Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Op Ed by Malachy Dunhill

"e's off 'is 'ead"



The BBC closed their Script Unit after several consecutive years during which they had not accepted a single submission. Now they are running sham advertising campaigns, in which they indulge their fantasies of serving the nation. Where are the products of this talent search? Is it Fame Academy - is that supposed to be it? For God's sake give us a break. What utter crap. Well when you've got your friends to cater for you can't risk introducing talented people. After all charity begins with a regressive poll tax on TV viewers. The BBC is a byword for complacency. They are stuck in a nonsensical position of having to offer balance in everything they say, so when they say, "Dr Shipman murdered countless old people" they have to stand on their heads and say, "On the other hand he was a well-liked doctor." When they say, "British forces bombed the heads, arms, legs and internal organs off and out of Iraqi men, women and children," they have to bend over and say, "But they had it coming after all, they might have attacked us." They are a 2 billion pound millstone around the neck of the British people. Why didn't they stand up to the Government and say, "We don't want your damned imperialist adventures." Why didn't they say, "We won't stand idly by while you send the entire army, navy and air force - or 45,000 men and women - to assist the Americans in what is nothing more than an indiscriminate reprisal." Break the link with the government, take advertising, do whatever you have to do, to get free. The hell with the smarmy, smirking, plutocrats. They are dupes of unscrupulous business salesmen and managers. Do not follow them. Join the people now. Or else close down. But wait, I'm talking to people with names like Sir Marmaduke Hussy - why am I wasting my breath.

Malachy Dunhill

Ode to the lovers on a tarot card



It's better to have loved and lost
than to have gained domesticity.
Unrequited she is Beatrice,
bedded more of a Felicity
Kendall, moaning over breakfast
about household chores.
Let the lovers be frustrated,
it's easier to pay whores.

And yet I begrudge the boy
her waist-length hair, her flesh.
I still wish his were my hands,
sliding up her nylon mesh,
or tying a locket on her neck,
to tip the nothingness of breasts,
indenting then on him, a boy
and not on me, their guest.

The politeness that allows lust
when she sucks upon a finger,
and is pleased to join eyes with me,
or let her stretched legs linger,
makes me want never to stop
our talk, and rudely to ignore
men who claim the same right,
or ridicule them and be a bore.

It's better to have loved and lost,
but he will take her pants down
and harshly fuck her without care
for my reasoning or appreciation
of her wavering tonal accents,
and her literary voraciousness.
He won't even see her Saxon
face, in his rapaciousness.

These boys have no idea yet,
they don't even know they're born.
If it wasn't so much heartache
I'd be the one with the horn
who let her ride me instead,
and never waning till she tired,
lie like Pygar in Barbarella
and mount her after, re-inspired.

I'll phone her while the boy
sleeps, with his hairless chest,
and invite her for a week of sex
to Corfu on some pretext.
We'll say it's for work and stay
all day in varied coitus
and by night on the empty beach,
roll where surf comes in to meet us.

Is it better to have loved and lost?
You'll get what you want, she smiled,
maybe, when you no longer want it.
Then I quoted Oscar Wilde
about the tragedy of success.
She said she'd settle for achieving
such a tragedy. I must confess
I don't know what to be believing.

Ganache

"All human lifelessness is there"

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Sparrowhawk attacks pet canary in Willesden garden

The story of Kenny*

He came in from a jumble sale one Saturday morning, carried in a rusty old birdcage by my wife and son. No doubt some old dear had been separated from him, either by the Grim Reaper or the Social Services.

"Oh no you don't!"

"Don't worry, we'll look after it," they said.

"Well you better, because I'm not cleaning out the cage!"

"What will we call him?"

"Kenny," I said. It was clear that resistance was going to be futile. "Kenny the Canary."

