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Sheenagh Pugh
26 April 2016 @ 11:19 am
Here's a question on which I'd appreciate the views of my hist fic-writing friends. What do you think of anachronism or near-anachronism used as a deliberate technique to lessen the reader's distance from the material? I'm re-reading The Last English King by Julian Rathbone and in the author's note he points out that "occasionally characters, and even the narrator, let slip quotations or near quotations of later writers or make oblique reference to later times. Some will find this irritating. For reasons I find difficult to explain, it amuses me and may amuse others. But it also serves a more serious purpose - to place the few years spanned by this book in a continuum which leads forward as well as back." Nothing new under the sun, in other words. This is an example of what he means: the year is 1069 or thereabouts and his protagonist, a Saxon Englishman called Walt, has just arrived at the town of Nicaea with his companion, a Frisian ex-monk called Quint:
There was a small crowd near the gate happy to be entertained by a couple of mountebanks, one who ate flames and spewed them back again, another who twanged away at a tuneless lute and wailed nasally above the noise he extracted from it. A sad ditty about how the answer to everything was blowing in the breeze. None of this was to Quint's liking.
Now in the first place he was right about being amused: I nearly had a coffee moment. But it did sort of work the other way too; I could see what he meant about the continuum and for a moment I was very much there with Quint (and sharing his musical tastes).

I had a somewhat similar reaction on reading Andrew Drummond's hilarious novel Volapük, set at the end of the 19th century, when I came across the character of Sir Thomas Urquhart, a real person who, were he still living at the time of the novel, would have been some 200 years old. Volapük is about the creation, use and misuse of language, and the impossible Sir Thomas merely emphasises the timelessness of its theme.

I haven't noticed this very much in historical fiction, but maybe I haven't been reading enough of the right stuff. Is it a more common technique than I thought? And do my hist fic friends use it themselves?
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Generally I choose new books to review on the blog. This time I'm reviewing a book published 18 years ago, quite simply because it's still one of the ones I read most often.

Stevie Davies is a noted novelist, but this is a history book, dealing indeed with the same period that inspired one of her best novels, Impassioned Clay. It is fascinating for a writer to see how she transmutes fact into fiction, but you don't need to be a writer to find this particular period of history absorbing. The subtitle is "Women of the English Revolution: 1640-1660". That twenty years, in fact, when the world turned upside down, when kings could be unkinged, and indeed un-headed, when a country was trying to find a different way to function, and when for a glorious couple of decades, before England relapsed into forelock-tugging mode, nobody knew his or her place.

His or her, for though Cromwell's government was no less inimical to women's rights than Charles's had been, it was a time when the voiceless in general found their voice, and no section of society was more voiceless than women. A married woman, feme coverte in law, had no legal existence, her identity being "covered" by her husband's. Even fewer women could vote than men, and a man without a vote could at least make his voice heard in other ways without much risk of some of the penalties that attended women's speaking. When the Leveller women petitioned Parliament in the 1640s and 50s, their petitions were refused simply on the ground that they were women, and politics was not their concern; they had best, the Serjeant-at-Arms advised, "return to your own business, your housewifery".

But these women were the likes of Katharine Chidley, pamphleteer and disputant, who was not about to be silenced or sidelined so easily:
"Since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportionable share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honourable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other the good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties, or goods to be taken from us more than from men?"
There are many glorious voices in this book, and they aren't all female, for this is not a men-versus-women sort of book, and many men are praised in it. Men in advance of the time, like Daniel Rogers and George Fox, were encouraging women to speak out, even to preach. Daniel Rogers's marriage manual, Matrimonial Honour, would have looked radical centuries later:
"She is always in grief & that for thee, & by thy means; what day, week, month is she free through the year, breeding, bearing, watching her babes. […] She had need to be eased of all that is easable, because she cannot be eased of the rest. Get her asleep, if thou can, but awake her not, till she please."
Less radical men, like the diarist Ralph Josselin, were doing their best to be decent husbands in a society which they dimly perceived was very unequal and in many ways unfair to their partners. There are some moving stories of marriages: the Josselins, growing apart as they lose child after child, John and Elizabeth Lilburne becoming embittered not only with Parliament but with each other.

Some of the women who found their voices most powerfully at this time were Quakers, and their fortitude and daring are both inspiring and terrifying. Barbara Blaugdone, schoolteacher, forsakes her middle-class comforts and sleeps in ditches, an itinerant preacher. Mary Fisher travels to Turkey to convert the Sultan – he was bemused but civil, unlike the privileged but ungentlemanly students of Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, who threw stones at her. Mary Dyer, reprieved at the last moment on a scaffold in Massachusetts, promptly returns to the job and is executed.

And there's Anna Trapnel, Fifth Monarchist prophetess, writer of execrable poetry and blessed with a voice that can out-sing and out-shout any heckler. Anna arguably has kangaroos in the top paddock, but listen to her answering the magistrate who questions her motives in travelling from London to Cornwall (an enterprise that could easily get one labelled a vagabond or troublemaker; governments have always liked to limit movement):
"But why did you come into this country?"
"Why might not I come here, as well as into another country?"
"But you have no lands, nor livings, nor acquaintance to come to in this country."
"What though I had not? I am a single person, and why may I not be with my friends anywhere?"
"I understand you are not married."
"Then, having no hindrance, why may not I go where I please, if the Lord so will?"
It is almost impossible not to cheer. It's a sensation that is repeated many times in the course of this book. Though there are sadnesses in it, in the end one is left inspired by these women who simply would not keep quiet. The book can still be found, and I'd urge anyone, not only those interested in history or feminism, to get hold of it.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
07 April 2016 @ 10:41 am
This interesting article on Emma Darwin's blog about psychic distance reminded me how often I used to use other media - like film - to get some writing technique over to students. One such technique was cutting from scene to scene. It can be enormously difficult for new writers to extricate themselves from a scene before it comes to a "natural" end, but it's something we need to be able to do if we're not to risk boring readers. TV shows, with their short timespan, do it ruthlessly (look at how The Big Bang Theory moves on straight after the laugh-line).

But this is by no means a technique that was invented yesterday. "St Stephen and King Herod" is a very old ballad, and its 14th-century author certainly had not seen any films or TV shows. Yet the poem is a beautiful example of how to control pace and drama by dwelling on what really matters, moving swiftly on from what matters less and leaving much out altogether.

After the scene-setting first verse:
Stephen was a servitor
In King Herod's hall,
And served him with honour
As every king befall.
we are plunged into the middle of the action; Stephen coming from the kitchen with food for the hall. He is crossing a courtyard, which wouldn't have been uncommon at the time; kitchens smell and were kept away from the gentry's noses. Not that this is explained: we simply know it is so because otherwise this couldn't happen:
Stephen came from kitchen
With boar's head in hand.
He saw a star was fair and bright
Above Bethlem stand.
At this point we might have been treated to some sort of analysis of his feelings, but our author is more economical than that:
He cast adown the boar's head
And went into the hall.
"I forsake thee, King Herod,
And thy works all."
Now at this point I should say that it has always seemed to me that Herod, who is feasting, is certainly in a good mood and possibly slightly merry. I don't think this is over-interpretation, because his words and actions for some time are unexpectedly tolerant for a king who has just been spoken to so rudely by the kitchen-boy. Indeed his first reaction is concern for the lad's welfare:
What aileth thee, Stephen,
What is thee befall?
Lacketh anything to thee
In King Herod's hall?
Model employer, really... But Stephen, a stranger to tact, readily gets to the nub of the matter:
"Ne lacketh me nothing
In King Herod's hall,
There is one born in Bethlem
Is king of us all".
One can imagine - indeed one must, for it will not be shown - the aghast faces round the board. But the mellow Herod is still inclined to treat the whole thing as a joke: one can almost hear the guffaw in his voice.
"That is all so true, Stephen,
All so true, I know,
As the capon on this platter
Should come to life and crow."
Now for the first time we shall see a couple of lines that aren't strictly necessary to the narrative, a piece of repetition that slows the action right down for a crucial moment - the equivalent, if you like, of the filmic pause before the heroine opens the door of the locked room:
That word was not so soon said,
That word in that hall
If you're reading this aloud to an audience and pause just long enough, I promise you can have them spellbound at this point, just before you shout
The capon crew "Christus natus est"
Among the lords all.
Mellow drunks can turn nasty in a moment, and Herod is about to do so:
"Rise up, my true tormentors,
By two and by one.
Lead Stephen forth of this town
And stone him with stone."
The final verse pans out from close-up and goes back to the dispassionate, straight narrative with which it opened:
They led out Stephen
And stoned him on the way,
And therefore is his even
On Christ's own day.
. One does, at this point, have to explain, to English students at least, that 26th December was St Stephen's Day before ever "Boxing Day" was invented. But what is hopefully self-explanatory is the way this spare, dramatic ballad chooses its details, its perspective and its cuts in the way a film might: dwelling on a scene just exactly as long as it needs, zooming into close-up on Stephen and Herod and then out again to the world they affect so much without knowing it, leaving out just about everything to do with motive and mood (we can judge what mood Herod is in at various points from what he says and does), pausing where pause can make an effect but dropping a scene when it's over with as little hesitation as Stephen drops that dish with the boar's head.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
Reykjavik, 1918. The long Great War has made supplies scarce; the sky is dark and the air dusty because the volcano Katla is in the process of erupting, and the ship that has just arrived from Copenhagen, the Botnia, is carrying the germs of a deadly influenza epidemic. Well, it's a Nordic novel; you didn't expect anything too light-hearted… On the bright side, the town's two cinemas are importing a lot of the newly fashionable entertainment, films, and the 16-year-old protagonist Mani Steinn Karlsson sees all of them.

