Wednesday 20 December 2017

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "Now You Can Look" by Julia Bird

One of the historical strengths of poetry as a 'form' is its protean ability to mingle and assimilate different genres and sub-genres. Poetry is a hybrid. This is very clear in Julia Bird’s beautiful new collection, Now You Can Look, which mingles memoir, autobiography, biography, history, ekphrasis, prose poetry and fiction, alongside beautiful illustrations by Anna Vaivare. 

This mingling of genres is everywhere in Bird’s collection: the final poem of the collection, ‘I Wait for My A-Level Results,’ may well be partly autobiographical; ‘A Bomb Damage Report’ is ostensibly local history; ‘We Leaf Through Her Sketchbook’ sounds like a biographer – or biographers plural – retrospectively looking back on a female artist’s life; ‘The Artist, Aged 9, Plays a Parlour Game’ reads like a scene from a novel, about a fictional, early-twentieth-century female artist. If the collection as a whole mingles genres in this way, so do the individual poems: ‘Without Confiding in a Soul, She Goes to Get Her Hair Cut’ mingles the styles of biography and fiction, and even (possibly) autobiography. 

In this sense, the poems also intermingle characters across time – a fictional female artist from the early-twentieth century, with traces of real-life twentieth-century female artists, with the author’s (or narrator’s) own experiences, with an almost-trans-historical ‘you.’ ‘The Artist, Aged 9, Plays a Parlour Game,’ for instance, is not only about a female artist, but also addresses ‘you’ as reader, as if the liberation involved in the ‘parlour game’ not only applies to the young artist, but potentially to the reader too. In this respect, the final line of ‘Without Confiding in a Soul, She Goes to Get Her Hair Cut’ might stand as what Bird calls ‘a simultaneous double vow’ for the whole collection: ‘I don’t know you and I do.’ The reader does not know the characters in the poems, and yet does, at the same time. 

As well as mixing characters and genres, the poetry shows how art in general intertwines with life: art is omnipresent, and gardening, cooking, hairdressing and so on are artistic genres just as much as painting and engraving. A parlour game results in a formative artistic moment, in which the nine-year-old artist first asserts her individuality through drawing; the sound of two gold bangles as they ‘slip, / percuss and ring’ is an ‘overture to [an] … overture’ at the opera house; a haircut is a kind of sculpture and a statement of independence; a kimono is a painting ‘that’s drunk up all the / colours from the room,’ which combines both ‘silk’ and ‘skin’ – artwork and human being – in its patterns; making omelettes and snowmen are part of – not separate to – an artist’s life; a gardener is also a poet who ‘will cut a word / into a marrow hide to watch it grow.’ 

In such images, Bird’s poetry shows how artwork is not separate to everyday life, but entwined with it – and, moreover, bound up with its transience: in these poems, omelettes, snowmen, marrows are all short-lived moments of artistic beauty. Similarly, in the powerful poem ‘The Artist in a Field in November,’ the strange and momentary beauty of Guy Fawkes at the bonfire’s ‘peak, flames in his hair,’ comes to represent the transience of the artist’s marriage – ‘that something in her home is burning’ too. Perhaps, in its dynamic hybridity, this is what poetry can capture: passing moments, where images and life, moments of spontaneous artistic beauty and personal history, meet and intertwine, and then – just as quickly – vanish. 

About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He is director of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is

Monday 18 December 2017

Review by Siobhian R. Hodges of "The Road of the Dead" by Kevin Brooks

Kevin Brooks, author of the 2014 Carnegie Medal winner The Bunker Diary, is best known for writing gritty young adult novels with a strong sense of realism, and he does not fall short with The Road of the Dead

The Road of the Dead is a 2006 young adult crime fiction novel about two teenage brothers trying to find their sister’s killer. Fourteen-year-old Ruben Ford and his older brother Cole both set out with little money and a lot of drive to the deserted moorland in Lychombe where her battered body was found. What’s done is done. Now they just want to bring closure to their family by finding out who raped and murdered their sister, Rachel. Only then can the police wrap up the investigation and finally give them back her body, so they can bury and mourn her properly.

The story is told in first person, focusing on Ruben’s thoughts and feelings towards the situation and how it has affected his family. It also allows us to see the bond he has with his brother on a personal level. The fraternal relationship between Ruben and Cole makes the events that unfold more impactful – because if something bad happens to one of them, you know it will affect the other. However, the two could not be more different: while Cole is streetwise, sometimes putting himself in the line of fire if it means protecting Ruben, our narrator is academic-smart, making up a brain-and-brawn unity.

Ruben is also, in a sense, telepathic. Not only do we read the story from Ruben’s point of view, but he is sometimes able to see events happen outside his body to people he is close with (like Cole and Rachel). He feels Rachel’s pain the night she is murdered and sees parts of the event unfold through her eyes. It allows the reader other perspectives without the narrator physically needing to be there and sets the tone for the rest of the novel, showing the story is something more than a simple first-person narrative.

The graphic events Brooks describes keep readers hooked: the situation is bleak and the antagonists are brutal. It made me root for Ruben and Cole. Ruben does not belong in the danger-zone he finds himself entering and because his voice is so believable, so relatable, you cannot help sympathising with him. You want to follow him on this hazardous journey and you don’t want anything bad to happen … But bad things do happen. However, while the graphic detail in Brooks’ novel reels in readers, it could also deter some parents. Not everyone will want their teenagers exposed to the grittiness of rape, murder, swearing and violent attacks. Although the book is for young adults, I feel it depends on the individual’s maturity.

