Longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2013!

Hi all,

I’ve been neglecting my blog for a while now, but I promise to get back into the swing of things shortly! Happily, my book, The Shape of a Forest, has now been published, and I’ve been busy promoting that, which has been such a great experience – will bring you up to date on all of the goss soonish. For the time being, though, I can’t resist sharing my big news immediately. Reader: I have been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2013! I found out on Thursday, which, being a school night, was only mildly celebratory. Ditto Friday (I had a lot of driving to do on Saturday morning), so my delayed celebration took place last night and let’s just say, omelettes and coffee were a necessity this morning. Anyway, full details of the prize, and the other 11 writers longlisted here: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/long-list-30000-dylan-thomas-5681579

The great man himself, Mr Dylan Thomas

The great man himself, Mr Dylan Thomas

Leaps and Spirals Travelling the World Forever: On the 50th Anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s Death

Tomorrow will be 50 years to the day that Sylvia Plath died. To some, that death is the locus, the keyword, the short-hand fact that fleshes out the little that they know about the poet. To me, she meant so much more than that, she is more substantial than a romantic suicide fantasy. She has informed my life, both practically and emotionally ever since I first encountered Ariel when I was sixteen years old. For this reason I feel that I should mark the day but it is hard to know how. The difficulty arises initially from the anniversary itself. How do you mark a ‘death-day’? Not with celebration of course, but mourning is equally inappropriate because I didn’t know her. And what to say, when there is so much to say? I am a confirmed Plathite however, and it is a milestone so I really should say something.

sylvia-plath-ponytail

I’ll start at the beginning. I first ‘met’ Plath in my mid-teens. She was sat at the back of my English classroom. Multiple copies of Ariel were stacked in a neat pile surrounded by dusty copies of other forgotten tomes: Wordsworth, Auden, Coleridge. Items of value that had fallen off the syllabus, and therefore out of relevance. I’ll admit that I only picked Plath out because she was female and I wanted to hear what an important one of those sounded like. Who was this rare woman allowed into the pantheon of male greats? Unfortunately, I found her writing profoundly impenetrable at first glance. From the tulips on the red cover, I’d expected verses about love but instead I found strings of words bearing no relationship to the shape of any emotion or intellect I’d ever felt. I didn’t really know what to do about this (I’d always been an A* student in Eng. Lit. and my defeat intrigued me). So I stole the book, which was a little bit naughty, but the volume was so neglected that the thin spine audibly cracked when I opened it. I figured nobody would miss it. I missed the rest of my classes that afternoon, took the book into the fields behind the school and puzzled over its contours a little bit more.

Skipping forwards to my A Levels (exams taken by eighteen year olds in the UK), we studied Othello, Pride and Prejudice and The Bell Jar. Now I know that this remark will cause some consternation amongst Eng. Lit. academics, but why the obsession with Shakespeare? Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet AND THEN Othello – my God, I studied all of these! Is Shakespeare the only playwright in the world? And Pride and Prejudice? In my (eighteen year old) opinion, there was only one saving grace to that story, and that involved Colin Firth and a lake. But The Bell Jar was different. I read it cover to cover without stopping and could still, if pushed, recite the opening paragraph word for word, ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs…’ I think that certain people, especially at the age of eighteen when the road is forking wildly in front of you, connect viscerally to rhythm of The Bell Jar. That undercurrent of ennui and confusion. The distinct feeling that everybody else seems to understand their place in the world, except you. It has that in spades. But it isn’t distilled teenage melancholy at the baseline, nor is it (and I’m hissing this through my teeth) ‘women’s literature’. It is life literature and elegant. It’s affirming and wry and still. It has scope. People accuse it (I love that a book can be accused) of being ‘introverted’ but what is bigger than individual experience? Answer me that. ‘Nothing happens’, critics say. But everything happens, it’s a survey of days burning (and yes Plathites, my phrasing is intentional).

