Friday, March 20, 2015

Can a poet publicise her own work?

It's an issue I still struggle with, the question of being a publicist for my books as well as a writer. It seems some writers are brilliant at it but many of us find it excruciating. It's not that I have a problem with marketing - it's an art like many others - but I am naturally shy and have never been good at networking.
I can't list the number of opportunities I've had, but end up in the corner, talking to the other person in the room who feels as out of place as I do.
Ridiculous, really, that I can define myself as shy when I've earned a living as a journalist for so long. But now I understand that career choice - journalism gives me a reason to approach people, to ask questions, to engage. It is perfect for a shy person.
Publicising my books, though, is another matter.
I have worked with brilliant marketing people in business and witnessed how selling shampoo or fabric conditioner works.
It's a long and expensive process. There are focus groups, endless layers of experiment in which attitudes, word combinations and images are put to the test to see which of them is most appealing. Eventually the marketing team has a sense of how to sell a new product or revitalise an old one.
But the product isn't made by the marketing team. It's made by scientists and innovators. The marketing team is presented with a creative task, one that is deliberately detached from the actual creation of the thing they are trying to sell to the public. The scientists might be asked for a steer, what can and can't be claimed, what they want from their inventions, but they are not expected to sell.
This distinction shows how the concept of a writer promoting her own books is flawed. It doesn't matter why we write or what we are writing, although some books are easier to sell than others.
In its March newsletter, The Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) suggests writers should be collaborating with publicists rather than seeing their role as separate.
"In an exceptionally crowded market, your book is likely to be born only to blush unseen unless you are prepared to publicise it yourself, or make every effort to help your publicist to do so," writes Carole Sanderson. 
If it's that difficult for prose, what position are poets left in?
Poetry is a crowded market, if you choose to use those terms - and some might find them inappropriate. But Facebook groans under the weight of angry threads about prizes and competitions, who's been left out, who's ignored, who is getting much more than their 15 minutes of fame, tucked in between videos of cats and happy cows. 
A friend told me recently that poetry anthologies are the favourite reading of life prisoners. That was new to me. In a world of shrinking attention spans, surely poetry can settle in the mindspace of people who are unable to find the time for a novel?
There are initiatives, but they are disparate. We have a collection of websites promoting poets - their selection process is difficult to fathom. 
We have a healthy range of independent publishers all bringing out new books, which may sell if they are shortlisted for a prize, but otherwise often go unread. Why aren't they collaborating more?
We have a few high profile marketing campaigns aimed at selecting the country's top poets, which succeed in selling a few more books for certain publishers and do nothing much for the majority because they concentrate on individuals and seen as indicators of quality, not the rather unfocused promotions they really are. 
Why aren't these initiatives consolidated? How is it that the Academy of American Poets, The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine in the US seems to be able to present a holistic overview of what's happening in north America and to a degree, the rest of the world, in a way that doesn't happen in England at least?
And while I try nowadays to think more positively, to brush aside the doubts that beset every writer and recognise them as a necessary part of the process, I feel that poetry and poets in the UK deserve a better deal. 
All of us, prize winners and not, deserve to be treated as part of a community that is involved in creative endeavour. Creative endeavour is hard, won't ever make me rich and is likely to keep me below the poverty level, in fact. It demands my attention and is taking a long time to show results. I have long fallow periods, when the doubts are overwhelming, and the odd stretch of activity when perhaps I feel I might be getting somewhere. During both those extremes, I want to pay attention to what I am doing, not to selling it. 
And I don't think that's unreasonable. 
Perhaps we can situate poetry within the sustainability sector? I am writing about sustainability at the moment and it makes me feel so good. Each year, this job comes up and I relish discovering companies who are doing something so new. As I put their profiles together, it sometimes feels like poetry. 
So perhaps there are similarities between the sustainability movement and poetry?
Is there a publicist out there who can take this on? Who can gather the poets, unruly as we are, into some kind of community that is expanding the pathways of the mind and crunching metaphors that are offering new ways of seeing the 21st century and its terrible challenges?


Monday, March 16, 2015

Species books and the silence of the crab

A selection of the 230 species books
created at Seaford Head school
It's amazing how much discussion eight words can generate: "…a crow, a black rainbow/ Bent in emptiness…" from Ted Hughes' poem, Two Legends.

Looking through his Selected Poems when I was planning three days of workshops at Seaford Head school (in Seaford, unsurprisingly), I was reminded at almost each turn of the page of his inventiveness, of the way he generated metaphor to show the natural world as it truly is.

As well as piling metaphor upon metaphor to give some animals mythical qualities, his observations are so acute that even children who probably barely know his work and certainly are not regular readers of poetry, can pick up on the many layered meanings.

Every group I read the crow quote to identified the bleakness behind that image, the sense of desperation it encompasses and its arc of grief.

Then there's his metaphor to describe birth in New Foal: 'a warm heap/ of ashes and embers.' I'd read this as a metaphor about colour and the bonelessness of new life. One child identified the red in the image as blood, another the grey as the birth sac. Another mentioned the phoenix, rebirth, life. Another the colour of its coat and saw the heat coming off it as it lay on the ground.

It's the hardest thing, creating metaphors, and difficult for children to come to in less than an hour, rushing between lessons in a busy school day. Hardest of all is convincing them that they need silence to concentrate, to focus on drawing what they need from their own imaginations, without collaborating, without asking if it's okay to write this or that, without getting a fit of the giggles, and that silence is not a punishment, that struggling to find the right word or picture is not synonymous with boredom or failure.