The back-cover blurb will tell you this much; what it doesn't mention, and what you might like to be prepared for, is that young Mani is by way of being a prostitute and the novel begins with a quite graphic sex scene. There will be others, but what really matters about Mani is his ability to move between the worlds of fact and fiction, living both in the world of the silent films and the drama simultaneously unfolding in real-life Reykjavik:

The projectionist's silhouette appears in the aperture.

The projector beam is switched off.

Lights come on in the wall lamps.

The young people glance around and only now does it dawn on them how many members of the audience have been taken ill: every other face is chalk-white, lips are blue, foreheads glazed with sweat, nostrils red, eyes sunken and wet.

Silence falls on the gathering.

The 1918 epidemic, and its catastrophic effects on Reykjavik, are real enough, and so are several of the book's characters, notably the English writers and film-makers Kenneth Macpherson, Robert Herring and Annie Ellerman (Bryher) who arrive on the scene near the novel's close in 1929. It is Mani himself who, though someone like him could very well have lived in that place at that time, is, according to the book's subtitle, "the boy who never was". He is a fiction fascinated by fictions, transmuting the reality around him into fictions of his own and becoming, in that odd way fictional characters have, more real than your neighbour down the street, until the moment when the author chooses to remind us with startling suddenness what he really is. It is also at this point that we discover why Sjón has written the novel at all, and it becomes clear that behind the fictional Mani stands a real person, from a later time, who was the inspiration for the novel though he never appears in it.

Much as I admire the book, I don't think some of the hyperbolical endorsements from other writers do it any favours; it may even put some readers into a "right, prove it then" frame of mind. I don't have to think Sjón "achingly brilliant" or believe that he "changes the whole map of literature" in order to find this book original and rewarding, and want to read it again. I'd leave the writing to speak for itself, if I were him:

From the long, low shed by the harbour the sounds of banging and planing can be heard, though each hammer blow and bout of sawing is so muffled and muted to the ear that it seems almost to apologise for disturbing the silence. It is here that the coffins are being made. […]

By the end of the working day the undertaker has received five new orders for coffins - and two more will await him at home.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
21 March 2016 @ 11:58 am
Well now, there's an odd thing for a writer to say. After all, like any other writer, I have cut my teeth on mantras like "verbs make language move, adjectives clog it up". And in a general sense I still believe it. When I've written a poem, I still tend to do a rough count of the verb-adjective ratio, and I expect to find it about 2:1. If it were the other way about, I'd be worried.

And yet… come with me for a moment into a creative writing workshop where a poem is being considered. The group are dissatisfied with its impact, and someone has pointed to a surplus of adjectives as the cause – sometimes several to a line. Nearly everyone agrees with this diagnosis, and I might have done too, but for the maverick mature student at the back who, when asked his opinion, murmurs "Sweet day: so cool, so calm, so bright".

He's right, of course: it isn't the number of adjectives but the choice and disposition of them. And I'm beginning to think there may be a slight difference in the way good writers choose verbs and adjectives. With a verb, the most important consideration, as often as not, is forensic accuracy: you want the verb that conveys exactly, not approximately, how a thing happened, or how someone said or did something. This is the root of the prejudice of some teachers against adverbs: the feeling that the verb should, often, not need clarifying with more words if a more exact verb had been chosen in the first place.  It's true too that verbs make fantastic shorthand, carrying whole fields of imagery within themselves; it would surely have taken Paul Henry far longer to convey in any other way the mood that comes over from two verbs here (from "The Glebelands"):

The river pedals after the sun.
The paint flakes off the trees.

With adjectives, although accuracy is still a consideration, it seems to me that we are often looking also for surprise, for the qualifier that will cause the reader to look at the object in a new or unexpected way.  This is the more important in that certain adjectives tend to attach themselves so naturally to certain nouns that they can tell us nothing we didn't already know – a pink sky may be worth remarking on, a blue sky generally not.  These expected adjective-noun combos become, in effect, clichés, and can soon kill a poem or story.

But few parts of speech can make you open your eyes wide and re-read the line like a truly unexpected adjective. Here is the 17th-century bilingual Welsh poet Morgan Llwyd, writing in English, in his long poem "1648":

Our king, queen, prince and prelates high their merry Christmas spent
With brawny hearts, while yet their dogs could Lazarus lament.

"Brawny" connotes now, as it did then, physical toughness, though back in Morgan Llwyd's day, more of its original meaning of "fleshy" or "fleshly" may have survived.  In itself it is a compliment if anything, but perhaps because of the alliteration, brawn has also long been an antonym of "brain"; it carries the hint that where there is much brawn, brain ought not to be expected in any quantity. And in British English it also carries a culinary sense: pig's head rendered down by boiling to jelly. It is therefore the last adjective you might expect to see conjoined to "heart" – an arm may be fleshy and tough and no harm done, but a heart? These aristocrats, stuffing themselves with meat at Christmas, are all flesh, nether head nor heart: their very dogs can pity the poor man at the gate but they cannot, because their hearts are toughened and their conscience rendered down to jelly.  That's a word justifying its place in the line, adjective or no.

But how then are we to explain the magic of that line of Herbert's: what is there remotely unexpected or surprising about the adjectives "sweet", "cool", "calm" and "bright", applied to a sunny morning? As Mr Carson said, it's the way you tell 'em, and in this case it is all in the way the genius Herbert has made the line move. In an 8-syllable line he has placed no fewer than three long pauses, effectively caesuras, after the words "day", "cool" and "calm", and the line is end-stopped after "bright" for good measure. There is no logical way of reading it but slowly, pausing on those words, savouring them as you would the qualities they represent if you stepped out of your door on that day. Sometimes the element of surprise is in the commonplace, if readers can be nudged into taking time to look at it afresh; sometimes too, the simplest words are genuinely the most accurate and apposite, though it may take a Herbert to arrange them in such a way that they lose their familiarity.

Anyway, there is no point in being anti-adjective, or anti-any part of speech, for the sake of it. There may be sense in using them sparingly – to continue Llywd's culinary image, as if they were the spices to the meal: a piece of writing overspiced with adjectives can become cloying, but leaving out the spice altogether may produce something deeply unmemorable.

If, of course, you are George Herbert, no rules apply.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
I don't know whether animal characters in novels are a fashionable thing, or whether I just have a particular yen for them, but I reviewed three last year – Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, which is told entirely from the viewpoint of sheep, The Sage of Waterloo by Leona Francombe, which is narrated by a rabbit, and Fishbowl by Bradley Somer, in which one of the minor characters is a goldfish called Ian. So it seemed logical to add this novel, which deals among other things with the story of Archie the talking alpaca.

There are ways and ways of using animal characters: they can be anything from their real selves to thinly disguised humans. Ian the goldfish is a sort of Greek chorus to the main action, while the sheep and rabbits in the first two novels mentioned are both trying, with different degrees of success, to be real sheep and rabbits. This novel is different, in that, as soon becomes clear, Archie's alpaca nature is barely skin deep. He and the other alpacas on the island somewhere in the Western Isles where this novel is set are very clearly representations of marginalised humans – immigrants perhaps, or Travellers, or any other kind of outsider you can think of. I suppose the advantage of the alpaca image is that it can stand for all outsiders at once.

We do not, therefore, have to ask ourselves how it is that Archie can talk to his human friends, or do various things for which hooves are not naturally adapted, particularly since he is not the only aspect of "the island" which is at right angles to reality. If a small island has an annual literary festival with serious sponsorship, huge prizes and an audience of 20,000, we are clearly in the realms of fantasy, or magic realism, and nothing else ought to surprise us, not even the festival's unusual climax.

It is the festival, or rather the short story competition at its centre, that is the pivot of the novel, and the scene where all the competitors read out their stories to the audience was, for me, where the book really came alive. I love the technique of interpolating short stories into novels, and it's a bonus when there is actually a discernible reason for it (like a musical where people have a valid excuse for singing).

One of the book's themes, in fact, is how everyone has a "story", though some are better worth listening to than others. (I'm not sure I was actually intended to end up thinking that last, because the narrator is constantly admonishing himself and us to see the potential in everyone and not be judgmental, but there it is.) A novel about a literary festival, about the telling of stories, whose first chapter heading is "If On A Summer's Night An Alpaca", is inevitably to some degree a novel about writing itself, and this is where I sometimes find it difficult to gauge the tone. It's clear enough what he is about when satirising the corruption and pretension endemic to the festival and indeed the literary world in general. We've all met the literary celebs who are so unutterably pleased with themselves, or as the narrator's neighbour puts it, "they're awfy guid tae themselves, so they are". And we have listened to the reader wittering on with a long intro and finally saying, like Summer Kelly, "So maybe I should just, like, read the story" – yeah, maybe…. There's no doubt this literary aspect of the satire will resonate with many readers who are also writers.

. But at other times it is harder to gauge exactly where the writer is standing in relation to the material. When he names a café "The Nightingale With Toothache", is he being determinedly quirky, or satirising the determinedly quirky style of writing? When the narrator says "When cycling I like to mindfully inhale the fresh air", are we meant to grin at that fashionable, affected "mindfully", or take it seriously? And Mr Hibiki, a sort of Japanese Mr Miyagi, except that his talents lie in the culinary rather than the martial arts, is so much the stock Eastern Sage With The Answer To Life, The Universe And Everything, that one would think he must be satirically meant.