arielcover

It’s important to note that at this point I knew little of the infamous St. Botolph’s party, of the tragedy of untreated complications arising from diabetes, of a tall northerner with commitment issues, the miscarriage, a green-eyed seductress, the antidepressants, the snows of 1963, the doorway being taped up, the suicidal stars and hypnosis, the bread, the milk, the oven. I was uninitiated and remained that way until Plath swam back into my field of vision several years later when studying for my MA. I was meandering around a great many topics trying to settle on one for my dissertation. The semiotics of packaging, Keats and seditionary language, the political usage of graffiti. I tried everything on but nothing quite fitted until I remembered Plath. I was going through a difficult patch in my personal life (I’ll level with you, I was heartbroken) and returning to The Bell Jar, I found a confidante. Afterwards I re-opened my contraband copy of Ariel and the hieroglyphs rearranged themselves. My Ariel-dyslexia was cured and here I found a language that was born not of the pale imitation of literary ‘forefathers’ but instead, plucked straight out of high consciousness. Her night-ride on Ariel was the most thrilling thing I’d ever read, I found that it was actually quite possible to fall in love to her words (‘A smile fell in the grass. Irretrievable!’). You can fall apart quite easily to them too, renowned as they are for their nihilistic bent. The pages were a map of the cosmos, a contact sheet of refined human experience at the extreme end of the scale. Our worst moments and the bit that comes after the worst – the pendulating between not giving a damn and becoming ‘Lazarus’, and the acknowledgement of the fact that after a burnt bridge comes a blank canvas and everything is subject to redesign. That wide open door.

The 'fierce flame' flowers that I left for Plath. Copyright JLK 2013

The ‘fierce flame’ flowers that I left for Plath. Copyright JLK 2013

The next few months were characterised by Plath-centric high strangeness but that’s a story for another time, long as it is. All you need to know for now is that against all odds (well, perhaps not against all, but put it this way: it was competitive), I received a scholarship to study for my PhD. and by this point I knew that the focus of my research would obviously be Plath. By now the words of ‘The Priestess’ had become my own eclectic bible. I’d taken my own pilgrimage to her grave, left her a pen from my handbag (if you’ve ever been to Plath’s grave, this will make sense) and left her one of my poems. I was wholly unpublished back then, but sitting here now, I know that the poem that I left will be published in my forthcoming collection. I am now an award winning poet myself, but I feel quite strongly that this achievement would have been unlikely had it not been for my education through the words and experiences of Sylvia Plath. I’ve devoured every poem, story, journal entry, every biography, hell! Even every Ted Hughes biography! I am veritably obsessed. And even as I write all of this, I know that I am just skimming the surface of my connection to Plath. If I were to take you down every detour that my synapses keep flinging themselves down on Sylvia Street, we’d be here all night.  Let’s just say that some people find God, or Buddha or crack cocaine. I found somebody who was on first name terms with the edges of life and as fickle as my character can sometimes be, I know I’ll be a Plathite for life. I’m still not resolved on how I actually feel towards the 50th year anniversary, my bearing towards it is as joined up and as knotty as any good Plath poem. It’s heartening to know that she is remembered, and not just remembered but is as controversial, divisive and demanding as ever. Plath’s bees are perpetually flying towards spring, and that red eye, the cauldron of morning. So let’s just raise a glass (of brandy preferably), she’d approve.

The Production of Children or the Production of Language

Has anybody else noticed how competitive the glossy magazine business has become? It used to be the case that I’d pick up a title in the supermarket, read it, recycle it, whatever. Now I’ve got them ringing my house asking if I’ll buy an annual subscription for half price, nay, quarter price, what about a quid for six issues? How about if we throw in a really expensive pot of face-cream made from mashed fairy wings and pasteurised gold? So of course, I fall for this every time (free stuff, what can I say) and now I’m currently subscribing to a squillion publications that I barely have the time to flick through.  It’s a problem I need to resolve when I’ve got the time (read: never). So anyway, out of guilt, I decided to make a dent in the pile and speed-read my way through a few of them the other night. The article that demanded my attention above and beyond the thousand others was a piece in Marie-Claire about ‘the selective fertility crisis’! I.e. that women are now having careers which is of course, putting the whole human race in jeopardy. Oops us.