In 2007, the novel was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and it is clear why. The Road of the Dead is a powerful read that will have you gripped until the last page. Not only is it action-packed and fast-paced but it creates suspense in all the right places. I struggled to put it down. It is a book that will stay with you for a long time.

About the reviewer
Siobhian R. Hodges is a Creative Writing MA graduate of Loughborough University. She currently runs a monthly two-hour Creative Writing workshop at the Hive in Worcester and is a script writer/editor at Gatling Gun Productions – a non-for-profit film company based in Leicestershire. She is also currently writing a Young Adult trilogy.

Tuesday 5 December 2017

Interview with Rod Duncan

About Rod Duncan 
Rod Duncan writes alternate history novels set in the world of the Gas-Lit Empire. The first of these, The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter, was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick award. He has previously written contemporary crime, his novel Backlash being shortlisted for the John Creasey Dagger. Born in Wales, he has lived in Taiwan and Ghana but has been in Leicester since 1993. A dyslexic with a background in scientific research and computing, he now lectures in creative writing at De Montfort University. His next novel The Queen of All Crows will be published in January 2018.

Interview with Lee Wright

LW: When did you first know that you wanted to become a writer? 

RD: I was slow learning to read and write. Writing with a pen is still a painful process because my hand cramps up after half a page. So being a writer was never something I was going to do. But then the word processor came along. By the time I turned 30, I’d learned to type. I wrote a few poems at first and a short story. Then, naively, I started working on a novel. My writing was very poor, of course. The book wasn’t destined to get published. But creating the imaginary world of the story, I felt something ecstatic. I don’t remember thinking ‘I’m going to be a writer.’ It’s just that one day I realised I was one.

LW: Was there ever one particular writing hero that you found encouragement from? 

RD: I’ve found writers to be very generous with their knowledge and time. Many have helped me along the way, and continue to do so. But I’d like to mention the late Graham Joyce in particular. As writers, it’s our job to explore the strange lands that lie deep within our own minds. Graham exemplified that quest. Not because he wrote psychological fantasy. It was a quality revealed in the dizzying clarity of his vision. He was very helpful and encouraging to me and I will always be grateful for that.      

LW: Do you have a favourite novel? 

RD: No. And I don’t believe you do either. How could you choose? But there are certain books I keep around me to dip into from time to time for inspiration. Titus Groan, Polar Star and Under Milk Wood for example.

LW: What comes first when you sit down to write a novel? Does it start for you with a single scene? A character? Or a whole plot? 

RD: Backlash began with the voice of a character. She told me her story and I wrote it down. The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter began with an idea for an alternate history and moved on to a scene, which I didn’t understand until I wrote it. My work in progress began with a location. I don’t go out of my way to make the process different each time. I just try to approach the blank page as if I know nothing. Then I see what happens.

LW: You lived in Taiwan for a time. Do you believe that it is important for a writer to travel? 

RD: Intensity and breadth of experience are vital, in my opinion. You might get those things by travelling around the world and immersing yourself in completely different cultures. But you could equally get them by turning a corner in your home town, by looking in a different direction, by practicing seeing things as if you’ve never seen them before.  

LW: What was your 'breakthrough' in writing? 

RD: The breakthrough other people talk about would be my first big publishing deal with Simon & Schuster in 2003. Or perhaps being shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award in 2014. But the real breakthroughs are moments of insight when the writing moves forward. I remember a moment when I stopped self-censoring. Or, rather, I learned to put aside the part of me that was asking ‘Yes, but is that seemly?’ trusting myself to ask those questions during the edit. That was a breakthrough. Another was realising what it was that created narrative drive in my work and thereafter being able to harness it consciously. I’ve made another breakthrough writing The Queen of All Crows - a conscious fluidity in the narrative voice. These are the moments that matter.  
LW: You take on projects that form series: The Riot Trilogy, The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire. How do you pace yourself when writing and planning such long works? 

RD: It’s all about deadlines and fantasizing. The publishing contract will say that novel N1 should be delivered by date D. I can’t worry about N2 and N3 until the first one is out of the way. In the first month or two I relax into an experimental phase of writing. Then anxiety about date D pushes me into getting the first few chapters down in order. Then I need to keep myself going through the main body of the novel. Imagining it finished is a great help. By that, I mean fantasising about opening a box and getting out my very first copy, or standing in a shop and finding it on a shelf, or planning my acceptance speech when it wins a major award. Yes, such fantasies are thoroughly indulgent. (And yes, I know that last part is not ever likely to happen). But somehow imagining it in this way keeps me going. Please don’t judge me.

LW: Does the writing process get easier with each new work? 

RD: No. You learn something new. You work at perfecting it. By the time you have mastery over it, you’ll have spotted another couple of techniques to add to your toolbox. So now you have more things to practice. There’s never an end to the struggle. That’s the curse of our craft. But also the blessing.

LW: Have you ever had a piece of work published that you’ve later regretted? 

RD: I’ve had five novels and one non-fiction book rejected by publishers. I can stack those against the nine books I’ve seen published. The commissioning editors  have done the job of weeding out the sub-standard work. I’m a better writer now than I was at the start. But I don’t regret any of it. I hope to be a better writer in the future. 

LW: Is there a certain time of day when you work best? 

RD: I can’t work in the evening because then my mind won’t slow down enough for me to sleep. Other than that, any time is good. But generally I work on new writing in the morning. 

LW: What is your approach to the teaching of creative writing? 

