Fine Writing

On Monday 11th December 2017, short fiction writer Diane Williams visited the University of Westminster to give a reading and to talk about her writing processes in conversation with novelist Toby Litt.  The evening was introduced by Leigh Wilson from the University of Westminster’s Institute of Modern and Contemporary Culture.  Diane Williams then read from selected collections of her fiction, including Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, published in the UK in 2016 by CB editions.

Diane Williams reading from Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine
Diane Williams reading from Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, with Toby Litt. University of Westminster, 11 December 2017

In the ensuing conversation, Williams spoke candidly about her writing and her writing processes, in response to Litt’s insightful comments and questions.  Williams’ short stories are minuscule fragments of strangely unsettling and wittily observed realism, always with an uncanny and unnerving twist that leaves them open and on the verge of beginning anew just at the point at which they ought to offer the closure of an ending.  Her short form fictions range from a few sentences to two or three pages, and their brevity is part of their crystalline form, giving them the precision and density of poetry.   On this ultra-short-form, Williams remarks that, ‘I work to my skills … Six pages feels like a saga to me,’ insisting that her writing is about ‘writing what you can, writing “my way” rather than anybody else’s way… not trying to fit a particular literary genre’.  This ensures, she says, that your writing is your own, its distinctive rather than imitative.

‘Writing to fracture what I knew, to open up new perspectives.’

Part of what makes Williams’ short fictions so fragmentary and unsettling, however, might be her sense that she is ‘writing to fracture what I knew, to open up new perspectives.’  For Williams ‘[my] stories issue from a sense of pain or fright or bewilderment, of not feeling like I belonged in my own house’.  It is that sense of the uncanny that carries over into the bewildering realism of her works.  Toby Litt commented on how that is implemented formally in Williams’ writing, saying: ‘Diane Williams’ sentences are bendy: they don’t go where you expect them to’.  At the level of the sentence, Williams admits that, ‘So much of my writing is reorganising the connections between sentences. … To keep a lively pace, I don’t want to get bored’.  The emphasis here is on re-writing, the vital importance of redrafting, restructuring and reshaping the words down to the finest detail of the connections between sentences to maintain pace, interest and innovation.  To continually shift expectations and ‘fracture what [we] knew’.

As a final thought, Williams added: ‘My theory is that one ought to be able to say anything about anything’ in literature. ‘I have to pretend to be bold’.  Diane Williams demonstrates this theory again and again in her fiction, embodying a pulsing, fleshy eroticism of both form and content in her intense rhythms and choice of subjects.  In addition to Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Williams read from her 1992 collection Some Sexual Success Stories, which she has been editing for her forthcoming collected works.  If you’re not already familiar with Williams’ writing, now is a great time to get to know her through her books.

Thanks to Diane Williams, Toby Litt, Charles Boyle, and everyone who came to this illuminating event at the University of Westminster.

Diane Williams has been publishing her wholly distinctive short fiction in the US for the past quarter of a century. She is the author of eight books, including a collection of her selected stories, and is the founder and editor of the literary annual NOON. Her most recent book, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine was published by CB editions in 2016 and is the first UK publication of her new book of stories.

Toby Litt is the author of five books of short stories and ten novels. His new novel, Notes for a Young Gentleman, will be published by Seagull Press in December. Toby’s most recent book is Mutants: Selected Essays, also published by Seagull. Toby teaches creative writing at Birkbeck College. He blogs about writing at www.tobylitt.com.

Republic of Consciousness Prize Long List 2017

This year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize Long List has been announced by founder Neil Griffiths.  You can read the full article and see what Neil has said about each of the long listed books on the TLS here.

rofc-longlist-2017

Here’s the long list, alphabetically by publisher.

Playing Possum by Kevin Davey (Aaaargh! Press)

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell (And Other Stories)

The Gallows Pole by Ben Myers (Bluemoose Books)

An Overcoat by Jack Robinson (CB Editions)

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, tr. Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff  (Charco Press)

Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner (Dostoevsky Wannabe)

Compass by Mathias Enard, tr. Charlotte Mandell (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefevbre, tr. Sophie Lewis (Les Fugitives)

We that are Young  by Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar Press)

Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams (Influx Press)

Darker with the Lights on by David Hayden (Little Island Press)

In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie (Salt Publishing)

The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo (Tramp Press)

Congratulations to all the writers, translators and publishers!