But I can see how the whole thing might be read, if not quite dead straight, at least less satirically. In fact, the reviews I have read seem very divided on this issue. Myself I don't think we are ever meant to be quite sure where the writer stands in relation to his first-person but interestingly unnamed narrator. Certainly the book's other theme, which is intolerance toward difference, does not easily lend itself to a satirical reading, and maybe it is the constant interplay between these two themes that leaves readers unsure whether they should be laughing or not at any particular moment. The front-cover blurb asserts that the book will "split your sides and break your heart". Well, it didn't do either of those to me, but then I don't think it meant to. I think it's a novel constantly aware of being a fiction. The one review I really disagreed with was the one that called it "too contrived". It is indeed contrivance, skilful artifice, like any made-up world, and therein lies a great deal of its interest.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
13 March 2016 @ 03:51 pm
It isn't often you look at a writer and think how well he would have done in some more practical line of business - mostly, the poorhouse would have beckoned - but the more I read Saki, the more I realise he should have gone into the advertising/promotions industry, if only he'd outlived the trenches of the Great War (it's good that we have his last words; sad that they should have been "Put that bloody cigarette out!"). Despite (or perhaps because of) his general contempt for ordinary folk, on the evidence of stories like The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope, Cousin Teresa and Filboid Studge: The Story of a Mouse That Helped, he had a very fair idea of how to sell a product or start a trend. Look at how, in "Filboid Studge", Mark Spayley manages to sell the ailing breakfast cereal Pipenta by rebranding it as something truly revolting (the new name says it all) that one eats not as a pleasure but as a duty, "for one's health". Basically, it's All-Bran.
"Once the womenfolk discovered that it was thoroughly unpalatable, their zeal in forcing it on their households knew no bounds. “You haven’t eaten your Filboid Studge!” would be screamed at the appetiteless clerk as he hurried weariedly from the breakfast-table, and his evening meal would be prefaced by a warmed-up mess which would be explained as “your Filboid Studge that you didn’t eat this morning.” Those strange fanatics who ostentatiously mortify themselves, inwardly and outwardly, with health biscuits and health garments, battened aggressively on the new food.

Clovis operates a similar reverse psychology when helping out his pal Septimus, who writes pop songs for a living but is having trouble thinking of anything new (or finding a decent set of rhymes for "Florrie"). Clovis's solution is inspired:
“How you bore me, Florrie,
With those eyes of vacant blue;
You’ll be very sorry, Florrie,
If I marry you.
Though I’m easygoin’, Florrie,
This I swear is true,
I’ll throw you down a quarry, Florrie,
If I marry you.”
Who can seriously doubt that this refreshing burst of honesty would, as Saki asserts with magnificent dismissiveness, have taken off "in Blackpool and other places where they sing"?

For Saki's other virtue in this field would have been never to overestimate his audience's intellect. The ditty that sweeps London in "Cousin Teresa" is the last word in pointless vacuity, but one can't deny the rhythm's catchy in the extreme. When its author Lucas finds himself in the honours list instead of his much worthier older brother who has been administering some far-flung bit of the Empire, we are meant to feel slightly shocked, but in fact, as the Minister observes, this is what the honours system was about then, as it is now: "It would be rather a popular move". Fay Weldon and Salman Rushdie both worked in advertising for a time, but I think Saki would have made a fortune at it; he had both the necessary verbal flair and imagination and the even more necessary complete cynicism.

Shame, in so many ways, about "that bloody cigarette".
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
This is a fascinating and thought-provoking read, but you need to be aware beforehand of what you are about to be reading. What it isn't: a parade of hilarious one-liners. What it is: a serious, academic (but quite readable) attempt to get under the skin of a particular culture by analysing not just what made it laugh, but how it laughed, how it regarded laughter and what range of vocabulary it used for this activity (her observations on the role of smiling in Roman society, and the lack of vocabulary relating to it, for instance, are quite surprising).  It isn't very often a light read, but it repays the concentration and thought that it demands.

Cicero's work, especially On the Orator, is naturally one of her most important sources, and the man himself comes over as Ancient Rome's most relentless (and often very funny) gag-merchant. In fact as an orator he was continually, and not always successfully, treading a thin line: wit could help him defeat political opponents and win law cases, but get the tone ever so slightly wrong and one could be accused of abandoning the dignity of an orator for the not dissimilar but less well-regarded trade of actor/comedian.  Modern political parallels suggest themselves, but are not insisted upon; Beard is averse to trying to explain or interpret the Romans in terms of our own culture.

Nevertheless, apparent cultural differences often turn out to be not quite so different as they first seemed. Emperor Elagabalus amusing himself by inviting to dinner eight bald men, or eight one-eyed men, or eight deaf men (in which case the dinner conversation can't have got much beyond "Pardon?") was demonstrating extreme power, as were other emperors who liked to subject their guests to cruel mockery, knowing they dared not object. But they aren't so far removed from the City slickers of our own time who find it amusing to burn ten-pound-notes in front of the homeless; both are using laughter as a power tool.  And the hapless citizens of Abdera, constantly guyed for alleged stupidity, have lived on in Gotham jokes, East Saxony jokes, Irish jokes, and will doubtless live on for ever.

People in the ancient world, doctors especially, were in fact very interested in how laughter worked physically and what caused it. Galen confessed himself baffled by this question; Pliny thought the diaphragm was involved in causing laughter, which can't help but remind one of Ken Dodd's explanation: "it starts at the chuckle muscle in the diagram, rises up past the clack, then comes out through the titter valve". We know more about the physiology now, but what actually gives us the desire to laugh is not as easy to pin down, though the kind of things we do laugh at can say much about our culture and society. That is what this book is really about.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh

Ursula gasped involuntarily, imagining the stranger – desperate, violent. But then she remembered the dead man and how wretched he'd looked, the emaciated limbs brittle as tinder, not menacing at all, only sad and disgusting.

Not a lot of first novels, begun in the author's student days, get picked up by really big publishers like Bloomsbury, so this is some achievement. It's probably every young writer's dream, but those who want it to happen to them will need to come up with a real page-turner, and write it with unusual assurance and skill.

Müller has drawn on her own part-Austrian background for her story, which is hard to classify – it might be called a war story, though it is very much about the effect of war on civilians, or maybe a coming-of-age story. The protagonist, Ursula, is eight in the prologue and thirteen when the story proper begins, in 1944, which does not mean, as the unwary tend to assume, that it is a children's book; it contains some distinctly adult material. In the small community of Felddorf, ordinary people find themselves adapting to the curse of interesting times – a dictatorial regime in which anyone even slightly non-conformist is threatened, a war that brings privation, danger and the absence of loved ones, and finally the Russian occupation which notoriously turned into an orgy of rape.

In such times, people discover qualities in themselves, both good and bad, that might otherwise have gone unsuspected. The need to keep one's head down leads to acts of cowardice; the urge to protect one's friends to acts of great courage. Petty spites are paid off and altruistic risks taken. People – or most people – prove more adaptable and resilient than they guessed - the matter-of-fact, practical measures they take to cope with the daily rapes during the occupation are described with a dispassionate lack of sentimentality that is far more moving than sensationalism would have been.
They got ready for work and Ursula dressed in her ugliest clothes, concealing her figure with large shawls. She helped Dorli to push a pillow up the back of her coat to imitate a hunchback. Schosi became more cheerful – he always found this process hilarious, especially when they scooped redcurrant jam with their fingers and rubbed it over their faces as though it was a lotion. It created the look of weeping sores. He observed Ursula closely as she tied a scarf over her head in the style of an old woman and screwed up her eyes into as many wrinkles as she could; he wrinkled his eyes too and she was glad to giggle with him, to forget for a moment what the strange attire was for.

There are very few unadulterated heroes or villains. In the young nurse Eva Kuster, still capable of being redeemed by her natural compassion, we see what her older colleagues were probably like before they were brutalised by the regime – after all, it is unlikely that most of them joined the profession for the express purpose of abusing the patients. Similarly, some of the Russian soldiers are serial rapists; others decent young men like Pasha. One of the most interesting and moving characters is Herr Esterbauer, the Party member who has cheerfully gone along with Nazi policies until they threaten to affect his own senile mother and his best friend's son Schosi. He shows great courage in their defence; yet it is not certain that this belated decency can altogether redeem his past.

If I have a criticism, indeed, it would concern the character of Anton, in which there is no such light and shade. It would be fascinating to see how Nazism turns him into a monster, but in fact he seems to have been an unpleasant bundle of neuroses already, and settled in his unpleasantness. I don't dispute the possibility of such people, but they don't make very interesting literary characters, because they offer no chance of development, change or redemption. Ursula and her sister Dorli are two ordinary girls who grow up in extraordinary and difficult times, partly damaged by their experiences but also more aware of their own strengths, and it is just their ordinariness that makes us eager to follow their story; it is very easy to see through their eyes.

If I didn't know this was a debut novel, I should not have guessed it for one; the various narrative strands are interwoven with considerable skill and the telling has the kind of assurance that gives the reader confidence in the writer's knowledge of her material. Above all, it really is a genuine page-turner; I read 455 pages in one go because I had to know what happened next.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
We might slow the speed of darkness but it still comes anyway



He froze, waiting. The Wood across the stream seemed empty and silent, patters of rain dripping from its soaked branches. Then as if the light had changed, or something in his brain had adjusted, he saw them. Thin and spindly and elegant, their coats and dresses red and gold as the beech leaves, they leaned and lazed and laughed, that host of silver-haired, beautiful, sly creatures that ran and whispered through his dreams. Slants of wan sunlight lit their eyes, beady as starlings', their gaudy buttons and jewels, the ribbons on their coats. Their fingers were too long, their voices the buzz of bees. Some of them still had wings for arms, one a beak instead of a mouth.
Yep, the Shee are back. And the Wintercombe crowd: Piers, Maskelyne, Jake, Sarah, Wharton, Rebecca, not forgetting David and Venn, getting ever closer to being able to use the mirror as they want to. Halloween is approaching, the day of the dead, when the best chance will arise of getting Venn's dead wife back – but also the time when the Shee are at their most powerful.