RD: The writer’s life is like a journey. However long we’ve been on the road, we still approach the blank page as a challenge. We still struggle to make our writing better today than it was yesterday. This is the foundation of my teaching work - to regard all my writing students as fellow travellers. I do my best to create the conditions for them to advance along the road. You can find out more about my approach to teaching and mentoring through The Writer's Shed (a writer development agency I set up with Siobhan Logan). I share articles and resources about my own writing here:
Also via Twitter, where I am @RodDuncan

About the interviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Wednesday 29 November 2017

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "broken stories" by Reuben Woolley

As its title suggests, Reuben Woolley’s fascinating and highly original new poetry collection is full of broken stories, language and imagery, which come down to us as ‘mirrored repetitions’ and ‘dusty echo[es].’ Stories, language, imagery have been worn out through repetition, their force lost over time – ‘an empty language lingering’ in the present. In this respect, Woolley might agree with George Orwell, who famously wrote in 1946 that the ‘English language is in a bad way,’ partly because of ‘a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.’ 

Woolley arguably pushes Orwell's ideas even further, to the extent that parts of broken stories seem to imply that metaphors have always been worn out – that the English language has always been in ‘a bad way,’ a ‘dusty echo’ of something ‘always already’ in the past. For Woolley, ‘words come late,’ after the event, ‘& gods were only ever / mirrored repetitions / an empty language lingering / of maidens & failed heroes.’

The problem for a poet, of course, is that ‘words / … is all there is’ – there is no alternative to ‘mongrel words.’ So a poet, while ‘losing the plot,’ must simultaneously still ‘try … to capture it / briefly. fix it / in some assemblage.’ In broken stories, Woolley shows how such an ‘assemblage’ might renew a degenerate language; he disavows ‘mirrored repetitions,’ and ‘empty language,’ rising to Orwell’s challenge to writers to ‘regenerate’ the English language: ‘I don’t want / your infinities     self- / reflected     & old smears,’ he writes. 

Rather, in place of worn-out forms of sublimity ('infinities') or a modern (‘self-reflected’) solipsism, Woolley seeks to recapture the immediacy and political power of words: in this collection, ‘words come / hurting,’ and must at least attempt to reflect the physicality and pain of life – that ‘we still bleed red & die.’ Despite everything, poetry and language in general might still promise something akin to presence – might still connect with ‘all the agony of life.’

About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor's books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He is director of the M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is

Saturday 25 November 2017

Review by Robert Richardson of “Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth” at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. 23 September – 10 December 2017

Although the Royal Academy’s celebration of Jasper Johns curates his work thematically, the opening galleries are weighted towards those distinctive early works. In the 1950s, his engagement with a vocabulary of symbols —the American flag, targets, maps, numbers, alphabets— became his aesthetic exploration of shared perceptions and a subversion of the standardised by personal and idiosyncratic expression. For this reason, printed reproductions of his work do not serve it well: they flatten the crucial physical presence Johns achieves with encaustic painting, a technique using heated wax that provides complex textures. When combined with a subtle use of collage, Johns rebuilds what familiarity has destroyed.

Later in the exhibition, Johns’s alter ego is revealed as Harlequin, the trickster from the Commedia dell’Arte. For the most part, though, the otherwise informative exhibition text fails to register the sheer enjoyment infusing much of his work: he makes us think but simultaneously entertains. A good example is the colourful False Start (1959), loose, gestural, and with the names of colours in other colours, e.g. the word ‘orange’ painted in white. Enthusiasm and exuberance are also conveyed through work combining painting and objects. Painting with Two Balls (1960) is a canvas covered with abstract dabs of primary colours. About a third of the way from the top there is a split and two small balls are jammed into it. Through the split we can see the gallery wall, which is appropriated to become part of the artwork. The smaller Painting Bitten by a Man (1961) shows Johns adept at the visual quip.

That Johns has serious intellectual interests is beyond doubt. His frequent inclusion of language, usually fragmentary and ambiguous, at times has references to particular writers: Tennyson, Melville, Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara. In 1973 he met Samuel Beckett and it resulted in the collaboration Foirades/Fizzles, an artist’s book published in 1976. Beckett and Johns selected and combined work concerned with fragmentation. The exhibition includes a copy of this book,, with framed pages displayed next to it.

While Johns’s importance in mid 20th century art is secure, he can sometimes seem hermetic, especially when referencing his own past work. He is of course too sharp not to be aware of this and it is often done with self-deprecating humour. Even so, there is the suspicion that this is a way of getting his excuses in first and pre-empting criticism.

If the Johns oeuvre includes occasional self-parody, it is a small price to pay for the bounty of challenges and amusements he gives us. Work needs genuine authority to command the Royal Academy galleries, and Jasper Johns does it with gleeful ease.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. One of his designs will be included in a book about Leeds Postcards, to be published in 2018 by Four Corners Books. He is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists.

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Review by Rosalind Adam of Poetry Reading by Douglas Dunn and Rory Waterman at Literary Leicester

Poetry Reading by Douglas Dunn and Rory Waterman, hosted by Nick Everett, at Literary Leicester Festival, 2017

We descended metal and glass into the heart of Fielding Johnson’s South Wing. This, we knew, was going to be good. In the midst of yet another frenetically successful Literary Leicester week, we were about to be treated to an hour of poetry, an hour of pure pleasure, and we weren’t disappointed.

Rory Waterman is no stranger to Leicester University having studied for his BA and PhD here. His warm, self-deprecating humour had us all smiling along as he regaled the horrors of life in the staff room, the agonies of teenage years and travels through cities remembered, reading from his latest collection, Sarajevo Roses, and his earlier collection, Tonight the Summer’s Over.