 

The Republic of Consciousness shortlist will be announced at Waterstones Manchester on the February 15, 2018. For more information, follow on twitter at @prizerofc or join the mailing list here:  http://eepurl.com/c9HGnr 

Everywhere is Somewhere

Everywhere is Somewhere, Naseem Khan: Bluemoose, November 2017

 ‘So when does an art form become ‘English’? Or when does a person become “English”?’

‘It’s a tricky thing, identity.’

‘Being British surely has to take in all the variations that I am unearthing.’

I was very glad to be asked to review this moving, timely and necessary book. Its clarity is impressive; its scope great and to tangle with such questions and statements as those above, is an essential challenge, now more than ever, I think: sometimes painful, but always necessary and, if we would only talk and properly look and listen, it could bring great joy.

I already knew of and admired its author, Naseem Khan, who died in June of this year, not long after she learned that the fine independent press Bluemoose wanted to publish her memoir. I had read her column in ‘The New Statesman’ and had seen her writing in ‘The Guardian’ and ‘The Independent (she also wrote for ‘Good Housekeeping’ magazine and had been theatre editor of ‘Time Out’ and a journalist for ‘City Limits’). I knew her writing, books, Voices of the Crossing (2000, with Ferdinand Dennis), about the impact that writers from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia have had on Britain and British culture; Asians in Britain (2004), where her text accompanied beautiful photographs by Tim Smith and I am about to read, rather overdue, Being British: The Search for Values That Bind the Nation (2009, edited by Matthew D’Ancona and Gordon Brown), to which she contributed. And I knew about her work, with its passionate but gentle emphasis on diversity in the arts, that she had struggles with the idea of the establishment, had spent much of the 1960s travelling in India and Pakistan, connecting with the Khan roots from her father’s side, that she had been arrested in Pakistan as an Indian spy and that she had been part of the black power scene in Notting Hill, from where she edited the ‘Hustler’ magazine with Darcus Howe and others. Looking at these things, I thought, ‘What a woman.’ And I knew about her work in the latter part of her life when she moved from Hampstead to Hackney and threw herself into community work, aiming — and the exploration of this is one of the most moving parts of Everywhere is Somewhere for me — to bridge a gap between those newly arrived in the East End, the so-called ‘hipsters’, the Muslim families and the old East End families; she became a vital figure on the Boundary Estate. If you had looked at social media a few weeks ago, you might have seen coverage of a wonderful thing. A community event centred upon Arnold Circus, a 19th-century bandstand at the heart of the estate which had become a ruin and which, with her persistence and loving care, has gone on to be an East End landmark. After this, she worked on the Phytology medicinal field, which lies in a corner of the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve. That went on to win a Kew Gardens innovation award and a Wellcome Trust grant.

So that is a portion of what she accomplished. She was a true cultural pioneer. In 1976 she wrote a report called ‘The Arts Britain Ignores’. At that time, the lively and growing arts scene in Britain’s ethic communities was not well know or documented. She argued — and I passionately agree with this — that with a more inclusive approach, we would live in a culturally richer place. There’s a line in the book that particularly lingers for me. It is kind; incisive: it is stunning in its essential rightness:

‘The imagination, I think. This is what can bind us. This is what can transform.’

She was, in effect, advocating a community of the imagination. If you read this memoir — and I urge to you — may you feel the same way; test on your own physiognomy the telling pulse of hope and the excitement that goes with it. There were scenes in this book which made me cry because I was so grateful to hear her words: when Naseem Khan is at a meeting discussing plans for inclusion in the arts, she describes an intense happiness in the room: ‘I can feel electricity running along my veins — really feel it, crackling and fizzing. I can hear and feel the emotion in the room. It is a sense of common discovery….I am too proud that I have had a hand in this extraordinary occurrence. Invisible no longer, I think: silent no longer.’

But there is also a righteous anger, a determination. In another meeting, a name is posited for the pioneering report that was to come: ‘We nod: “The Arts Britain Ignores” — it has a ring. We have a name. It’s done…An organisation to push the recommendations further, to make sure that we all stay visible. Keep going.’

Yes. Keep going. That — and the belief in the binding powers of the imagination and of our upholding of diversity in out communities — is what this book is all about for me. ‘The Arts Britain Ignores’ had clearly pointed up the need for greater institutional support to ensure diversity in the arts. She pushed on and later that year — it is all in the book — Naseem founded the Minority Arts Advisory Service (MAAS) and went on to become a co-director of Akademi, the London-based academy for Indian dance, worked on a huge number of local authority cultural plans and also those for museums, including the V&A, and worked on influential studies on parks and urban open space, public libraries and looking at the social impact of the arts. How they foster links between groups; nurture our well-being and the ties that bind. She went on, though with some trepidation, as her memoir shows, to become Head of Diversity at the Arts Council. This is actually the point in time at which the memoir begins, with the author on her way to the job interview. ‘I drag my feet’ she tells us: ‘I am not part of this grand tradition. An interloper’ as she traverses Parliament Square, walking towards the Arts Council of England building.

‘Half my roots are deep in icy wolf-howling Schleswig; the other half in the baked heat of central India. And right now I am on my way to one of the major portals of the Great British tradition.’

She has been persuaded into it by her friend Usha, who tells her that the issue of cultural diversity within the organisation has stalled. ‘If you want to change things…there is only one effective way — and that is through institutions.’ There is a decision to be made here, which I found fascinating and which the author faces with courage: it’s profoundly moving.

‘Memories of my father’s humiliation as he searched for the respect he craved. Resolute black theatre companies exposing racism in rickety halls. All the tenacity needed to unearth quantities of artists, writers, dancers, singers, all from different parts of the world that went into The Arts Britain Ignores…And still so little happened, so little real progress towards the equal society we envisaged.’

She goes to work at The Arts Council of course. Oh, it is painful to read that last bit about her father’s humiliation for this book has made me grapple with issues in my own family history. I hope its author would be glad to hear that. I remember my own Bengali uncle, the man I called Uncle or Kaka, starting again like a junior as the family left the clinic they ran, losing everything, in the second Indo-Pakistan war. We talked often about that, Uncle and I. Who am I to write this review? I’m a white middle class woman, who comes from clawed-up Welsh working class roots. Ah, well that’s rather the point. I need to grapple. I knew about Naseem Khan because one of my greatest influences was this beloved uncle, Dr Jamall, who taught me Urdu and cooking and about the beauty of ghazals, Indian art and also how to eat mangos — I was delighted to see this in the book: you can eat them in the bath, the young Naseem’s father tells her as I was told, and did— and he also knew about Naseem Khan. Because she was important and visible. And all that shot a sharp pain through me, because it’s not long ago we lost him, Kaka.

I have lived in India and travelled widely within it and Pakistan; I’ve been to on-off weddings as young Naseem did; my godmother is a Pakistani Muslim; I lost my parents in my teens. Sometimes I’m not sure who I am. And yet I am exactly sure: I am a hybrid. A questioning, excited hybrid, who looks at all things and tangles with others’ notions —of what the ‘canon’ is in literature or art. I’ve married a man who’s from the state of Georgia and he’s part Cherokee. My Welsh and my Faulkner and my instinctive aping of his often archaic syntax and grammar and his mother’s utter mystification at my elliptical Welsh style where I’ll muddle up pronouns and miss off the subject of a sentence. Oh, I love it. Yes, obviously there can be cultural traditions we might regard and study as we look at the tradition and history of a country, but why can we not draw new things or unacknowledged older things into that; into what we perceive as canon; as mainstream? That is Naseem’s question in the book and it is mine, too. There is room for both. Are we frightened of something? There’s a challenge in this book that is — at least it seems this way to me — particularly pressing in these Brexit days, as we swim in choppy waters and when, reflexively, the lexis of many seems to focus on doom and gloom and on exclusion rather than inclusion. But plurality gives you wings; varied ideas enliven and illuminate. What, I believe, is needed is not a battening down, but an expansion. May this memoir encourage that.

It has certainly made me reflect. On my identity; my cultural precedents.