But there are two new elements. For the first time, we go into the future to see the world Janus has made – or will make. This might have been predicted, but a total surprise was that we also go farther back in time than ever before and find out at last what the relevance to the story is of all those chapter epigraphs about Venn's adventure on Katra Simba.

At this stage of the tetralogy, the last thing I want to do is provide spoilers, so I must be careful what I quote or refer to. What I will warn against is expecting the kind of ending that ties everything up in neat bows, because it isn't what you will get. As befits a quartet of novels which has postulated that time doesn't really exist as such, or at least not in straight lines, the endings for the various characters are a lot more interesting and uncertain than that, and the novel's last three sentences, in particular, are very enigmatic. The title comes from a remark, late in the book, by a character I won't name: "We might slow the speed of darkness but it still comes anyway". This, I think, is the clue to the last sentence.

Now the quartet is complete, it can be seen what an ambitious, rich, sweeping piece of work it is. It makes far more demands of its readership than many adult books do, never mind YA ones, both in following its twisting plot and in absorbing and processing the complex and thought-provoking moral and intellectual questions it keeps throwing up. One of the main ones in this volume concerns what could only be called a good deed, which has dreadful results and arguably should never have been done. The whole series is also a fine example of Fisher's skill at world-building, to the point that very few will want to leave it simply because the pages have come to an end. I am already dreaming of a spin-off for Moll…
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
06 January 2016 @ 12:02 pm
Arising out of a Facebook post by the poet Jo Bell, which linked to a list of poems to try on people who think they hate poetry. I didn't know any of them (US poems mainly, I think) but it did inspire me to try to list the ones I have had success with in this line when doing classes and workshops. I'm thinking especially of those who say they can't get on with contemporary poetry, by which they usually mean the kind that doesn't rhyme.

1, Napoleon, by Miroslav Holub

Holub is a good poet for folk who think they hate poetry, because he's very direct and non-mystifying. He was a doctor, and that vocabulary and subject matter often informs his work, as in Casualty

2. 170 Chinese Poems, translated by Arthur Waley

The "170" was a famous anthology in my youth and I've never actually met anyone who disliked it. Waley was particularly fond of the poet Bai Ju-yi (once known as Po Chu-i) from the 8th-9th century, who specialised in very simple, direct language (which if course wasn't near as simple as it looks). "Remembering Golden Bells" was a poem about the death of his daughter.

3. "Everything Changes" by Bert Brecht.

This is quite a good way to get non-poetry-readers to see what can be done by playing around with syntax, and how it really isn't that difficult or frightening.

4. "Eden Rock" by Charles Causley.

You might say Causley is the compromise for those who can't get on with free verse, since he never abandoned rhyme and music, but "Eden Rock" is half-rhyme, unobtrusive, form used in a twentieth-century way. It's also very powerful and most folk of a certain age can relate to it. There are others on his page in the Poetry Archive.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
As a glance at the acknowledgements makes clear, many of these poems were written as commissions, for residencies or projects, or in response to requests for poems on particular subjects; indeed the acks page includes a section of poems "published online, as part of activist and/or literary projects". Poems with a practical purpose, then, and the order of adjectives in "activist and/or literary" might suggest that "activist" is the more important to the writer.

So I started by picking out poems that hadn't been written for any of these reasons, on the assumption that these would tell me the most about the poet's own voice and preoccupations. In "Hitting the Road with Frida Kahlo", she conflates her own road accident with that of Kahlo. I must admit, it's a title that would normally make me groan, because Frida flaming Kahlo is, like bees, Alzheimers and childhood memories, a subject that crops up far too often in contemporary poems and is beginning to be an automatic turn-off. But this is an original, individual treatment that for once establishes a genuine, intrinsic connection between author and subject and justifies its use. It's also very vividly done:

          I clamber out, broken bones grating,
Scrunching like brown sugar, fall down
To lie on the icy road, beginning my new life

The title poem updates the elegy form with wit and sharpness to the online age: it can't be an accident that the ending

                            and if I could,
I'd unfriend Death for you, report him for abuse, the troll
Who poked you, who is "following" us all, block him for good

is so painfully reminiscent of Chaucer's three young drunks setting out with their proud boast "we wol sleen this false traytour Deeth".

I really didn't need this poem's footnote on "Rip", nor the ones to "Mrs Bennet's Burden" and "Scent for a Suffragette". On the other hand I couldn't half have done with explanatory notes to "Baking Scones for Eminem" and "God is a DJ" (haven't quite got around to googling Marshall, Slim and Armin van Buuren yet). I suppose what this shows is the problem with footnotes: our readers have different areas of knowledge and ignorance and these are, more and more, generationally determined. One good reason, I think, to put them all together at the back, where readers can ignore or consult them as they wish.

The section "Poems of Pathology, Anatomy and Dealing with Death" contains some of my favourites in the collection: perhaps the subject matter sorts well with her other incarnation as a crime writer. "Keepers", juxtaposing the voices of two technicians from the nineteenth and 21st centuries whose job is to create mementos of the dead for the living, is artful and compelling (here the note was again useful for generational reasons, since I knew exactly what the Victorian mortuary photographer was up to but had never heard of a "doll re-borner"). The two poems of "Deathbed Writing Workshop", which could easily have been sentimental, are instead powerful (and the word "debridement" on which they centre is wonderful, a gift to a writer).

I'm not entirely so keen on some of the activist poems, because they strike me as too tailored to the cause. "The Sex Life of Slugs", written for an online "against rape" project, explains too much of the faintly comic process the slugs are up to, and its final lines

Meanwhile, after dark, slugs stroll
The pavements, heedless of rape

left me thinking: well yes, but they do get trodden on and salted rather a lot, so on the whole I'd still sooner be a female human. The few purely humorous poems aren't really my cup of tea either, though to be fair, "Phone Sex" sounds as if it's meant to have a tune attached, while "Lowering the Teaune" might do more for me if I had ever listened to "The Archers" (I sometimes seem to be the only person in the country who hasn't).

Mostly, though, this is a varied and entertaining collection. The medical poems, especially, are effective - it is no surprise that she has often been successful in the Hippocrates Awards.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
"I'm super excited about this getting married idea, But there's a lot about me you don't know."
"There'd better be," he said warmly.
"So it makes sense for the tips of icebergs to fall in love, without knowing anything about the bottom parts?"

This notion of people as icebergs, most of which are beneath the surface, is central to the novel. We come in at the point where Veblen, a typist and translator in her thirties, has just become engaged to Paul, a move she suspects may have been an error. Both she and he have huge issues with their families: indeed every parent in the book is more or less hopeless at the job. Several of them, as we gradually discover, have themselves been poorly parented and are passing their consequent hang-ups on to the next generation: in this respect the novel is reminiscent of Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, though, as we shall see, it fights shy of his pessimistic conclusion.

Partly because of her sense of humour, McKenzie is excellent at writing about relationships without cloying sentiment or tiresome psychobabble. Her observation is acute and detailed:
…yet it was clear that your choice of mate would shape the rest of your life in ways you couldn't begin to know. One by one, things he didn't like would be jettisoned. First squirrels, then turkey meatballs, then corn, then - what next? Marriage could be a continuing exercise in disappearances.

Later, this same acute observation creates an almost unbearably moving scene when Paul, a medical researcher, is trying to get it through to the relatives of brain-damaged patients that the trial these patients are about to take part in, though it will improve knowledge of their condition, will not actually do anything to cure it. They have all been told this; they just don't want to believe it.
The people in the room began to talk, trading what they'd heard. As the volume rose, Paul shrank, his stomach bunched into a knot.
"People," he said. "This is how it is. People!"
Two young women with pale skin and knitted brows were whispering to each other, and one raised her hand.
"Our dad's here and we've read the papers," she said. "And we know that this trial is to test a device to be used within hours of brain injury. It's not designed to help people who have already suffered TBI, such as our dad and other members of this trial. Isn't that true?"
Paul said, "That was well put. Did everybody hear that?"
The room fell quiet, mown down. […]
A woman in a heavy, rust-coloured parka patched with duct tape raised her hand.
"We read the papers too. We understand all that. But for us it's better to try something than nothing. It's possible my husband could get some benefit out of this procedure, isn't it?"
More murmurs from the others. He heard someone say, "We thought so too."
He was bulging with anger at their wilful ignorance, stretching himself to hide it. He said, "I hope you'll all take the time to read the prospectus again and understand that in this trial we do not expect-" The faces, from every side of the room, were tense, wrung out. "We don't expect-" He felt the room closing in on him, every face trained on his. […] He couldn't breathe.
"We don't know what to expect until we've tried it," he blurted out suddenly, and the room lightened many degrees.

McKenzie also has a very good ear for dialogue, particularly between Veblen and her sharply drawn mother, for whom daughter's place is in the wrong. In fact the book is sharp, well-written, often funny and generally enjoyable, and if the pace sometimes slows a bit too much early on, it certainly picks up by the end. But I do have one reservation. It seems almost every new American novel I have read in the past few years is determined to achieve a happy ending, even if events up to that point make nothing seem less probable. This was the problem I had with Bradley Somer's Fishbowl. To be fair, this is not as extreme a case; it is clear, for instance, that if Veblen and her mother have achieved a modus vivendi, it largely depends on their being separated by the Atlantic. But other long-standing relationship issues are still sorted out and tied up in over-neat and fairly incredible bows. I don't know if this is because the American market demands upbeat endings, but this one didn't seem to me to have evolved naturally from the book.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
03 December 2015 @ 06:49 pm
So at the start of the year I resolved to write two book reviews a month - with one caveat, I also do author interviews, which take more work, so I decided they would also count as review posts. That would mean 24 posts over the year.