Douglas Dunn, we were told, had travelled down on the 5.30 am train from Scotland to introduce us to The Noise of a Fly, his first poetry collection in sixteen years. The book blurb promises a collection ‘brimming with warmth, mischief and humour’ which is absolutely correct. Dunn has not been labelled ‘the most respected Scottish poet of his generation’ for nothing. He treated us to his own style of self-deprecating humour which the first line of his poem 'Thursday' well illustrates: ‘Gave yet another lecture. God, I’m boring.’

His gentle delivery belied some gritty content. 'The Nothing-But' contains lines that speak of emotions few people have ever committed to words: 'To have kissed the lips of one who is dying / Is to have tasted silence, salt and wilderness.’

Of all the funny, fascinating and moving lines we heard that evening, if I had to choose a favourite, it would be Douglas Dunn’s line about a poem trapped in an empty fountain pen, because we all have poems like that … or is it just me? 

About the reviewer
Rosalind Adam is a writer and student on the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Her blog is:

Saturday 11 November 2017

Interview with Jonathan Bate

About Jonathan Bate
Jonathan Bate studied at Cambridge and Harvard universities. Well known as a biographer, critic, broadcaster and scholar, he is Provost of Worcester College and Professor of English Literature in the University of Oxford. From October 2017 to September 2020, he is also Gresham Professor of Rhetoric, delivering six public lectures per year at Gresham College in the City of London. He has wide-ranging research interests in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature, Romanticism, biography and life-writing, ecocriticism, contemporary poetry and theatre history. He is a Fellow of both the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature, as well as an Honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. Before moving to Oxford in 2011, he was a Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, then King Alfred Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool, and then Professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature at the University of Warwick. He has served on the Board of the Royal Shakespeare Company, broadcast for the BBC, written for the Guardian, Times, Telegraph, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and TLS, and has held visiting posts at Yale and UCLA. In 2006 he was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s 80th Birthday Honours for his services to higher education. He has been Vice-President (leading the Humanities) of the British Academy. In January 2015, he became the youngest person ever to have been knighted for services to literary scholarship. His creative works include Being Shakespeare, a one-man play for Simon Callow, which toured nationally and played at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe prior to three West End runs, as well as transfers to New York, Chicago and Trieste. He was consultant curator for the British Museum’s major Shakespeare exhibition for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. He is married to the biographer and novelist Paula Byrne, and they have three children. You can see details of his many books, publications and awards here

Interview with Lee Wright

LW: Should all aspirant writers read Shakespeare? 

JB: I don’t think anybody should be forced to read anything and I do actually worry a little that because Shakespeare is usually first read as a piece of force-feeding in high school – the dreaded “set text” – people can be put off by reading him too soon. Better to see him in lively productions on stage or screen. But once you do read him carefully you discover what an extraordinary tool of complex communication language can be. Sometimes writers, even ones as great as John Keats, have been scared, awed, by Shakespeare’s greatness – how can I follow that? – but as long as you think of him as a tutelary deity rather than a model, then an aspirant writer should, as the editors of the First Folio say, read him, and again and again. 

LW:  When did you first gravitate to the life and works of Shakespeare? 

JB: I was lucky at school: great English teachers and a great drama teacher. I played Macbeth at the age of sixteen and the language got into my blood and has stayed there ever since.

LW: In 2015, you said that your central ambition for Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life, was to bring new readers to the works of Ted Hughes. Do you feel this ambition was achieved? 

JB: Yes and no – I’ve had some lovely letters from readers telling me how rewarding they found it to read the biography with the poems open beside them. But they are not usually new readers. I think that the ambition might have been achieved more fully if the book had been completed according to its original plan, which was for a more exclusively literary life with fuller quotation from, and critical analysis of, the poetry.

LW: When writing The Unauthorised Life, were you denied the chance to print Hughes’ poetry in greater detail? And if so, did that hinder the writing of the book? 

JB: To continue the previous answer: the book was originally with Faber and Faber, and would have had extensive quotation, but, since I missed my deadline for delivery it was cancelled by the Ted Hughes Estate and therefore had to be rewritten as a more “commercial” biography with a different publisher and quotation confined to so-called “insubstantial” and “fair dealing” extracts. I had to cut three entire chapters of close literary analysis – of the manuscript evolution of the early poems, the Crow project and the Birthday Letters project. And I spent many painful hours with lawyers, seeing great chunks of poetry quotation reduced to mere nuggets. On the other hand, the art of paraphrase and the internalisation of Hughes’s words and thoughts into my own prose had its advantages: don’t you think that when books have swathes of block quotation we tend to skip over them? I think the narrative felt more seamless and pacier as a result of the process.

LW: One of your next projects is a biography of William Wordsworth. How do you go about choosing your subject?

JB: One thing tends to lead to another. I first wrote about Wordsworth in a little book called Romantic Ecology, arguing that he was an important figure in the earliest years of environmental consciousness and the conservation movement. That led to a more wide-ranging and theoretical book called The Song of the Earth, developing what I called an “ecopoetics”. John Clare was central to that project and it made me see that there was a need for a major scholarly biography of him. Ted Hughes was the obvious follow-up to Clare, as a writer of the natural world. That put onto the back burner a plan to write a big wide-ranging book about the entire Romantic movement, but when I returned to that project after finishing Hughes, I was overwhelmed by the scale of the task until I had an epiphany in which I noticed that Wordsworth figured in nearly all the key scenes in the story, so it’s going to be not so much a straight biography as a book that combines Romanticism-through-the-eyes-of-Wordsworth with an argument about Wordsworth as a poet who actually made things happen, who changed people’s consciousness.

LW:  When writing, do you focus on a single project at any one time?   

