Sunday, 31 May 2009

Paul Chowder I Love You

Sadly Paul Chowder only exists in Nicholson Baker’s latest novel 'The Anthologist', which was more like finding a soul-mate to me than finding a good read. Baker’s main characters tend to have obsessions which he follows with the attention to detail their own compulsions drive them to focus on. But Chowder is a little different to the anti-heroes of previous controversial novels who gained Baker a massive following by displaying the power to freeze women and remove their clothes, or showed us inside the minds of killers and other characters guaranteed to shock. Chowder has an addiction I could relate to: he’s a poet.

Could this be even more controversial? Are we really being asked to believe a publisher thinks a book could be marketed that concentrates on the workings of a mind that only seems to think about poetry? Was it always Baker’s devious plan to see how much we could take in his novels before assaulting us with his own true compulsion, the fanatical devotion of the poetic mind to the matters of writing and reading poetry?

Strange though it may seem, this unlikely novel will be out in summer and I certainly found it a page-turner. The plot revolves around Chowder, isolated in his house as his girlfriend Roz has quite understandably left him, trying to write the introduction to an anthology of poetry. He thinks Roz has left him because he spends the days singing along to music upstairs in his barn rather than getting down to the job of writing either the anthology or some poems of his own. Readers get the feeling her disappearance might have more to do with the fact that he can only think about poetry and his favourite women writers, particularly Mary Oliver and Sara Teasdale.

The novel opens with Chowder promising us that he will tell us everything he knows about poetry, all the tips and tricks. This is very titillating to poets or any readers who think they might find a way into understanding poetry by reading on. What follows is possibly the most realistic and detailed insight into what it feels like to be a writer that I have ever seen in a novel. Baker favours the use of first person narrative, giving a step-by-step walk through the day of his main character with tiny details included. We can hear the mouse scraping along his kitchen surfaces and see its droppings, and we can feel the corner of the poetry books he starts to sleep with for company falling and hitting his face.

Every moment is permeated with the loss of Roz and his yearning to get her back, and this is the part of the story that will appeal to readers whether or not they like poetry. Chowder is the typical man who has lost his partner by concentrating too much on his job or pastime, even though he thinks she has left because he's not productive (and women could relate to his problem too if they're devoted to their work). He believes that he could get her to come back by being able to focus and work, by turning out a bit of writing, but it’s the gentle way he remembers what it was like to reach out and touch her in bed that makes us realize what it is about him Roz would really miss and want to return to.

If I have a criticism of this novel it would be that some readers may want more about the relationship between Chowder and Roz to balance the poetry theme. Usually I like a short novel but I would have liked this one to continue for longer and enjoyed each memory of Roz, the moments he met her again, and each way he worked ideas at rekindling their relationship into his daily activities.

Not many fictional couple relationships are described in a way that makes readers wish they could have a similar experience of a long-term marriage or cohabitation, but Baker has really achieved this. As other women appear, and opportunities for a new relationship present themselves, Chowder considers each one but is never tempted away from what he really wants: the return of Roz. The way that Chowder tries to win her back by his struggle to work, making small presents, and acting calm and considerate when she dates a new man, all endear him to the reader. Empathy is so vital in this kind of novel and women readers will be wanting to reach out and hug him or find another like him.

As for tips about poetry, well there are some which are based on my own particular obsession so Baker has thought his way convincingly into the mind of a poet. Chowder wants to persuade us that previous thought about iambic pentameter is wrong, that the beat of a poem is based more on music than syllable count, and I’d go along with him on that. I won’t explain more and will leave you to find out why iambic pentameter has four beats to it if you tap your foot to the music of it, and why others are a waltz with three stresses. I’m a three-beat-to-the-line free verser myself. Chowder is also a free verse writer who wants to put the case for the superiority of rhyming poetry, which he wishes he could write better. The little designs to scan poetic lines, or to keep trying to convince us of what he means with musical notes, are very funny and exactly how I'd think about it myself.

The main joy of the poetic theme is that Chowder tells us so much about the lives and work of poets from the nineteenth century onwards, and tells it in the way we would speak of our oldest and closest friends. Like most writers he has lived with these poets through their books as if they were his nearest and dearest, and as the book progresses they appear to him in supermarkets and on the street. It’s as natural for Poe to appear to him folding underwear in the launderette as it is for his neighbour Nan to ask him round to play badminton.

