Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book arrives at house, man starts reading

My copy of David Gaffney's new collection of microstories, The Half-Life of Songs, arrived yesterday thanks to the intrepid efforts of our postman Ranulph. It's a stonking 190 pages, which is a helluva lotta short stories. So far I've read the one about the corss-dressing barbers, the one about the cliques of country music and the one about turquoise chickens – the first three in the book, in fact, and all crackers. I'm such a Gaffney fan; I want everybody to read him.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Technique as a travelling bag

Teaching Don Juan today, a colleague pointed out how Byron compares his verse to a portmanteau or travelling bag, and how apt this is: the ottava rima is so robust a form, into which almost any experience can be poured. Of course once poured in it tends to take a certain shape; but that's what it is to have a style.

It got me thinking how inadequate my own technique is to such an analogy. The way I've been writing poems over the last year or so has produced some work I'm happy with, but I have noticed that it keeps taking me back to the same narrow band of tones and modes: elegy, mainly. It's not something I can travel with, in the long term. So, time to stitch together a new form, that I can take with me where I'm going.

Friday, November 26, 2010

38 stories down, 30something to go

Yesterday I wrote two short stories for my next Salt book: one based on a famous bit in the Book of Matthew and one about a man having an epileptic fit. The second one isn't right yet, but the bones are there. Afterwards I added them to my list to find I have 38 stories written, out of a target of 70 odd. So, more than halfway. I'm aiming to finish the manuscript in spring next year; that's an agreeably vague deadline, but I reckon I need to hit 50 by the end of 2010, which means I need to produce about one every three days between now and then.

In a way that seems a lot. But my stories tend to be very short, so in terms of word counts it's not so bad. And actually, I find it much easier to write a lot of prose fiction than a little – once I build up a head of steam, it just feels more fluent, and the ideas come too. So one every three days is probably easier than one a week.

Meanwhile in amongst the marking and preparing for a dayschool tomorrow, I've got a proposal to draw up for a conference on short stories. I want to focus on microfiction, but I can't decide whether to make it general or whether to focus on the work of David Gaffney (whose new book was despatched to me yesterday, the Amazon robots tell me - ace).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Carrie Etter, The Tethers

I've been enjoying Carrie Etter's The Tethers over quite an elongated timespan, which is an apt coincidence since she recently posted a link to a piece on 'slow poetry' on her excellent blog.

Whenever a book by an American living in the UK comes out there's a temptation to read it in terms of its transatlantic connections. I can't resist, anyway. What strikes me most about The Tethers is the (let's go with it) Audenesque attention to syntax. By which I mean a way of handling lineation and syntax so that they dance with each other, sometimes together and sometimes apart, which I associate with Auden's work. So, 'David Smith, Wagon II, 1964' begins:

A figure sleeps standing because the wagon it rides
never rolls on its diverse wheels, is carried

from studio to museum and back by no
motive of its own, or at least none it knows.

(The conversational piling up of that last clause is also relevant.) If we want to praise poetry that communicates before it's understood, let me say that the meaning of that sentence, lucid though it is, is almost irrelevant to my enjoyment of it: the impression of throwing a sentence out across several lines is breathtaking.

Of course Etter isn't Auden: the tones and subject matter of her work are her own. I find it slightly diddicult to know what to say about them. There's a pared-down quality, not so much to the verse as to the world it conjures; and there's urgency, the sense of things mattering. The Tethers is a fine book.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Me book out in paperback

Unexpectedly I received in the post today a package of six copies of the new paperback edition of The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street. It says on the front that the book was shortlisted for the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and the Portico Prize. It's currently selling for £7.99, postage free, at the Salt website. And, as we've recently established, it would make an ace Chrimbo present. Jolly poems, post-free, in a bendy sheath: what more could you ask?

It's Chriiiissstmas!

Had a lovely evening at the Portico Prize dinner last night, in the majestic surroundings of Manchester Town Hall's Great Hall (lots of bees). I didn't win, but it was an honour just to be on the shortlist. I bought a copy of Madeleine Bunting's The Plot, the winner of the non-fiction category, which one of the judges called 'Sebaldian' – it has a lot to live up to! And the dinner itself contained a Mastercheffy trio of mini-desserts; so it wasn't so much a case of 'close, but no cigar' as 'close, and I got a chocolate cigar'. I pressed a copy of The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street on Stuart Maconie, who looked at me as if I was a nut job till it dawned on him I was a shortlistee and not a random punter.\

Now that a jingle of bells is audible in the distance and sales of suet are going through the roof, you're probably worried about what to buy all your friends and family for Christmas. Well, I've made things easier for you this year, with this instructional video:

It's Chriiiiisssstmas from Tony Williams on Vimeo.

