Saturday, 16 October 2010

Does All This Stuff Come From Above?

There was a time when the world thought that inspiration came from above. It arrived rather like those rays of sunlight in William Blake engravings. Touched your head and caused works of genius emerge. There are still hoards out there today who think that this is the way great things happen. Beethoven’s Fifth, Hamlet, Fern Hill, Good Vibrations. Went out one day for a walk, came home, sat before the keyboard and there the work was. Brilliance effortlessly emerging, a gift from god.

In a way, of course, this is how it happens. Genius flows. But to make it so the artist needs to have studied the work of others, learned the basics, practised endlessly, worked out how to identify crap and become willing, no matter how much effort has been expended, to throw things that don’t sound right away. Most of all, the creative individual needs to know how to be in the right place at the right time. Where magic operates. Where inspiration can be encouraged to spark. Where the stuff of art can be made real.

We’ve a place like that in Wales. For writers anyway. Tŷ Newydd, the writers’ centre, set just back from the coast in Gwynedd. A great white house overlooking the sea. A place where the ley lines of creativity intersect and where great works are born.

At Tŷ Newydd the ambitious open-minded spend a week in the company of a pair of experienced authors. There’s an element of teaching, explaining, readings, criticism and the passing on of technique, form and style. There’s a lot of inspiration and plenty of opportunity to try things out. There’s also a mid-week visit from a guest reader, just to brighten things. You are there with your fellow writers, eighteen of you maybe, accommodated in new en-suite rooms, with access to an unrivalled library, computers, healthy food and even healthier air. You get a chance to strut your own stuff, if you want to. You can talk to the tutors about your work, explain what you want to do and where things are right now. They’ll help you plan the future.

I’ll be up there at the start of November. My course, managed in tandem with that great Aberystwyth poet Tiffany Atkinson, is called Poetry from Nowhere. Is this possible? When there are no ideas in the mind, not the faintest touch of inspiration and the rain blows outside. What do you do? This week will explain. There’s a guarantee that you’ll go home with something new and with a head full of brightness that wasn’t there when you arrived.

Guest reader is Ira Lightman, fresh from Radio Three and full of unimaginable spark. Interested? Check or call 01766 522811. Dates are November 8th to 13th 2010.

An earlier version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #169

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Magazines - the Revolution is Still On

Hard to credit it in a digital age but the literature magazines are still with us. Those printed bastions of cultural excellence that appear quarterly, hopefully, beautifully – their high season issues are now in the shops. The market for these things has been declining for as long as I can remember. There was a golden age, before the war, when anecdotal evidence tells us that almost every working men’s canteen, corner shop, tea room and parlour across Wales had its subscription up to date and lit mags were the talk of the town. Everyone read poetry. But now that poetry is too modernist to understand no one does. The world consumed short fiction. But with TV is in every room (not to speak of being on almost everyone’s phone) fiction no longer holds sway. Once the views of the reviewers cut cultural ice – now simply no one cares.

Yet the mags still appear. Small print runs, glossy and smiling, pushing literature on. And they do. Despite the paucity of their audience this is still the cutting edge.

In the latest Agenda, magazine of the IWA, cultural historian Peter Stead suggests that Rachael Trezise might just have written “the first draft of our contemporary history”. Wales 2010: year zero. Trezise as Gwyn Alf Williams.

Helle Michelsen’s Planet runs the tight line between politics and culture, one that you can track in Wales but that’s virtually invisible in England. The latest issue is a place where Ozi Rhys Osmond’s Art of the Valleys pushes up against Nick Bourne, Cynog Dafis and Julie Morgan’s debate on coalition. Craig Owen Jones’s take on Asians in space sits beside Stevie Davies on Dowlais Steelworks. And W T R Pryce’s fine analysis of Eisteddfod chairs follows Gillian Drake’s piece on open air swimming. Planet’s cultural Wales is nothing if not diverse.