Reading this made me want to reach for my own anthologies and look up all the poets he mentioned, and also the ones he so rightly says have been written out of literary history when they were taken out of the main anthologies due to modernist theories or the personal spite of selecting editors. Again, this is one of my favourite rants - the unfairness of how some poets have gone out of print because they were missed from major anthologies which are still influential. It's such fun to find an alter ego in a novel and to be able to laugh at ourselves and him.

The style is deceptively simple, the stream of consciousness talks straight to us from this perfectly understood and represented mind, we’re drawn right in and held captive by the narrative voice of Chowder from the first page to the last and I couldn’t stop until I had read it all. The humour made me laugh out loud and, over all, it was an uplifting read I’d highly recommend this summer. Poets and writers definitely shouldn’t miss it.

One question I would ask is: who is the first person narrator talking to in a book like this, as he seems to be talking to the people his anthology introduction is aimed at when it starts but he moves completely away from that to tell us why he can't write. When authors talk directly to us are they addressing the reader and is there something confusing in this approach? Perhaps the question arises in this book because the voice of Chowder starts by specifically addressing people with the offer of poetry writing tips, so we feel like his anthology readers, but we end up wondering what our role is in this conversation.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Virtual Office Brings Prizewinning Global Authors Together

I'm feeling just a little smug as the Internet proves its worth more and more for writers and publishers. Those friends telling me off for frittering away time online will just have to leave me alone. It's all worth it, it is! The online television show I'm currently preparing for broadcast is just one wonderful example of how writers from all over the world can get together online to produce something extraordinary.

I'll be interviewing authors Sequoia Nagamatsu and Ovo Adagha about the One World anthology, recently released, which not only brings together the work of international authors but was also produced by them using online meeting places. Another intriguing feature of this book is that it includes winners of prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, alongside up-and-coming authors.

They will be on the Meet an Author show, which I host, and which is another example of how the Internet works alongside face-to-face book events. The show is filmed in the virtual world of Second Life, so authors from anywhere in the world can get together to be interviewed in front of an international audience. It streams live on alternate Saturdays on at 10pm UK time (2pm California time) and is then available as a recording on on the Meet an Author page. I started the show because I really enjoyed it, and it's still great fun, but I've also come to realise what a fantastic way this is for authors to reach out to a global audience.

What makes the One World venture so fascinating is the way writers all over the world have used the Internet to collaborate on it. On the show Ovo Adagha and Sequoia Nagamatsu will represent the project and speak about the development of the book, thoughts on literature on the internet, globalization/equality and concepts of space and identity in virtual worlds as well as reading selections from their own work.

Here's Sequoia Nagamatsu's description of the project: 'The collection comprises stories from 23 writers from 14 countries including Pulitzer prize winner, Jhumpa Lahiri and recent MacArthur Grant recipient and Orange Prize Winner, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie and many up and coming names.. All of the writers worked in an online office to put the manuscript together, work on design, marketing and other tasks.'

The book was launched this month at the Oxford Literary Festivalat Christ Church College, Oxford and the authors are working on other events in locales around the world including outreach and presentation to high schools in America and now Second Life and online television as well. If you're on Second Life you can come to the event or go to the venue for more information If you're not on Second Life then you can see the show on the Treet TV links above.
You can find out more at:

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Me and My Avatar in Poetry News

I've been in the Poetry Society since I was a young teenager and the quarterly issue of Poetry Review through the post has had many emotional impacts. It has never made me laugh as much as it did today though. There was a face I recognised on the front page of Poetry News, the newspaper-style publication that accompanies Poetry Review these days. It was the face of my alter ego on the virtual world of Second Life - that tireless champion of poetry and writing in the 3D world, Ms Jilly Kidd. And boy does she look earnest.

I'm tempted to sing 'Me and my Avatar' to the tune of 'Me and My Shadow' as I talk about Jilly. She has accompanied me through the 3D world doing all sorts of things I'd love to be doing in the real world, and while others use Second Life to live out their various fantasies (which I'll leave you to imagine), ours seem to have centred very single-mindedly around writing and writers. I've brought my two sons up on my own since my husband left 8 years ago, so doing all this around London would be tricky as they need me at home, and poets are generally broke so childcare isn't always an option.