But on Thursday, Friday and today, the children in year seven at Seaford Head school did that, despite one or two difficult moments.

The idea of these workshops was to start off their species books. Around 230 of them have listened and then wrestled with the task of writing their own similes and metaphors based on the picture of the species I gave them. The species ranged from the mullein moth to the otter, from the bee orchid to the starfish, from lichen to the adonis blue.

I have heard some incredible metaphors from many pupils and those images are now, hopefully, gathering force in the notebooks ready to be worked on again. I sneaked a look at a few before I left and this is what I saw: the mallard is 'a dark green secret', the garden snail 'is a recycler of plant life, a tank track powering over a leafy landscape', the mullein moth is 'a long, burnt fingernail', the robin is 'a feathered dancer' and finally….'the silence of the crab hums the ocean.'

Head of Creative Arts, Dave Faulkner and I flicked through the notebooks reading lines to each other. He's decided to add a prize for the best notebook to the one for the best poem. The librarian was inspired yesterday to go home and write a poem. Amber, the classroom assistant who helped out at each session is going to write a poem for her sister's wedding.

Local photographers and wildlife enthusiasts Bob Eade and Colin Pritchard supplied most of the images and Maeve Jenkinson, musician and organiser of the project Seaford In Harmony, made sure they arrived at the school in the right format and size.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Alistair MacLeod

I discovered the collected stories of Alistair MacLeod in a charity shop. The cover has a quote from Michael Ondaatje: "One of the great undiscovered writers of our time." The collection, published by Cape in 1991 is The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. 

Most of the stories are about the past, a way of life that's disappeared, about journeys back to isolated places, all in Cape Breton, about the Gaelic spoken there, the people's links to Scotland.

Joyce Carol Oates says in the preface: "If there is a single underlying motive for MacLeod's art it is perhaps the sanctification of his subject…"
The narrator in the stories, she adds, is a son, brother, husband but overall a witness. He wrote one novel, No Great Mischief.

I felt sad when I discovered that he'd died so recently - last year. I don't know why - perhaps that I've only just come across his work and now there's no chance of any more from him.

He took 13 years on his novel, which was published in 1999 and which I'll be ordering.

But what heartened me was that a writer could be content with what is described as a small output, a novelist who is described as being in no hurry. I read his stories and felt like telling everyone I met.

How little of what an artist, writer, musician produces will survive anyway? If anything at all. MacLeod's approach is a lesson and timely for me as I worry about not writing at the moment, or at least, not producing what many of my peers appear to be producing.

I will re-read them. They leave me with the same sense of comfort as the poetry of Michael Longley, the stories of Alice Munro and Annie Proulx. They are rooted, wise and compassionate, reminders of the relationships that matter between people, the earth, animals and sea.

MacLeod was interviewed for the Michigan Quarterly Review in 2005: Alistair MacLeod interview

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Whirlpool ramshorn snail

Giya took this at Wakehurst Place when she was about 14
On Monday this week I spent the morning looking for obscure species of centipede on WikiCommons, along with photos of mackerel, piddocks, limpets, crabs and, one of my favourites because of its name, the whirlpool ramshorn snail.

It took me back to days at Chesworth, in Horsham Country Park, working with Jane Fordham. It was at Chesworth that the menopause poems turned up hot and flustered and where I became fascinated by the naming of moths, in particular, by those Victorians.

At Chesworth there was a comprehensive list of species found in the country park and it was this that came to mind when I was asked to work at Seaford Head school next week.

It's a while since I've been in a school to run poetry workshops but I was asked to take part in a project exploring the artistic and cultural heritage of the South Downs. The challenge for me was to involve all of year seven. That's about 240 11 and 12 year olds.

The project's run by volunteers, fundraising locally, so I have three days to introduce poetry to an entire year group and hope that they'll take it as far as they can. What on earth could I do with so many in such a short time? The school's divided them in to slightly smaller groups than if I worked with whole classes, so I'm doing rolling hour-long sessions with different pupils so they all get a shot at it.

But the whirlpool ramshorn snail came up with the answer - or at least I hope so because I haven't done them yet….it took me back to that list of names in Chesworth Arts Farm, which incidentally is a stone's throw away from the house where Catherine Howard lived with Agnes, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Poor Catherine was 19 when she married Henry 8th (she ended up beheaded).

What I needed for Seaford was a similar list of species and, more difficult, a photo to go with each one. I'm not sure what made me think this would be feasible. Naively I believed there'd be a repository of some kind in Sussex that noted these things (as was the case at Chesworth) and that there'd be a relatively easy way to link them up with photos. Everything's a compromise. Two local photographers have supplied the bulk of what I needed and Wiki Commons helped with the rest.

The research has taken days, though, and my initial hope to have the Latin names alongside the common names for each species has fallen away. In fact, some photos of lichen have remained just that, lichen.

But I'm hoping the idea's sound. We give each young person in the year group a notebook and a photo of a species. My task is to kick-start their writing with exercises on metaphor - look closely, describe, look again, what do you see beyond the description? - and ideas from poets like Ted Hughes. Then, with luck, they'll set off and research the species in depth. And with Catherine in mind, what I'd also like them to think about is what would be lost if it disappeared.