As expected, I was the one who had to look after him: clean out his cage every week, replenish the water and birdseed every day. I used to seal up the room and let him fly round, at first, but the job of catching him again was such that he could not have enjoyed his excursions very much. Kenny never did trust me though. I got off on the wrong foot with him, and nothing in nature knows more about right and wrong feet than a caged bird. I couldn't wait to see him take a birdbath in his new little plastic cage-accessory. Several times I caught him and forced him into it. Naturally he was in terror of this experience. Then I always wanted him to eat out of my hand, but he never would come and take food unless I moved more than arm's length away from the cage. Eventually I learned that you have to earn the trust of someone like Kenny. So I played a waiting game. Every day I would change the water in the birdbath. Still he never used it. Instead, no matter what I tried, he would wash himself in the drinking water container, dipping down and fluttering the water all over.

The old cage was replaced with a bigger one. I still felt sorry for him and would have freed him, had it been possible for him to survive on his own. Then a friend wanted to get rid of a female canary and gave it to us. We put Hillary, the new arrival, into the same cage with Kenny. That was a big mistake; canaries do not like to share their space. They come together to mate and then split the scene. Hillary was bigger than Kenny, but she had a sore leg. As it got better she became more and more aggressive to Kenny. She would attack him ferociously and he would back off. One day, I saw him standing down the bottom of the cage in a corner panting - as much as a tiny bird can pant - while Hillary sat on the top perch. "She's going to kill him," I thought. So we had to give Hillary back to where she came from. We were not overly surprised to hear a short while later that she had escaped and was missing, presumed dead.

After that, Kenny was a new bird. He was chirpier than ever. I always made a point of hanging his cage out on the rotary clothesline in the garden whenever the sun came out. He would warble vigorously, hop from perch to perch and catch the odd fly that happened by. After putting him out there, I would watch him from the window for ages. He was so happy, he would loop the loop - flying off a perch, looping around in the air and back again. I fed him aniseed scented seed sprays from one of the shrubs in the garden. One time I thought I had killed him when he collapsed into a birdie coma on the floor of the cage after eating some elderberries that I gave him. But he came round again.

His biggest scare was still to come. One day, my son said "Dad, there's a big ugly bird standing on the shed, looking at Kenny." I went to the window to see. It was a sparrowhawk. I started out to the garden quickly to take Kenny's cage in. By the time I got down the steps, the sparrowhawk had launched itself at the cage and smashed into it. It continued to batter at the cage until I was nearly there, with a violence that I have never seen equaled, before giving up and disappearing. Kenny did not seem too bothered. He hopped around - but he had no tail whatsoever. The sparrowhawk had pulled his tail off. It grew back eventually.

The greatest thing was when I started to notice that the birdbath looked as if it had been used. (I was still setting it up for him in the hope that he might use it eventually.) There were a couple of yellow feathers in there and the water was dirty. So I spied on him now and then, until eventually I got to see him go into the birdbath, stand in the water, and toss it up over himself, fluttering and ending up soaking wet. Joy! Many times, after that, he would be so wet that he would miscalculate his flight, miss a perch and fall down. But he soon dried out. He even began to let me come closer, though he never did eat right out of my hand. I think he would have eventually, had time allowed. The key thing was for me not to bother him. The more I left him alone, the more he trusted me.

After a few years, it happened that he started to stay on the floor of his cage all the time. We wondered if he was ill, but thought that the trauma of a visit to the vet might finish him off altogether. I guess we just assumed that he was suffering from old age. I lowered all three perches and the cuttlefish bones that he used to stand on, so that they were all near the bottom of the cage. That helped. He would use the lowest one. But one day he would not even use the lowest perch. I was so worried about him, I moved him to the sunniest spot in the house - even though it was there, obstructing the hallway. He gave up preening himself and looked a sad figure. He no longer had any fear of me now and came right up to take food. But mostly he just stood alone, panting.

I came down one morning and he was lying on the floor of the cage. When I went to tell my wife, it came hard to say, "I think Kenny is dead."  Half hoping he might revive, like the time after eating the elderberries, I left him there till the next day. Eventually he was buried in a little herbal tea box, under a tree at the bottom of the garden, and covered over with stones. I like to think that Kenny is somehow reincarnated into the wild songbirds that play in his tree and fly away.

Stephen Moran

* Book link: The London Silence
Combo Poetry is a beautifully designed website. Not sure about the poetry, or what the age limit rubbish signifies.



