Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Best things of 2010

OK, please bear in mind this isn't supposed to be a definitive "best things of the year" list. This has been cobbled together off the top of my head (as I suspect is the case with most of these things). Just thought I'd mention a few things I've enjoyed in 2010 ...


Gil Scott Heron's great comeback record:

Gil Scott Heron - Me and the Devil by treylord

Grinderman's second album …

And my personal favourite tune of the year …

Find more artists like Planet Creature at Myspace Music


Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge

The Collings and Herrin Podcast / As it Occurs to Me

Curb Your Enthusiasm Series 7

Online literature (apart from Philistine Press)

My favourite literature sites at the moment are: - updated every day with a wide variety of literary and cultural stuff. - an exceptional poetry blog, with a new anthology colleting together the best of 2009-10. - the best of the poetry podcasts, alongside

Plus three great champions of the short story:

And a mystery blog tucked away in some obscure part of the Guardian website called "A Brief Survey of the Short Story." This guide to classic short story writers is virtually impossible to find if you don't have the direct link, so here it is -

Literary reference of the year ...

I almost managed to get through the whole of 2010 without mentioning that 2010 was the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. We're now so far into the future we've gone past one sci-fi novel and onto the next.

Merry Christmas, Happy new year. See you in 2011.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Open Mic Disasters #4: Forgetting the Words

By Frank Burton

Forgetting the words can of course be disastrous for any performer, but for the performance poet it can literally mean the end of the show. If you fluff your lines as an actor in the theatre, you've usually got other people on stage to help you blag your way through it. If you're a singer, you've got the music to fall back on. Poets just have uncomfortable silence.

This doesn't mean you can't recover. If you make a joke out of it as you scramble around for the notebook in your pocket, you can almost make the cock-up seem deliberate.

Or you can improvise. The audience doesn't know what you're going to say, so why not talk bollocks into the microphone, adding a few meaningful pauses here and there? (A lot of poets just do that anyway.)

Personally, I think reciting from memory is the best way of delivering poetry to a live audience. Every poet should give it a go, even the ones who say "I could never do that." But you need to be fully prepared. You need to be able to let the lines flow right out of you without having to stop and think. (It doesn't always work. If nerves get the better of you, you'll see all those faces staring back at you and the whole thing disappears. That's when the notebook in your pocket comes in handy.)

I just have one piece of advice for anyone thinking of performing their poetry from memory at an open mic for the first time: don't have a drink. You may think it cures your stage fright, and maybe it does, but it doesn't do the memory any good. I went to Poetry Unplugged in London a year or so ago, and planned to perform a couple of poems I'd recited elsewhere several times before, so didn't take the time to rehearse anything in my head, had a few drinks and stepped up to the microphone, where I immediately forgot who I was, what I was doing - everything. Luckily about ten seconds later, I managed to pull myself together, but it was an uncomfortable ten seconds. I may have said "OK, what am I doing?" a couple of times but hopefully this was assumed to be part of the routine.

I suppose the reason why a lot of poets prefer to read from the page rather than deliver from memory is that if you get the words wrong, the poem won't be as good. There's a simple solution to that: don't get the words wrong. If you're properly prepared, hopefully that's not going to happen. And if you slip up, it's not the end of the world. The worst thing that could happen is that you'll look like a bit of a dick.

I don't know about you, but that happens to me all the time.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Interview - Tom Hamilton

Tom Hamilton in conversation with Frank Burton

Tom's novella The Darkened Corner can be read online or downloaded for free at

I understand the writing of The Darkened Corner involved one of every writer's worst nightmares. What happened?

I usually write out the first draft longhand in a college ruled notebook. Not really taking the time to think about errors or sentence structure or anything which will slow down the flow. Like Hemingway said: "The only stipulation for the first draft is that you get it all down." Then I wait a few weeks to divorce myself emotionally from the text. After that I'll hunt through several notebooks and read excerpts of mostly terrible ideas until I find a draft which I think is interesting enough to transfer onto the computer screen.

I painstakingly copied out the first draft of the 'The Darkened Corner' since this is the period in the process where I slow it down and try to work on things like pace and time line. I think of myself as a sculptor, knocking off the rough edges of the story with a chisel. Once I have the whole second draft inside the computer, I will endlessly comb over it to try and eliminate errors and to give the flow of the prose a more poetic tone. Describing this process does not mean that I feel I've succeeded in any way. Only the reader, and not the person who would like to call themselves an artist, can attest to the quality of the manuscript.

Anyway once I'd completed the second draft (which could really be dozens of drafts), disaster struck. I opened the file one day to find nothing but an endless blizzard where my novella had been. I don't know much about computers. I don't know if I erased it myself somehow or if some weird glitch just sucked into cyberspace forever. In any event it was gone. I was so pissed off at this point that I just decided to consult the notebook draft, which by now looked like something a second grader had scribbled out, and start again. I do believe that in some ways the novella was better off for it, since I thought of some things which I probably never would have just combing through the lost draft. However I would love to take just one look at the lost draft, since I know there is something in there that the story could have used.

How closely does your first draft resemble the finished novella? Was the structure the same at the beginning?

