Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Poetry Challenge 2013

The poetry challenge

A year ago today I was planning my poetry challenge. As a reluctant poetry reader the challenge was to read at least one poem a day, every day and to choose a new poet every week. By the end of the year I should have read at least 365 poems and 52 new poets.  One year on I can claim success and more.  I managed to read on average about four poems a day. Some weeks I did cheat and would choose to read a poet’s collection I had previously started and failed to complete, but in the course of those weeks I invariably found other poets to read somewhere along the line.  Because here is the thing, once you embark on including poetry as part of your daily life you begin to see it everywhere; in newspapers and magazines; at the beginning of books; on the internet; in the underground; on the back of cereal packets. Poetry exists everywhere we just don't notice it.

So how did I choose my poets and where did I source their collections?  When I started I knew very little about poetry, but I did know loads of poets. The first thing I did was broadcast a plea on Facebook and Twitter. The response was staggering. I began with a list long enough to keep me going for the first couple of months.  Many of these poets continued to send me suggestions throughout the year if they came across something they thought I would like.  Even with this very unscientific approach I find that the poems span many centuries and continents. I am surprised by the many Scottish poets in my list but also by the diversity.

I admit to buying a few new poetry books, both hard copy and ebook.  I found many of the poetry ebooks under £2.00 and often free. I also used WWW.Poemhunter.com, a superb source that allows you to download free poetry ebooks.

Because I lived part of 2013 in France I had to organise my library books with care but I am sorry to say the libraries only held a limited online selection.

Most of my books were second hand.  Early on in the year I visited Callander where bookshop owner, the lovely poet and publisher Sally Evans, guided me on the best and most influential poets to read. She insisted I read John Donne and I am glad she did.  ABE Books, a marketplace of online second hand bookstore was my main source.

My greatest joy was trolling the shops of Paris. There I found the elusive Edwin Muir, an old version of French Poetry with translation, a bilingual version of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Yeats and Emily Dickinson. The search was as pleasurable as the reading.

So what did I learn from this challenge?  The aim was to improve my own writing. I am not sure if this is achieved, time will tell.

I have learned that reading poetry enriches your life in unimagined ways. New worlds have been opened up to me. I have discovered a love of art, I know more about Greek Mythology, politics, oppression, nature, life and love.

The challenge may have ended but I will continue to read poetry every day. This is a daily habit I intend to keep. 

Throughout the year I have managed to read full collections but often I could only dip in and out again.  I only managed a glance at Shakespeare’s sonnets and the French collection. Milton’s Paradise Lost and Seamus Heaney’s Translation of Beowulf have been neglected.  My new challenge is to work on finishing the unfinished and immersing myself in the epics. And I can't wait.

Below is my list of readings:

Week 1 – Thomas Hardy, Poems of the past and present, full collection
Week 2 – Kathleen Jamieson, The Overhaul, full collection
Week 3 – The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, complete poem
Week 4 – Billy Collins, selection of poems from Poemhunter.com
Week 5 – Two Billies – William Letford, Bevel, full collection and William McGonagall, A Selection, full collection.
Week 6 - Sharon Olds, Stag’s Leap, full collection
Week 7 – Robert Crawford, The Tip of my Tongue, full collection
Week 8 – Mark Doty, Atlantis, full collection
Week 9 – T S Elliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, full collection. And Sydney Goodsir Smith, Under the Eildon Tree, full collection
Week 10 – Moya Cannon, Carrying the Songs, full collection
Week 11 – Emily Dickinson, Everyman’s Poetry Collection, full collection
Week 12 – Bernardine Evaristo, Land of Abraham, full collection
Week 13 – Rhona Fitzgerald, Oidreacht/Inheritance, full collection
Week 14 – Christopher Reid, The Song of Lunch, full poem
Week 15 – Sheila Blackhall, The Toad on the Rock’s Opinion, full collection
Week 16 – Warsen Shire, Teaching my mother how to give birth, full collection
Week 17 – Dylan Thomas, Everyman’s Poetry Collection, various selection
Week 18 – Don Patterson, Landing Light, full collection
Week 19 – August Klienzahler, The Strange Hours Travellers Keep, full collection
Week 20 – Pablo Neruda, Love – Ten Poems, full collection
Week 21 – James Robertson, Hem and Heid – ballads, sangs, saws and poems, full collection
Week 22 – Elizabeth Burns, The Gift of Light, full collection
Week 23 – WB Yeats, Everyman’s Poetry Collection, various selection
Week 24 – Charles Baudelaire, The Poems and Prose Poems of, various selection
Week 25 – Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, various selection
Week 26 –Wong Phui Nam, Way of Exile, various selection
Week 27 – Ray Bradbury, On Creativity, complete book
Week 28 – Paul Muldoon, The Poetry of, various selection
Week 29 – Marina Tsvelaeva, Bride of Ice, various selection
Week 30 – WH Auden, Tell me the truth about love
Week 31 – Chris Salt, Home Front, Front Line, full collection
Week 32 – Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken and Other Selected Poems, full collection
Week 33 – Epic of Gilgamesh, part read
Week 34 - The Poems of Wilfred Owen, full collection
Week 35 – Yardza Garcia, A Shy Girl Screams Poetry, full collection
Week 36 – Wendy Cope, If I Don’t Know, full collection
Week 37 - Edwin Muir, Selected Poems, full collection
Week 38 – Alice Walker, Horses make the landscape look more beautiful, full collection
Week 39 - Poems of the Great War 1914-1918, various poets, full collection
Week 40 – George Mackay Brown, Northern Lights, Poems and Prose, full collection
Week 41 – Maya Angelou, And Still I Rise, full collection
Week 42 – Ted Hughes, Birthday Letters, various selection
Week 43 – Tennyson, various selection
Week 44 – Theodore Roethke, selection of poems from Poemhunter.com
Week 45 – Louise Gluck, selection of poems from Poemhunter.com
Week 46 – Sai Murray, Ad-liberation, full collection
Week 47 – Kevin Cadwallender, various selection
Week 48 – John Donne, Complete works, various selection
Week 49 – Robert Louis Stevenson, Everyman’s Poetry, various selection
Week 50 – The Poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, various selection
Week 51 – Moon in The Pines, Haiku, full collection
Week 52 – Michael Ondaatje, The Cinnamon Peeler, various