Ossian

Thursday, July 24, 2003

How not to write poetry

Steel your nerves. It is necessary for art to face up to the following horrors. I have collected some examples of desperately hopeless attempts at poetry. First the master himself, Dundee's own William McGonagall.

Glasgow
by William McGonagall

Beautiful city of Glasgow, with your streets so neat and clean,
Your stately mansions, and beautiful Green!
Likewise your beautiful bridges across the river Clyde,
And on your bonnie banks I would like to reside.

Chorus
Then away to the West -- to the beautiful West!
To the fair city of Glasgow that I like the best,
Where the river Clyde rolls on to the sea,
And the lark and the blackbird whistle with glee.

'Tis beautiful to see ships passing to and fro,
Laden with goods for the high and the low,
So let the beautiful city of Glasgow flourish,
And may the inhabitants always find food their bodies to nourish.

Chorus

The statue of the prince of Orange is very grand,
Looking terror to the foe, with a truncheon in his hand,
And well mounted on a noble steed, which stands in Trongate,
And holding up its foreleg, I'm sure it looks first-rate.

Chorus

Then there's the Duke of Wellington's statue in Royal Exchange Square ---
It is a beautiful statue I without fear declare,
Besides inspiring and most magnificent to view,
Because he made the French fly at the battle of Waterloo.

Chorus

And as for the statue of Sir Walter Scott that stands in George Square,
It is a handsome statue --- few can with it compare,
And most elegant to be seen,
And close beside it stands the statue of Her Majesty the Queen.

Chorus

Then there's the statue of Robert Burns in George Square,
And the treatment he received when living was very unfair;
Now when he's dead, Scotland's sons for him do mourn,
But, alas! unto them he can never return.

Chorus

Then as for Kelvin Grove, it is most lovely to be seen,
With its beautiful flowers and trees so green,
And a magnificent water-fountain spouting up very high,
Where the people can quench their thirst when they feel dry.

Chorus

Beautiful city of Glasgow, I now conclude my muse,
And to write in praise of thee my pen does not refuse;
And, without fear of contradiction, I will venture to say
You are the second grandest city in Scotland at the present day!

Chorus

Bear in mind that one person's doggerel might be another person's winged poesy. The literary theorist F. R. Leavis invited his students to decide whether they would accept or reject the following poem, if they were editing a poetry magazine:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep & know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.


So what would be your decision?*

Here are a few more choice ones I found at this Index of Bad Poems, where you can find more amusement as well as a collection of favourite poems. Here are my lowlights:

By Julia Moore, the Sweet Singer of Michigan

My childhood days have passed and gone,
And it fills my heart with pain
To think that youth will nevermore
Return to me again.
And now kind friends, what I have wrote,
I hope you will pass o'er,
And not criticize, as some have done,
Hitherto herebefore.

from Julia Moore, "The Author's Early Life"

Myself
Edgar Guest

I have to live with myself, and so,
I want to be fit for myself to know;
I want to be able as days go by,
Always to look myself straight in the eye;
I don't want to stand with the setting sun
And hate myself for the things I've done.
I don't want to keep on a closet shelf
A lot of secrets about myself,
And fool myself as I come and go
Into thinking that nobody else will know
The kind of man I really am;
I don't want to dress myself up in sham.
I want to deserve all men's respect;
But here in this struggle for fame and pelf,
I want to be able to like myself.
I don't want to think as I come and go
That I'm for bluster and bluff and empty show.
I never can hide myself from me,
I see what others may never see,
I know what others may never know,
I never can fool myself -- and so,
Whatever happens, I want to be
Self-respecting and conscience free.

What is Liquid?
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

All that doth flow we cannot liquid name
Or else would fire and water be the same;
But that is liquid which is moist and wet
Fire that property can never get.
Then 'tis not cold that doth the fire put out
But 'tis the wet that makes it die, no doubt.

A Tragedy
Theophilus Marzials

Death!
Plop.

The barges down in the river flop.

Flop, plop.
Above, beneath.

