Donald Barthelme, John Ashbery and John Clare

5 May 2015

I was alerted to the stories of Donald Barthelme (1931 – 1989) by the poet and fiction writer Martina Evans and what a find! Barthelme’s story, ‘The School’, was one of the most successful we’ve read as a group, I think, for its playfulness, ideas, its wonderfully simple and vivid exploration of innocence, death, language and life. A former reporter (and it shows in his writing), he was also director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. Many of his stories are very short and would now be dubbed ‘flash fiction’. Much of his work was first published in the New Yorker.

Barthelme was also a creative writing teacher and his reading list includes the poet John Ashbery (b 1927), whose poem ‘For John Clare’ we looked at alongside John Clare’s (1793-1864) own poem, ‘House or Window Flies’. So Barthelme mentions Ashbery and Ashbery acknowledges Clare. Ashbery’s not the easiest poet to read and the poet, novelist and publisher John Harvey (Slowdancer Press) makes the connection between him and Barthelme in a blog post in which he says that the ‘fragmentary surrealism’ in one of Barthelme’s stories reminds him of Ashbery’s poetry.

There is an enormous amount of interest in John Clare, partly because of the 150th anniversary of his death last year, but his reputation has grown only after his death. He spent years in an asylum, having witnessed the countryside and its way of life destroyed during the Agricultural Revolution.


Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson and Alison Brackenbury

21 April 2015

‘Living with a Peacock’ is an essay that Flannery O’Connor wrote about her lifelong interest in birds, but particularly peacocks. It’s entertaining, informative and humane. It tells us about her life and about obsession, all through detailed descriptions of the habits of this royal bird, the bird of Hera.

O’Connor (1925-1964) was a southern American writer, who lived on a farm in Georgia, wrote regularly to Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop (two other writers we’ve read), published two novels and many short stories. Her most well known collection of short stories is ‘A good man is hard to find’ but her complete stories were published in 1971. She was a devout Catholic and often wrote about race. She is regarded as one of America’s leading short story writers. The essay we read was first published in Holiday magazine in the US in 1961.

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) is another giant of literature who wrote more than 1,000 poems and was largely unpublished until after her death, yet her influence is enormous. She lived in Amherst, in the United States and wrote intensively for just under 10 years, making her own books by hand. Her poems are compressed lyrics, often characterised by difficult syntax, but her work’s been so extensively studied that there are many guides, interpretations and analyses. We read the poem ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’.

Alison Brackenbury is the only contemporary writer we looked at and I included her poem ‘Lapwings’ in our session precisely because of that and to fit into the birds theme set by the Fabrica installation. Brackenbury is published by Carcanet press, was born in 1953 and her first collection appeared in 1981. Her Selected Poems came out in 1991 and she has a new collection in the pipeline, due for release in 2016. She’s won awards for her work, is a broadcaster, critic and keen blogger. ‘Lapwings’ was also published on the Friends of the Earth website.

John Wain and Hugo Williams

Tuesday 21 April 2015

John Wain’s short story, ‘A Message from the Pig Man’, was in an anthology my secondary school used. I have my copy, still, marked with my name and form, 5 alpha. I haven’t heard of John Wain for a long time, but in the late 20th century he was still very well known both as a prose writer and poet. A website cataloguing his work suggests a revival is due and certainly the skill and impact of this story is a good reminder of this writer, dubbed with several others, one of the ‘Angry Young Men’ of the 1950s, socially aware and rattling the establishment’s cage.Wain would have been 90 on March 14. His first novel was published in the 1950s. He wrote 13 in all, a life of Samuel Johnson and was Oxvford Professor of Poetry from 1973 – 78.

Hugo Williams is a highly successful contemporary poet, notable nowadays for remaining a poet and not veering off into other genres. Williams has built a reputation on the honesty of his work, which is often concerned with relationships and their success or failure. But he has also written starkly about illness and family. He’s been a generous and inclusive supporter of poets and a chronicler of the poetry world for the Times Literary Supplement, among others. We looked at a poem of his, ‘Blank Pages’, from the collection, Billy’s Rain, published by Faber and Faber in 1999.

Lorrie Moore and Alicia Ostriker

Tuesday April 7

Lorrie Moore is one of the leading short story writers in the US and greatly admired in the UK as well. She established herself early – first publishing a story at 19. Born in 1957, she has been prolific but published a lot less in recent years. She focuses on women’s lives, on relationships, illness, motherhood. She teaches at Vanderbilt University, Nashville and regularly publishes in the New Yorker. She has published four collections of short stories, two novels, a children’s book and essays. Her Collected Stories was published in 2008. She has won the Irish Times international fiction prize, the O Henry award and has been shortlisted for many other prizes.

She talks about her latest collection, Bark, here: lorrie-moore-the-powells-com-interview-by-jill/

We read ‘Referential’, a story of Moore’s published by the Telegraph which is a tribute to another story by Vladimir Nabokov.

Alicia Ostriker was born in 1937 and has written more than ten collections of poetry and many books of criticism. She has won the William Carlos Williams award, Paterson Poetry Award and San Francisco State Poetry Center Award. She is not as well known in the UK as Moore but is Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a political activist.

We read Ostriker’s poem ‘Birdcall’, dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop.

There are links to both texts and the Nabokov on the Reading Round texts page.

Margaret Atwood and Wallace Stevens

Tuesday 17 March 2015

I broke my own routine this week. Generally I alternate work by men and women but this week I wanted to keep to a birds theme to tie in with the forthcoming installation at Fabrica by Marcus Coates, dawn-chorus.