Everywhere is Somewhere

What does it mean to be British? Testy subject, isn’t it? Painful and destructive, too. As I reflected on the content of Everywhere is Somewhere, on Naseem’s devotion to ‘shared space’, her responses to ‘major social changes as I’ve lived through them’ and to her clear ringing assertion that ‘mixing is so simple’, I put the word out to my friends and family and invited frank response, some of which I knew would nauseate me (sorry, but I speak plainly), but I promised myself that I would not yell or castigate. Because there has to be conversation with those whose views you find abhorrent; has to be, in my view. Because everyone has a story, right? Here — and I must be mindful of the topic of culture because it was as a determined, intelligent and loving defender of the arts that Naseem Khan was known — the greatest confusion remained. British culture, to those who were fearful of its dilution, often meant something terribly vague; a sort of amorphous thing which included red telephone boxes and worries about the purity of the English language being sullied, or the English language not being central enough. That in itself should be a cause for concern because, if you have any secondary education in this country, then your English teacher (I am one) should be explaining to you that the English language is a living breathing thing; that it evolves, bends and twists, borrows words and phrases verbatim. That it did not bound forth with its unsullied grammar and vocabulary from a spring in Arcadia, but is composed of a series of layers, graftings from all the immigrants (sorry; I tend too readily to sarcasm) so we’ve got Norman French and Latin, Anglo Saxon, Greek roots, whole words from Bengali and Hindi — it is in fact a linguistic jamboree. And elsewhere on culture I got ‘Shakespeare being booted off for…oh I don’t know…this PC stuff.’ I did wonder: if we could not define British culture; if we took no particular part in it, then what right had we to question its dilution? Also, is there not room? Why cannot the you and me, just be us? There is nothing that can be said to me that could dissuade me from this: that one of the truest, deepest joys we can feel is to be part of a community, with its various voices, faiths and ideas; with its varying arts: a massive, beautiful plural. And as for identity, bring it on: vast, different, sometimes clashing and dissonant but, with understanding, persistence and humour, all British. As the author of this excellent memoir states:

‘Being British surely has to take in all the variations that I am unearthing.’

I loved this book. It is written with clarity and warmth and, on several occasions, moved me to tears. As I said at the beginning, it felt necessary. I made brief contact with Amelia, Naseem Khan’s daughter on twitter, on the day of the celebrations at Arnold Hill. She had made a speech there and written jubilantly about the day on social media. I wrote to her and told her how much I had loved reading the memoir. I realised afterwards that the Bluemoose team had come from Hebden Bridge to be there, too. You know how Naseem Khan described the electricity in a room full of shared ideas; how I felt a shiver down my spine when I read that? I felt it again looking at the snippets of news that day.

Back to those words of hers: the ones which ring in my ears.

‘So when does an art form become “English”? Or when does a person become “English”‘

‘It’s a tricky thing, identity.’

‘Being British surely has to take in all the variations that I am unearthing.’

I want to say, it is its own thing and the canon can accommodate, flex and mingle; that I agree; that I agree again.

To this observation, rousing, beautiful, ‘When the teacher sweeps the big rubber across the blackboard at school, everything vanishes. There is just the blackboard. Just like that, As if we — and now more than we — were never there. It is not, I think, acceptable any longer’ I want to say, show me how. I agree. How do we carry on this work?

This is a terrific book. A memoir; not a whole life, but stories drawn from a life. If I had a criticism of this book, it was that I wanted to know more — about her being arrested as an Indian spy while in Pakistan, for example. But then, as I said, this is a memoir, not an autobiography — and I am glad for what I have learned; such criticism is hardly justifiable. I enjoyed the modesty of its narrator and that she tells us gently about her domestic situation and the dynamic between her mother and father. I found Naseem’s accounts of her father particularly compelling; of his response to his patients, community, status and discomfort at the new wave of immigrants in their area. I saw this in my own Kaka, my beloved uncle. ‘Look’ he said once as we ate dosa in Newham, me in my early teens, ‘Look at those villagers. Those junglies.’ ‘Uncle, don’t!’ I said. ‘Why not? You think only you bloody whities are allowed to say this sort of thing? You think you have the hegemony on this?’ (I had to look up hegemony later!)

Identity and what we perceive it to be and how we think others impinge on it can cause pain. As you have seen, the book caused me to reflect on aspects of my own life and loss; on tender difficulty and surprise. I felt the text’s plangency on domestic discord, parents, parenting, bereavement, starting again but above all the writer’s passionate belief in the value of the arts; that they – dance, art, poetry and a lively, questing discourse on such things – are a conduit to an understanding of one another, however inchoate that might be to begin with. It’s a book that is plain speaking, but ultimately about hope. And always, this: I want to quote it again:

‘The imagination, I think. This is what can bind us. This is what can transform.’

One more thing; very personal and like a call to action in my ear, so timely it was uncanny. A quotation of George Eliot that Naseem had on her wall for many years, regarded as she begins a fresh start in East London: ‘”It is never too late to be the person you were meant to be.” And that’s what I want.’ Yes. I said to myself, brought up short. Yes. I want that too. And everywhere is somewhere. With its tribulations and its beauty: we need to look closely. So my last words on this book are simply, thank you.

Click here to visit Bluemoose Books for Naseem Khan’s Everywhere is Somewhere.

About the Publisher:

Bluemoose Books is an independent publisher based in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.