From the slimy branches the grey drips drop,
As they scraggle black on the thin grey sky,
Where the black cloud rack-hackles drizzle and fly
To the oozy waters, that lounge and flop
On the black scrag piles, where the loose cords plop,
As the raw wind whines in the thin tree-top.

Plop, plop.
(etc etc etc. I can't take any more...)

What about those incomprehensible ones by acclaimed modern poets. You know the type...

Gradual platonic henbane
Whereupon
Lacking Horace's cliff-
hanger
Pleistocene ferrets
Do you want to be a
Fakir?
She swallows a compendium
of
gewgaws. And
on and
on and
on...


Here's a list of poetic pratfalls:

No Compression:
If it can be summarised more succinctly then to hell with it. I mean I could have gone to Glasgow, seen for myself and home again in the time it takes to recite McGonagall's tourist brochure.

Platitudes:
Things we have heard over and over, commonplace things one can overhear in discussions on a bus any day. My youth has passed me by. I'll never see forty again.

Poetic Diction:
I hope you will pass o'er.

Forced rhymes:
Hitherto herebefore.
Need I say more?

The Didactic:
What is Liquid? by the Duchess of Newcastle should be a scientific article, if anything, and not by her.

Triviality:
Subjects of no great interest. Myself by Edgar Guest: "I have to ... I want .. I want to ..." Who cares?

Fatal Flaws / Absurdities:
I want to be able always to look myself straight in they eye. (At least it's funny.)

Pretension
A Tragedy - by Theophilus Marzial . Yes, it is.

Jerry-built Rhythms and Rhyme:
Either the thing has a set rhythm (meter) or it hasn't. If it is supposed to go
The more it snows
Tiddly-pom
The more it goes
Tiddly-pom
The more it goes on snowing
(Winnie the Pooh)

you don't want a tiddly-om-pom-tiddly-tiddly-pom in the middle.

Half the joy of poems is in their marvellous structure. You wouldn't sell a house with the doors all askew and the walls not joining at the corners. (Then again, I have seen a house like that for sale - one of those kennels in Beckton.)

Noël Knowall

*The poem is "to a young child" by the great Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Saturday, July 19, 2003

Epitaph on a Tyrant

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.


-- W. H. Auden (1907-1973)
New short stories online this week



In a welcome development for enthusiasts of the genre, The Guardian features a new short story today, Subsidence by Pat Barker. "As politicians battle to justify the war in Iraq, Ruth learns her husband has been lying."



There is a new short story by Garrison Keillor in the Atlantic Monthly called Love Me. It's a satirical account of a writer whose first book "Spacious Skies" is a success, but whose follow-up "Amber Waves of Grain" is a turkey.



A dumb dumb dumb book. Why did I write that long first chapter with thirty-four pages all about soybeans? And then in Chapter 2 the agronomist, Danny Montalban, suddenly is no longer in Fargo, he's in Fresno, and we're at a lesbian commitment ceremony at a pimento ranch with ladies in denim caftans whanging on little drums and chanting Sapphic things and Cathy and Denise affirming their love for each other and riding away on a piebald pony and then there's that whole thing about the transcontinental railroad and the driving of the golden spike—where did all that come from?



Suddenly I was a joke. I walked down Forty-third Street and heard the word "soybeans" whispered and people tittering.




At his wits' end he accepts an invitation to write an agony column under the pen name "Mr Blue," and we get to see the questions and answers. In looking for the links for this, I stumbled across Garrison Keillor's agony column for Salon.com in which he plays the part of a (you guessed it) Mr Blue.



Other new short stories:



The Walk with Elizanne by John Updike.



The Benefit of the Doubt by Tobias Wolff. In this interview for Salon Tobias Wolff shares his ideas about reading and writing short stories.



Ossian

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Liars, damn liars and lovers

I think I hate romantic love. People who want to be the be all and end all to another. Aliens that jump up and stick to your face. People are miserable when they're looking for it, when they're in it, and when they lose it. The only time they're happy is when it's not in the picture at all.