JB: The historian A. J. P. Taylor said that he always had one book with his publisher, one on his typewriter and one in his head. I can’t quite match that, but I do nearly always have two projects on the go (one Shakespearean and one Romantic or post-Romantic) and a third idea in gestation.

LW: Through the MOOC learning platform, Dr Paula Byrne and yourself created the Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing course. How valuable can reading poetry or prose be during stressful times?    
JB: Very: at least that’s the proposition of our little charitable foundation, ReLit, on behalf of which we prepared the course and our anthology Stressed Unstressed: Classic Poems to Ease the Mind. We’re keen to test the proposition empirically: we are in the midst of our second random controlled trial designed to find an answer. In the first, albeit small-scale, trial, the poetry group showed better wellbeing results than the placebo group, but not quite as good as the CBT-mindfulness group.

LW: When reading a poem, do other worries or problems fall away from you? 

JB: For me, yes, absolutely: it is my form of meditation, concentration into the moment. Writing poetry, too: I’ve just published my first collection – a mix of revised (improved, I hope) poems I wrote as a young man and new ones that came to me in a rather surprising flow after I finished the Ted Hughes book. It’s called The Shepherd’s Hut, named for the “safe space” in which I wrote many of them – a hut by the Worcester College lake where I also wrote Ted Hughes and am writing Wordsworth.

LW: Which poems move you as a man? 

JB: Wordsworth at his best, just about every poem in Clare’s Midsummer Cushion and – although it’s a thinking as well as a moving – much of Wallace Stevens.

About the interviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Thursday 9 November 2017

Review by Robert Richardson of “The Party” (2017, film, directed by Sally Potter)

Early in The Party, one of its erudite characters mentions postmodernism, and this is a film taking place within giant quotation marks. Even Sally Potter’s shooting in stylish black and white might be seen as a retro realism achieved in too conscious a way. The satire is reflexive, for example Jinny, a lesbian pregnant with triplets, is dressed in dungarees, satirising both lazy tropes and the film’s willingness to include them.

Parties as settings inevitably lead to an emphasis on characters and relationships. This one is being hosted by Janet, as a celebration for her recent appointment to the shadow cabinet (which is obviously Labour, though that is not explicitly stated). Those invited are her friends and their partners. Most of this group know each other, some, secretly, too well; their tangled relationships bring a succession of surprises, and the best one is at the end (no spoiler for that). The characters belong to a milieu of politics and academia, with the exceptions being Gottfried, a wacky and annoying life coach, and Tom, described by Janet’s husband Bill, a professor of Roman history, as a “wanker banker”. Tom comes to the party with a hidden gun and the intention of murdering Bill. He has discovered, through texts and emails, that Bill is having an affair with his wife (absent but expected to arrive late). Consequently, Tom is in a nervous state, and while the suppressed resentments of other characters erupt verbally, his tensions break out more physically and this makes for a few moments of farce, preventing the film from being too one paced.

It is essentially an impressive ensemble performance, nevertheless, the party is taking place at the house of Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Bill (Timothy Spall) and this gives them more weight. Spall is someone who can act slowly, which is just right for the lugubrious and drunk Bill, who uses the party to reveal he is terminally ill. Janet, herself having an affair, reacts hypocritically and violently when Bill admits to one of his own. Before this, Scott Thomas presents in a subtle way Janet’s sympathy and love when Bill announces his illness. With other characters there are also hints of more genuine people beneath their coldly constructed personae.

The influence of Pinter is strong: the lies and betrayals within personal relationships offset against support by those same characters for high standards of ethical behaviour. Potter’s target is not so much a liberal elite as those who are smug, humourless and take themselves far too seriously. Her comedy about them is intelligent, elegant and a delight.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. One of his designs will be included in a book about Leeds Postcards, to be published in 2018 by Four Corners Books. He is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists.

Tuesday 7 November 2017

Interview with Siobhan Logan

About Siobhan Logan
Siobhan Logan's poetry/prose collections Firebridge to Skyshore and Mad, Hopeless and Possible are published by Original Plus. They have been performed at Ledbury Poetry Festival, the British Science Museum and National Space Centre. Her digital narrative Philae's Book of Hours was published by the European Space Agency in 2016. She led a WW1 residency for 14-18 NOW and co-edited a Five Leaves Books' anthology for refugee solidarity, Over Land, Over Sea. Her short fiction has won prizes and appeared in appears in various anthologies and literary magazines. She lectures in Creative Writing at De Montfort University, Leicester. In addition, she co-runs The Writers' Shed, an on-line service for writers

Interview with Lee Wright

LW: Orwell proposed that 'good prose is like a window pane.' In your own writing, have you ever been tempted to smash all the windows? 

SL: Not for the sake of it. But I'll refer you to my thoughts on locating 'the voice of the story' below. This can sometimes lead to wrenching grammar, disrupting word-formation, dislocating the tidy order of a stanza or natural line-break – but only when that comes organically out of the story itself. In whatever form, I think of myself as a storyteller. Poetry, short fiction, digital narrative, blog etc. Let that speak, first and foremost. 