Monday, November 15, 2010

David Gaffney, The Half-Life of Songs

It gives me great pleasure to feature David Gaffney's new collection of microfiction, The Half-Life of Songs, complete with a sample story. He's pretty much my favourite short fiction writer. Buy this book!

The blurb for the book describes 'a world where thinking is illegal, belly dancers’ blood is used to fertilize tomato plants, pensioners in leather trousers dance to two-step garage, and an architect  hides crested newts in his bath. The stories are often beyond odd yet always ordinary, a warped backward-talking world of Lynchian surreality, allowing an emotional insight into the rich interior lives of social outsiders, the broken and the easily-breakable who are perpetually on the fringes of our world.'

Several of the stories in the half life of songs were written about Gaffney’s experiences of visiting towns along the M62 motorway between Liverpool and Hull; about the people and places he encountered and the ideas these towns and villages planted in his head.

Reviewers have called Gaffney's work 'witty, clever, poignant' (Time Out), 'utterly brilliant. Hilariously demented and wonderfully succinct' (Graham Rawle); the Guardian said that '150 words by Gaffney are more worthwhile than some novels'.

The history brush

‘When you live here, in Eggborough,’ Mr Fuller said, ‘you don’t even see the towers. It’s as if the towers aren’t there. They are not there to all intents and purposes. I mean they are there, but they’re not. Not really. I accept that when an outsider sees a house in Eggborough they notice the big fuck-off power plant with eight huge cooling towers in the background. But that’s not what Eggborough people see. They see the sky. So what I am asking you to do is to help me to produce a more accurate visual representation of how the houses in Eggborough would look if you actually lived here.’
I showed Mr Fuller how you could use the history brush to wipe over the towers and replace them with blue sky.
‘Excellent,’ Mr Fuller said.
‘How about I add something?’ I said.
‘What were you thinking of?’
‘I was thinking of a rainbow.’
Mr Fuller went to the window and looked out. ‘I’ve seen rainbows in Eggborough. It’s possible. It wouldn’t be a lie.  But doesn’t that mean its been raining? No one wants to buy a wet house.’
‘You can have a rainbow in a blue sky,’ I said,  ‘look,’ and I showed him what I’d done: liquid ribbons of colour, shimmering.
I enjoyed replacing the towers with rainbows, but after a few weeks got bored and began to add unicorns as well, hidden in the dappled shadows of lawns. You could hardly see them, but I knew they were there, and every time I sneaked a unicorn into one of the photos, that house sold quicker than any of the others. I didn’t tell Mr Fuller. He was a practical man who liked to believe his achievements were down to human ingenuity; magic had no place in the story of Mr Fuller’s success.

David Gaffney is from Manchester. He is the author of Sawn Off Tales (2006), Aromabingo (2007), Never Never (2008),  Buildings Crying Out, a story using lost cat posters (Lancaster litfest 2009), 23 Stops To Hull a set of stories about every junction on the M62 (Humber Mouth festival 2009) Sawn off opera  a set of operas with composer Ailis Ni Riain (Radio Three, RNCM, Liverpool philharmonic and tete a tete festival London 2010) Destroy PowerPoint, stories in PowerPoint format for Edinburgh festival in August 2009, the Poole Confessions stories told in a mobile confessional box (Poole Literature festival 2010) and he has written articles for the GuardianSunday TimesFinancial Times and Prospect magazine.

Monday, November 08, 2010


Just back from househunting in Northumberland to find that Christian Campbell has won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. I'd known a few days beforehand that I hadn't won. On Friday John O'Donoghue wrote a round-up of the shortlist for the Guardian blog. Here's what he had to say about The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street:

Tony Williams focuses on liminal areas, corners, fences, ring roads, bus routes between towns. I think when he's concise he's brilliant. Sometimes though, like the landscapes he describes, he can sprawl. But I think Williams is firmly in the line of English poets back to Betjeman, Housman, Hardy and beyond. A terrific collection.

The sprawl thing I can hardly deny – it's there, and if a reader doesn't like it there's not a lot I can do about it. I should point out that the mentioning-me-in-the-same-sentence-as-Betjeman-Housman-and-Hardy thing, while I can't help but take it as a wonderful compliment, comes in the context of an argument that the shortlist lacks experimentation, so you should see it as at least partly a Bad Thing. Still, I'm very grateful to O'Donoghue for what he says.