The first draft was an incomprehensible mess, like all my first drafts, so I wasn´t really too worried about it. I just try to keep in mind that I don´t have to show it to anyone until it´s ready, which could theoretically be never. Indeed there are some first drafts that I never so much as scrapped as much I did just left them to rot forever. The first draft of 'The Darkened Corner' I obviously thought had some bright spots or I never would have put it up on the board. Sometimes I´m surprised to find that very little changes are necessary, but most instances I end up adding a lot of phrases, descriptions and what I like to feel are poetic images. Of course I try and polish it as much as possible.

The structure was probably a little different. A couple of the mini chapters were added later and one at the last minute. I did have a couple of alternate scenes, which I hated even more than usual and decided to leave out. At one point I was going to try and keep the flashbacks chapters even with the current chapters until I realized that whole novella is basically a flashback. I do like to make the structure interesting without confusing the reader too much or to the point where they want to stop reading.

Is any of the book based on your own experience?

Some of it is. I like to think of the phrase: A poet tells the truth even when he lies. I realize that this is prose not poetry but the result I´m looking for is the same. If it helps the story to lie or embellish it some you're going to have to do it. Unfortunately when I was growing up I was privy to these types of scams. Travellers have zero education and only the means they create for themselves. Fortunately for myself and many other travellers (not to mention the public at large)we are now running legit businesses. But that doesn´t make for a very interesting novella.

Is it autobiographical? Somewhat, but not entirely. My father was nowhere near as harsh as the '´Da' in the story, although I do remember scenes which were similar to the second chapter. I´ve never tried my hand at a suicide attempt like the protagonist, but I felt pretty low at times. I just felt like the suicide scene would let the reader know just how far the narrator had fallen. There is no real life Katie Rose as she´s more a manifestation of lots of women. I felt that the narrator needed a tragic angel just to make his life all the more miserable. Telling my real life story might be too boring. The story might be too boring anyway, I don´t know. It´s the writers job to try and keep the reader reading, and that means fictionalizing large portions of the story then that´s why they call it fiction.

Bukowski said that the most common mistake young writers make is thinking that their lives are going to sound interesting to everyone. Most people don´t care about other people´s lives. They just want to be entertained. I find it hard to write something that I just think is entertaining. My number one goal as writer: what I´m really shooting for is resonance. The elusive power to make the reader remember the story for days ,weeks or years afterword.

Do you think some Irish Travellers might be angry about your portrayal of con-artists in the Traveller community?

I doubt that there are many travellers who will even know about the novella. Hard as it is to believe many travellers can't read at all or at least very little. Even if some do find the site and read it, I doubt that they would take offense to the con artist scenes; as some may have experience in this field. I'd be more afraid of travellers taking some sort of moral high ground. The traveller community is a lot more like Ireland, perhaps a hundred years ago than it is like modern America . The women probably wouldn't appreciate some of the curse words or the sexual situations. No one, of course, will understand or believe that the persona is not me. "I am not I" as Evelyn Waugh once said. But if you're attempting to be a real writer, and be real I mean someone who is willing to tell what is worse than the truth, than I don't think that you can consider what anybody else thinks about the work, at least while you're writing it. If I left out stuff that might offend travellers, or feminists or American Indians or anybody else, I wouldn't have any material left. Besides, good people are always going to say good things and a prick is a prick, North, South, East or West. I'm definitely not afraid of criticism. I try not to say much in advance of a story, I want to see it fly or flounder on its own.

Besides, portraying a traveller in a fictitious light is no different than having a black man in a story rob a liquor store. It doesn't mean that every black person is an armed robber. It may be an unfair stereotype, but there is no NAACP for travellers so I guess I'll just have to be as honest as I can. I will say this: about a dozen or so years ago when my poetry chapbook was selected for publication, a lot of travellers found about it and many read the angst-ridden and mostly awful poems. I expected to be ridiculed and jeered over this and I'm sure I probably was in some instances behind my back. But many travellers also came up to me and praised the collection. Some of the last people that I would have ever expected. I don't think I can fully convey to you haw far out it is for a traveller to be writing short stories and poems, especially in the eyes of other travellers, but I'm much to old to worry about shit like this. If I want to be a true artist I have no choice but to say this is who I am.

Do you intend to go on to write more novellas, or novels?

I've actually written three novels, although they're definitely not ready for prime time. I have printed out rough drafts of them which are currently rotting away in my desk drawer. It would take some tremendous concentration to complete one of these works and to do it the right way. Maybe more than is currently available to me. After all I've got three kids running around here and a wife who beats me the hell out of me every other day. Sometimes I fantasize about going to a writer's retreat so I could finish the novels in peace and quiet. Maybe get something done in a couple of weeks instead of dragging it out for months. But then I think that I'm really not interested in what other writers have to say. Unless of course Kafka comes back from the grave. I mean I've seen some talentless people discussing pedestrian manuscripts and doling out worthless advice. Then I think that maybe I'd just be better off in a room by myself for a couple of weeks and I really could focus on the books and finish one. Then I remember that I am not doing this for a living nor am I famous and therefore I don't feel I have the right to dedicate all of my time to the craft. Besides I would miss my kids too much.