Review by Anna Vaught

Anna is a novelist, essayist, poet, editor, reviewer and also a secondary English teacher, tutor, mentor to young people, mental health campaigner and mum to a large litter. A great champion of the small presses, she reviews their books and writes for them: novel, Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press, 2016), novella, The Life of Almost (2018) and poems and essays with Patrician Press and Emma Press. Books three and four out on submission at the moment. Anna is working on her fifth novel.

An Indie Press Christmas

Writer Anna Vaught puts together a Small Press Christmas List.  Inspiring and uplifting new books that bring comfort and joy all year round…

I love Christmas and have been on a mission to denude the whole thing of anxiety in recent years. For example, no worrying about what you’re supposed to be doing; no massive present spend I cannot really afford; some slow and steady shopping so that I actually enjoy the gift-giving side of things. And I never want anything much, really, for myself. I loathe clutter and waste and basically all I do want is fudge, marzipan, the essential box of sugared almonds, fires, routine, dossing about, lots of food and no fuss, inviting anyone in who’s alone or looks sad, my annual reading to the community – candlelit house; mulled wine (please come?) – of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales and – I’m getting there – some books. So I thought…which new or newish books have given me most pleasure over the past two years or so, when I really – arriving foolishly, negligently late to the party – discovered the independent presses of the British Isles? I started to publish with them and that was what led me there. I now write for more, buy from more for myself, have started to review indie books for assorted publications and I love to buy them as presents. Friends say, ‘Oh, I hadn’t heard of that!’ or, when I posted on social media about my favourite books of the year so far, ‘Where do you find out about these books?’ One aim of this article is to help you with that.

…TA DA! Here is something rather fabulous to do for Christmas. I’m going to:

  • tell you where to look for indie titles
  • suggest presents that also support the work of the presses
  • tell you about books, particularly anthologies, that have a philanthropic purpose; that are fund-raising. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the last eighteen months or so really hard. I’m frustrated and jaded by the tirade of Brexit-Trump. Why not – and in so doing boost your spirits – lift your sights and see who needs you nearby?

So, readers and present-buyers, where do you look for indie titles?

First stop, if you have a good local bookshop anywhere near you, go in and ask. There is pretty much nothing that makes me feel as jolly as a joyous, bookish conversation in a great indie bookshop. And they’re not all in London. Oh no. I don’t want to name names here, so please feel free to list a shop you’ve loved below. Not sure which independent presses there are? Fancy buying direct from one near you? Here is an interactive map started by Salt Press. The presses have added to it since it was published. Why not click on your area and see what comes up? Buy locally, but think globally, see? You can click through to the list of small presses on The Contemporary Small Press website here. While I’m at it, if you are a writer as well as a reader – or rather the person for whom you’re buying presents wants to write – then the Mslexia Guide to Independent Presses is pretty exhaustive.

Where else to go? Author Neil Griffiths set up the Republic of Consciousness Prize two years ago. It’s the only UK literary prize dedicated exclusively to books published by the small presses.  A great way to get involved is by supporting the prize fund.  You’ll find great prize packages and publisher subscriptions available, with the added bonus of investing in this worthwhile literary prize.  Or why not pick from the longlist, which will be out in December in time for Christmas shopping? It will be a beautifully curated selection. Also, the Small Publishers’ Fair happens in November and if you look at this list of launches, you’ll seem some very interesting things that someone might just love. Go on; do it now.

Right then. What about presents?

What I cannot do here is tell you which books you absolutely have to go and buy. (Well I could, but I won’t – although of my top five, four are indie and you can see what I’ve said on twitter and go and follow the indie presses or ask them directly!) No. I mean something that is a substantial book gift and maybe lasts a year or more.

What about subscribing or being part of a buddy scheme? For example, if you buddy up with Galley Beggar, for £30 or £50, you get a number of rather lovely things. Books through the year, signed by the author (I’ve enjoyed this so much) free ebooks, funny postcards that make you smile, invitations to all the new book launches with pop and fun and substantial discounts of the books. Also your name is in the back of each book because, as a subscriber, your contribution to a new work of art is vital.  I’d be delighted if someone bought that for me. No-one did, so I bought it for myself. However, I have two subscriptions from And Other Stories; one for me and one for my husband for a Christmas present. I know; it’s very sweet. His ‘n’ hers. This is a daring range of literature, with a special focus on translation and, I see from himself’s latest subscription book post, authors who should have had more attention when they were alive. Again, there are levels of subscription, but what a lovely gift that keeps giving through the year.