Friday, November 05, 2010

50 Stories for Pakistan II

Just got my copy of 50 Stories for Pakistan. Look sace. Click on the link below to buy yours.

Helping the victims of the floods
Produced by www.bigbadmedia.com

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Mark Burnhope interviews me at the Salt blog

Monday, November 01, 2010

Interview with Tim Dooley

Tim Dooley's Imagined Rooms collects many of the poems first published in the 1980s with a number of other poems hitherto unpublished in book form. It's quietly wonderful, and speaks to anyone conscious of the absurdity of living halfway between the private and public worlds. Tim kindly agreed to answer my questions about the book, which you can buy here, here, etc. Keeping Time appeared in 2008.

Many of the poems in Imagined Rooms were originally collected in The Interrupted Dream in 1985. How does it feel to see them back in print?

I hope the ones I’ve used stand up. I’ve chosen poems that I think will work in today’s context and there’s been a certain amount of nip and tuck along the way.

The book's epigraph is a wonderful quote from Neruda which talks about 'the used surfaces of things', adding 'let our poetry be like them'.  It's an apt epigraph because the poems have been at large, being used, for 25 years. But it's also apt because it seems to me you're interested in writing a poetry of used items, suburbs and disappointments. Is that fair?

Yes. Neruda sees impurity as in the nature of things and I’ve long felt a commitment to the world as it is – rather than a transformed or purified vision of it, though I can see a place for that too. But I certainly subscribe to the idea of the poem as a made thing, marked by human touch and that’s affected the formal side of the work as much as the content. There’s an everyday quality to the work, starting from what’s in front of you and the language you hear around you, but shaping that into something more challenging.

Reading the poems I couldn't help feeling that I was reading them in two ways simultaneously - just as poems, but also as historical documents, records of an era. Did you see yourself as documenting the period when you were writing the poems? Or was it more personal than public?

I think the answer is both. I grew up in a politically charged period. (I was seventeen in 1968.) And, as in the Neruda quote, ‘affirmations of faith and payment of taxes’ are as much part of the physical and emotional world of the poems as ‘soupstains’ or ‘nightwakings’. I called my last book Keeping Time partly to acknowledge that after a while these concerns make up a record. In Imagined Rooms it’s, I suppose, the political context of the1980s that’s most evident. It might not be a bad time to focus on aspects of that period again. I hoped that by exploring political and social issues in terms of everyday observation and the experience of the senses I’d keep any tendency to windy opinionating at bay. And the sense of period, I hope, helps to make the personal element representative rather than confessional.

Your subject matter seems to be the metropolitan suburbs, where life is going on in spite of it all; disappointment of ideals and of personal relationships; and the frustrations of living a private life in public terms. The habitual tone is one of ironic sobriety. All of which is leading me to say your work reminds me of Michael Hofmann's. Is that a similarity you'd recognize? And given that you were writing about some of the same subjects at the same times, do you think it's just chance, or was ironic sobriety the only possible response to that era and situation?

At the moment I’m absorbed in Don Paterson’s new book, Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Here’s something he writes:

‘Poet’ is less a calling than a diagnosis, and the condition… often comes with the inability to drive a car properly, a talent for all kinds of mental illness… excessive interest in movies and alcohol… (an) ability… to fall in love at the drop of a hat, or a glove.

What Paterson doesn’t say of course is that the poet is under no obligation to act any or all of these things out (and as a human being the poet remains culpable for any harm caused), but the passage does give an inkling of what any restraint in poetic language is working against or with, and how hard-won ‘sobriety’ might be. I’ve written a few poems  (‘Cousins’ in Imagined Rooms, ‘Edit’ and 'The Tambourica Player’s Wife’ in Keeping Time), which explore these tensions reasonably explicitly and it seems I’ve got harder on the Byronic bohemian impulse as I’ve got older.

To get back to your question, I think there were other responses either more escapist or more intransigent than mine, but mine are the ones that I’m stuck with and the irony in the poems comes from recognizing the mixture of compromise and integrity in the choices and actions that have been made.

I like Hofmann’s work, particularly the way he’s unafraid of pulling lyricism out of almost deliberately prosy material. So there’s an affinity, but I’ve never read him deeply enough to think of him as an influence. He has written very enthusiastically about work that is very important to me. Late Lowell, for example, and James Schuyler’s poetry. So we may have drunk from the same well.

Stylistically you use a mixture of short and long lines, sometimes alternately in the same poem. Can you say a little about the decisions that govern line length (an art I find mysterious even as I am practicing it)? 