Lust is what most people feel, and call it love. If there is no lust, they call it platonic, brotherly or sisterly. As if that was not the real thing. So it has to be coupled with lust. But it is the lust that drives it. The hell with the whole thing. If only you could get a reliable supply, heroin would be a better way to get your euphoria.

Women want to be the centre of attention. They cannot stand to see their man do anything that does not involve them. Play the banjo - forget it! (cf. Sex in the City.) Men, try and play a guitar, and see if your women don't make a point of coming and interrupting you. It's as if they think your time is being wasted, time that they could make better use of.

The real love is the one you don't know about, until something happens. Then you miss it. That's the real thing. There is no talking in love. It is mute. All talking is anti-love. The repetition of hollow words is fraudulent.

Malachy Dunhill

Malachy's views do not necessarily represent the views of this organ. For God's sake lighten up, Mal, or you'll put the readers off. Ed.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Online writers

The people you meet online are just like the people you meet offline, but of those who get addicted to writing workshops, I discern the following types.

Self-Deprecators: They say everything they post is rubbish, and accept praise gladly and dismiss blame as irrelevant since they only post rubbish. (Defence mechanism - they don't really believe it's rubbish, but if you say it's rubbish then you can't be disappointed.) Sometimes it really is rubbish and unchangingly so. Other times they progress apace and end up writing marvellous work. Incurable.

Deniers: They defend their own shortcomings and usually become irate when these are pointed out. These are the people of the great denial. They usually move on after a substantial time and come to recognise the error of their former ways. They will then become, like reformed whores, the greatest prudes and fanatics for eradicating the same errors in others. The problem with this rate of progress - one step every six months or so - is that life is so short, they may never get to where they need to be. Curable.

Depressives: Ones who are in the throes a deep depression and cannot seem to accept either compliments or criticism gracefully. They write doom-laden stuff but are often wasting a wonderful talent. They have the capacity to achieve publication and success but nothing ever seems to shake them from their place of misery. From the outside it looks as if they are comfortable wallowing around on the muddy sea bottom, but if only it were that easy. The weight of the world is on them and they can't budge it. Self-healing.

Self-Righteous Cranks: These take the most negative possible attitude to everything. They post platitudinous, mawkish, naive, atrocious, unreadable drivel and usually in a 24 point bold font. They are at the same time full of self-pity and rage against life. They have no talent, but think they are God's gift to literature. Incurable.

Hopeless Cases: These are the nice people who keep trying to improve their writing but are doomed never to make it fly, because they just haven't got the talent or sufficient brain-power ever to "get it." Their work is full of ludicrous glitches that are too embarrassing to point out. It's very hard to tell these people they are wasting their time. However they might be able to put their limited talents to use in some capacity, just not great poetry or prose. They could write for their parish magazine and so on. Incurable.

Non-Committals: These are good writers who are afraid to let go of their babies, i.e., their work. This feeling also affects some who are not very good writers. They range from the mediocre to the wonderfully gifted. Insufferable.

Businessmen: They are trying to find an angle to make money out of the contributors to online groups. They have multiple communities always with lures to pay for critiques or other unwanted supplies and services. As an afterthought, they write trite and ignorant tosh to appear to join in. They probably have never read a book in their lives. Intolerable.

Brazen Ignoramuses: They expect to turn up at a writing group and post something worthwhile without ever spending any time reading and learning what it's all about. They make fools of themselves, and usually are encouraged by other fools who have never read any poetry or prose either. The cure is lengthy and they are not usually interested in taking it. These are not the same as people who are still learning. Not every good writer can spell, conjugate verbs, and use literary terminology fluently. That is a different problem. People who are learning are not ignoramuses, they are entirely admirable. It's the don't know, don't care, don't want to know and pushy-with-it people who are the brazen ignoramuses.

Pontificators / Instant Experts / Pedants: They have read one or two things, and now set out to prove the saying that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." They are prone to following instructions to the letter, especially in regard to trivial matters of punctuation, spelling and grammar. They get very excited about whether there should be one space or two after a full stop and whether proportional fonts or fixed space fonts are preferred by publishers. The one thing they appear to have little interest in is great writing.