I’d posit that it is wonderful and life-affirming just to be part of something new and innovative so why not pledge to a really exciting project from Dead Ink, who have recently acquired the backlist of the Eden Book Society: that’s a whole lot of horror and it would be a brilliant present. You can subscribe at different levels, from name in the book to books through the year. I’ve asked for the £40 level from husband and the little bookworms, so I can receive novellas through the year.

There will be more in this cornucopia. Go hunt and, indie presses, stick your suggestions in the comment box.

How about buying some book bundles or trying some book offers?

These are a good value way to experience what the small presses get up to. Bluemoose is currently doing a ‘2 for £10’ deal. (Excuse me a moment: I’m popping this on my own Christmas list with the Dead Ink pledge because there’s a couple on the Bluemoose list I’m yet to read…right: I’m back in the room.) There are eight titles to choose from. Charco Press are offering a wonderfully festive ChocLit package on all their titles – combining great Latin American literature in translation with delicious artisan chocolate in delightfully matching colour schemes.  Or, at Patrician Press, you’ll see that the publisher has Christmas in mind, with three choices of book bundle, three books in each. One is for children, the others take in a range of novel, novella, short stories and the first of the fund-raising anthologies which the press has commissioned.

And finally, linking from that, philanthropy. Good stuff. An expansion not a battening down. There are too many books to mention that enlarge our view – arguably, don’t all books? – of course, so I will focus on those books which are fund-raising. Patrician Press’s (see above) Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers gives profits to the charity Help Refugees. The two anthologies of Refugee Tales from Comma Press give all profits to the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group and Kent Help for Refugees.

Recent titles at Unbound include 24 Stories (out next year and funded, but you can still pledge), edited by Kathy Burke, an anthology of stories, put together to aid PTSD related needs of survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire and Trauma Response Network. I’m pleased to say my name’s going in that book because I pledged for it, as it will be for Others, funding at the moment. This is sure to be stunning and it will raise funds for refugee and anti-hate charities. And the point is, more broadly – as I’ve said above – that it’s a wonderful thing to be contributing to an artistic endeavour; here, the double present is that you are contributing to essential debate, fostering links between people through open discussion and you are also helping to fund those most in need.

I’m not saying such bookish extravangance is what everyone wants for Christmas, but My Dear Lord, Santa, it’d make my heart beat faster.

Christmas Books

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Keep your chins up and keep reading. Anna x

 

Feature by Anna Vaught

Anna is a novelist, essayist, poet, editor, reviewer and also a secondary English teacher, tutor, mentor to young people, mental health campaigner and mum to a large litter. A great champion of the small presses, she reviews their books and writes for them: novel, Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press, 2016), novella, The Life of Almost (2018) and poems and essays with Patrician Press and Emma Press. Books three and four out on submission at the moment. Anna is working on her fifth novel.

Diane Williams Reading and In Conversation with Toby Litt

Diane Williams, author of Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine from CB editions will be reading and in conversation with Toby Litt at the University of Westminster on Monday 11th December, 6.30-8.30pm.

Tickets are FREE but registration is essential.  Click here for more details: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/diane-williams-reading-and-in-conversation-with-toby-litt-tickets-39826440957

Diane Williams Flier 2

 

Opening The Magic Door

The Magic Door, Chris Torrance: Test Centre, 2017

Chris Torrance’s The Magic Door is a collection of poetry spanning almost five decades and comprising eight original chapbooks of Torrance’s poems. Torrance began work on The Magic Door in June 1970, and continues to work on this lifelong poetry project into the twenty-first century. His most obvious influences for this work are the Beats and the open-field poetics of Charles Olson in the US, as well as the many contemporary British poets to whom these poems are dedicated: Lee Harwood, Barry MacSweeney, Iain Sinclair and Allen Fisher, among others.

The collection begins, in typically Beat-fashion, with a road trip – from Bristol to ‘The New Territory’ of Wales, marking Torrance’s move from suburban England into rural Wales and his parallel decision to live the life of the semi-hermit-poet among the landscape, geology and mythology of the area surrounding the Brecon Beacons. These poems are lyrical, spontaneous grapplings with mystery and landscape that Phil Maillard suggests in the Introduction could genuinely be called ‘Psychogeology’. They are also musings on the nature of poetry itself. In a later poem, Torrance includes the quoted phrase ‘all poetry / begins in mysticism / & ends in linguistics’, which echoes somewhat the trajectory of this collection, although the explorations into language never really threaten to fully supplant the mysticism of the poet’s preoccupation with myth and landscape. Language and landscape coexist in Torrance’s poetry.