There’s a lot of talk among my contemporaries about the primacy or integrity of the line and my own line-breaks have often puzzled people to the extent of exasperation. On reflection, I think this is probably because I tend to think of the block or stanza as my primary unit of composition. This was particularly true of the twenty-four line poems I wrote between 1975 and 1982, which formed a central sequence in The Interrupted Dream, some of which reappear in Imagined Rooms as free-standing poems. I imagined these originally as blocks of language out of which meaning might surface in the manner the blocks of colour in Rothko’s large canvases.

The poems that alternate long and short lines have a different genesis. I read some of Horace’s Epodes (in a Victorian translation using a mixture of hexameter and pentameter lines) in a house we stayed in the summer I was finishing the ‘Interrupted Dream’ sequence. Soon after, I came across Schuyler’s ‘The Morning of the Poem’ with its wonderful, free-flowing meditative sprawl. This seemed the way to go for more extended ode-like writing, beginning with poems like ‘The Milky Way’ and ‘The Sound We Make Ourselves’ and leading up to ‘Working from Home’. I went back to the form for ‘In the Palm of My Hand’ the longish poem about London and the July 7th bombings, which opens Keeping Time.

All of which is to say, going back to Neruda’s notion of impurity, that it’s important to me that the musicality of verse be stalled and disrupted from time to time by the pressure of thought or the onward flow of utterance. Particularly, this means that I will from time to time end lines with unemphatic articles or prepositions. Sometimes this is to throw stress on the start of the next line, but at other times it just contributes to a general tone of anxiety. I guess this is what Claude Rawson, in a TLS review of The Interrupted Dream, meant when he talked about ‘urgent uncertainties’ in the poems.

Anyway, for me it's stanzas not lines, hence Imagined Rooms.

'Working from Home' is a beautiful, gentle, discursive poem that seems to cover many of your concerns. It fulfils one of the essential purposes of poetry, something to do with bringing all the areas of our lives into focus together. Do you write your best work at home? Where specifically do you write? And with a pen? A keyboard?

Thank you. It’s a poem I’m fond of and would have used as the title for a book, if it didn’t sound too much like a book on survival in the era of deregulation. I don’t know whether things are held in focus. It’s more like watching the ripples in the pond spread out. That’s what I’m an observer of and participant in.

I don’t write in a disciplined way. I don’t keep notebooks systematically, though I use them from time to time with pencil or pen and with a preference for unlined paper. At that stage I’m usually sketching shapes, working into a poem and that kind of writing can be done in odd moments, anywhere.
Poems get completed at the keyboard. I bought a ludicrously heavy ex-office Imperial typewriter with jumbo type in the early 1970s. On this machine, the 24-line poems of The Interrupted Dream each filled a sheet of A4. In the late 80s I graduated to an electric typewriter with a correcting ribbon, in the early 90s to a PC and over the last four or five years to a Mac. I’m always working towards an imagined printed shape. The aural element is there too, but it works in an underground way, sometimes at odds with the chosen shape.

'Working from Home' also echoes 'His best piece of poetrie', which I take to be a much earlier poem on a similar domestic theme. Were the new poems collected in Imagined Rooms written for the volume, with the older work in mind, or are such resonances accidental? 

The two poems bookend the 1980s. The son that’s new-born in 'His best piece of poetrie' and who’s a toddler in ‘Heat Haze’, has a younger brother in ‘Working from Home’ and that younger brother turns eleven in ‘The Border’. So it’s personal history that I keep time with as well as public events and the poems evoke very precise personal memories for me that I can’t expect a reader to share. I’m also happy that you use the term ‘domestic’, a much disputed term that’s sometimes applied lazily to the work of women poets and rightly seen as dismissive. It doesn’t get used as frequently about the work of Craig Raine or Christopher Reid, for example, where it would be helpful.  For me the domestic is emblematic of shared experience, the place where wider social shifts are felt more personally.

The uncollected poems in Imagined Rooms aren’t precisely new. I couldn’t find a publisher for a long time and when the opportunity came for a book with Salt, I had quite a lot of work to choose from. In Keeping Time I published work from this decade alongside earlier poems, but excluded poems with specific reference (personal or public) to events of the earlier decades. That means that Imagined Rooms has perhaps more of that sense of record (covering the period 1971-97) you mentioned earlier.

And finally, what's next? 

Over the last few years the forms have become more traditional: sonnet-shaped, ballad-like, even proto-pantoum poems. I think that kind of engagement with form will continue to develop, but I will still look out for ways of engaging with a continuity of experience, including the experience that comes from reading and responding to different art-forms, as well as what life and the times throw in our way.