The Vengeful: they spend their time writing little allegories and doggerel where people they disagree with end up getting their heads smashed in, or being shot and left for dead in pools of blood.

Where are the nice ones, the helpful, the sincere, the charming you ask? Yes - where? What you see most in writing workshops is the narcissists in a recursive, death-rattle embrace with the control freaks. The people who live to hear good about themselves are in a struggle to the death with the people who want to make everything as it should be, by the power of their saying so. The whole writing workshop scene is a slow-motion, internecine massacre between the unregenerate child-adults and the misanthropic no-lifes.


Malachy Dunhill

Sunday, July 13, 2003

A West Cork Life is a collection of columns by Tina Pisco, whom I met at the launch (as mentioned in my report below) and who was kind enough to sign my copy of the book. The cover was designed by John Noonan of Random Animals press, who is quite a character.



Tina Pisco at the launch of A West Cork Life



"Tina Pisco moved from Brussels to Clonakilty in 1992, leaving a career as a journalist and television news producer, to write fiction. Under the name of Cristina Pisco, she has published two best-selling novels, Only a Paper Moon and Catch the Magpie, both based in West Cork. Only a Paper Moon has been published in eleven editions, and translated into seven languages."



Ossian

Friday, July 11, 2003

Things to do in Willesden this Saturday



Watch the game, with the rest of the upside-down people.




I mean y'don't have to break the bank mate to get a bit of grub round here. This is a lovely romantic restaurant for dinner.




Take the sheila for a bit of clodhopping to get her in the mood.




If you've got a bit peckish again after the dozen or so pints of warm Pommie wee-wee, you can grab yourself a battered sausage and a tinny of seven-up here on the way to the kennel that passes for home hereabouts. (You had too much to drink, chief, your vision is blurred.)




Or if you can't be arsed, stay in and order some pizzas from the New Green Restaurant. Some geezer here (the Editor's son) says their acronym is ill-chosen. I can't see it meself...


Bruce Hightone?

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Following the scent of Judith Chalmers

to Bantry Bay



This is Bantry House, the focal point of the West Cork Festival, with Bantry Bay in the background. I would like to show you all the pictures I took in this great place, but Ed. says no.

Harry Lemon

The sky last night



Ossian

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Somebody we know here at the Herald once tried to write a stage play with a character in it called Silent O'Moyle, a retired detective.
The children of Lir found, still wandering

a Herald exclusive



Silent, Oh Moyle
(the song of Fionnuala)

Thomas Moore

Silent, Oh Moyle, be the roar of thy water,
Break not ye breezes, your chain of repose;
While murmuring mournfully, Lir's lonely daughter
Tells to the night star her tale of woes.

When shall the swan, her death note singing
Sleep with wings in darkness furled?
When will heav'n, its sweet bells ringing,
Call my spirit from this stormy world?

Sadly, Oh Moyle, to thy crystal wave weeping
Fate bids me languish long ages away;
Yet still in the darkness doth Erin lie sleeping
Still doth the pure light its dawning delay!

When will the day-star mildly springing,
Warm our Isle with peace and love?
When will heav'n, its sweet bells ringing
Call my spirit to the fields above?



N.B: Bov Darg, king of the Tooha De Danaan has decreed that nobody shall kill a swan in Ireland. This law still stands.

The herald of free Willesden (from a secret location)

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

The West Cork Festival

Link

That was one of the best weeks of my life. I went to Bantry for the Short Story Workshop with David Means. It's hard to summarise the five two-hour sessions in a few words. David is a great writer and it was worth the journey just to get a sense of what makes him tick, what he looks for in writing, and to spend time going over issues around short story writing and reading. His great enthusiasm for vivacity in language was a recurring theme, just the way that words can transport the reader, and referring to "Dreaming by the Book" (Elaine Scarey) how words can give us more of a three-dimensional image than we can achieve by sheer imagination. (Try to imagine the face of someone you know - it tends to be a two-dimensional image.) Primal words (chair, bed, sky... etc) have colossal power. We read and talked about the following stories: "Popular Mechanics" by Raymond Carver, "Sleepy" by Anton Chekhov, "Steady Hands at Seattle General" by Denis Johnson, "The Bucket Rider" by Franz Kafka, and "Pretty mouth and green my eyes" by J. D. Salinger. David was generous with his time, agreeing to read whatever any of us wanted him to look at overnight and gave us individual feedback. Each participant brought copies of one story that they wished to work on during the week, and we discussed a couple of them each day. The one I put forward was called The Silver Circle, and I got a load of interesting ideas to help solve what I felt were the problems with it. I have a couple of handouts here that we got, but I guess those are really David's copyright stuff, but I will quote a little bit from one of them titled, "English 205 [David lectures at Vassar] A Few Things":