Some were great, some were good and a few were truly awful but they were all worthwhile to read.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

The curious world of Bizarro

A couple of weeks ago I read a copy of Chris Kelso’s A Message from the Slave State and experienced my first curious taste of the Bizarro genre. I thought Bizarro would make a great topic for a blog post then realised I was hopelessly under qualified for such a task so I interviewed Chris about the genre and his writing. I'm now clued up and you can be too if you step into the weird world of Bizarro with the talented Chris Kelso as your guide. 

Chris Kelso

You are the only Scottish Bizarro Writer. What is Bizarro and when did you first discover this new genre?

I’d say the most frequently used tagline the Bizarro genre has sums the whole thing up pretty well, although there is more to it. The tagline goes that: Bizarro Fiction defines itself as the literary equivalent of the cult film section in a video store. It has a definite focus on the outrĂ© but shares common tropes with science-fiction, fantasy, and horror as well as with Dadaism and surrealism. It’s a great mash-up of tastes and styles. There’s a strong influence of new Weird in there as well as horror comedy (I’d even argue that Ero Guro has been just as instrumental in shaping the Bizarro voice – it has certain preoccupations with eroticism, sexual corruption and decadence.) I discovered it myself about 7 years ago, and like most newbies to the genre, it was Carlton Mellick III that lured me in. I was going through a kind of ‘controversial novel phase’ as a teenager where I was consuming anything that people found morally reprehensible or distasteful. “Satan Burger” was popping up all over the place and causing a stir – so I bought it, read it, and before I knew any better I was spending a large chunk of my student loan on Eraserhead Press titles. I was SUCH a fanboy. I still am really. Having the chance to finally be part of that whole thing is a dream come true, and in most cases I am actually friends with the writers I grew up reading. I even wound up co-creating a magazine called Imperial Youth Review with an idol of mine, Garrett Cook. It’s been a fairy tale as far as I’m concerned.

What attracted you to the genre?

I had my period of wading through the classics of the literary canon but by the time I was at university I was crying out for something that appealed to my sensibilities and didn’t feel like homework! Don’t get me wrong, I love the classics, I also love Scottish fiction like Robin Jenkins and Alasdair Gray, but there’s a side to my personality that all that stuff doesn’t cater to. While it’s certainly aimed at a mature audience, a large proportion of the Bizarro community take their inspiration from cult movies which make it accessible and appealing to disillusioned younger readers. It aims to satisfy the demands of readers who are looking for deliberately and unashamedly weird literature. Although a lot of the writing itself is surreal and grotesque, there’s an aesthetic of self-promoting too so every author in the genre is a hard-working, stoic professional. It’s the perfect genre to induct new writers – it’s unusually welcoming for a lit-movement, but you have to work your arse off to get anywhere and stand out. I need my arse kept in check like that to stay on top of my game.

Much of your work is short fiction. What opportunities are available for publication of short fiction in this genre? 

There are always new podcasts (Christopher Boyle’s BizarroCast and Jeremy Maddox’s Surreal Grotesque shows instantly come to mind) and ezines appearing within the genre. You really couldn’t hope to be in better company as an emerging writer because people are constantly creating a new arena for you to express yourself. Everyone is very encouraging and there are ALWAYS open submissions somewhere.