I don't start out with a predestined word count. The story will dictate to me in how many words it needs to be told. If I can think of something which I feel will give the story more power I'll include it no matter how many words it takes. This may be a weakness on my part as I am always reluctant to leave anything out and maybe some stuff needs to be cut. But sometimes it's hard for me to kill my darlings. I do intend to keep writing novels, novellas, novelettes, short stories, plays, articles and even a poem if I ever get the hankering back. I am strictly writing as a hobby. I don't have any illusions about being on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

Who are your influences?

I like Brett Easton Ellis, Nabokov, Vonegutt, Orwell, W. Summerset Maugham, Paul Auster, Plath, Larry Brown and William S. Burroughs.

Poetry I like Simic, Pope, Whitman, Plath and Rimbaud.

I think reading is essential for any young writer but I try not to write like anybody else. I think everyone has to write from the ground up, that's ground zero, or sometimes ground sub-zero. And every one's got one million words of pure D shit that they have to get out of their system before they can even be a competent writer, never mind good or great. I used to try and write obscure stories in a sort of imitation of Burrough's style. But I soon passed through that phase as part of the one million words of pure D shit clause. Writing like your idols can be fun, but it doesn't mean you're making any progress. Even though I think just the act of writing in its self is progress. The only way we're going to get better at it is just to keep at it. I don't think that young writers should try and compare themselves or compete with people in their workshops or other peers. I think we have to try and write alongside the greatest writers of all time, no matter how unattainable that goal.

I actually knew Larry Brown. I did a job for him on his Mississippi homestead when my wife and I lived in Memphis. I had no idea that he was the author of 'Father and Son, Big Bad Love' and other classics until I got talking to him. We corresponded until he died of a sudden heart attack. He used to critique some of my poems and he thought that they were pretty good. I had to stop writing poetry however as the demand to say something in a different way at a high level became too great for me. Now I just try to say what I mean while occasionally using poetry as a prose device. I think poetry, however, teaches you how to write. How to use the rhythm of the metrics to make a good flow. It teaches you the beat of the language, even if you're writing blank verse or just ordinary prose. You may learn more from studying the lives and quotes of your favourite authors than by trying to write like them.

It could be argued that novellas or short novels are the ideal form of fiction for an online audience - more substantial than short stories, but still short enough to be read in one sitting. Longer books have the potential to lose the reader halfway through, because on the internet your audience is more likely to be distracted by other things. Do you agree?

I think it depends on who´s reading it. I´m ashamed to say that my attention span is not very long. Yet whether I´m reading something online or or in book form I´ll keep reading if its good enough. Some people prefer books as I think that´s what they´re used to. Curling up in bed with a good book. I like the computer screen because you can see it easily even in a dark room without disturbing anyone else. I like to go back sometimes and read Orwell´s novels online, and it does give you a somewhat different perspective when the work isn´t chopped into pages. But there´s always the temptation to surf the web.

Everything nowadays seems like it has to be so instant. Modern writers are advised to chop up their prose into smaller paragraphs just so as not to put too big a burden on the reader. Writers have to make their own choice. Some may insist with sticking to longer paragraphs. But what good is it if it´s art and no one stays with it long enough to read it all.

How do you feel about internet publishing?

Internet publishing is fine as long as no one gets screwed over. By that I mean there are some cyber versions of the vanity press where writers have to pay for their own copies or what have you. But it's probably just as easy to get bilked in print, if not easier, as it is on the net. Some writers feel that they have not achieved success until they have a jacketed book inside Barnes and Nobel or Borders. I might even be one of those writers but what the hell am I going to do with myself in the meantime? I do like to see my stories posted on the net, especially when the publisher takes the time to make a nice presentation like you guys did at Philistine. Besides if someone in the small press runs two hundred print copies of say your poetry chapbook, there's little chance that anyone will get to see it to read it. And I'd be willing to bet that in fifty years from now my small press first edition will not be worth as much as Jack Kerouac's. If you have a story on the net, however, anyone who searches for your name will see it and it will probably be up there for years, not just moulding in a basement somewhere.

New Album Release

"Hint" by Randy Thurman is Philistine's first full-length album release.

I want to describe what it sounds like, but that's impossible, so you'll have to listen to it instead.

Randy Thurman - Hint by philistinepress

Unheard Music

OK, here's a short list of some unheard musicians that have come my way recently.

Planet Creature - really good songs - nothing musch else to be said here.

Joe Innes - dark, funny, cool.

Mr Vladimir - good name, good sounds.

One band who I've noticed have been appearing in all the right places at the moment is Chad Valley (aka Hugo Manuel). He's in danger of becoming as trendy as Mumford and Sons, which would mean he has no place on a list of "unheard musicians," but let's not split hairs. He's pretty good, so good luck to him.

Finally, take a listen to this great piece of old-school-meets-new-school (or something) by the misleadingly-named Gospel UK:

D.I.F.F.I.C.U.L.T.Y. by Gospel UK

More at Soundcloud.