie with hidden images of insects, birds and fish – also rings of the natural imagery and mythology to be found within the poems. Shearsman have done a fine job in creating an artefact worth holding, for sure.

But what of the poems themselves? There's a refreshing brevity to Williams' work, splashes of life and colour that aren't afraid to let themselves stop ahead of schedule. These are glimpses, ruminations, reflections. They avoid answers, and I admire that in a poem. A quiet confidence permeates the collection, in which the poet taps us on the shoulder to ask what we're doing. There are longer pieces too, some of which were amongst my favourites as they begin to dig up the earth a little more.

You could dip in and out of this book and take something from each of the verses. The opening poem, for example, “Heron”, is a short meditation on the nature of the imagination, and a fine beginning to a collection that requires us to fill in the gaps it leaves behind. I would like to show the poem in full, but it's not the done thing, so here are the first four lines (of seven):

Imagine a great silence
whose wings touch no branches.

Imagine a space demarcated
by lack of sound.

Cleverly, this heron is returned to in the final poem, “Revelation”, which is only three lines long, ending: “the feeling of the fishes brushing his legs”. The revelation is the acceptance of being, of nescience, of its position in the world; a revelation which perhaps we share by the end of the book. There's that biblical reference too, of course, and this is a frequently visited home in the collection. The narrators don't always quite know what to do with god, or the notion of it. In “Like Phaeton (3)” for example, the “He” of the poem remains ambiguous, its repetition almost mimicking laughter:


He. He.

He does not speak
as others do.

Comparatively, in “Son (3)” Williams writes:

God isn't here to stake out dry tongues,
to lay claim to scorched fields of hay.

This difference is by no means a criticism of the approaches taken to such a demanding topic, in fact a reduction of god, or an understanding of it, to absolutes, would be to undermine the complexity of it. As a reader with an innate aversion to religiousness in poetry, I was paranoid that this frequent reference would irk or bore me, but that was thankfully avoided. Williams considers the personal, theological and psychological aspects of her core concepts to keep them refreshing. Although they don't all hit the same notes, I was particularly enamoured by the peculiar, sometimes even grotesque language in poems like “Son”, in lines such as “The wind is a cow” and “I can imagine how my lungs smell”. The anatomist in me likes that.

But this isn't to say that the collection is without flaws. As the cover images imply, there are a lot of seas, birds, fish and stones in this book. I'd say the majority of the poems mention them at some point, and whilst book-long tropes can be impressive, they did blur into one another at times and I found myself thinking “oh bloody hell not another stone”. This could have jarred the pleasurable experience of reading the book as a whole, even though it did at times make chimes and tinkles between the poems. And whilst the book asks questions, it asks too many of them, and too overtly. It's full of rhetoric-isms, and although this does lend itself to the nature of questioning our spiritual and actual place in the world, the combined effect is to dampen the concern of each (however well meant or interesting they might be). The most successful poems present these ideas without firing them – shotgun like – at us. These large concepts need to be drawn out of the poem through the reader's interpretation, and in poems such as “Blinding” (perhaps my favourite of them all) this is achieved succinctly and powerfully. The closing lines read:

.........................................................women knead the bread
water unveils
its secret
......................................................... hungry mouths are fed
one to shine
one to see the shining

The pleasure of Locust and Marlin is most profoundly felt on reading it as a whole. Its tone is inviting, gentle, reassuring in its subliminal declaration that there are no real answers, and that we must each find our place amongst the questions. As good poetry ought to, this book made me leave that sunny park a little different to when I arrived, and though I washed the mud from my hands when I got home I've still got some of it under my nails.