LW: It has been said that writers cannot begin their work until they have a voice of their own. How did you discover the voice for your Antarctic expedition piece, Mad, Hopeless & Possible

SL: I've just finished delivering a workshop on Narrative Voice – which I feel is as important in a poem as it is in a novel or story. But I would re-frame that concept. I find authors seeking 'a voice of their own' to be rather misleading. I mean, we all have our own idioms and preoccupations and linguistics tics, whether in speech or on the page. It's easy to get rather self-conscious about 'our own unique voice' as a writer and feel we need to show off with language or strike a pose somehow. But what I think we need to pay attention to is finding the voice of the story – whatever medium that's in. I've never thought one register or 'voice' could possibly encompass the range of writing I do, even within one collection. Instead I'm listening for and refining a voice that works for each story or poem.
In my Antarctic expedition sequence of 25 poems, Mad, Hopeless & Possible, my research led me to books including Shackleton's own about the 1914-17 expedition. Shackleton issued diaries to every crew member and required the men to fill them in and hand them over at its end. So, his book is full of those intimate, diverse voices, across classes and occupations, all articulating their own experience of the gruelling voyage. This was a real gift to me as a poet. I enjoyed channelling those voices, playing with Edwardian idioms and naval slang. The viewpoint is frequently that of an unnamed crew member but the plural pronoun 'we' is most often used, suggesting a collective experience: 'we pass our days rotting / in blubber smoke'. Their identity as a group was a powerful thing, welding them together through quite grim circumstances. 

Elsewhere a singular voice articulates the loneliness and despair of being lost in those vast wildernesses. I was probing the psychological pressure on individuals like the 27-year-old finance clerk, Victor Hayward, writing to his fiancée: 'I'm a laggard pulled out the team / Snow is white treacle. Rotten stuff / What will you think of me?'

But there are also poems in an omniscient voice, taking more of an authorial retrospective view, that questions the values and drivers of that mission. And poems where the voice is that of a landscape or ice-scape: 'the vast disarranged jigsaw / jammed with pancakes and floes, / fields and hedgerows of sea-ice...'

Then again, in each of my collections, there are prose 'chapters' too, written here in a voice that one reviewer found 'at once efficiently informative and dramatically powerful: smooth, economic prose offset against haunting poetic soliloquies.' So even within this chapbook, there are different voices at play, though given cohesion by the focus on a distinctive landscape of Antarctica. 

LW: Can knowing too much be a hindrance to the writer? 

SL: You often hear the adage 'write about what you know'. I can only say I've found the opposite approach results in far more sparky writing that really takes me somewhere and stretches my writing voice/s in the process. I always seem to write about what I don't know, about worlds and people quite alien to my own experience. But they fire up my curiosity. I think that's really something for a writer, to set off into the Unknown in someone else's shoes. Of course, you always discover yourself along the way, which is a bonus. But it's the energy of that curiosity and discovery that transmits itself in the poetry or narrative, that a reader picks up on.

I'm also taking this to be a question about research, which can certainly press too heavily on the writing sometimes. I like to immerse myself obsessively in research about a period or story – and then let it settle in my mind before the creative writing. I wait until I can't not start the writing – and then the raw material can come out quite quickly. Most of the Mad, Hopeless & Possible poems were written in first draft form over one heady week in my sister's front room where I retreated with my notebooks to embark on the voyage. I had about 18 poems then. Then I have to leave the material to 'settle' again and when I come back to editing, there'll be fresh bouts of research to sharpen the focus and texture of specific detail, even to sharpen the language of a place or story.  

LW: Dylan Thomas said that he used everything and anything to make his poems work. Is this true of your own poetry? And if so, where do you find your everything and anything? 

SL: Hmm, I wish I knew what he meant. Thomas always seems to be hurling words into a forge to bash them about. He's very vigorous in this hammering. Well I've looked up the quotation and he's talking about using every figure of speech and linguistic trick in the book. And then some. I love what his process produced. But it isn't mine. For me, it's about listening to the work and letting the language come organically out of the story. That's when I find myself being most inventive with form or imagery, because it seems the only way, the natural way, for that particular poem or series. I'd like the voice to be clean in that way, no fussier than it needs to be, even when it's tone is rapturous or horrified. That doesn't mean that I can't succumb to over-writing but I will try to excise that in editing. 

LW: Have you ever seen struck by the despair of writing nothing and having nothing to write? 

SL: I can't remember 'having nothing to write'. But sometimes I haven't been in the right place, energy-wise, to write, for months on end. Life, work, family, health; sometimes these things smother the energy you need. And it's no bad thing to retreat and hibernate at times. The back-brain is still doing its thing. 

But I did once have a novel die from under me. Or more precisely, my passion for it died. At the time, I kept thinking of the Australian author Thomas Kineally, saying that sometimes a novel just died right under you, like a horse. I'd spent at least five years by then working on this novel. I'd been focusing on it for an MA course I was doing. But after several drafts, I just knew it wasn't 'the one'. I'd learnt a lot trying to fix it. And I had a few agents interested in seeing what I wrote next. But I didn't have that belief in it to sell it to an agent – so I could hardly expect them to go out and sell it for me. I put it aside and started notes for a new novel. But while I was dealing with that novel-lag, I got ambushed by poetry and a project that turned into my first published collection, Firebridge to Skyshore: A Northern Nights Journey. Ten years later, the same thing is happening in reverse. I have a poetry project on the Space Race, waiting for me to finish it – but I've been ambushed by a novel instead. 

LW: Whether writing poetry or prose, how important is it to ‘write without fear?’     

SL: Write with fear. And doubt. And all manner of anxieties pursuing you like banshees. I once heard an Australian author say that all of these emotions are just like the weather. They surround us, they're an inevitable ever-changing part of the landscape of writing. Look out of the window, then proceed to ignore them and get on with the work. Tomorrow, just as unaccountably, there'll be sunshine or a sparkling frost. Equally irrelevant. 

If you mean write up against taboos and the dangerous stuff, that's another matter. I think in creative writing, you often don't know what you're writing up against because you're in the thick of it. But write where the energy is, write where you are somewhat out of your depth but happily obsessed. This is too uncertain a business to do it any other way than because you have to. Then whatever the sheer hard slog of it, there will be joy in it too.  