The nature of poetry, the nature of language, the nature of self, and the nature of ‘nature’ are the predominant themes in The Magic Door; the poetic forms shaping themselves around the collage of mystic and earthy lived experiences that shape the poems. The later poems take on a greater visual and sonic quality, fracturing and fragmenting on the page with mini sound-structures forming internally, such as, in Cylinder Fragments from the Twentieth Century:

Voyager

 

The visual fragmentation here is complemented by the sonic structures. The percussive rhythm of the two hyphenated collocations lend their beat to the alliterative ‘gas giant’ in the following line and to the final two syllables, ‘the deep’. This opens out into the sibilance of ‘Saturn / space whale sounding’, which in turn pulls the earlier ‘broadcasts’, ‘ice-cold’, ‘mustard-coloured’ and ‘gas’ into its sonic orbit. Torrance also invents some luscious neologisms that satisfy not only their context but are also satisfyingly pleasing to hear and to say: ‘solstistic’ ‘sludging’, ‘whifflings / & screekings & screelings’. The title of the first book, Acrospirical Meanderings in a Tongue of the Time hints towards this delight in the sounds of words and their play, and is something I would have liked to have seen carried even further throughout the poems in this collection.   

Chris-Torrance_Magic-Door_front

Openness is key to this collection, both in terms of poetic form and in the spirit of incompletion and enquiry that drives it. In this sense, The Magic Door carries the sense of a door that stands open, welcoming in all those who enter. One form of this openness is the poet’s desire for true self-expression, the Kerouacian desire for a transparent language to communicate the self directly and openly from within: ‘opening up the hopefully uncensored self to the present / the fallible, living trace that is us in the world’. Or in ‘Gemini – for Iain Sinclair’:

Gemini

 

Yet the door can stand closed, too, veiling these mysteries from view. There is longing in Torrance’s recognition that language, poetry, is not transparent and open, however much he might desire it to be. He asks, ‘& how do words / manage to lie so, this time / & as always?’ Suggesting, perhaps, that ‘This accounts for / a feeling of alienation within us’. Yet this alienation is also paradoxically what gives the poetry its openness, its resistance to the closure of mono-semantic, transparent and incorruptible meaning.

It is this alienation, the not-knowing of language’s obscurity, that drives the poetic enquiry within The Magic Door, leaving it to stand forever ajar in the half-openness of an incomplete process; the question of the living poet answered-and-unanswered through the continual act of creating the poetic work. These moments of uncertainty about the nature of poetry itself resonate throughout the collection, beginning in the first book, in a poem written in April 1971, setting the agenda for all that is to follow. Recognising that ‘the failed purpose is made part of the poem’ from the outset, there is nothing for the poet to do but to go on making poetry.

Deep Breathing

 

Click here to find Chris Torrance’s The Magic Door at Test Centre.

About the Publisher:

Test Centre is an independent publishing house and record label with an interest in the spoken and written word. Based in Hackney, East London, it was established in 2011 by Will Shutes and Jess Chandler.

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster and is the research assistant for The Contemporary Small Press. @Spaewitch

 

Women, Writing and Freedom

“A word after a word after a word is power.” – Margaret Atwood

This poignant and all too necessary event was hosted by Linen Press and the Contemporary Small Press on Thursday 19th October at the University of Westminster’s Regent Street Campus. Celebrating women’s writing and the achievements of the press and its writers, the event also delved into the complex struggles and injustices facing women and their writing in the current publishing climate.

Lynn Michell, the founder and director of Linen Press, welcomed us all and began the evening by sharing some of the home truths and hard facts about women writers in the publishing industry. She asked: “How do we get books into the big stores without paying them to sell the books?” Shedding light on the difficulties of gaining recognition in mainstream bookstores, when the fees for production are inordinately high, meaning that authors rarely see a profit from their labour of love. Male writers often take home book prizes and gain greater recognition for their work than both women and minority writers; therefore, publishers often do not want to take the ‘risks’ attached to publishing female writers and will not consider their work. Michell mapped out the lay of the publishing land for women, and the reality of how disparate the landscape is between female and male authors truly hit home – there is still so much work to be done in order to enable women to thrive in the publishing industry.