For years I've thought how lovely it would be to be in a Poetry Society publication, and I've admired the poets whose work I've seen in there. More and more I'm seeing names of people I know personally, which feels very special. The last thing I thought would be that I'd see myself there, with my better half Jilly talking about the virtual Stanza we run for the Poetry Society. These Stanzas are usually run by members in real towns all over the UK and abroad so that local poets can get together and encourage and support each other. I found it hard to get out to them myself but really wanted to take part and the Second Life Stanza has let me do that. I hope it also helps others who can't get out of the house easily for various reasons, and the added bonus is that it lets poets from all over the world get together.

I think I shall just go and share this moment of enjoyment with Jilly, and if you're a poet or writer maybe you'll join us on Second Life. It was fun to see how they overlapped photos of me and Jilly on the inside back page where the Stanza Profile articles appear, and how Jilly's photo made it to the top of the front page without me of course! There's no stopping that girl.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Day My Book Arrived

There was a knock on the door and I could see through the glass that it was the package I'd been waiting for. I could have kissed the Rastafarian postman carrying it, who was needlessy afraid of my chihuahua Max (he really should have his photo on here). Max was in my arms and very cool and relaxed as chihuahuas go. It's true what they say about dogs imitating their owners or vice versa.

The postman was carrying something very different: a brown package containing the author's copies of my poetry collection Never-Never Land. Let me just say here that I will Never Never give a book such an ominous title again. Delays beyond anyone's control have kept me waiting two years to hold this book in my hands, so just in case titles can have this effect I'll call the next one Hot Off the Press.

After such a long delay, punctuated by regular intimations that the book launch was imminent, I'd started getting excited so often that this time I expected to feel nothing. I thought I was numbed to that thrill of seeing and touching the actual printed item. I've been a writer most of my working life, mainly in journalism, so having my writing published is a familiar feeling. My first job as a journalist was when I temporarily left school at 16 wanting to go away and become an author, and a very brave editor of the Kentish Gazette in Canterbury let me join as a junior reporter.

For a year it was my job not only to write but also to get the cheese rolls from the pub downstairs for everyone at 11am, and also to go to the basement print works and gather a pile of newspapers as they did quite literally come hot off the press and into my arms. Upstairs the reporters waited hungrily to flick through the pages to see which of their articles had got pride of place and which had been considered good enough to earn them a byline.

Since then I've had many articles published and also a book of non fiction, plus 14 poems in an anthology by John Murray. But this is my first full collection and poetry is such a great love of mine. The feeling when I opened that parcel and lifted out a book, stroked its cover and looked through the pages, is almost indescribable and something I could never have imagined. I can only compare it to that feeling I had as a child at Christmas, the excitement that's so physical it stays as a thrill in the stomach and radiates through the whole body. It's a feeling you think you will never have as an adult, but there it was again. Bluechrome lets authors have a lot of say in the choice of cover and how they want their book to be in all sorts of ways. To have imagined a book, from its writing to its physical appearance, makes it a wonderful moment when you actually hold the finished article. I shall now go and see how it smells!

There are a limited number of signed copies available from Amazon reseller Muse Harbour Books.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Selling My Library

It may sound like selling the family silver and it feels like it too. I'm selling off my lovingly chosen and read books - needs must. For the poet at the bus stop life is always lived very close to the breadline, and what with the credit crunch income and expenditure no longer add up. This writing habit is a hard one to finance.

'What?' I hear you mutter at your computer. 'But surely there's no money to be made from secondhand books.' Well, I've always wanted a secondhand bookshop, and apparently secondhand books are one business that's thriving during the recession. People might not usually skimp and save on the cost of a book, but suddenly they are. So I have to admit there's a certain pleasure when I receive an order from somebody wanting the very books I wanted to buy so much once upon a time. A pleasure that continues as I wrap and send them off and imagine that person watching for the post in anticipation of a good read.

One day I might leave London (hard to imagine in many ways) and one thing that would tempt me would be the possibility of getting a house and a little shop somewhere, by the sea probably as I only seem to love the city or the sea. Until then it's easy and free to do it all by mail order, offering all my beloved books bit by bit on Amazon. Off go my Carol Ann Duffys, my Paul Muldoon and even the long Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo that I lived with so happily for months. I'm an editor as well as a writer so I read almost as slowly as the authors write some of these books.

I had set up as an Amazon reseller before but didn't have much luck. This time it's definitely different, so perhaps people are realising secondhand books are a helpful saving. Hardback poetry books and sought after novels for as little as 1p each - the resellers can manage because Amazon charges so much for postage so that alone is enough. There are some books I just couldn't part with because I turn to them so often - all my Pascale Petit collections and the anthologies by Sylvia Plath and Hilda Doolittle. Apart from those I think I can part with them and find them at times I'm looking for a particular poem, and the flat is definitely starting to look less cluttered.

The emails are coming every day as the books are ordered. Is it the credit crunch, the desirability of my much loved books, or the name I chose for my virtual secondhand shop - Muse Harbour Books? Whatever it is it feels nice to know somebody else will enjoy them and as finances improve I may well buy some hardbacks for 1p each myself.

'How can you make any money on 1p sales?' I hear you ask. The postage from Amazon means you make at least 60p from each book and that's dinner for me. 'What??' I hear you cry. 'But Jamie Oliver rants on about dinner for under a fiver at Sainsbury's.' Well, I have some recipe and shopping tips to help you all through the recession and will share them in future posts. We won't starve in our garrets or ground floor flats, and whatever the recession brings the poet at the bus stop will be smiling and still writing.

Friday, 27 February 2009

They're giving my book away

If last Friday was an exciting day for me with my first full collection being printed and stacked up somewhere all nice and new and making me want to get my hands on it, then today was also a bit of a surprise. The book hasn't yet arrived in my eager hands, but I logged on to check the publisher's website and found he's giving it away! Well, only two copies to people who email quickly and you can have a go on You might get a book before me, but I think my author's copies are going in the post as I blog.

'How thrilling this must be for you,' my friends who don't write poetry are saying, and even some who do. It's only when that book is out there that it suddenly hits you that people will be reading it, which is fine, but also all those people you've mentioned in it. And, as poetry is often truthful and mentions real people, then the time of publication feels more like a good time to hide away. As Stevie Smith says at the start of her Novel on Yellow Notepaper, 'Oh my friends, my beautiful friends, who will never speak to me again.' I'm sure some of you will be able to find the correct wording for that! Goodbye friends, not to mention family. Still, a bit of solitude is nice at this time of the year. Or for the rest of my life!

I wrote this book after four years living in Italy where I got married, had two sons, and never spoke English. The over stimulation of living in another culture and losing touch with my mother tongue meant that I didn't write in those years, so when I came back to London I wrote with a focus I had never experienced before. An author I read about years ago said that becoming a mother made her take a step forward in her writing, and that happened for me too. As if all my physical deadlines had been met, as if becoming a mother made me somehow complete, I felt free to be alone and to write.

My husband left and I wrote with a passion, going back over the years in Italy first, and then jumping backwards and forwards in time, getting out all those poems that were inside me somewhere waiting to be formed. Until, with the poem 'Never-Never Land', I caught up with the present and had come full circle, so it became the title poem. I'm working on a new collection now which is mainly set in the present, and just finishing a novel.

If it all loses me friends I suppose I'll make new ones - the kind of people daring enough to hang around with poets who say 'publish and be damned'. At last I understand why some poets like to be cryptic, and why ambiguity might be our best friend. Why some people would rather write fiction not drawn from life. I think I'll carry on with a plain spoken style though. You have to write what comes and I'm incredibly outspoken and open.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Why I'm at the bus stop

I love that quote in the novel The Information by Martin Amis, where he says the more you have to work at your writing the less you earn - 'Ask the poet at the bus stop.' Yes, that's me ok. Broke at best and a lot worse in times of recession. Cheery though, as I'm a Londoner after all, so I'll just do a dance, flap my elbows, and sing like Tommy Steele.

Ah well. My first full collection Never-Never Land was printed last Friday and has arrived with the publisher, bluechrome, today. So I'm very excited. No, it won't make me enough to do my weekly shop unless something very extraordinary happens to the poetry market in times of recession. Perhaps people might turn to it as they do at other extreme moments of emotion, like funerals and weddings.

It's so strange to think of my book all stacked up somewhere and to imagine holding it someday soon in my hand. It's enough to inspire me to work even harder at the next one to make sure it earns even less. Amis wrote a funny short story too, where everything is reversed and poets are the ones who earn loads while agents get very little and sit in a pub bemoaning their fate.

Well, I've tried to say two main things about me in this first post: I'm a poet and I like Martin Amis. I have just one question to which there is no easy answer. Amis makes a load of money. Does that mean, according to his own philosophy, that he doesn't work at his own writing? Something is going on and I'll be discussing more about writing in future posts.
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