LW: You’re currently in the process of writing a novel. How has the experience been for you thus far?   

SL: Well, exactly as above. I'm out of my comfort zone, writing in a genre that's totally different to anything I've written before. Dystopian fantasy, probably for a Young Adult readership.  Heaven knows what I'm doing here. But this story did ambush me, one foggy weekend at the seaside, and would not let me alone. That's a rare thing, so I'm going with it and doing what I'm told. In my mind, the gods of story have dropped this in my lap and my job is not to mess it up too badly. That remains to be seen. But I am really enjoying the world-building, writing action scenes and sweary dialogue. Whatever else, getting the pace and narrative momentum to work for this will be a huge stretch for me and that challenge can only do me good.

LW: You teach creative writing at De Montfort University. At the risk of biting the hand that feeds you, can good creative writing actually be taught? 

SL: No risk involved. I find it an odd question really. We don't think to ask this about teaching dance or acting or music or film-making. Of course, there are distinct skills and craft issues that can be taught with writing. Some authors have taught themselves by sitting down and assiduously studying successful works in their genre to figure out why and how. But none of us have to re-invent the wheel. There are strategies that we can learn from experienced authors – though it helps if they have some skills for communicating those too. Confidence and motivation mean we can be patient with ourselves through the hard graft of it. 

Certainly, some writers will have an instinctual flair for certain aspects of storytelling or plotting or using language etc. Just as some of us are tone-deaf and can only get so far with music etc. But I did hear a radio programme talk once about child prodigies such as Mozart and how there was a correlation between the sheer number of hours of study or immersion in their craft and the extraordinary 'gifts' that emerged. After all, the human brain is extremely plastic. And being a writer also involves a certain way of paying attention and tuning into the world which is naturally full of stories if we but hear them. 

About the interviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Friday 3 November 2017

Review by Sonia Tailor of "The Single Feather" by R. F. Hunt

Finally, a disabled protagonist who is given a central voice and is not treated as a mere victim.

The Single Feather by R.F. Hunt follows the perspective of Rachel, a thirty-one year old paraplegic. She has to escape where she was living and move to a quiet town. In order build a new life for herself, she joins an art group. She soon finds out that she is not the only one with a past.

Although the novel is centred on Rachel, we learn a lot about the other characters. They have their own, unique personalities. They are presented as genuine and relatable, especially those in the art group. Although some of the members in the group are more likable than others, we, as readers, become attached to them. We witness their growth as well as their hardships and we are made to feel like we are members ourselves.

The novel tackles a number of diverse topics. These includes the importance of friendship, the question of identity and the power of a community. Hunt also examines the ways in which disability and mental health are portrayed in today’s society. Some of the characters in the art group are forced to confront these issues. The reader’s assumptions are also challenged and we learn about the way the most vulnerable are treated in society.

Overall, The Single Feather is a thought-provoking and engaging novel.

With friends you grow wings
You are a single feather in disgrace
With them you master the wind,
But alone
You’re blown in all directions.

About the reviewer
Sonia Tailor studied an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She is a peace activist who enjoys writing short stories and monologues. She has organised vigils and demonstrations, and in 2007, she travelled to Jordan to make a documentary about Iraqi refugee children. For many years, Sonia was the Youth Page editor for Peace News (newspaper) and she currently runs a book blog on Instagram: @soniareads. 

Monday 16 October 2017

Interview with Lyndon Mallet

About Lyndon Mallet
Lyndon Mallet is a British novelist and cartoonist with film, TV and radio credits to his name. He started writing in his teens and became road manager of a flying circus in exchange for being taught to fly, before embarking on a career in advertising. The film of his novel Taffin (New English Library) was released in 1988 with Pierce Brosnan in the title role. His fourth novel in the series is Taffin on Balance, released by Matador in 2017. Credits include The Bill (Thames Television), The Hare Lane Diaries (BBC Radio 4), Bucks Peasants (long-running cartoon series). His website is

Interview with Lee Wright

LW: When did you first realise you wanted to be a novelist?

LM: I was read to a lot as a child. Grateful for that. When a book appeared, that was the start of a good time. When I could read for myself I learnt the joys of total immersion in a story. Authors became my heroes and guess what – I wanted to be one. I started writing short stories when I was 11 and it developed from there.  

LW: Which authors have you been most influenced by? 

LM: Roald Dahl. Fellow villager who taught me it was OK to write about events close to home. Conan Doyle. My father was a Holmes freak and I caught it. Jack Kerouac.  Early love of jazz, restless energy and Americana. (My wife is from Ohio). George MacDonald Frazer. Great storyteller, innovator, researcher and wit. Gogol. Object lesson in fitting characters to a landscape. De Maupassant. Economical storytelling through the characters. J.P.Donleavy. How to get serious without sounding preachy. Kipling. Kim is still as relevant as when it was written.

LW: Why did you decide to bring Taffin back after so long? 

LM: I had two stories in mind (HS rail and Barn Finds) and felt they could be told within the same structure.  It took me a while to realise Taffin would fit Centre Stage. 

LW: What were your thoughts when your publishers, New English Library, originally asked you to write the first sequel, Taffin’s First Law?

LM: Mixture of ecstasy and foreboding. Having banished the character to exile, I had to find a way to bring him back. That done, forget sleep for the immediate future (I was in full-time employment). 

LW: You have also written a sequel to another popular work of yours, The Hare Lane Diaries. Yet some novel sequels, like Joseph Heller’s Closing Time (a sequel to Catch-22) have been rubbished by critics. As someone who has written sequels, do you think they work?       