Marie-Claire’s approach was to take one 30-something writer who is debating whether or not she should procreate, and have her interview one woman who swapped her career for children and is happy, one who swapped her career for children and isn’t, one woman who didn’t have kids and regrets it and one who didn’t who doesn’t, got that?  Umm anyway, why is this relevant? Well, when I was writing my MA Dissertation on Sylvia Plath I read Susan Van Dyne’s assertion that female writers always have to choose between ‘the production of children or the production of language’. The clarity of the dilemma rang true to me back then and three years on, getting no younger, my imaginary Van Dyne voice has taken on a slightly more urgent tone. Not that I want children now. I’m probably not the best person to put my personal spin on this issue. I have about a billion questions that would need an affirmative answer before I would take the plunge and breed. I have no idea how people just suddenly decide to multiply. But obviously, I’ll soon be in what is officially classified as my ‘late twenties’, so I’d better start thinking about it. Or what? Well I’ll probably just accidentally end up having a career and no kids and society will hate me or something.

Sylvia Plath with her husband, Ted Hughes, and baby Frieda Rebecca Hughes

Sylvia Plath with her husband, Ted Hughes, and baby Frieda Rebecca Hughes

Getting back to the point, the echoes between January’s Marie-Claire and female writers from the middle of the twentieth century patently shows that this debate is really nothing new. There were just less women having to face the problem back then because women generally had less options. If you were lucky enough to have a vocation, the dilemmas of the 21st century probably occurred to you a few decades earlier than to the rest of society. I interpret Van Dyne’s words as focussed on the psychology of motherhood on the writer specifically but I believe the sentiment to have broader application. Motherhood, whether you are a writer, a painter, a lawyer, doctor or sales assistant, involves a heavy degree of sacrifice both in terms of time and of self. In most cases I believe a compromise will be naturally reached. Indeed, for writers like Plath, the production of children actually induced the production of an abundance of words. Whilst nursing, she put her hormones and the wee small hours of the morning to work to produce the honest aubades of ‘You’re’, ‘Morning Song’ and ‘Nick and the Candlestick’. So it isn’t hopeless, and wasn’t back then. And not to be self-promoting, but if anybody wants to tell me that it didn’t exactly work out for Plath, then I’d point them towards my paper on Plath’s poetry in relation to her fertility/maternity: http://www.iun.edu/~nwadmin/plath/vol4/King.pdf I don’t disagree with Van Dyne, I think the conceit is demonstrable in so many ways. Anything, any element of one’s life interferes with writing. Motherhood is guaranteed to throw a stick of dynamite in whatever it is that you consider order. However, from chaos and all that…

But what of us post-millenials who are realising that writer or not, we can’t actually ‘have it all’ (if there was an emoticon for furious, I’d utilise it here). Indeed, the 21st century is not conducive at all to the creation of families. When I was a child, and all this adult hand wringing was light-years away, my parents, aunties, uncles (all in their twenties) had their own homes, they were married, they seemingly always had cash to ‘re-do’ the kitchen or whatever. Our generation isn’t up to much at the moment, let’s be honest. Nobody owns their own property or has a clue how to get onto the property ladder (in the sense that nobody has anywhere near enough money), many of them don’t have regular employment. Most are underemployed or underpaid. Most of them aren’t in a position to own a hamster, let alone an actual newly minted human being. And by the way, I include men in this too. They are no better off. So my conclusion is actually that I’ll just keep the words coming, because frankly, everything else looks a bit bleak. When it comes to the ‘choice’ of having a family these days, most of us don’t really have the option.

Work it is then.

My Five Year Old Could Have Done That!

I’m going to take a brief aside from poetry to talk about one of the world’s most annoying received phrases instead. Yup, I’m talking about that very original refrain: ‘My five year old could have done that!’ (Hereafter shortened to MFYOCHDT!)

Most of you will recognise this argument-starter as the favoured assail of those that don’t appreciate modern art. It’s a hard one to combat too. There are perhaps too many ways to answer it, and too many barriers on the other side. The two sides of the argument short circuit themselves in exasperation. Nonetheless, it is one of my chief irritations because it’s the verbal equivalent of crossing your arms, digging your heels in and refusing to engage with the subject. It also assumes a level of arrogance that, to me, is incomprehensible. Modern art is there to challenge. By its very nature it provokes strong reactions – maybe you love a piece, maybe you hate it. But to refuse to even acknowledge it? Hmmmm…

                                                                              Comments from a certain newspaper…

Modern art is often materially reductive, but all the more powerful for the lack of fussiness. It is the distillation of a feeling, a snapshot of a moment. The stripping of layers serves to highlight the properties that the artist sought to convey in their purest forms. Trying to engage with those sensations is to try somebody else’s skin on. Whose five year old can create that illusion?