At times your prose uses exquisite literary description and unique metaphor. Do you ever explore other genres to sustain this type of prose? 

I do. Bizarro is really just the “excuse” I cling to in order to communicate my horrid little stories without being stoned in the street or deemed abhorrent in the eyes of society. It’s not just my excuse, I do actively identify myself as a Bizarro writer in some capacity. But it allows me to write without restraint, urges it even. This is tremendously freeing for a writer. I’m just as influenced by literary fiction and science fiction as I am by Scottish fiction (believe it or not!) and some non-fiction. The Bizarro genre has been hugely inspirational to me but most of the actual literary devices and developments I exercise are taken from or influenced by the more recognised genres.

Who are your main writing influences and why? 

This is difficult for me. I have so many, but I’ll give you the run down on the three who have had the biggest impact on me. My main influences are….

.William Burroughs – because his prose is just stunning. It’s raw, ugly, refined and coarse in equal measure. “Naked lunch” provides, in my eyes at least, the true blueprint for what Bizarro fiction means to ME and what I think it’s all about: Writing without shackles, provoking and employing heavy use of metaphor to create fix-up novels. The pop-culture significance is also present in Burroughs work.
 .Alasdair Gray – “Lanark” is my favourite book, hands down. “1982 Janine” is a close second. He was the first Scottish writer I’d come across who didn’t come across as a stuffy auld arsehole (of course I’ve since learned that there is a rich tapestry of writers who don’t write like stuffy auld arseholes!). His writing is so accomplished and his artwork is beautiful. That’s another thing that influenced me to try and illustrate my work. The experience simply enhances twofold. I want to create a similar reading experience.
.Philip.K.Dick – Everything about his books tap into what I enjoy most about writing. He introduced to me the idea of creating worlds and analysing the shifting dimensions of our reality. His writing is always smart, efficient and funny. I’ve read most of his books, even the trashy, pulpy novels he wrote early on in his career just to generate cash. I’m missing people like Garrett Cook, Samuel Delaney, Tom Bradley and Charles Bukowski, but I’d be here for bloody ages blethering on about them…

Cartoons appear sporadically within your collections and you use a relaxed, often very funny dialogue. These two elements in your writing led me to wonder if you have ever considered branching into the growing Comic writing scene that is happening in Scotland at the moment. Have you?

I have actually! I’m currently scripting a comic at the moment called The New Animal Liberation Front. There are already some exciting people coming on board to help me out so hopefully we’ll see more from that endeavour soon. But I’m really proud of the way this country is so ingratiated in comic books. From 2000AD to Grant Morrison, there’s a strong network of top-Scots in the field. We seem to be intrinsically channelled into the whole comic book ethos, we just seem to get it over here. There are obviously great artists and writers in comics all over the world, but for a country our size it’s a phenomenal thing to witness. I’m very keen to be part of it, or at least meet some its main proponents. I met Grant Morrison a couple of years ago in Forbidden Planet and I had a lovely chat with him. Unfortunately, I tend to get all marble mouth and start sweating profusely in the company of greatness, but he was very, very cool and lovely…

You have been published both in the UK and in the US. How do the experiences compare?

I’d say the US publisher was much quicker, but both have their pitfalls and graces. I love Dog Horn (who published “Schadenfreude”), but Adam the editor is so unbelievably busy and backlogged that the book took a good while to come out – that said, I think Dog Horn is the freshest and most exciting indie publisher of alternative fiction in the UK –PERIOD- , so it was a small price to pay just to have their name attached.

And finally what advice would you give any writer wishing to break into the Bizarro genre? 

Show each other respect. All the established Bizarro writers are approachable and beautiful human beings who want to see everyone in their genre flourish and succeed. They respond to politeness and a showing of mutual respect. If you need advice they are always accommodating. Just make sure you leave the ego at the door. Get networking on Facebook and make sure you join all the groups that discuss Bizarro literature, think about the Bizarro writing workshops too. There’s no initiation or bull-shit. If you write bizarre, weird fiction there’s a place for you.

Chris Kelso is a Scottish writer, illustrator, editor and journalist. He has also been printed frequently in literary and university publications across the UK, US and Canada. He and Garrett Cook are the co-creator of ‘The Imperial Youth Review. His books include, Schadenfreude, Moosejaw Frontier, A Message from the Slave State, Last Exit to Interzone and the upcoming books - The Black Dog Eats the City, Transmatic and The dissolving Zinc Theatre. 

Thanks Chris.  To read my short reviews of A Message from the Slave State and Schadenfreude click here and here. MM