LM: I think this relates to the first novel being a pleasure, the second a duty – in which case sequels  start at a disadvantage. I think it’s probably better for the author to write at least one other book of a different kind before returning to the original in search of a sequel – and only then if the characters exert a powerful enough draw.  The sequel to Hare Lane uses the principal characters setting up house in France. The experience was too good to miss. 

LW: Both Taffin and Taffin’s First Law were traditionally published. Yet the third sequel and this latest instalment have been self-published. Was that a creative decision on your part not to go down the route of submitting to editors? And how have you found the self-publishing experience?

LM: The third Taffin coincided with the death of my editor at NEL, to whom it is dedicated. She edited and championed it so I ignored advice to the contrary and went ahead. Taffin On Balance had a traditional publication offer before I researched Matador and liked the look of them. I wouldn’t normally recommend self publishing from a standing start; in this case, the creative decision was based on design. I like the look and feel (crucial) of the books they produce. I also felt Taffin had enough provenance to justify a risk. 

LW: Did the film adaptation of Taffin help or hinder the character in your eyes?  

LM: Well, look at Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities – a magnificent novel utterly trashed on screen. Taffin’s producers made something more conventional than I would have liked. The American posters featured guns up front, which missed the point, and left out a couple of scenes I thought were pivotal. Even so, it led to opportunities I wouldn’t have had without it. Provenance again. 

LW: Each Taffin story deals with the issue of vigilante action. Is the concept of taking the law into one’s own hands frightening to you? 

LM: No. Vigilante is a loaded term. I wouldn’t advocate it. But ... "for evil to thrive wants only that good men do nothing." The Taffin idea is partly based on personal experience, which suggests (a): that Good Men aren’t always around when they’re needed and (b): pressure doesn’t necessarily involve violence. Whatever – Robin Hood deserves to exist.

LW: The title of the new novel is Taffin On Balance, and the word "Balance" features throughout the book. Taffin himself seems almost fixated with getting the balance right. Why is this and should a novelist or indeed any person be dominated by fixations? 

LM: Good one. A character should develop over time, which involves questioning earlier behaviour. Taffin is aware of being perceived as a straightforward thug and has the wit to seek redemption. His attempt to explain Balance to the journalist falls short because he lacks a clear understanding of it himself. In the event, he can only express it clumsily in terms of debt collecting: the balance between what’s owed and what’s paid. I think the novelist must share the character’s doubts, fears and, if necessary, fixation. 

LW: On your website you said that this novel (Taffin On Balance) feels special. What were your thoughts while writing the manuscript? 

LM: This is an episode in a character’s development following a substantial time lapse. Taffin knows more than he did in his earlier days. On Balance probably reflects the author’s questioning of his own fascination with this type of character. This is hindsight of course; at the time I was just enjoying time with old mates, the assembled cast. 

LW: You have said before that Mark Taffin is an old mate. Have you ever known a ‘Taffin’ in real life?   

LM: Yes.

About the reviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Review by Lee Wright of "Taffin on Balance" by Lyndon Mallet

The 1988 action thriller Taffin featured a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan in the title role as the freelance debt-collector Mark Taffin, hired to defend a small Irish community against a group of evil developers and their band of ruthless heavies. It was Robin Hood, only with shotguns and Brylcreem.  

A few years ago, I came across a copy of the original novel on which the film was based. Rumour has it that Taffin’s author, Lyndon Mallet, was not best pleased with the casting of Brosnan. The tough County Meath man with Hollywood good looks was a far cry from the large framed, expressionless Teddy Boy on the cover of the novel. 

The novel explores vigilante justice and how far people are willing to go to protect what is dear to them. But there is a flipside to that coin. How far is too far? Taffin understands this only too well. In the novel he warns someone who comes to him for help: “If I took this job, you’d be begging me to stop within a week.” Probably the finest line from the film is when Taffin confronts those who want to hire him to rid them of the developers with no questions asked: “My help has consequences,” he says. “When you turn against me, as you surely will, you remember, I am only your weapon.”

A follow-up sequel to the first novel was commissioned by the publisher, New English Library, and Mallet wrote Taffin’s First Law within four months of the first book being published. A third instalment followed, and Ask Taffin Nicely seemed to be a fitting end to the trilogy. 

Now, after a decade away, Mallet has returned to the town of Lasherham in Taffin On Balance, where Mark Taffin has settled down and runs a business restoring and selling classic cars. All is well until someone with money and a personal grudge tries to put him out of business. Along the way he discovers a web of large-scale corruption causing issues for the locals of the town, and we find that Taffin is still very much the modern-day Robin Hood.     
As ever with Mallet, the action is punchy and realistic but not too heavy. The author also dips into meta-fiction territory as references to the Pierce Brosnan film are made throughout the book. One character asks Taffin: “That film. Fact or fantasy? Is it about you and if so, is it a true story?”

When I asked Mallet why he did this, he replied, “It’s called playing the cards you’re dealt.” 
There is nothing slow paced about Mallet’s writing. Like his main protagonist, Mallet gets on with the job at hand. It’s a technique which has shown results. Not only did he sell the film rights for Taffin, he also had success with his epistolary novel, The Hare Lane Diaries, which was later adapted for radio and broadcast in six episodes on BBC Radio 4.  
But the Taffin novels are not as well-known as they could be. Copies of the first two novels are now out of print (though some second-hand copies can still be picked up and all of Mallet’s novels are available in e-book form). So, to have Taffin On Balance available in paperback is a treat for both old fans, and those discovering the character for the first time.
Taffin On Balance is published by Matador Fiction and is available now.

About the reviewer

Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.