The keynote speaker, Maureen Freely, a writer, translator and senior lecturer at the University of Warwick, spoke of the often-neglected area of publishing translated works in the UK, particularly those written by women, as the works of male writers are more frequently translated. Freely is currently the president of English PEN, an organisation that campaigns for at-risk writers around the world whose rights to freedom of expression have been censored. English PEN’s inspirational work fights to remove inequalities in the literary world, facilitates the translation of foreign works into English and promotes such work in the UK, introducing UK readers to impeccable foreign works. Commercial censorship was highlighted as a huge and ongoing issue that shapes what writers say and, in turn, what readers are able to read. Freely gave the example of when a writer known for writing chick-lit was unable to publish work with themes around depression or anything “too dark”. Freedom of expression and writing are indivisible, which led Freely to help at-risk writers around the world, with a focus on women in Turkey who are currently either being imprisoned for their writing or are unable to work due to the risks of hiring them as writers. Their freedom to express themselves has been greatly impinged, costing them their writing, passion and voices as feminist activists, journalists and writers, and equally their own personal freedom to remain a part of their society. Freely has regularly contributed to the Observer, the Guardian and the Independent, and is hugely invested in writing on feminism and Turkish culture, where her written work complements her activist work by helping to assist these women writers in the process of gaining asylum in the UK and joining a community of writers, so that they can continue to speak out against the inequality and injustices they are facing.

Freely also shared with us the exciting news of the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, which will be awarded on 15th November 2017, and aims to provide an opportunity for greater recognition of the invaluable work produced by women. The prize was set up for works of fiction, poetry or non-fiction by women, which have been translated into English by a female or male translator, published by a UK or Irish publisher, and translated and published between April 1st, 2016 and March 31st, 2017.

Women Writing Freedom
Hema Macherla, Avril Joy, Lynn Michell, Maureen Freely.  Photograph courtesy of Linen Press

Avril Joy, an awarding-winning short story writer and novelist, took us back to her years of teaching and management at a women’s prison, where she learnt the power of imagination, both for these women and for herself, when the writer-in-residence inspired her and prompted her own journey as a writer. Joy initially outlined the context of working at the prison – men would rarely visit the women and, therefore, letter writing and forms of writing in general quickly became a necessary and sought-after skill. More importantly, Joy found that these women were desperate to learn and hungry to thrive in ways that they had not had the opportunity nor freedom to before. It was strange to think that prison would in many ways provide a previously unknown freedom for these women, but within Joy’s cupboard-sized classroom, she was met with a desire to gain more from life, and writing became a way to explore this. Joy remarked that she often heard the women say that “they can lock me up, but they can’t lock up my mind” – a pertinent statement that may resonate with many women who may feel oppressed, their voices unheard and their freedom censored by a society that still retains double standards. Joy gave these women the permission to write their own stories, to voice their own lives and find power in imagination, a power they had so often been unable to access. Whilst many may have been victims in their lives, through the ability to voice themselves creatively, they started to recognise themselves as survivors, changing their relationships to themselves. Ultimately, Joy urged us, like those women in prison, to use whatever voice we have to tell our stories, and to survive.

Hema Macherla, an Indian writer whose works have been translated into English, poignantly articulated her own journey with writing, as well as the injustices faced by women in India when they do not conform to the male-instigated and deep-rooted traditions of Indian culture. It is shocking to realise how much is still needed in order to gain equality and justice for women in India, when men are still ‘justified’ in beating their wives, and the coercion into and practice of Sati (a funeral custom in which a wife immolates herself after the death of her husband) was only banned in its entirety in 1988 by the Sati Prevention Act. Women are struggling to have their voices heard and their freedom granted, since these brutal experiences often go undocumented or unspoken, as they are simply part of the way things are in India, and so Macherla bravely writes of these women within her novels. In her writing, she creatively expresses the cruel and shocking reality of a culture that still subordinates women and justifies the brutal actions against them through a hierarchical system of valuing men, their position and their rules, above the rights of women.

Michell closed this insightful and thought-provoking event by congratulating and thanking her writers and interns who make the work at Linen Press such a pleasure and inspiration. The audience then had the wonderful opportunity to view the trailer for her newly published novel, The Red Beach Hut, which is available online to purchase. It is a beautiful and sensitive portrayal of two lost souls who find themselves pacing along a beach together in a moment of their lives in which they both need a friend, someone who will be out-of-sync with them. To finish the event, we celebrated ten years of Linen Press over glasses of wine and had the opportunity to continue the thoughtful, powerful and much needed discussions with the event’s speakers.

Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.

Women Writing Freedom Books
Women, Writing and Freedom.  Photograph courtesy of Linen Press