Part of the problem, I feel, is embarrassment. ‘MFYOCHDT’ is shorthand for discomfort and incomprehension. It’s a get out clause to avoid attempting to understand the work. Amazingly enough, I’m not the only one out there who is sick of hearing the same old put-down. I’ve discovered that Susie Hodge has written a timely book that acts as a tour guide through some of the more controversial moments of recent art history. She has created an accessible and absorbing volume that provides contexts to installations and paintings derided by the MFYOCHDT gang.

If you have an overuser of ‘MFYOCHDT’ in your life, you could do worse for an xmas present: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/9533029/Why-Your-Five-Year-Old-Could-Not-Have-Done-That-by-Susie-Hodge-review.html

That is all.

Should writers be read and not heard?

This is something that I’m sure I’m not alone in considering. Last month I read an article in The Guardian describing the difficulties of being an introverted writer in the 21st century. Writers of old rarely met their ‘public’ (unless they went on a forward-thinking tour, Dickens-stylee) but it’s an occupational demand these days given the wealth of literary festivals and the plethora of ‘evening with’ events. A writer doesn’t stand much of a chance of shouting above the noise unless they jump on stage to talk about the nitty gritty of their inspirations/ character motivations/ what they had for breakfast.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with discussing my work with an audience (especially after a complimentary glass of vino) and meeting other writers is always a bonus. But I can see how going from living half the year cocooned in a study surrounded by research, to diving on stage with the enthusiasm of a RADA graduate can for some, be jarring (as indeed, The Guardian columnist suggested). It’s probable that in the future, publishers will need to provide their writers with publicity training. Aside from this issue, my other concern is over-visibility. I find myself questioning what my literary heroines would have done. This in itself doesn’t help my line of questioning, largely because my top two literary heroines, Zadie Smith and Sylvia Plath are about as visible as writers can get (albeit posthumously for the latter). Why do I worry? Well for one thing, it removes, in part, the ownership that a reader can feel towards a text. I don’t particularly want my readers to have to negotiate my voice and face out of their reading experience – it should belong to them more than me.

Of course, I’m thinking about this issue in broad terms and not just in application to myself or more specifically, my career. I write as an audience member as well as a writer. My debut collection ‘The Shape of a Forest’ is due to be published by Parthian next year and I am very much looking forward to promoting it (yesterday I was asked to provide a signed copy of my book for a charity auction – it’s the first time I’ve had such a request and I couldn’t help but feel heartened by the interest). The relevance of my book, for the purposes of this article, is the unseen history of getting the thing published. The road to getting my collection accepted by a publisher was, I would imagine, a typical route. I entered the competitions and spoke at as many events as was possible in order to get my work noticed. This would have been tremendously difficult if I have of been of a quieter disposition. I also went to every literary festival going in order to ‘network’ (bleh! I know, I know!) and to see how the professionals do it. So despite my material only just coming out in the next few months, I have a lot of experience of seeing how others promote their work. One poet, an extremely famous poet at that, was very rude to her audience and it completely put me off her work (if you think this is extreme, you should have seen her face, it was as though she hated each and every one of us). I was subsequently asked to review her newly published collection, and refused because of the difficulty that I now have in separating the woman from the work. She didn’t leave a good impression and it was one that wholly marred the idealised version of her that I had in my head (selfish, I know). That’s an intense reaction yes, and in all honesty, it is also the only negative experience that I have had with a writer. It’s possibly not even her fault; maybe she was having a bad day, maybe her publicist made her do it, maybe we were the fifth audience she’d had in as many days. But that’s not really the point. The physical ‘her’ has now interfered with the ‘written’ her. Her narrator is, to me, indivisible from the person. It leaves me wondering how subtle these impressions are, even if the writer interacts positively with the audience. To me, possibly because my book is shortly due out, I’ve started thinking about these issues in more depth than I ever have previously. I’m unresolved on the answer because we need to sell books (especially since the emergence of the Kindle and all of the ramifications on the industry that it has wrought) so any publicity is good publicity. Or is it?