Well, I made it. I did three posts in November, two reviews plus an interview, so the one December review makes up the 24. They can all be found by hitting the tags "book reviews" and "interviews with writers" in the sidebar on the left.

For those who like statistics, the 21 books reviewed included 3 anthologies, all poetry, and 18 single-authored books. Of these, 8 were prose and 10 poetry, while 11 were by women and 7 by men. Nearly all were contemporary or near-contemporary. I included a review of the short stories of Ismat Chughtai because I'd never come across her before and thought others might not have done. Elizabeth Melville isn't contemporary either, but the selection of her work by Jamie Reid Baxter was reasonably so, and I'd been hugely impressed by it at Stanza. Of the three author interviews, two were with women (Barbara Marsh and Catherine Fisher) and one with a man (Steve Ely).

Most of the authors aren't the mega-famous type, since they get lots of reviews anyway. I did review a Louise Glück, because the reviews I'd seen didn't, to my mind, quite get to grips with one aspect of it. There was no non-fiction, which is unusual for me. But the stress on poetry was deliberate: I began doing this because writers, particularly poets are always complaining that there isn't enough of a reviewing culture and it seemed reasonable to try to actually do something about it rather than just whinge. Since I chose most of the books, it figures that the reviews are mostly positive, though I hope still critically aware. If I don't like something about a book, I'll say so. I shall keep on reviewing next year, though I won't set targets, but will still hope to do one or two a month.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


This is a short anthology of poems, commissioned from the three poets, on the theme of ageing. I bought it both because I'd read and enjoyed the work of all three before and because it's a theme becoming somewhat relevant and fascinating to me. Indeed in the last two months I have read two individual collections, by Philip Gross and Tamar Yoseloff, centring on this very theme. Each poet's work in this collection is prefaced by a short note on how they worked, which is interesting though it left me slightly puzzled. Vicki Feaver says "The poems were written in solitude. But meeting with Douglas Dunn and Diana Hendry and sharing poems and ideas gave me the encouragement I thrive on". Diana Hendry, on the other hand, speaks of "meeting, talking about and workshopping poems", which suggests rather more collaboration. Her note also mentions that the topic they were given was, specifically, "Creative Ageing", and the editorial note indicates that the brief was to "challenge the orthodoxies surrounding ageing".

I can imagine why the commission may have harped on the positive, because one obvious pitfall of this theme is that it may produce something quite morbid and depressing. But pitfalls in poetry almost always come in pairs, and while avoiding this particular Charybdis, it is possible to veer into a Scylla of relentless chirpiness. I think this is why the Dunn poems, of which I'd been expecting the most, having long loved his work, partly disappointed me. The first poem, "Thursday", is just plain not very good. Lines like

If only I could tap my old exuberance,
High spirits that I plied in days of yore;
Then maybe I would find a kind deliverance
From the curse of being such a bloody bore

may be meant as amusing (I didn't find them so, but we old grouches are hard to amuse). But it sounds just like Clive James versifying, and Dunn is so much better than that. The next couple of poems are better, but keep coming up with slick one-liners like "one chirrup absent from the dawn chorus" and "So fall off a barstool swigging your hemlock" ("The Wash") that begin to sound like a desperate determination to make a joke of everything. In his prefatory note, he mentions that he re-read that unbearably poignant scene on ageing from Henry IV Part 2: "we have heard the chimes at midnight", but found no inspiration there. I suppose it wasn't jaunty enough.

Luckily the very next poem, "Wondrous Strange", shows Dunn back at his best, not trying to come up with easy answers to what is by nature elusive:

Now it can almost be heard. But not quite
Almost. Still on the far side of nearly,
It is the melody of a floating feather.

There are some memorable poems after this, notably "Curmudgeon", with a genuinely funny and observant one-liner, "he is a virtuoso concert pessimist", that leaves the rest standing, and "The Glove Compartment", which doesn't try to mitigate loss and mortality with flippancy and is starkly moving.

Most of the Dunn poems are set in the now of ageing; Vicki Feaver, quite often, comes at the theme through memory, looking back to a youth that has departed. She is

travelling forwards at time's pace
and backwards and forwards
at the mind's speeds ("Travelling").

There are several luminous remembered moments –pomegranate juice, dressing-up boxes – and a tendency to reinterpret, revalue in the light of age what is seen and experienced, like her reaction to the ageing, drying fruit in "Clementines". I think it's arguable that there are, in modern poetry, not just in this collection, too many "I remember" poems and that it's a theme which can become predictable, but it is very well done here. The most memorable poem, to me, was "The Blue Wave", in which she comes closest of the three to the "creative ageing" brief in celebrating a painter:

But in my head there's a painting
done in your nineties
when just to lift your arm

was an effort: a single brave
upwards sweep with a wide
distemper brush so loaded

with paint the canvas filled
with the glistening blue wall
of a wave before it falls.

One of those images that does in a moment the work of a paragraph.

Diana Hendry's selection is mighty unpredictable. We go from memories-of-childhood poems to coming-to-terms-with-the-present poems and (my favourites), ones which veer unexpectedly off at right-angles to reality, like that iconic oldie Cpl Jones going into the realms of fantasy. She takes risks, which means that not all of them will come off – I don't think "Meditation on an Old Bear" really rises above doggerel, and in "An Alternative Retirement" I find her praise of the Hatton Garden jewel thieves, or as she calls them "the glamorous gang riding off with the loot", plain annoying: a thug on a pension is still a thug, not a role model.

But other risks come off rather beautifully. "Autobiography" with its ballad rhythm has an air of Causley

And what d'you remember of fear, child?

Long grass, bare feet, imagined snakes.
Dark slid a lid across the day.

And "Beyond" is probably my favourite poem in the collection. Its syntax and lineation are freed-up, unconventional in a way no other poem in an otherwise completely conventionally-justified book is, and the thought-line is to match.

What is it about the need for it? The why
of flight        mountaineering        the gift of grace.        How dire

if ours was the only galaxy!

How happily the word sits in the mouth, satisfying
as a communion wafer.

This is the sound of the distant train
                               running through your dream--

be-yond be-yond be-yond be-yond.

I found this an uneven anthology, but its best poems, notably "Beyond", "The Blue Wave" and "The Glove Compartment" make it well worth the modest £7 cover price.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


With a Selected, it's fun to go back to early poems and see when various themes and techniques emerged. I hadn't read the poems from Sweetheart for some time, and had forgotten how reminiscence-based they were: like many first collections, they take much inspiration from parents, childhood memories, early love affairs. But already individual traits are emerging. The memories don't all come from one place: America, London, Scotland all figure. There's a keen interest in the mortality of things, the insides of animals and people, the way places change over time. In "Fleet" we see both this and another preoccupation that will become central: this is essentially an urban poet who is more moved and vitalised by cityscapes than rural scenes:

             I glide blissfully through my day,
all liquid, like a fish. I can't understand
what gives this extra lift to my step, as if I'm floating,
and the cars drifting through Clerkenwell Green
are barges carrying sailors home from sea.

But an undercurrent sinks me at Islington:
I sense the bones of the old prison, the plague-dead
dumped straight from their beds

There's also a hint, in "The Arnolfini Marriage", of the fascination with ekphrastic poetry and coming at a theme through different media, which would develop into sequences like "The City With Horns", centring on Jackson Pollock, and into her publishing venture Hercules Editions, which has brought out pamphlets by various poets in which words and images work together.

In later collections it becomes ever more evident that this is a displaced poet, one raised in one place (though even then a traveller), but now living elsewhere (and still travelling). I have a fondness for displaced poets, because their way of seeing places seems to me to be unlike any other. Their eye takes nothing for granted; nothing is overlooked for long acquaintance or accepted as commonplace. The delight and surprise pulsing through "The Nolans in Japan", where Tokyo is "a wind-up toy - flashing,/bright" is that of someone seeing it new, but in London too, where she has lived a long time, she is conscious not just of
the alleys wet with condensation
darkened streets

but also of

               the rivers running
just below the ground, the Wandle, the Walbrook

the Tyburn, the Fleet. (Christmas in London)

The other thing about these poets' way of seeing, especially seeing the past, is that a place is not just a place, but that place at a particular moment of time. In "The Atlantic at Asbury Park" a derelict fairground's heyday is briefly evoked and becomes emblematic for that time when everything still seems possible to adolescents, though the evidence of the adults around them suggests otherwise; in "London Particular", the speaker's London merges with the city her father knew decades before.

This consciousness of time passing is always liable to foster a sense of darkness. In many of the London poems, her fascination with ruined buildings comes through; "Construction" is in fact more concerned with what has been demolished:

               The empty plot forgets
clothes strewn on vanished floors, spoons and frying pans;
in demolition the goal is ground,
we are out in the open.

The later poems in particular are getting quite death-haunted, as tends to happen when poets get older. This city-dweller is not usually much for flower poems; it seems grimly appropriate that when she does choose to write about one, it is either poisonous ("Sinister Little Flower") or the invasive, destructive "Knotweed":

               You will not budge

now you've found your calling: the felling
of our failing structures.

In the fine sequence "Fetch", where a woman indulges her fantasies of a different and more dangerous life, Yoseloff's taste for the sinister creates real, gripping tension and fear in the reader. This undercurrent of menace and decay exists in many of her poems, but so, alongside it, does the related carpe diem impulse of "City Winter", another hymn of displacement. Another thing I like about displaced poets is that they have no comfort zone; they are never entirely where they want to be and if there are any answers, they are always somewhere else:

               What you want

you won't find here. A train
leaves the city, its complicated tracks
weave past buildings still to be built,
girders lifting beyond the horizon,
its passengers bound for those lit rooms
flickering like grubby stars
on the outskirts.

This may make for restlessness in the poet, but it stimulates nothing so much as excitement and variety for the reader.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
10 November 2015 @ 12:24 pm
I've been thinking an awful lot about poetry anthologies lately, mainly because I've been reading an awful lot about poetry anthologies - I've heard, over the past year and especially the past few months, of umpteen coming out (even been invited to be in some). I thought at first it might be to do with the imminence of Christmas, since they make popular gifts, but I think it's more than that. The poet Jon Stone suggested on a Facebook thread that publishers found them more saleable than, for example, first collections by relative unknowns, and I think there's some truth in that, though I also think the very existence of Facebook is part of it - suddenly it has become a whole lot easier for an editor thinking of putting an anthology together to contact a large number of poets at once.

Anthologies of writing, prose as well as poetry, have always been an easy way in, a way to find writers you might not have known about and get a taste of their work so that you can then go on to read individual collections by those who please or interest you. In this respect they're very useful. Some, especially those on specific themes, have more permanent uses. They can show poets reacting differently over time to the same theme, like John Greening's "Accompanied Voices" about poetic reactions to musicians. Or they can show the reactions of different sectors of society - classes, genders - to the same event, like Tim Kendall's "Poetry of the First World War". Some showcase particular schools, which is handy for those who think in terms of schools, though to my mind the most interesting poets will never fit into one. An increasing number are "instant reaction" anthologies, got up in a hurry to promote some cause or protest at some wrong. These are by no means always poor: it depends on the editor's judgment and on how thoroughly, or hastily, the job is done, and "For Rhino in a Shrinking World", to take one example, is excellent. But I have read some I admired a lot less.

Ones that are purely time-based - Poetry of the Forties, Best of 2015 sort of titles - are, to my mind, only useful in the first sense, i.e. they give you a taste of many poets, allowing you then to choose the ones into whom you want to go more deeply. These anthologies are, if you like, the baby stage of reading poetry and I don't mean that as an insult, we all have to go through it. What worries me a little about the current plethora of anthologies is that I wonder if many readers are not getting beyond it at all, never delving deeper into one poet. I think this matters because, despite the critics' constant admonition that a poem should be able to "stand alone", one can actually often get a lot more out of seeing it in the context of a writer's other work. Motifs emerge and develop, as they do in music, becoming more haunting each time you encounter them. In a sense, when I read Louise Glück's latest, I am also re-reading The Wild Iris, Meadowlands, Averno and all the rest (and who wouldn't want to?). Poetry is genuinely more rewarding when one has more than a passing acquaintance with someone's work as a whole.

My other worry is in case more and more anthologies should lead to fewer and fewer first collections. Publishers only have a certain number of slots per year. I foresee many new poets who are well known in magazines and anthologies but who cannot for the life of them get a whole collection published. I don't actually want to read an anthology, note poets I should like to know more of, and then find there is no way of doing so, nothing behind the tempting facades, as if I'd stopped off in a promising tourist spot and found it a Potemkin village.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
06 November 2015 @ 11:32 am
no title

Catherine Fisher, who lives in Newport, writes both poems and YA fantasy novels. In poetry, she has won the Cardiff International Poetry Prize, while with her novels she has been shortlisted for many awards including the Smarties Books Prize and the Whitbread Prize for Children's Fiction. Her futuristic novel Incarceron was published to widespread praise in 2007, winning the Mythopoeic Society of America's Children's Fiction Award and selected by The Times as its Children's Book of the Year.

SHEENAGH: I think you've said before that you, like me, are one of those who can't write poetry and prose at the same time because the rhythms are so different; the poems just come out prosy. Do you consciously think yourself into a poetry or prose mood? When something starts to germinate in your mind, how soon do you know which form it's going to take? And what would you do if, say, you're in the middle of a novel and you suddenly get a really good impetus for something that just has to be a poem?

CATHERINE: It's hard to write both at once; sometimes it works. I don't really do anything consciously with writing- it's all just spur of the moment. If a line comes to mind which is quite obviously a line of verse- or even an image or idea, I try to jot it down and keep it to work on. Whether a vaguer idea will turn out prose or poetry sort of depends on the size of the thing- having written many novels I know now when it's going to be a big story, with lots of complications, rather than a more stripped-down subject for a poem or a series of poems.
    If I'm in the middle of a novel and I get an idea for a poem I usually just do it, or at least make notes about it. A novel takes about a year to write so if you wait you'll have lost it... which happens sometimes.

SHEENAGH: Your poetry is basically aimed at adults while your novels have been marketed to children and young adults. Granted, the divide between YA and "adult" books is a bit artificial, I read your YA fantasy novels with pleasure and I'm sure an intelligent child would like your poems, But have you ever been tempted to write "adult" novels, or poems specifically aimed at children?

CATHERINE: I think I just write the books for me now- I don't really think about the YA or adult thing, and as you say, the adult readership for YA is huge. The only thing that makes the books YA really is that the protagonists tend to be young people- having said that, most of the other characters are adults and they are just as important. In the current set, The Chronoptika books, Jake and Sarah are the nominal heroes, but then there's Venn, Wharton, David, Maskelyne, a whole host of adults who are almost equally important.
    Having said that, publishers have rather different ideas and don't like too many adult characters. They seem to feel that teens only like to read about other teens, which I think is untrue. After all, this is the time in life when the adult world is impinging, and teens want to learn about it. When I was that age there were no YA books really, so I went from Enid Blyton etc straight to Sherlock Holmes and plenty of sf. And that was good.
    So if I wrote an adult book it wouldn't be that different. Though of course there is the bitter truth that so called adult fiction is taken more seriously by critics and pays better. But also it is true that the YA market seems to be prospering, even in these tough times.

SHEENAGH: "I think I just write the books for me now- I don't really think about the YA or adult thing" - That's always been my impression; your books certainly never talk down to young readers. But I know that some of your UK titles have been altered in US editions, because US publishers haven't trusted their readers to understand the British titles (though why Crown of Acorns became Circle of Stones still baffles me; have US children really never seen acorns?) Have you ever encountered any other sort of intervention like this? I'm thinking not only of how you always credit readers with the brains to know or look up what's new to them, but also of times when you've tackled emotionally difficult material - killed off parents, allowed siblings to admit to serious resentment of each other, or allowed your young 18th and 19th-century girl protagonists to be at fairly explicit risk from men, though luckily they're pretty good at taking care of themselves. Has a publisher or editor ever tried to get you to simplify or tone anything down?

CATHERINE: The Crown of Acorns title change baffled me too. Circle of Stones is so bland! I don't really understand some of these changes. The funniest one was the change of The Oracle, a title which was considered too baffling for US kids and finally became The Oracle Prophecies. Of course. So much simpler.
    There are other interventions but they are fairly low-level- mostly questioning word usage, usually because a word can be unfamiliar or idiomatic or mean something else there. I don't think I've ever been asked to tone down content, or had complaints about what goes on in the books- at least not from publishers. Some US librarians have lists which rate you for content.. how much swearing, how much violence etc.
    But I think my books are fairly innocuous compared to the more realistic YA book. At least fantasy distances violence and danger. The stuff that happens in your own street is probably far more frightening, in real terms.

SHEENAGH: "As for poetry, I hope anyone can read it. " - we both know they can't, though. Or at least, they tell themselves they can't. Many adults, certainly, seem to have a mental block as soon as they see what someone described to me as "those little short lines" and to assume it won't be for them. I would hope that doesn't apply so much to children, but I haven't your experience with them. Do you see any way to overcome this reaction of fear, antipathy, whatever one calls it? Particularly if, as I suspect, it isn't natural to children but develops as they grow older.

CATHERINE: I don't think young children have learned an antipathy to poetry. On the contrary they love it, but for them it is an oral art, like singing or stories. Joining in, chanting along, having fun with words.
    I think maybe children learn to fear poetry because somehow they pick up this idea that it is 'difficult', not straightforward, that it doesn't tell a story and hides its meaning in metaphors. So it becomes a puzzle to be solved.
    Having said that, of course poetry is difficult, because it's dense, compacted, packed tight. It's taken neat. Or, in another image which I'm playing with at the moment, a poem is like one of those pellets that owls regurgitate. You have to break it open and pick out all the bones and fur to find out what the poet has been digesting.
    Good teachers can make it loved, but many teachers find it difficult too, I suspect.
    I think the only way to keep that fresh response of the young is to read the stuff aloud, which transforms it. As a kid I chanted reams of poetry to myself because I loved the sounds, the rhythms, the rhyme. As well as the sharp, brilliant visual flashes you get.
    Teaching is hard and in these days there is little room for fun. But the child who 'gets' poetry will never lose their hunger for it..

SHEENAGH: Like many YA writers, you are deeply rooted in mythology: Welsh, Egyptian, Norse, among others. And this often goes hand in hand with the futuristic element: ancient archetypes and themes play out in a new guise for a new age. I've noticed that your dystopian futures, as in the Chronoptika books, tend to be materialistic, practical, cleansed of myth, which fortunately reasserts itself like Nature resisting the pitchfork. Again, is that conscious or just the way you naturally see the world? And do you think it would actually happen? (I'm recalling Terry Nation saying gloomily that he couldn't imagine a future that wasn't basically dystopian.)

CATHERINE: Myth is fascinating and eternal. One reason I enjoy it and use it a lot is that these are well tried and tested stories; there is something in them that goes deep, however often they are re-interpreted. And they do go well with the futuristic.
    I have done a few dystopias and yes they tend to be materialistic places, and the reason for that, I suppose is that it's my worst nightmare- places where stories and the past have been obliterated. But the stories always come back. In Incarceron, for example, the prisoners have a whole secret mythology of a prisoner called Sapphique, who once escaped, and will one day return. The really fun part for me is creating this backstory and playing with mythic tropes, writing whole sections of scripture and poetry about him or by him, while keeping the reader wondering if in fact he ever really existed.

SHEENAGH: Following on from that, one mythology I haven't particularly noticed surfacing in your work is Irish, and I know you have Irish ancestry. Any plans in that direction?

CATHERINE: Ah. I love the Irish stuff. It has a peculiar, raw savage feel. It's different to the Welsh stories which are softer - the myths of Cuchulain etc seem primal and unrefined. To start using them would be a challenge- and somehow dangerous, as if I would be handling powerful, unstable dynamite..
    So I have no plans just yet in fiction, but certain poems may happen, as a way into it.
    I don't think humanity will ever lose stories. At the moment we seem to have more of them than ever, and everything is always being reworked. Sometimes I don't like the results, but I like the obsessive need for it.

SHEENAGH: Your little poem pamphlet Folklore (Smith/Doorstop Books 2003) was very much about that, how folk motifs survive by being reworked in each generation. When you say "sometimes I don't like the results", are you thinking of anything in particular?

CATHERINE: Well, I'm being purist here. I love the idea that stories are being constantly reworked. But that means writers can- and do- take liberties with the characters and re-arrange them in new scenarios and different adventures. Which is fine, as long as there is some integrity with the originals. I suppose I'm thinking mostly of TV and film adaptions- things like the recent Jason, and Merlin, which I don't tend to watch because the modern idiom and 21st century responses of the characters irritate me. But then it's always been like that. I bet there was some crusty old scribe back in the 1100s complaining that Chretien de Troyes' new version of the grail story totally wrecked the original, and that things didn't really happen like that.
    The great thing about myths is there is no original and there is no really.
    This impinges a bit on fan fiction, but of course with that there is an original.

SHEENAGH: Talking of which, I know you've encouraged children in the past to write fan fiction based on your books, particularly when they wanted the story to continue and you wanted to go off and write something else! Did you ever read any of it, and if so, how did you react? I know there was a fair bit, and I'm guessing a lot of it revolved round Getting People Together who didn't explicitly come together in the books - young readers don't half want true love to triumph, whatever else happens...

CATHERINE: I gather there is quite a bit of fan fiction around, especially about the worlds of Incarceron and Sapphique but I have never gone looking for it and haven't read much. I have no objection to people writing it as long as it's clear it has nothing to do with me. As you say, I imagine it's mostly people playing with the characters' relationships and re-arranging them to their own liking, or inventing new adventures for them. I understand the desire to do that, if you are so in love with that world or those characters that you just want more and more of them, and the author is too busy (or disinclined) to provide it. Also it can be a way into writing, as copying paintings is for artists.
    But I think in the long run it leads to sterility, and writers have to be brave and take the step away and invent their own stories.
    By the way, earlier I said that with fan fiction there is an original, and that's true, in that say, the book of Incarceron exists. But looking at it in more detail, even that book is actually an assemblage, an artwork created out of thousands of bits of things- paintings, poems, books I've read, films, places I know, and many more tinier, intangible things. Only the way it's put together and expressed is truly mine.
So maybe, even with fiction, there is no ultimate original.
    Which doesn't stop me feeling possessive about the work and uneasy about what happens to it out there..

SHEENAGH: Talking of originals, both your poems and your novels sometimes use historical characters, but very differently. When, in your poems, you get into a past voice, like James Hartshill in The Unexplored Ocean, or the two adversaries in "Incident at Conwy", it seems you're trying to get as close as possible to the reality of being them. But with the historical characters in your novels, like John Dee, Maskelyne, John Wood of Bath, it seems the first thing you do is work free of the reality, changing names and at least lightly fictionalising the character. Why might that be?

CATHERINE: Actually these two examples are quite similar. James Hartshill, for instance, is invented. I wanted to write a set of poems about Cook's voyages and initially tried to use Cook's voice, but that method was full of potential pitfalls. His diaries exist, he was a real person. So I could easily be seen to get things wrong, be inaccurate, and would be constrained by his responses and the things he really did. It was easier to comment on Cook through Hartshill, who can be or say anything I want him to be. He starts off as very young and naive and grows disillusioned.
    So that is very similar to the way I use Jonathon Forest as a fictionalised version of John Wood. Wood was a wonderful man and full of crazy theories, but the demands of fiction meant that his life had to be re-arranged into the pattern I needed. So Forrest is Wood, but not quite.
    For example, Wood actually met a young woman called Sylvia and took her into his household, but she later committed suicide. In my story Crown of Acorns she does not do that.
    It's as if one is writing an alternative form of what happened, or trying to impose pattern, because real lives are so chaotic and random. I think that this is the need underlying most fiction.

SHEENAGH: Many of your YA protagonists, especially the girls, are quite spiky, combative characters. Is that a reaction against the sort of "heroines" you and I mostly had to put up with in the books of our childhood?

CATHERINE: Oh well, we've all cringed at the stereotypes. It is a reaction against them, but in fact I think YA readers- who tend to be mostly girls- now simply expect them. In my teen reading I had no trouble being the boy hero in my mind, but now readers don't have to do that. Things have changed, and that's good...

SHEENAGH: For some reason I've never quite figured out, I found the tree buried upside down in Darkhenge hugely sinister and unsettling! Where did you get the idea for that?

CATHERINE: It is immensely sinister, which is why I love it. It comes from Sea Henge, the neolithic timber circle found on a beach in Norfolk, I think, and which was the subject of a huge row between neopagans and archaeologists. In the centre of the circle was what turned out to be the remains of an upturned tree-trunk. Enigmatic. Unexplained. Just there.
    There is just something so intriguing about that. Such a sense of lost stories and rituals.
    Hence the book's themes of the Unworld, and the shamanic ladder into other dimensions. Incidentally if you are ever in the Fwrrwm in Caerleon they have a modern sculpture there of an upturned tree which is truly tremendous, and maybe a bit like how the original might have looked.

SHEENAGH: A huge row between neopagans and archaeologists sounds such a wonderful scenario, I want to read the book about it! I know you've been very involved with archaeology; its influence is obvious in many of your books. Is there anything else from that arena that you're thinking of writing about? (I bet we could show you some inspirational stuff in Shetland if you ever come up so far!)

CATHERINE: In Darkhenge I did try to convey both sides of that argument- whether to leave the remains in situ and let the sea destroy them, or take up the timbers and preserve them, even though it's the place they surround that's important. By the way, Seahenge by Francis Pryor is probably the book.)
    I love archaeology and especially the Neolithic, which has such fascinating mysteries. What we lack, of course are the stories those people told. And without them we will never understand them, however familiar we become with their material circumstances.
    Imagine trying to understand Christianity without knowing the story of Christ, or Norse myth without Odin, Thor and co...You'd have a vague idea, that's all. Not even any names.
    I'm not planning anything from that far back in the past at the moment though, as my next book is a contemporary one. But that's all top secret yet

SHEENAGH: We'll be waiting with interest…


Catherine's website is here

Poems

The White Ship

The white ship sails all night out of his dreams,
her fierce figurehead drinking the cold sea.
He leans and fingers her smooth, open lips.

Spindles of ice her frosted spars,
sails crumpling, sloughing and filling
with the salt breathing of the wind.

All day he sits, talks, works, and he forgets her,
till in a window or in someone's words
comes sea-glitter, a gull's rebuke,

and in the turning of his head he's back
among creaks and whispers, the rotating wheel
that no-one grasps, the cabin with its lamp

swinging on the outspread charts.
It's those charts he never can remember;
always as he gropes for them they've gone,

leaving a sense of infinite distance;
islands marked with strange calligraphy;
and names, names he almost knows,

that tantalise but just won't come,
so that in songs or a poem's skirl
he tries their echoes over on his tongue.

Each night he journeys on the winter ship,
hands on the ropes, feeling the spray,
living in the cracks between his days.

And where he's sailing to he doesn't know,,
except that it's too late to turn back now;
that here are all the spaces of his art,

the craft he once thought he was master of,
driving him out across an endless sea,
alone under the stars; far from home.

(From Altered States, Seren 1999

Incident at Conwy

During the Wars of the Roses a Lancastrian officer was shot by a marksman stationed on the battlements of Conwy Castle. The river between them was at least half a mile wide. The feat was recorded by several chroniclers.

1. Llewelyn of Nannau

Oh man, you are foolish to wear that surcoat.
the gold and the blue outrage the dull afternoon.
You are a heraldic flicker among the leaves
tempting my pride.
I have not killed men in the stench and fury
of battle only, that I would baulk at this.
I am an archer. I send death winging,
sudden and cold over parapet and fosse;
the lightning that strikes nowhere twice.
I'm too far away to see your pain,
the blood that will sully that bright coat;
too far for the shriek from your lady's arbour.
Nor will imagination spoil my aim.
The taut string creaks against my fingers,
brushes my cheek softly, as I draw back.
My eye is steady down the shaven shaft.
You're a roebuck, a proud stag, a target.
Your words do not goad me, I can't hear what you say.
Your death will be skilfully given, and without rancour.
At least I am not too far from you for that.