It is in the new Poetry Wales, however, that revolution is really apparent. In the 1970s when the late Eric Mottram held the helm of London’s Poetry Review the English-speaking literary world was split into two mutually opposed factions – the traditionalists and the innovators. In the cause of progress Mottram favoured the work of the latter. In Wales space was only ever available to the former. My own Welsh work sank into the mist.

Thirty years on Zoe Skoulding’ s new issue turns the tables. London’s Poetry Review now represents English poetry’s calm centre while Poetry Wales displays enough innovative work for one to mistake it for an issue of Bob Cobbing’s And. Alice Entwistle interviewing Wendy Mulford, John Goodby on Welsh modernist poetry. Poetry by Lee Harwood, Ralph Hawkins, Geoffrey Hill, John Powell Ward, and a stream of innovators from inside Wales and without. I enjoyed every page. It’s taken an age but Wales might at last have caught the world up.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #168

Saturday, 9 October 2010

What Will The Future Look Like?

Hard to believe, given the number of festivals that Wales currently hosts, that there was an age when the only game in town was the National Eisteddfod. Food festivals, jazz festivals, story festivals, drama festivals, face painting festivals? Nope. And literature festivals? What on earth could they be? Wales didn’t know. That was until 1988 when Norman Florence and his ebullient son Peter came along and founded the Hay Festival. In its wake came others including the Welsh Academy’s festival in Cardiff. Suddenly there were gangs of poets in the urban streets, novelists on platforms and fictioneers in halls signing shed-loads of their books.

The Cardiff Festival brought writers and writing to the centre of the Capital. It was engaging, entertaining and expensive to run. Its street-wise offspring is the biennial Bay Lit Festival. Slick, sharp and innovative. It uses a multiplicity of venues spread across the fizz and flash of Cardiff Bay.

This year’s fest runs over the long weekend of the 28th to the 30th of October. Its theme is the shock of the new. “What will the future look like? How do we get there? What’s holding us back?” This isn’t just a festival of stuff on stage where the audience just listens but a rush of events and activities where festival-goers can actually join in. At BayLit you can perform on stage, start your own fanzines, send poetic text messages and thoroughly enjoy yourself. You can also argue about literature’s future. You can do that in the company of Dragon’s Eye presenter Adrian Masters and the editors of Raconteur magazine.

The Welsh Underground (and, yes, there was such a thing, once) gets a special issue of Angel Exhaust magazine. Co-editors John Goodby and Andrew Duncan will launch this at an event where academic lecture meets raging sonic performance. Can this still be poetry? It once was and in woken-up Wales once again is.

Parthian’s Bright Young Things, all four of them, will read from and talk about their 2010 novels. Jon Gower and Llwyd Owen will discuss the trend for new novels to get two bites of the cherry – first in Welsh and then the following year in English. Can the market stand it? With such blatant repetition is there any artistic point?

At the new library there’ll be a poems and pints night. The astute among this column’s readers will have spotted that the library isn’t in the Bay and doesn’t have a bar. But we’ll let that pass.

Y Glêr will present an evening of twenty-first century cynghanedd; Hannah Silva, Liam Johnson, Ceri Elen and Rufus Mufasa will push performance’s boundaries, and the Mabinogi will get re-worked by Owen Sheers, Gwyneth Lewis, Russell Celyn Jones and Niall Griffiths. There’s much more. Check for details.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #167

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Hard Times Again?

The arts flourish in hard times. Dickens didn’t quite say this in his novel of the same name. He was more concerned to reveal the conditions under which working people laboured and to expose the misconception that prosperity makes us moral. You reap what you sow. Mr Gradgrind discovers the use of creativity but ultimately fails as a MP. Josiah Bounderby is revealed as a hypocrite and a bully. Louisa grows old and childless. Only the circus performer, Sissy Jupe, really finds happiness. In Hard Times’s take on deprivation culture helps but cannot on its own save the world.

Yet Dickens himself certainly knew how to capitalise on times of industrial darkness. Hard Times was written in parts and sold as a serial. Like a Victorian version of Eastenders. The process allowed the author to hone delivery of cliff-hanger suspense which kept his huge audience completely enthralled. The he backed the book with a seemingly never-ending reading tour. Charles Dickens, a bit like the Rolling Stones, was forever on the road.