...

9) Bring to the story your own moral and political agenda; your own sociological biases and of course your own tastes and desires in your reading habits (do not discard these things but allow them to strengthen in your reading; on the other hand--and this is somewhat paradoxical and certainly contradictory in that wonderful way we must have to approach art--discard everything you believe, take the opposite side.)

10) Always be aware of the evocation, the power of words, and the way tone produces feeling in you (the reader); never forget the power of primal words, and the abiding power that often arises from simplicity (or complexity that has been pared down to its simplest form.) ....

....

13) Never forget where you're from, who you are, and what you will eventually stand for as a human.

14) Forget about the above (13), be dark, forget who you are, attempt to find some central truth in what you describe.


Over the five days, I recall (with the aid of some sketchy notes) we looked at:

- The process of writing - how different writers go about it - pre-writing, writing and revision. The place of the short story between the panorama of the novel and the moments of the poem. When writing feels impossible, maybe narrow the window, look at something smaller.

- Characterisation - writing in the voice of a teenager for example. That was an exercise we were given. How characters come to life when action is added, as opposed to purely descriptive writing. Describing somebody without introducing any actions produces a lifeless, uninteresting scene when compared to describing the same person performing some action.

- Setting - conjuring the sense of place, that is central to the sense of vivacity particularly in David Means's own stories. Another exercise, to describe a place and somebody in some sort of a situation, probably dramatic. How the same place looks different depending on who is looking, and in what circumstances.

- The power of primal words, and the mythic, folk tales and the silence that speaks volumes. You don't have to say much, the reader is drawn in by the power of words, as in The Bucket-Rider by Kafka for example. We hardly question the fact that the the narrator in The Bucket-Rider bounces down the stairs on an empty bucket, holding it by the handle and that it is so light it then floats up into the air, carrying him to the merchant to beg for coal. The words take us there without much ado by the writer. Rather more elaboration would merely detract from the evocation.

- Allowing ourselves to write and not holding back. On several occasions, David commented that some of us were "holding back." He cautioned against holding back information in an attempt to create mystery for example.

In his own writing he has taken this to the extreme of adding parentethic explanations and footnotes, clarifying what the narrative is saying. In his interview with Powell's (link above) he says that he is not fond of the post-modern games that some writers play, "except perhaps Borges." He was able to pinpoint the part of a story for some of us, where he felt we "really started writing." Sadly for me - or rather usefully for me - this was not until several pages into "Joseph" - a draft I gave him of the opening of a story in the first person. The part where he felt I started writing was a section starting with I hate the noise of drills in the morning. How are we supposed to sleep?. The rest he felt was in a non-fiction style, and he "wanted his fiction." That is just a part of the feedback during the week.

The group in the workshop comprised several Americans, one English, and the rest Irish. There were 15 of us. Three of the group were shortlisted for the Fish Publishing short story prize, and had their stories in the anthology this year. Some of the work was of a high standard, and some of the participants were experienced writers.

As well as the short story and other workshops, there were free readings every day in the town library, from the likes of Roddy Doyle, Jennifer Johnston, David Means too, Paul Williams (author of The General), Malachy Doyle (children's author), Tony Curtis (there is more than one, but this is the Dublin one with four books of poetry and a load of credits to his name), Mick Delap, and Ian Wild (has to be heard to be believed, a very funny writer and reader with a loud dramatic style.) I attended Roddy Doyle's seminar on the novel too, and asked him what drove him, as he hardly needed the money - I guessed, he denied - was it to leave a legacy, or a historical document? We'd already heard that he was an atheist and did not believe in any afterlife. He said he was a socialist, former member of the short-lived Socialist Labour Party splinter from the Irish Labour Party, and that what drove him was the possibility of improving conditions for people, such as battered wives and others.