2. Rhys ap Gruffudd Coch

The river is wide, and the leaves cover us.
we are safe enough, but they are certainly ready
- each tower and arrowslit is crowded with faces,
and notice the fool on the battlements with his bow.
This castle will drink an oblation of blood
before we break its stone teeth.

That archer has seen me; he lifts his bow.
Well the river will not bleed from his arrow.
Doubtless he would kill me if he could
and boast about it over the spilled wine;
a distant, stout, nameless man
who would never have seen my face.

Then he would thresh about in the straw at night,
seek solace from priests, drink away memory,
but the line would have been thrown between us,
the bright gift passed, that he could not take back.
Look, he draws. If he should strike me down
I will never be so far from him again.

More poems here

And here's an extract from Catherine's ongoing Chronoptika Quartet. This is from the first book in the quartet, The Obsidian Mirror. Gideon is a human boy who was stolen years ago by Summer, the queen of the Shee who live in the wood where "all times are now", and he longs to escape.

The Shee knelt and touched the footprints, sniffed them. Then it raised its hands to its ears. "What is that terrible whining cry?"
    Gideon was wondering that too. "Is it the world freezing up?"
    He had been with them so long, they had taught him to hear as they did. He could hear the cold night coming down, puddles on the gravelled track hardening infinitely slowly, the icy crystals lengthening and creaking to a pitted surface. He could hear the birds edging on their frozen roosts, the blown barbs of their feathers, the blinks of their beady black eyes. He could hear the frost crisp over the windowpanes of Wintercombe.
    But this whine was worse than all of that.
    "Sounds like a human machine," The Shee rose, disgusted.
    Gideon nodded. The creatures' aversion to metal still pleased him, even after all this time. It was their one weakness. The Shee listened, snow dusting its thin shoulders, its moonpale hair glimmering.
    "Summer will want us to investigate." Gideon turned.
    The Shee's eyes went sly. "Enter the Dwelling? Many have tried. Venn is too careful."
    "For you, he is. But I might be able to…"
    "Summer forbids it."
    It was a risk. They were treacherous beings – this one would betray him in an instant. So he said heavily, "You're right. And after all, tonight there's the Feast."
    The creature grinned, as he had known it would. "The Midwinter Feast! I'd forgotten. We must get back."
    Its quicksilver mind would be full instantly of the promise of the music, the terrible, tormenting, fascinating music of the Shee. The music that devoured lives and time and his own humanity, the music that enslaved him and haunted him and that he hungered for like a drug.
    "You go," he said. "I'll come later."
    "I have to bring you. She'll be furious." Its bird-eyes flickered. He saw the small pointed teeth behind its smile.
    "I'll follow you. I just want to see where these prints go."
    It hesitated, tormented. Then nodded. "Very well. But be quick!" It turned, and its patchwork of clothes ebbed colour, a magical camouflage, so that now it wore a suit of ermine and white velvet, the buttons on its coat silver crystals of ice. it stepped sideways, and was gone.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh



Eustache Deschamps, in a 15th-century ballade, noted forensically the effect old age was having on his body and mind: not just his yellowing teeth and failing tastebuds but his impatience with youth and intolerance of change, and observed gloomily "Ce sont les signes de la mort".

Love Songs of Carbon is a whole collection on the theme of ageing; if it does not echo Deschamps' mordant gloom, that is because Gross, now in his sixties, has a writing voice rather like that of the late Edwin Morgan, dominated by intellectual curiosity and irrepressible playfulness, and therefore sounding far younger than his physical age. What terrifies and disgusts Deschamps intrigues Gross; you can sense him not recoiling from his subject matter, but wanting to poke into the whys and wherefores of it, as in "Mould Music", where it is not too much to say that he delights in the insidious beauty of decay:
the ghostly blue-grey

of the lustre on the plum skin
is developing its imprint

of the after-life.

As for playfulness, nothing ages a person faster than forgetting how to play, and in this respect Gross has always been careful in his work to avoid the trap of "growing up" or "acting his age". There is no word or idea with which he will not play, and here this principle extends from not-so-casual verbal games like substituting "drink about it" for "think about it" (in "A Briefer History of Time"), through the thought-provoking pun in "Theses Written on Mud":
That Thesis and Antithesis were a marriage made in Heaven, or in Hegel. Ask their only child, Syn

to the disturbing notion he plays with in "Mattins", that centuries of valuing the soul over the body might be mistaken; that the "rusty", stiff body shuffling toward the bathroom at three in the morning might be more cherished by its creator than by its owner. This poem about an ageing body positively (and ironically) glitters with the verbal subtleties of an agile mind, witness the multitude of meanings he gets into the single word "passing", and the wordplay in the body's moving "through the cloisters of itself/to its offices", where "offices" hints beyond "set times of prayer" to "house of office".

The word "play", in fact, dominates the collection; there are even poems called "Players" and "Ways to Play". "Towards a General Theory of String" is the pure play of a theorist, ricocheting between science and metaphor, and indeed Gross's intellectual curiosity extends into fields where many poets don't go. There is vocabulary, every so often, that will send most non-scientists to a reference book to learn something new – I'd had no idea, before this, that Brownian motion was a genuine scientific term, not just something Douglas Adams invented in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Of course, all this playfulness has a darker side; with such a theme it would be odd if it did not. "Senex" (not a reference to Betjeman's poem of that name; they are as unlike as they could be) is as forensic in its observation of ageing as Deschamps:
crisp, tetchy, liable to flare
- no time for smoulder, […]

bones honeycombed, half air,
lightness that could blow away

(and will)

And behind ageing is mortality: in the innocently-titled "A Walk Across A Field", a couple unsure of their footing on frozen grass are uncomfortably aware of how this is "like any pavement/for the very old". Back at their car, the narrator observes, in a phrase reminiscent of the Falklands war reporter's "I counted them all out and I counted them all back",
I count us in
- me, you.

This poem, and others like "A Love Song of Carbon", revolve around awareness that all human relationships and activities end the same way. Yet the collection's tone remains positive, insisting on seeing it as "a kind of victory […] To be/here. So very here. So very small" ("Storm Surge"). And the opening poem, "Paul Klee: the late style" ends with an exhortation:
be

the drum skin
beating till it rips

still beating (don't say beaten) even then.

Again this is a mite reminiscent of the defiant ending of Edwin Morgan's late collection, Cathures. He, however, was then in his eighties and consciously saying farewell. Philip Gross, happily, is but a lad in his early sixties and his 'satiable curtiosity should be delighting us for a long time yet.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
28 October 2015 @ 07:02 pm
It's been a problem ever since social networking online was invented. Writers, and still more, publishers, thought it was a heaven-sent way to advertise one's wares, and most publishers will urge their writers to use it to that end. Unfortunately there is a fine line between making people aware of what you do and making a total pest of yourself, and on networks like Facebook and Twitter (especially the former), people cross it every day. How Not To Promote One's Writing is dead easy: not only are there guides to it all over the internet, but we can see daily examples that, to anyone with an ounce of tact or style, beggar belief. Don't post reviews of your work on other people's timelines. Don't, when wishing them happy birthday, suggest in the next breath that they buy your book. Don't ask someone to add you as a friend and at once ask if they'd like to review your book. Don't add them, without asking, to groups that concern your work. Don't "invite" them online to events hundreds of miles from where they live, just because they're on your friends list. We could all go on....

But what would actually be more use is some guidance on what we can do by way of self-promotion, that will have the effect of making people want to know more, rather than less, about our work.

So here's my suggested method.

Facebook and Twitter are both good for making announcements. "I'm reading at Y on date Z". "Hey, I got into magazine X!"."My book got a good review at this link." All fine, as long as you say it once, not every day for a week, and as long as you also post about other stuff, preferably not all writing-related.

If you can, though, make even these posts not all about you, so that people other than you, your best friend and your doting mamma have an incentive to read them. It's a matter of phrasing. Try "Delighted to be reading at Y on date Z with those fine poets A and B" (tagged if you can). And "Folks might like to try magazine X; I just got a friendly reply from them" (if you can add "a timely reply", your friends will be not only interested but amazed). The third one properly goes "Many thanks to CD for his generous review at [link]". There's a degree of normal politeness in this, but it also works for you, in that it widens the circle of interest (A, B and CD will all also have their fans).

Have a writing blog, and post non-ephemeral stuff about writing on there first, linking from Facebook and Twitter. But make the blog about writing, not just your writing. Talk about general questions, ways of working, current debates in writing. Review other people's books and mention their successes. If you must think in terms of "what's in it for me", well, there's always the chance that if you review Jack's book, he may return the favour. But that isn't really the payback. What you are aiming for is to make your blog interesting to writers and readers in general, so that when you do choose to post about your own work, you will have an audience predisposed to listen.

And even posts about your own work can be given a more general application. Most writers are fascinated by others' ways of working, so post about your methods. A poem or an extract from a novel will have some audience, but a post about "why I chose to write this in the second person" or "the problems I had with the sestina form and why I persisted" will, I reckon, have more. Try to make blogposts fairly regularly, maybe between two and four a month, so that folk don't forget you're there. In the blogroll on the left are good examples of how to do it: Emma Darwin, Jo Prescott, Emma Lee, just for a start. Read and comment on other blogs; keep up with what's going on in the forum.

Keep the blog for writing-related posts, but on social media, talk about everything under the sun as well as writing. What you are trying to avoid is people seeing your name in the newsfeed and thinking "oh dear, Fred's boring on about his work again".

Think of yourself as part of a community, and your job online as promoting and growing that community - if you like, it's about increasing the diameter of the pie, rather than fighting for a bigger slice of what there currently is.

That's what occurs to me offhand, anyway.