It was he, more than anyone else, who popularised the idea of live dramatic readings from works of fiction as a form of public entertainment. Pay your money. Come in and hear the writer speak. During the 1860s Dickens gave hundreds of performances from his work – first in America and then later up and down the UK. The shows were full of gesture, dramatic declamation, changes of pitch and of voice. Dickens worked propless. He was a great success.

Wales enters its own version of hard times with its literary readings machine operating at full stretch. At no time that I can recall have there been so many well-attended and well-organised public performances of poetry and prose put on at venues across the country. In the south-east it’s even possible to attend something of a literary nature every night of the week.

Owen Sheers, Nigel Jenkins, Mab Jones, Gemma June Howells, John Williams, Dave Oprava, Nick Fisk, Ifor Thomas, Mike Jenkins, Paul Henry, Liam Johnson, Menna Elfyn, and Catrin Dafydd work well and often. The National Poet, Gillian Clarke, engages in gruelling tour schedules of Dickensian proportions. The pay is little more than adequate. But audiences can be spectacularly good.

Hard times threaten all this.

Literature has seen more than a decade now of Welsh development. Such determined foundation building is now providing results. It’s cheap, too. Hour for hour poets tend to cost less than plumbers. Take the money away and, far from being more creative, a lot of them will have to turn back to teaching and other staples to keep the world from the door.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #166

Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Hemingway Look-a-Like Contest Winner

Every year at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, down in Key West, they run an Ernest Hemingway lookalike contest. Unlike the Elvis lookalike show at Porthcawl where contestants at least try to sound like the King Hemingway doubles don’t need to write. Looking is the deal. Safari suits, fisherman’s white-wool turtle-neck sweaters, round faces, Richard Attenborough white beards. Hats need to be doffed. Animals and birds are not allowed on stage. Bring your own cheering team. On the contest’s website are photos of winners going back to 1983. Does all this increase the great novelist’s sales? The jury is out.

In Wales the nearest we’ve ever had to a Hemingway doppelganger was Jack Jones. His writing style was certainly different but with his latter-day white beard and pugilist stature he did bear a vague physical resemblance. I imagined that when Jack passed in 1970 so too did the Hemingway look. No longer fashionable. Not really. That was until I came across a photo of the ex-pat Cardiff author Jon Manchip White. Put a beard on that man and he’d be contest winner for sure.

Manchip White now lives in the Appalachian foothills of Tennessee, a place as distant from Key West as it is from Wales. Not that this has slowed Manchip White as an author. His list of literary achievements goes back to the early 1950s and is as long as your arm. Novels, poetry, short fiction, works on ancient Egypt, the Aztec Empire, Diego Velázquez, France, the great American deserts, north American Indians and, not unexpectedly, Wales. His splendid The Journeying Boy: Scenes from a Welsh Childhood published in the States by the Iris Press is a great introduction to old Cardiff.

He’s descended on the one side from the Manchips, west country seamen, ship owners, merchantmen and on the other the very Welsh Whites. That line goes right back to Cardiff’s own centre-stage martyr, Rawlins White.

This White was an illiterate sixteenth century fisherman who stood up against the return of Catholicism under Bloody Queen Mary. For his faith (or, rather, because he chose to protest it) he was imprisoned in a squalid cell at the foot of Cardiff’s Cock’s Tower (now lost somewhere under the new St David’s shopping centre). He was subsequently burned at the stake near the end of Church Street. There’s a memorial plaque. This once adorned Bethany Chapel in Wharton Street, a building now subsumed by Howell’s menswear department. The plaque is still there. You can check it, it’s on the ground floor just behind the trouser rail.

Jon Manchip White has celebrated his illustrious ancestor in a TV play produced originally by Emyr Humphreys the tapes of which now seem to be lost. Undeterred he is now working on a version of the tale as a novel. Watch this column for news.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail #165