An interview with Christopher Meredith

Christopher Meredith interview

Brief Lives Christopher MeredithChristopher Meredith is an award-winning author of fiction and poetry. He has published four novels, three full poetry collections, and several shorter works. He is also the subject of a new Writers of Wales critical study, written by Diana Wallace.
Meredith’s new book, Brief Lives, is his first venture into short story writing – and its release comes thirty years after his groundbreaking debut novel, Shifts.

In this interview, Rosie Johns asks Chris about creative inspiration, the impact of personal experience, and the challenge of playing with tone and style in the short story form.

In the acknowledgements, you mention that you felt Brief Lives is an unoriginal title; what about it was so important to the collection that you decided to keep it anyway?
It’s not that I feel the title’s unoriginal – it is. Apart from the famous John Aubrey book from the 17th century at least one novel, other story collections, various book series and radio series have used this title. It was simply my working title as the book evolved, and it grew to fit. Ultimately the publisher registered the ISBN under this title without checking with me and there we were. In some ways that was a relief as it was probably the right title all along, and the subtitle six fictions does a bit of extra work.
Calling this book Brief Lives was a bit like a composer calling a piece Nocturne or Study or Caprice. It draws on a myth kitty of shared knowledge and expectations and suggests both form and theme. But the two words are very charged. As used originally for Aubrey’s short biographical notes on real people, the word ‘brief’ implies that the writing is not the whole story. In its origins, ‘brief’ can mean a summary, or better a compression. In one story, ‘Progress’, the young man standing on a bridge actually uses the word ‘summaries’ to describe, euphemistically, a blaze of powerful memory that’s just run through his head. While a summary can sound like an arid thing, it can also suggest; its compression can expand in the mind after the reading. A few reviewers have commented on the intensity of this book which perhaps is an effect of those compressions opening in the mind.
So it’s the writing that’s ‘brief’, but of course there’s the thought that life itself is brief too, and the fact of mortality haunts this book. Every story touches on death in some way. The powerful conflation of art and reality in that double meaning partly explains why the title has such a draw.

The story ‘Opening Time’ features in two very different books: Snaring Heaven and now Brief Lives. What drives your certainty that it belongs in both, despite their differences?
Snaring Heaven is a collection of poems. There are echoes and connections between that story at the end of the collection and other poems in that book and also its title; exactly the same thing happens in different terms in Brief Lives. There it gathers many of the elements and effects of the previous stories and goes beyond their various realisms. Readers can compare the two books and decide for themselves.

Does writing about Wales in English differ from writing about it in Welsh? And if so, how?
I’ve written little in Welsh and in all my writing I hardly ever write about Wales. It’s not a subject but often, perhaps always, part of the context. The one difference I can think of is that when writing in Welsh that context is manifest. Of Wales, not about.

How much of your own experience is reflected in the three stories that take place in Wales, and how is this influenced by the connection between place and memory, as demonstrated in ‘The Enthusiast’? And in stories with less explicit locations, how else do your experiences inform the narrative?Everything you write has to come from somewhere in your own experience, even if that experience is sometimes reading, research, dreams, stuff overheard, something glimpsed, stuff at second or third hand, etc., and all of that’s then transformed in the imagination and the process of writing. In that sense, everything in the book comes from that slippery thing ‘experience’, and I don’t see the value in looking for differences in how that plays in relation to ‘place’. The mediation of that stuff into the final story can be immensely complex and obscure. I’ve never waded into a cold river to rescue a child as happens in the supposedly realistic and located ‘The Enthusiast’, but it became useful for the story to imagine how that would feel. On the other hand, in ‘Haptivox’, one of the strangest and least ‘realistic’ stories, though I’ve never magically changed sex, as happens there, I have noticed a bird looking like a comma hanging on a sawn branch, and I’ve swum in ocean so clear that you can see the sea bed vividly even at quite great depths. Anyway, the story you write doesn’t care about you or your experience. It just has to work.

‘Haptivox’ certainly stands out with its more ambiguous sense of place, and the science fiction elements. How did this change of tone affect your portrayal of individuals and their internal lives?
I think there are shades of ambiguity in relation to both place and genre. Formally, ‘Haptivox’ is similar to the opening story ‘Averted Vision’ in that it’s broadly third person, inhabits two points of view, and is divided into short sections. The two stories, I hope, share an unreal and intense quality. The exact setting for ‘Averted Vision’ is never made completely explicit. I hope it’s more vivid for that; there are clues and it’s roughly guessable. A date and place are given away only in the cover blurb in fact, not in the story. For the characters, the nightmare time at sea feels dis-located in time and space, unreal, and the word ‘real’ plays a key and dark part in the story. Fewer suggestions for location are needed for ‘Haptivox’ to work. But the potential of short fiction to reach for the simultaneously emblematic and, I hope, psychologically rich and convincing is at work in both, perhaps all, the stories, but in nuanced ways. The two overwrought young soldiers in ‘Averted Vision’ are named because they’re both male and I need to distinguish between them. The man and woman in ‘Haptivox’ are unnamed because ‘he’ and ‘she’ can do all the work. But at the same time that works in an emblematic way with the fact that story is partly to do with maleness and femaleness. In that sense ‘Haptivox’ moves towards the more manifestly general. But in every story I think I found myself looking into brief, often small moments in lives and at the interplay between moment and memory in isolated people to gain vistas into vast and perhaps shared spaces.

 

 

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An extract from The Wellspring by Barney Norris

Barney Norris The Wellspring extract

‘A rare duet, in which father and son rediscover a whole world through the redeeming power of art.’
– Declan Kiberd

Barney Norris The WellspringIn The Wellspringacclaimed novelist and dramatist Barney Norris conducts a conversation with his even more acclaimed father, the pianist and composer David Owen Norris, on creativity, cultural identity, and how the two intertwine.

In this free extract, the conversation between father and son turns towards David’s career as a pianist: how it began; the impact of failures and accolades; the strangely altering milestone of 30.

This extract begins on page 87 of The Wellspring.

Playing

BN: I’ve titled this second sequence ‘Playing’. Ostensibly, what I hope to cover here is the bulk of your professional life – your work as a performer. But I have it in my mind as well that what we’re circling is one person’s route into a life, into living well, and I want to draw attention to that as we begin. This book will take the same path everyone does as they find their way into the world – first we listen, then we simulate, then we live. In some lives, I don’t think the path is as easy to trace. Not everyone has a vocation. Not everyone’s entire life can be expressed as the development of a single project. Of course, your life isn’t adequately summarised if we turn it into a single developing theme, either. If we were to exhaustively catalogue everything you’ve ever done, a meaning would emerge that was too diffuse and complex to express – or you might end up with a catalogue of infinite drift, I don’t know how open you are to the idea that lives have inherent meanings at all, or whether it’s fairer to say all narratives are superimposed. But the opportunity we have here is that it’s in the nature of an artist’s career, where the life feeds the work and the enthusiasms are buried deep in childhood and the work is all-consuming, that a narrative can be constructed more easily than is usually the case that expresses something like a linear development through life. So when looking at an artist’s life, you can say things about the way all people move through time more easily than you can with some other careers. The milestones are easier to make out. So for the purposes of this book we’ll read your performing career as a second stage in a development that leads, eventually, to the writing of music. Not an adequate summation, but perhaps it’s an interesting one, you see the two as connected?

DON: It was the break-down of my early composing career that led directly to my performing career. I’ve already hinted that my composing didn’t go down too well in 1970s Oxford, though come to think, I left with a composition scholarship to the Academy. But the contemptuous reaction to my B. Mus exercise a year later – ‘This fugue subject implies harmony’ was one criticism I still recall with some puzzlement – and the prevailing narrow taste in ‘modern music’ funding circles, led me to concentrate on something I did to everyone’s satisfaction, namely, play the piano. Young performers play a wide range of music, partly because they know they need a wide range of experience, and partly for frank commercial reasons, and so I formed hands-on opinions of the work of still-living composers like Tippett & Britten & Messiaen, and I gave innumerable premieres of works by composers now forgotten.

BN: It’s a very interesting environment, the generation of contemporaries one works with at the beginning, before it’s clear who’s really going to make it. I’ve been going through that myself for the last few years – it’s still a bit too soon to tell which of my generation of theatremakers will one day be filed under that ‘now forgotten’. Because there’s no precise formula for identifying the ones who’ll last, is there. It’s not only talent, it’s not only prevalent fashions in funding circles, it’s not only luck, it’s not only hard work, it’s not only whether you choose to have a family, or where you’re from, or who you know; it’s not even whether you’re someone that anyone likes. It’s terrifying, because of course, after the first six months when a few people who thought they were serious wake up and back out, anyone who’s tilting at the windmill of the arts can’t imagine doing anything else, and doesn’t have a back-up plan, even though some will end up needing one. The arts are so hard to break into, you’d never do it if you were capable of doing anything else. But it’s also a very wonderful moment, because, in a Schrodinger sort of way, you live suspended in this moment where anything might be possible for you and your friends – even if in actual fact, when you get to the end, you will look back and find that it wasn’t.

DON: ‘Now forgotten’ sounds callous, doesn’t it? I meant it more as a merciful imprecision. Your list of things that need to slot into place is pretty scary – and very carefully ordered! Academy Professors, as I discovered when I became one, all agreed that we should exert ourselves to the utmost to put students off, because only the students that can’t be put off stand the slightest chance in the business. Good as far as it goes, but things change, become less narrow – good changes as well as bad changes. Some of the less positive changes at institutions of higher education are down to money, which has all sorts of repercussions – not all new courses fill purely educational needs. Then, if half the population is going to university, degrees will need to change, not necessarily for the worse: but we need to make sure that the former methods of study, where they were valuable, can be continued – which has emphatically not happened in secondary school music.

But there are positive changes too. I’m thinking especially of social change. What’s often called dumbing-down (something I’ve hinted at in the previous paragraph) can also be seen as a welcome acceptance that art need not always be on the verge of unintelligibility to be worthy – which is why my music can reach listeners now, though it was so out of tune with the seventies. Another helpful social development is a public acceptance of the portfolio career. We can take real advantage of the new opportunities the twenty-first century has brought us, the communications revolution. I wonder if I could have created a taste for my sort of music back in the seventies, if we’d had the Internet. But it lumbers up too late, like Chesterfield coming to the assistance of Dr. Johnson. Still, it gives us new ways to reach audiences, if only we had time to develop them.

BN: You told me once that the thing to watch for was what happened when everyone turned thirty – it was around then that things started shaking out. Having turned thirty not so long ago, I can increasingly attest to the truth of this. Did that advice come from personal experience?

DON: Observation rather than experience, luckily. There were so many schemes and scholarships that you could compete for till you were thirty. After that, you were on your own, and many winners didn’t make the change into actually earning a living. It’s an age that concentrates the mind in many ways. Clocks are ticking, clocks of self-esteem as well as of biology. Is it still too late to become a bank manager? we used to ask ourselves back in the day, in blissful ignorance, probably, of how difficult it is to be a bank manager.

 

 

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An interview with novelist Naomi Krüger

Interview novelist Naomi Kruger

Naomi Krüger MayNaomi Krüger’s debut novel, May, provides a sensitive and moving insight into the life of the title character. We see May in glimpses through the eyes of her loved ones, and from her own perspective: from the past to her present in a care home, where she now struggles to maintain her identity and memory as she wrestles with the effects of dementia.

What moved Naomi to write such a novel, and how did she go about it? In this interview, Seren’s Rosie Johns asks Naomi all about the creation of May.

 

What do you think it is about fiction that makes it a good form in which to address subjects such as dementia? 

Dementia is something that inspires a lot of fear and is often represented in the media in reductive and sensationalist ways. What I think fiction can do is give nuance to these kinds of representations. It can allow us to imagine what it might be like to live with a disease that affects memory, identity and perception. It can remind us that someone with dementia is more than a diagnosis. It can complicate the stereotype. But in some ways dementia resists narrative representations because the very things we need to write and read a story (the ability to make connections between past and present, the ability to anticipate what comes next) are disrupted. So it’s a complex thing to try to narrate in first person.

 

In May, there are several different narratives of which May’s story –despite being the thing to connect them all – is only a part. What influenced your decision to depict this story in such a way? 

I wanted May to be part of a community of voices. In some ways this was a practical choice because it would be hard to sustain a whole novel in such a fragmented consciousness. But I also wanted to show that May’s identity is inter-subjective. She has dementia but she is also part of a family and a community. She is influenced by her past experiences and her current environment in the care home. As I began writing the other narratives, interesting parallels emerged. Many of the other characters feel lost or alone. They forget things, lie or fail to speak. They are not as different from May as you might imagine at first. There are opportunities for connection and although the characters don’t always take these, I wanted readers to sense these spaces, to see May through the eyes of other people and build up a complex picture of someone who struggles to speak fro herself but still has things to communicate.

 

Given the delicate nature of the subject matter and the abstract style in which you approached it, did you find narrating May’s perspective difficult? Were there any other characters whose narratives were particularly easy or difficult to write? 

Capturing May’s perspective was a shifting experiment. At times it felt like a giant imaginative leap. Although she is a fictional character I did feel a sense of responsibility to research the effects of dementia and spend time with people who live with the disease to get a sense of the reality. But of course this varies from person to person and diagnosis to diagnosis. Ultimately it is an approximation of something often beyond language that has to feel as ‘real’ as possible. Afsana was another character that I felt a real responsibility to. I didn’t find her difficult to imagine or write, but because I was taking a cultural leap I spent a lot of time researching and trying to make sure the details were right.

 

Another character we get very close to throughout the novel is May’s grandson, Alex. He finds his grandmother’s deterioration particularly hard to deal with, especially when her memory of him fades. What would your advice be to those who find themselves in a similar position to Alex?

I think it can be very scary and upsetting to feel unseen and unknown by a person who has  previously been a big part of your life and identity. This can hit particularly hard for young people who are still in the process of finding their place in the world. I am very fond of Alex as a character. Although the book is not autobiographical his experience is very loosely inspired by my own reaction to my grandfather’s Parkinson’s related dementia. He lived with my family for my whole life and died when I was sixteen. When he began to get confused and hallucinate I didn’t deal with it very well. I went from daily contact to avoiding him as much as possible. When he was transferred to a home I didn’t visit him as much as I could have. I didn’t know what to say. My advice to my younger self would be to go anyway, to meet him wherever he is. To listen, to communicate through music or photographs or touch, to feel the fear and still go.

 

Finally, if you could recommend one book that readers of May will also love, what would it be?

I’m going to cheat and say three!

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively: A book that plays with memory, hope and regret in really interesting and beautiful ways.

The Turning by Tim Winton: A collection of interconnected short stories set on the Australian coast. I love the way the characters re-emerge, trespass and become more and more complex with each story.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: Another collection of stories, but this time focused on one main protagonist. I love how the book builds layers of relationships often through the mundane and domestic details, the moments that build and accumulate.

 

 

May is available from the Seren website: £8.99

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Legend of the Month: Gwyneth Lewis

Legend of the Month Gwyneth Lewis

Each month we are celebrating one fantastic Seren author in honour of Wales’ Year of Legends. This month the spotlight has fallen on Wales’ first ever National Poet, Gwyneth Lewis, shown here in brilliant pastel by artist Lorraine Bewsey, from her series Poet Portraits.

Gwyneth Lewis has published nine books of poetry in Welsh and English, and wrote the six-foot-high words on the front of Cardiff’s iconic Wales Millennium Centre, rumoured to be the largest poem in the world.

Gwyneth is also an award-winning writer of non-fiction and screenplays. Gwyneth’s first non-fiction book, Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book about Depression (2002) was shortlisted for the Mind Book of the Year, and her first television screenplay, Y Streic a Fi (‘The Strike and Me’), commissioned by S4C, won the 2015 BAFTA Wales for Best Drama. Gwyneth is also a writer of fiction: The Meat Tree, a space-age re-imagining of the tale of Blodeuwedd, is part of Seren’s New Stories from the Mabinogion series. Her light-hearted novella, Advantages of the Older Man, explores the strange case of a Swansea woman who is apparently possessed by the ghost of Dylan Thomas.

Gwyneth is a librettist and dramatist and has written two chamber operas for children and an oratorio, all commissioned and performed by Welsh National Opera. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a member of the Welsh Academi and a NESTA Fellow. In 2010 she was given a Society of Authors Cholmondeley Award recognizing a body of work and achievement of distinction.

 

Please enjoy this extract from The Meat Tree – a dangerous tale of desire, DNA, incest and flowers:

1

Technical Preparation

Synapse Log 28 Jan 2210, 09:00

Inspector of Wrecks
Is that working now, I wonder? I hate these thought recorders. They’re good in very confined spaces, where you don’t want to overhear the idiotic things your colleagues say to their families back on Mars, but I think they’re overrated. The trick is to keep the unconscious out of it as much as possible and pretend that you’re talking to yourself.
Now, I think it’s settling down. Right. Well, we’re just about approaching the Mars Outer Satellite Orbit. Not seeing too much debris around at the moment, they must have had a clean up fairly recently. Last time I was here, you could hardly move for junk. We’ve glimpsed the ship in the distance, and should arrive later this afternoon.
The new girl’s feeling sick but won’t admit it. She thinks I don’t know that she threw up in the heads, but you can’t hide any smells in a spacecraft. If Nona doesn’t stop vomiting, I’ll have to make her take the drugs. Her eyes are red alraedy, she’s dehydrated. I can’t have her out of action, we’re too close to the target vessel. Typical, getting lumbered with a student on my last mission.
Befrore anything starts happening, I’m going to get my expenses software set up…

Apprentice
So Campion’s telling me how he does his mileage first ‘and all else follows’ and I’m about to throw up all over him, but I manage to swallow it. Ironic. My whole life to get to Mars orbit, and now I’m here I feel too awful to take it in.
I did get to look out of a porthole as we passed close to home. Saw a dust storm in Thaumasia, thousands of miles wide. It looked like miso soup when you stir it up. Made me nauseous all over again. So I stopped looking. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to catch floating vomit in a paper bag.
We’re not one day in and I’m already tired of hearing about the Department of Wrecks in the Good Old Days. When flotsam came in from as far as the Sculptor galaxy or the Microscopium Void. When he had a full team and they got to work on really interesting cultures. Not like this speck from God knows where, just me and him – the one man in the service who has absolutely no imagination.
Oh, I think he wants to do a quick equipment check.

Joint Thought Channel 28 Jan 2210, 09:02

Inspector of Wrecks
This is so that we can talk to each other on the vessel without disturbing any of the artifacts. Sometimes alien communication can be diffused by the human voice, so we’ll keep to Joint Thought mode until we know more about what’s going on.

Apprentice
You mean like a mind-meld? God! I didn’t mean to say that.

Inspector of Wrecks
The whole trick of this channel is to avoid personal static. Keep it professional.

Apprentice
Sorry. Of course.

Inspector of Wrecks
It’s a knack. Not a silent version of speaking out loud, but it’s a way of sharing two sets of sense impressions from slightly different angles. It doubles the amount of data we can record. But you’ll have to learn to make a very precise form of running commentary. It’s not your uncensored thoughts, but it’s not formal reporting either. Try doing it on me for a second.

Apprentice
He looks much taller than he did on Mars. And skinnier.

Inspector of Wrecks
That’s close, but you can do better. It’s a question of what’s appropriate. Give me some sensory data, because that’s often much more valuable than your opinions. We Won’t know what we’re seeing, but we need to record the effect its having on us. Try again.

Apprentice
The smell of his soap makes me sick to my stomach, I can’t get away from it.

Inspector of Wrecks
That’s much, much better. Relevant stuff. A little personal, perhaps, but that’s good. We’ll be getting all the objective data from the robots we send in before us.
Again.

Apprentice
His comb-over looks like the tendrils of a plant in zero gravity.

Inspector of Wrecks
That’s it, you’re getting it. And don’t worry, you can’t offend me. What I’m looking for is information. Record it, even if it doesn’t seem important at the time. I’m particularly interested in alien emotio-translation technology, we have a lot to learn in that area. This technique is going to be especially important if we have to go into Virtual Reality.

Apprentice
The sleep of leaves!

Inspector of Wrecks
All right! That’s it! That will do for now. Oh, and I’ll change the soap. Didn’t realise it was a problem. You should have said.

 

The Meat Tree is available from the Seren website: £7.99

 

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Summer sale, half-price spotlight: Alun Lewis

Half price Alun Lewis summer sale

Our Legend of the Month’s extraordinary war poetry, short stories, and biographies (written by John Pikoulis) are all included in the half-price summer sale – and the offer ends this Sunday.

Who was Alun Lewis?
Alun Lewis was born on the 1st July, 1915 in Cwmaman. A pacifist by nature, Lewis nevertheless eventually joined the Royal Engineers as World War Two broke out, and later qualified as a Second Lieutenant despite how unhappy military life made him. In December 1942, he arrived at a new station in Nira, India, and in the same year his poetry collection Raiders’ Dawn was published. It would be the only collection published during his lifetime. Lewis died on 5th March, 1944, in what many maintain to be a tragic accident. After his death came the publication of his second collection of poetry, Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets (1945), followed by Letters from India (1946) and In the Green Tree (1948). Most recently, Lewis’ lost novel from the 1930s, Morlais, (2015) has been brought into print for the first time, marking the centenary of this great writer’s birth.

See below for our selection of Alun Lewis titles.

Alun, Gweno & Freda by John PikoulisAlun, Gweno & Freda, John Pikoulis
£14.99  £7.49
Alun Lewis maried Gweno Ellis in 1941, but they were almost immediately separated as Lewis prepared for his deployment with the British army’s Royal Engineers. Alun, Gweno & Freda delves into the charged relationships Lewis maintained with Gweno, and with Freda Ackroyd, an expatriate in India, arguing both were key to his writing and his mental health. The circumstances surrounding Lewis’ death by a single shot from his own gun are illuminated, too, contributing to the ongoing debate about whether this was an accident or suicide.

Alun Lewis Collected PoemsAlun Lewis: Collected Poems, ed. Cary Archard
£9.99  £4.99
Lewis’ remarkable body of poetic work is skillfully brought together by editor Cary Archard. The Collected Poems includes the complete texts of his two published books, Raiders’ Dawn (1942) and Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets (1945), reprinted in chronological order and retaining the important
original section headings under which Lewis chose to arrange and group his poetry. Lewis’s two collections are a remarkably detailed and full account of the experience of becoming a soldier and going to war. As Archard states, ‘no-one can read this collection of poems, together in one volume for the first time, without being struck by how the singularity of his voice permeates a surprising diversity of forms’.

Morlais Alun LewisMorlais, Alun Lewis
£12.99  £6.49
South Wales. The Depression. Choices for young people are limited yet miner’s son Morlais Jenkins seems destined to follow the educational route out of Glannant, despite his lowly background. When the local colliery owner and his wife offer to adopt Morlais on the death of their son, his parents recognise the opportunity for an even brighter future for Morlais. But what price must each of them pay? As the story unfolds through turbulent times in their mining village, Morlais comes to a new understanding of life as he grows from a young boy into a young man.
Founded on vivid and authentic passages of everyday life, Morlais is an enthralling story of place and people and shows what an exciting talent was lost when Alun Lewis died aged only twenty-eight.

Alun Lewis: A Life, John PikoulisAlun Lewis: A Life, John Pikoulis
£8.95  £4.47
From his childhood days in the depressed valleys of South Wales, Lewis felt he had a vocation to be a writer. Pikoulis traces Lewis’s development from the remarkable schoolboy stories written as an unhappy boarder, through his university education at Aberystwyth and Manchester to his return to the valleys as a teacher. Lewis’s poems and stories, authentic and moving, were popular with both readers and critics, catching the tone of the ’phoney war’ years, and later the disturbing but exciting experience of his war in India. His vivid letters home, which have been compared to Keats’ letters, capture both the atmosphere of war and the essence of Lewis’s character, and Pikoulis draws on them to portray a fascinating man and writer.

 

Half price summer sale Seren

 

 

Friday Poem – ‘Without Narcissus’, Rhiannon Hooson

without narcissus rhiannon hooson

Last night, we welcomed a chilly December in Chapter Arts, with Rhiannon Hooson reading poems from her debut collection, The Other CityIt seemed appropriate to have Friday’s Poem from this beguiling new release, for those who missed out.

screenshot-2016-12-02-12-02-07
Rhiannon reading to a full house at December’s First Thursday event

the-other-city_quicksand-cover-copyWith a sharp focus and beautiful resonance, the deeply felt poems from The Other City  tend to travel in distinct streams: some reference and re-make narratives from classical Greek myth; some rework elements of Welsh history, both ancient, and modern. There are also a number of poems exploring the idea of otherness and the uncanny, where actions are done and undone, and the familiar made unfamiliar.

 

Without Narcissus

The lack of his blindness shocks the silver water black.
Your palm’s slap against its surface is looped silence:
bare shoulders with their heron stoop,
the wet ropes of your black hair, the empty water
and the stiff-leafed lilies which break for sharp fingers,
their pink throats silent and smiling. Speak.

Over the water the red rock leans and watches.
Your nails like fish-scales break against
the cool shadow of its noon, and the silence. Speak.
Even the fish have voices, even the rough
hush of the trees, even the birds.You press your body
to the dark-loomed sediment and learn its silence, touch the red
heat of your mouth to the rock and learn the syllables
of its unspeech. Speak.

Birds watch you writing the mangled sign of your name
wet hair strung across the tangled mats of cress,
white fingers and their fish-belly pallor, your white lips
kissed against the petals of the lilies.You can speak
their silence back to them so well, so well.

 

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NaNoWriMo: How to write a novel – advice from Seren novelists

how to write a novel advice from Seren novelists

It’s November and that means NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) has begun. If you’re not familiar with it, NaNoWriMo is a worldwide writing challenge, where participants have one month (1st–30th November) to write a 50,000 word novel.

Are you taking on the challenge? Perhaps you’re in need of a little motivation? Or maybe your novel has been in the works for a while now, and you need some guidance to get it finished? Whatever the case, Seren novelists are here to help.

Take a look below for some novel writing tips from the experts. Whether your novel takes a month or a year, we know you can do it.

Bethany W Pope author of Masque1. Start by letting your mind wander where it will. Taking long walks helps. Don’t ever say ‘no’ to an idea, however ridiculous or obscene it seems at first. Every idea is a seed; it’s best to let it grow. (Bethany W. Pope, author of Masque)

 

Jayne Joso author of My Falling Down House2. Don’t begin until the ideas preoccupy your thoughts, until you have read and researched to a point of exhaustion, until your mind is full of the world of the book, and the characters inhabit it freely. Things will change and move, grow, and diminish, and some will brutally be cut, but if you begin with a world that you can see, characters that you are beginning to know, then, when you settle down in the quiet to write, the world of your novel will begin to emerge as though by itself. Research more as you go, as you need to; sleep well, exercise and eat well, and always have something else to read. Stay with the world of your book in your mind, and switch off when you need to, sleep some more, run or swim some more. Then write and write, with fight, with joy. (Jayne Joso, author of My Falling Down House)

Bethany W Pope author of Masque3. Eventually you’ll spot your characters. Once you’ve seen them, the best way to capture what they’re like on the page is by inhabiting them, mentally. Use the actor’s method. Wear the skin of the role that you’re playing; write as if you are them and the writing will breathe. This is easier than you might think — after all, you are them, really; or they are aspects of you. Even the bad guys. Especially the bad guys. They’re parts of your psyche that you never let out. (Bethany W. Pope, author of Masque)

Jo Mazelis author of Significance4. There are two ways to approach a novel: some writers plot the whole work in advance, others begin with a vague idea, character or situation, then plunge in allowing organic development to occur. Neither is right or wrong, but there are certain advantages to both, every writer will discover along the way which works best for them. (Jo Mazelis, author of Significance)

Bethany W Pope author of Masque5. When it comes to the actual writing, do it wherever you can. By this, I mean that you should write wherever you can actually produce work. My top two choices are at the gym (I think best whilst moving — the stepper is my friend) and while sitting in my (empty) bathtub with a budgie on my head. There is no ‘should’ when it comes to writing. If it works for you, do it and give no thought to what other people think about it. You have to if you want to finish the job at hand. Once the story starts coming it will continue to come. If you love it, you will finish it. That which we cannot live without is that which we love. (Bethany W. Pope, author of Masque)

Jayne Joso author of My Falling Down House6. Drink whiskey, drink tea. Plan, don’t plan. Write. Tear it up. Start again, as you like… but finally, remember, there ain’t no way round but through, so just write the darn thing! (Jayne Joso, author of My Falling Down House)

 

Bethany W Pope author of Masque7. Do not worry about proofreading or editing until after the first draft is finished. Get it out, as fast as possible, even if it’s rough. It’s much, much easier to edit a finished manuscript than a few measly pages. But once it’s out of your head, for the love of God, go over it with a fine-toothed comb. Remove all the nits and every last tangle before sending it out to meet the world. It’s your child, after all. It deserves a clean face. (Bethany W. Pope, author of Masque)

 

We hope these helpful tips from our talented authors give you the push you need to get that novel finished – however long it takes.

‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’
– Douglas Adams

 

 

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Short Story of the Month | ‘Intervals in making lace’ by Diana Powell

short story intervals in making lace diana powell

Our new short story of the month is ‘Intervals in Making Lace’ by Diana Powell. This is one of a collection of stories set in the Black Mountains, where a group of women artists gather to work. As they do so, they spin tales of their childhoods, coloured by the folklore and landscape of their surroundings. But what do they really remember?

Diana Powell Intervals in making laceDiana Powell was born and brought up in Llanelli, and studied English at Aberystwyth University. She writes mainly short stories and novels. She won the last PENfro short story prize, and the 2013 Allen Raine Award. This year, she was a runner-up in the Cinnamon competition, and was longlisted for the Sean O Faolain, and the Over the Edge. Her work has appeared in a number of print publications, including The Lonely Crowd and Brittle Star.

 

Intervals in making lace

This is an extract. Read the full short story for free on our website.

 

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How do you describe a gap? It is, after all, a place with nothing there. You could say ‘an opening with two clear ends’ perhaps – like a break in a fence or a mountain pass (both easily found in our hilly, farm-shod landscape). Or holes in a fishing net; a clearing in a wood …  to let water out; to let light, animals, people, gather.

All these are gaps. All physical entities (although there is nothing there). There are plenty of examples both natural and man-made, difficult, but not impossible, to explain.

But how do you make sense of the other kind of gap – the less substantial, belonging to the mind, or the spirit?

Recently, I have been enduring such a gap in my life: a break in its normal proceedings. An accident. It was an accident: all my own fault, of my own making. There is no one else to blame.

Just like then, whatever they may have said.

‘Foolish Bron! Daydreaming again!’ Words from the past echo down to me. The voices of my mother and father, or sisters, fondly scolding. ‘Off in cloud-cuckoo-land, Bron? Again?’ True, then; true, now. For yes, I was daydreaming. You’d think I would have learnt … I had learnt! For a long time, I had! But no, my thoughts wandered away, and my body followed, leaving the stove on, and the towel draped too close. Easily done; it could happen to anyone! Though there are, no doubt, those who whisper about my fondness for a glass of whisky; a second glass. Those such as the old women in the Square, who tutt behind me as the till girl in Mace slips the bottle into a brown paper bag; all the while dismissing and excusing, somehow, their own favoured tipples – as if sherry and gin do not count as the devil’s potions, brewed to steal your wits and lead you to Hell.

But there was no whisky that night, though I am happy to admit to it on other occasions. After all, it is a quick, easy way of making gaps in your existence, if that is what you are after.

So … there was a fire, as testified by those who pulled me from it, and by the charred detritus of my worldly goods – and of my body. Yes, my body bears witness, but not my mind. Not my consciousness, for I remember nothing. Even the knowledge of the stove and tea towel were presented to me later. Lucky, some say. Better that way – to have been pushed into such dense oblivion by the fumes, and to fall from that into an even deeper chasm of unconsciousness (the greatest depth of my gap), so that I did not know the worst of the pain, or the prodding, patching and finishing that was needed to put me back together again, into some reasonable fashion. Did not know … until I finally woke and had to face the torment, and battle through it (such floundering, such darkness, then!) Making tentative steps forward into painful reality, interspersed with welcome lapses back into insensibility … one step forward, two steps back. Onwards, upwards, until…

Until I am here. Now. Again. Yes, I have come through on the other side. For there is always this about gaps – the suggestion that they can be bridged or crossed; that they are something to emerge from. It may take time, and much effort. But, with some luck, and hope, you can make it. Maybe.

That is how it seems to me now – now that I am trying to put my life back together, and make sense of it all. Yet, in truth, none of what happened should have been strange to me. I should have been prepared. I should have known all about absences from consciousness; lapses from reality. I should have remembered. But back then we called such things by different names. We wrapped them in strange words, or wove them into magical imaginings, all meant to cloak, disguise or simply hide them. And so the truth was left unsaid, replaced by uncertainty and bewilderment. Another kind of gap; a deep, churning river that you struggled through, leaving you reaching for understanding like a drowning man gasping for air. But since I came back here, amongst you, memories have been returning – not from the accident, but from my earliest years, as if they are needed now. Like the echoing words, they flash into my mind, clear, not clouded. And beyond them, something else is taking shape – something not fixed, yet, not fully revealed, but which, if I start with what is definite, will also, perhaps, become more clear, so that I, too, will have some kind of story…

 

Continue reading ‘Intervals in making lace’ for free here.

 

 

 

50th Anniversary of the Severn Bridge | An extract from Edging the Estuary

Severn Bridge

The original £8m Severn bridge was opened by the Queen on 8 September 1966, heralding a new economic era for South Wales. In celebration, here is an extract from Edging the Estuary by Peter Finch, in which Peter meets the men continuing the traditional method of Lave net fishing on the River Severn, at times directly below the bridge.

Edging the Estuary Peter FinchAbout Edging the Estuary:
In the Middle Ages the port of Cardiff stretched from Chepstow to Gower. Peter Finch, archetypal Cardiffian, sets out to explore his heritage, walking the Welsh side of the Severn Estuary and reclaiming his personal memories in addition to discovering the lives of others. And with a detour to Maismore, the highest tidal point of the estuary, he walks the English side too, taking in the differences with Wales, reviving past links and looking at his homeland from abroad. On his journey he sees the estuary as border, a highway for trade and ideas, an industrial zone, and a place where people spend their leisure. Rich in anecdote, evocative in description, Finch’s book takes in villages and cities, power stations and fishermen, castles and caravans, leg-aching walks and deckchairs on the beach.

The Lave Fishing Grounds

The novelist and poet Richard Brautigan went trout fishing in America. There the fish were made of a precious and intelligent metal. Trout steel in the snow-filled rivers. Among them he found the dharma or the Buddha, or love or something. I’d never done any of that. I’d never really thought much about fishing anyway other than logging that lots of people did it. Blokes in wool hats sitting on piers, pond sides, river edges waiting and on their faces that distant look. It seemed all about waiting. And I couldn’t be doing with that.
At the end of Black Rock Road, to the east of Sudbrook, is the small park the council has created facing Black Rock. In a corner is the Black Rock Lave Net Heritage Fishery’s hut. Hand built in local stone. A salmon in wrought iron adorns the front. For most of the year the hut is closed and locked but today it’s not. Martin Morgan, a fifty-year-old steelworker from Undy, is in action out front. Spread on the grass he has replicas of the fishtraps that have been used in these waters since medieval times. They’ve now been banned by the Environment Agency in an attempt to conserve fish stocks. “There used to be other methods of fish catching that are gone too,” Martin tells me. “Stock boats, drift nets, tuck nets. Those ways are over.”
The putt, a great ten-foot-long assemblage of bent willow in the shape of an open-mouthed giant cone, is the older method. The example Martin shows me is a replica made from an ancient original pulled from the river muds. These things go back to the eleventh century. The cone would be pegged to the river bed facing an ebb tide and once a salmon had swum in, it couldn’t then get back out.
Also on show are replicas of putchers – smaller five-foot cones made originally of woven hazel or willow but from the 50s onwards of aluminium mesh.These would be assembled in racks known as engines with sometimes a hundred or more in a single array. These would be strung out across the river like radar sets. Salmon was the target but they also caught whitefish and eels and anything else that drifted in.
These were the fixed engines, the fish henges. In the sixteenth century, Rawlins White, the Cardiff martyr, operated something similar at the Rhymney River mouth. The remains of ancient putcher racks have been discovered by estuarial archaeologists in waders, stepping through the glutinous mud between the river’s rapid tides. The largest, containing some fifteen hundred baskets swung out into the waters opposite Goldcliff.
The archaeologist J.R.L. Allen has used aerial photographs of the Estuary to uncover a complex pattern of fish traps dating from Mesolithic times to virtually the present day. His shots show putcher lines running just off the river shores like the claw prints of giant birds. Further out are the remains of rod and wattle fencing, formed into complexes of stone and woodposted weir. Fish dams, intertidal fish pools, fish gullies. Fish capture has gone on in these waters for thousands of years. But it’s all banned now. Regarded as being as bad as fishing with dynamite. All that’s left are the lave fishers. Eight of them. The Environment Agency refuses to issue any more licences.
Lave fishing uses large Y-shaped nets each individually made by the fisherman. The net has willow arms known as rimes hinged onto a stout handle called the rock staff, made of ash. Fishermen wade into an outgoing tide and wait. They can stand for hours with the Severn’s tides falling around them. They call this cowering. Much more exciting is stalking, where the fisherman spots a fish moving over the sandbanks and gives chase.
Caught fish are dispatched with a short wooden baton known as a knocker. Weights are anything from five to seventeen pounds. The record was held by Martin’s great grandfather. He landed a monster that weighed in at fifty-six pounds. There’s a silver-coloured replica back at the hut. The net they also knit themselves. It was once made of hemp. Smacker Williams, in Sudbrook in the 1960s, could knit a single net in a day. That was going some. When he went, the practice died out, but Martin’s fishermen have revived it. They use nylon cord today.
At the Heritage Fishery they are all lave fishermen, although as the season is so short they double up for the rest of the year with rod and line. They used to fish from February right through until October but the Environment Agency have now got them down to a mere three months. 1st June to the 31st August. They’re allowed to catch an absolute total of fifteen fish, five a month, and that’s it. Not much. Martin thinks the Agency would be happiest if it could close the lave fishermen down.
The Agency is at odds with the Heritage authorities who see the Black Rock fishermen as a relic of Wales’ traditional past and something to be encouraged. Martin tells me that last week they had a camera team along from Wedi Saith who brought a Teifi coracle fisherman with them to compare traditions. We’re out on the mud now, walking through the glutinous slime to get into the fishermen’s tiny boat. “You take care,” says Martin. “We’ve had camera crews slip here and go sprawling. They always somehow manage to save their equipment, though.” In my Homebase green wellingtons I take it slow.
The fishing grounds all have names that don’t appear on most maps. Grandstand, The Hole, The Monkey Tump, Lighthouse Vere, The Marl, The Looby and Gruggy. We row west of the Second Severn Crossing to anchor in waters that are moving at around five knots and are at least eight feet deep. “This new bridge was built right across our traditional fishing grounds,” Martin tells me.We watch his brother Richard in the distance striding along the shoreline, net over his shoulder. “It’s made the mudbanks shift and created new ones but we can still fish.”
He and Tim Bevan, a tinplate printer from Sudbrook, are in the water now, chest deep, nets below the surface, that look of concentrated desire mixed with endless patience on their faces. Catching fish is all a matter of getting the wind in the right place and the spring tide flowing. “Are things right today?” I ask. “Could be.” But in the end it turns out they’re not.
During the two-hour window between tide ebb and flow I watch the water drop more than four feet. Fields of rocks emerge around me. Hundreds of boulders running in all directions like this was the Russian Steppes. The brown water slows from a rush to a drifting crawl.You can hear the muted traffic roar on the bridge high above. But the water itself is silent. The boat shifts on its anchor mooring then bumps against rocks below. Martin has walked off hundreds of yards into the distance. His brother, once separated from us by a river depth too great to navigate, now strides across, net over his shoulders, nothing caught where he was either.
Looking west the river runs off into a silver distance that points right out into the Atlantic. You’d think there’d be ship traffic but there is none. Nothing floats by. Just the ripples. “It would have been better if we’d caught something,” says Martin. But half of fishing is the activity itself. Richard Fox and Rob Evans, two other Lave Fisherman in action today have been working the river east of the bridge. “They’ve not been with us that long,” says Martin. “And they’re the only two who haven’t caught their first fish.We’ve two more days left. They’ll be out tonight, 2.00 am, fishing in the dark, just to catch up.”
We’re back on shore now. The fishiest thing we’d seen all day was a tiny mullet about five inches long that Tim had in his net and then threw back. I missed that, too busy taking photos of English coast, power stations, or Sudbrook from the estuary distance, pumping station and the Seven Tunnel Great Spring outfall, still rushing fresh water into the river after all these years.
The EU control that limits catches is contained in Annex 11 of the EC Habitats Directive (council directive 92/43/EEC). It ripples off the tongue. But irrelevant today. Down the pub now, yes.

 

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Aspie-Chromatics | Carol Rumens on Asberger’s, ASC and Poetry

aspie-chromatics carol rumens asberger's syndrome poetry

Carol Rumens is the author of sixteen collections of poems, as well as occasional fiction, drama and translation. Here she talks about Asperger’s Syndrome and Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC), the misunderstandings and mysteries still surrounding these conditions, and how her awareness of Asperger’s Syndrome has affected her understanding of her own creative process.

Aspie –  someone with Asperger’s Syndrome

Chromaticsthe study of colour

When my grandson was diagnosed with autism it was as if a stone had been hurled into a quiet pool. The ripples spread through his immediate family, particularly affecting my two daughters (one being his mother) and myself. We re-evaluated our lives from a dizzy perspective. Autistic spectrum condition is a genetic condition. It’s a doubtful gift passed from generation to generation. A lot of us were implicated!

At first I was very uncomfortable with the idea that I had Asperger’s Syndrome. I’d always considered myself eccentric. My self-esteem relied on a sense, since earliest childhood, that I was creative, one of those people who could paint, draw, play music and write, even if they weren’t always very good at thinking straight or mixing with the other kids. I was an introvert – fine. So were a lot of intelligent people. I didn’t need close friends: I needed a room of my own, plus a typewriter. So what?

Perhaps being an Aspie made me less guilty of the wrongs I’d done to others in my life, but, equally, I was less responsible for the good. The best of my ‘good’ self – my poetry – was just a symptom, an expression of pathology.

I began the “On the Spectrum” sequence partly to express that grief. But I soon struck notes of defiance and humour. I remembered strange, disconcerting experiences I’d had as a child, and I measured them against some of the diagnostic criteria of Asperger’s Syndrome. Some were in tune with the criteria. But others weren’t.

I will have more questions in future: I haven’t finished telling the story. For instance, it’s said that Aspies lack empathy, and that we misunderstand metaphor. I wonder where this leaves the Aspergers poets – or indeed the women with Aspergers.

Sensory over-stimulation is one of the affects of Autistic Spectrum Condition: there’s neurological and experiential evidence. But wouldn’t that susceptibility be more likely to increase empathy? Perhaps autistic people, especially women (the gender which is socially conditioned for empathy) have an excess rather than a lack of response to others, but deny it because it feels chaotic and scary? An inability to grasp metaphor might be the result of a similar subconscious defence-mechanism –because metaphor is also sensuously stimulating, and therefore potentially disruptive.

Poetry might attract people with ASC because it provides techniques of controlling sensation. It allows heightened experience in the safe ‘environment’ of the page, line and stanza. It foregrounds pattern-making. It allows repeated patterns to be safely interrupted. I realise now that, whatever the genetic ‘prompt’ towards an activity for an individual, it doesn’t invalidate the activity. Being an Aspie poet doesn’t damage the poetry, but the pride.

And so, having overcome my pride and prejudice, a faintly crusading element entered my attitude to autism. The condition needs a lot more fresh thinking. I’m not generally someone who wants poetry to earn its bread as a foot-soldier in the army of good causes. But I want to speak for a greater understanding of autism, and I choose to do it through the medium I’m best able to employ. Rather than use poetry as propaganda, I would simply ask it to report back sometimes from the field, like a travel correspondent in the complex, many-coloured terrain of a newly discovered country.

What I’d like to do now, besides filing more dispatches, is to edit an anthology of poems by autistic poets. Certain poets have already ‘come out’ and I suspect there are potentially many more. Autism is a richer, wider, more polychromatic spectrum than so far defined. In fact, to know autism would be to know consciousness, which would be to see God. I don’t think anyone can, but I hope we can build some better microscopes.

 

Animal People Carol RumensCarol Rumens’ latest collection, Animal People, is available on the Seren website. The striking final sequence, ‘On the Spectrum’, focuses particularly on Asperger’s Syndrome and how it may be experienced by young women, as well as exploring some of the effects of Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC).

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