He said that people in America and other places tended to be disappointed when they met him and discovered that he was not a drunken Irish writer on the lines of a Brendan Behan, and while they were out being Irish and getting drunk, he was busily being German and writing efficiently. He said he once tried writing after coming in from a night out drinking, and it didn't work. One gathered that he has a very stern opinion of drunkenness generally, and that might go some way to explaining his work in The Woman who Walked into Doors, etc. In his reading he read ten chapters without seeming to pause for breath, and held people's interest all the way, and really had us banjaxed with laughter in the end. He read from a work-in-progress that is being written in 800-word sections (a serial) in a Dublin periodical. He said he doesn't know in advance what's going to happen, and that in one episode a character went upstairs to get a tennis racket and completely disappeared - he'd forgotten about him. It's a science-fiction piece - his first - set in 2005, and has such funny little aspects as a street in Dublin called Trimble Street, mentioning the collapse of the Euro etc. (Too much use of "etc" - note to myself.) It concerns a test for Irishness that the government of the future wants to introduce. The minister tells the protagonist who is developing the test (which involves putting sensors on people and making them watch videos) that he is being given the task of making it seem easier to become Irish, while actually making it harder. It's very funny.

As well as readings, there were book launches - a good chance to get free booze and sandwiches, but also very good to meet publishers and authors. For example at the launch of A West Cork Life by Tina Pisco, I met the publisher (or one of the main guys) from Random Animals press, John Noonan. He also designed the cover of the book. It was good fun, and John and another guy got their guitars out and gave us a session. Tina Pisco's experiences with her bestseller, Paper Moon, were very enlightening. It has been translated into several languages, gone through 11 reprints and all that but she is in litigation trying to get money owed to her. They also put a cover she didn't like on the book, that fitted it in a genre she felt was too limiting.

The best part of the festival was probably meeting people in the evenings, by the simple device of having a designated bar (in the Bantry Bay Hotel) as the Literary Festival meeting place, and having one or other of the organisers on hand every evening to field any questions, or just for a drink or dinner. On the last evening, David Means was present with his wife and two twin children, and so were Tony Curtis, Paul Williams and attendees from the poetry workshop and others. With the kids, obviously David couldn't stay too late. He told me to keep working, as we shook hands, and I told him it was much more important that he keep working. His wife indicated that he hadn't much choice about that. There was some saying of poems, and even a bit of singing later when some of us adjourned to the Hideaway Bar (in another hotel nearby) where we stayed till after 2 a.m. before the bar lady told us she wanted to get some sleep. I inflicted a couple of my masterpieces on the group, but thankfully we were blessed with some real poems from Tony Curtis.

I hope that gives you some flavour of what the week was like. It was my first experience of a literary festival, and it has whetted my appetite for more. Maybe next year I will go to Listowel, a bigger neighbour of the West Cork festival, or Hay on Wye here in Britain. I should not forget the Chamber Music Festival which was also on, and we were able to hear some of the rehearsals distantly from a room not far from the one where our short story workshop was in progress. I went to a late night performance of Gorecki's 2nd string quartet "quasi una Fantasia" by the Silesian string quartet, which was one of the highlights of my week. I thought, this is it, either everything is meaningless and rubbish, or this is one of the greatest things that life has to offer. You simply could not argue with the piece and the performance - it was brilliant.

Some of the recommended reading from the short story workshop:
The Lonely Voice - by Frank O'Connor
Dreaming by the Book - Elaine Scarry
Bird by Bird - by Anne Lamott
Writers Workshop - by Steven Koch
On Writing - by Stephen King
Island - by Alistair MacLeod

By the way, one of the participants was from Chimera Review (currently seeking submissions.)

As a result of exercises during the week, I got a couple or three new stories started, which I will bore you with another time.

Ossian