So we started with an essay that Margaret Atwood wrote for The Guardian about how birds are disappearing at unprecedented rates. Jane Fordham and I had been talking about why there are birds on everything and have been for a few years – birds on bags, fabric, wallpaper, mugs, plates…..and yet they are dying or being killed. The skies are emptying. Atwood is a fiction writer who has made dystopias her own. During the discussion of her essay we wondered if Atwood would write the story in which birds have totally disappeared from the world. The group enjoyed the way Atwood wrote this essay using the techniques of fiction. It is as gripping and shocking as any of her stories.

Her website details her own green policy and links to bird protection organisations: margaretatwood and she has a reading list covering all aspects of the environment on a separate website: yearoftheflood

It was perhaps cheeky, but I paired with Atwood’s thought provoking essay, Wallace Stevens’ poem, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’.

Stevens died the year I was born, whereas I see Atwood more or less as a contemporary. Stevens worked for an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut, most of his life and briefly supported the Italian fascist Mussolini. There is a biography here: poetry foundation So he and Atwood are far apart, politically. But although much of his poetry is obscure and difficult – he was a modernist writer, born in 1879 – this poem has endured as a favourite of many poets I know. The group enjoyed its starkness and simplicity and Gus Watcham suggested it read like a blackbird’s song.

There are more links for Atwood and Stevens on the Texts page.

Jackie Kay and Mimi Khalvati

10 March 2015

Jackie Kay born 1961 is an MBE, a poet, short story writer and novelist. She achieved her first major success with the poetry collection, The Adoption Papers (Bloodaxe) which won several prizes. She returned to the subject of adoption in her prose memoir, Red Dust Road (2010).

Kay is professor of creative writing at the University of Newcastle. She has always been politically active and a supporter. Brought up in Glasgow by white parents, her birth parents were Scottish and Nigerian. Kay is one of the most versatile contemporary writers, a superb performer of her work and continues to support a wide range of political causes.

We read a story published in a Scottish magazine, What Ever, which I chose for its use of birds as symbols of a woman’s different stages of life. The bird theme ties into Fabrica’s next installation: Dawn Chorus by Marcus Coates, which opens on 2 April.

Our poet this week was Mimi Khalvati, born in Teheran in 1944. She grew up on the Isle of Wight and is now based in London. Her first book, White Ink, was published when she was 47. Like several outstanding UK poets, Mimi Khalvati was first published by Smith Doorstop, a Sheffield based publisher. She has since published eight collections with Carcanet Press.

In 2007, The Meanest Flower  was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, a Financial Times Book of the Year and shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. Her collection, Child: New and Selected Poems 1991-2011 was a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation and recently,The Weather Wheel (2014), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and a Book of the Year in The Independent.

We read two poems by Mimi: Ghazal To Hold Me and Migration. Mimi is one of the most expert contemporary exponents of the ghazal and there are links on the Texts page to an explanation of this form.

Geoffrey Dutton and Robert Lowell

Geoffrey Dutton published 11 collections of poetry in Australia, a significant amount of non-fiction, children’s stories and novels, as well as a collection of short stories. This week we looked at one of those stories, ‘The Wedge-Tailed Eagle’, which I’d discovered in an old anthology, Modern Short Stories. It was first published in The Reporter in 1968.

I knew nothing about Dutton, although an obituary in the Independent newspaper writes: “He was a formidable force as a literary catalyst, founding some of his country’s best-known literary journals, as an editor for Penguin Australia and later co-founder of the publisher, Sun Books.” obituary-geoffrey-dutton-1200357.html

Dutton’s story lodged itself in my mind, partly because of its intense descriptions of flying and at one point Dutton echoes a saying that was on our mantelpiece at home when I was a child – the air is unforgiving of mistakes. (My father was an aircraft engineer). It polarised discussion, which was interesting. Dutton had been a flying instructor in the RAAF.

Dutton, born in 1922 (died 1998), was a friend of Laurie Lee, Patrick White and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Russian poet. He established the Adelaide Festival of the Arts and among the journals he set up was The Angry Penguins modern-austn-poetry which published Dylan Thomas, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and James Dickey, among others. He published Peter Carey’s first short story in another journal, Australian Letters. Dutton’s collection of poems, Antipodes in Shoes, won the Grace Leven Prize. australia-s-avant-garde-angry-penguins-from-art-to-literature/.

I was first introduced to Robert Lowell’s poem ‘Skunk Hour’ but the poet Matthew Sweeney during the 1980s when I was working as a journalist. Sweeney encouraged me and other would-be writers to read the American poets he loved. The poem made an impression and it is one of those iconic texts many have heard of, even if they’ve never read it!

‘Skunk Hour’ was first published in Lowell’s 1959 collection, Life Studies, which has been listed as one of the most groundbreaking books of the 20th century because of its confessional quality, ushering in a new era in poetry. Lowell, born 1917 (died 1977), twice won the Pullitzer Prize and many other awards, including the National Book Award for that collection.

He is one of the most critically important American poets, a great friend of Elizabeth Bishop, the-armadillo-and-the-skunk, of Randall Jarrell and William Carlos Williams. He suffered mental illness throughout his life and spent periods of time in hospital. Lowell also wrote for the theatre.

He was a conscientious objector during WW2 and one of his most famous poems, alongside ‘Skunk Hour’, is ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’, an elegy to a cousin who was killed during that war poem/178941.

He taught at the universities of Essex and Kent and was visiting fellow at Oxford University in the 1970s.