Found in the Crowd – the case for crowdfunding anthologies

Authors, publishers and literary journals are all finding new ways of connecting directly to their readers – and their wallets – on online platforms such as Kickstarter. In this article, Dan Coxon examines how the social financing can bring new book ideas to life. 

crowdfunding

Image by tai11/iStock

Recently there has been a lot of chatter about the future of the short story. Some feel that we’re seeing a resurgence of the short form, citing as proof the phenomenal success of George Saunders, or the unlikely appearance of Tom Hanks’s debut collection. Others feel that the popularity of stories has steadily declined in recent years. In his generally positive introduction to The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, even Philip Hensher was forced to admit that ‘reading short stories rewarded by competitions, I was struck by present-tense solitary reflections, often with characters lying on their beds affectlessly pondering… There was nothing there at all, apart from a fervent desire to win £30,000.’

What everyone appears to agree on is that publishers don’t know what to do with short fiction. Occasionally, the larger publishers will humour an established author – Hilary Mantel, Lionel Shriver – by allowing them a collection between the novels, but you’re unlikely to see many debuts. (Hanks is the obvious exception – but there’s no need to explain the marketing decision behind that book.) New authors are finding that only the smaller, independent presses are willing to take a punt on their genius.

The same is also true of anthologies. I’ve now crowdfunded two anthologies on Kickstarter: Being Dad: Short Stories About Fatherhood (Tangent Books), and most recently This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories), a collection of stories inspired by British folklore and local history. Increasingly, independent publishers are turning to crowdfunding as a viable option, and in particular it’s something that seems to be working for the humble anthology. Might there be a future for the short story after all?

In many ways, my experience with Being Dad was typical. Several medium-to-large publishers expressed an interest, but said that anthologies ‘didn’t sell’ (how they would know this when they didn’t actually publish any is one of life’s great mysteries). Eventually, I secured the interest of Bristol-based Tangent Books, who had the foresight to see that this was a book which had both a market and some great stories. There was one proviso: we had to raise the initial costs via crowdfunding.

I’ll admit, at first I was reluctant. There is still an element of resistance to the crowdfunding route, especially among older writers and readers. It’s sometimes seen as being worryingly close to vanity publishing – you go cap-in-hand to your friends and family, beg them for money, and then pay a publisher to print the book. At one end of the scale, this is certainly the case. As in any industry, there are unscrupulous businesses that are only too willing to take your money.

But in all the cases cited here, it wasn’t a matter of funding a book outright via ‘donations’, but rather a means of generating publicity and interest ahead of publication to ensure its success. I find it useful to think of the new crowdfunding model as a kind of inverse marketing: whereas the publicity campaign usually kicks in upon publication, here we did all our marketing in advance. I like to think that most of these people would have bought the book anyway – but by doing it ahead of publication, they helped reduce the risk to both publisher and authors, and therefore made the book possible.

I won’t go into the details here, but suffice it to say that crowdfunding a book is a long and arduous process. What has struck me most forcibly, however, is the interest we have received – and not just from people we knew. Yes, many of my friends backed the books I’ve crowdfunded, for which I’m hugely grateful. But we’ve received pledges from complete strangers from all corners of the globe – some of them extremely generous – and in the final accounting these constituted the vast majority of pledges. With both the books I’ve been involved in, we were able to pre-sell much of the first print run and the projects very quickly went into profit.

My experience is by no means unique. Last year Unsung Stories crowdfunded 2084, an anthology of short stories inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and they had a resounding success. Their funding goal was reached within eleven hours of the campaign launching, and the final total was almost ten times the original target.

I asked George Sandison at Unsung Stories why they’d decided to crowdfund the book, and this is what he had to say:

‘One of the things an anthology gives you, that a single-author book doesn’t, is a chance to reach the fans of every author involved. Between support from contributors with promoting the launch, and a larger group of people who may be interested in the project, you’ve got a healthy customer base to call on. And one of the things crowdfunding does really well, is get people involved in a project – they get their name in the book, collectible editions, artwork, special stuff they’ll want to keep. So combine those two things and you have a lot of people, who are empowered and made part of the process. Quite literally, they help make the book.’

This is what I’ve found too, and it suggests that there’s a very real business model that’s starting to emerge. Anthologies benefit from having several authors involved, and with their combined fan bases they are able to spread their appeal more widely. Having one or two well-established authors on board can also make it more appealing, especially to an audience that might not have taken a chance on the lesser-known writers.

Of course, it’s not just anthologies that are reaping the benefits of crowdfunding. Independent presses in general are gradually coming to realise its advantages, and many now have a success story to tell. Influx Press crowdfunded their own anthology, The Unreliable Guide to London, which has gone on to receive critical acclaim and was shortlisted for a number of awards. Following that, they also ran a crowdfunding campaign to fund the next year’s publications, which met its target with ease. Dead Ink and Dodo Ink have also turned to crowdfunding to get projects off the ground in recent years, and all are going from strength to strength.

Interestingly, Unbound enjoyed a huge crowdfunded success with Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant. While this was non-fiction, rather than fiction, it once again suggested that crowdfunding works for multi-author projects. I’ve since been told that Unbound will no longer consider anthologies, a decision that seems to undermine the idea of crowdfunding anthologies as a strong business model. It starts to make sense, however, when you bear in mind that Unbound are now part of the Penguin Random House behemoth. Clearly the mainstream publishing mantra that ‘anthologies don’t sell’ has already seeped through to the Unbounders.

Within the independent field, though, the anthology may actually be thriving, and crowdfunding is looking more and more like the way forward. Yes, short stories are a niche market – but they’re a market nonetheless. By targeting and actively involving readers who have an interest in short fiction, projects like Unsung’s 2084 and This Dreaming Isle are looking remarkably prescient, a glimpse into what the future might hold for anthologists everywhere. Publishers would do well to look to crowdfunding when they’re considering turning an anthology down. The market is still out there – you just have to search for it in the crowd.

About the author of this post

Dan Coxon author picDan Coxon edited the anthologies Being Dad (Tangent Books, 2016) and This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories, 2018), and is a contributing editor at The Lonely Crowd. He also edits and publishes a bi-annual journal of weird and eerie fiction, The Shadow Booth. His writing has appeared in SalonPopshotThe Lonely CrowdOpen PenWales Arts ReviewGutterThe Portland Review and Unthology 9 amongst others, and he was long-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2017. He runs an editing and proofreading business at www.momuseditorial.co.uk, and can be found on Twitter at @dancoxonauthor.

 

Advertisements

The duty of writers

The-pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword.jpg

Our world faces catastrophic climate breakdown. True facts are now described as ‘fake news’, and biased media reported hailed by pseudo-Nazis as gospel truth. Political turmoil is growing as inequalities deepen across so many dividing lines in society. In such times, a challenge facing us all as artists, creatives and writers – but also simply as human beings – is to examine what role we ourselves have to play.

We have previously written about the need for writers to tackle the subject of climate change in their poetry and novels and non-fiction accounts – while we have also paid tribute to Ursula Le Guin’s rallying cry for all writers to imagine new alternatives to our capitalist system.

But what exactly is our duty, in these times, as writers and creatives? What stories do we need to tell?

What is the story of the world?

Fortunately for us, guidance on this question can be found from the minds of great writers – living and dead – who have pondered this precise topic. In East of Eden, for instance, Steinbeck opens the book’s 34th chapter with a mediation on the most fundamental foundation that sits beneath this essential question: if we have a duty to describe the stories of the world that matter, what exactly is the story of the world? Steinbeck writes:

“A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?”

Understanding human beings

In an earlier journal entry, Steinbeck even suggests that tackling the injustices in the world is not even possible if the writer first doesn’t understand the human beings who exist within it. He opines:

“In every bit of honest writing in the world… there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.”

In a similar vein, the novelist Zadie Smith argues that to believe anything can bring about fundamental change is in fact naïve – and to honestly understand what drives the world forward (and how to subtly shift perceptions) you have to first appreciate the motivations of humankind. In a speech given in Germany in 2016 after receiving a literary award, she says:

“People who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive. If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.”

Yet within this, Smith sees no reason not to use art – and writing in particular – to reshape narratives, to influence others, and ultimately keep striving for that which we are all searching for, especially in these sometimes dark times: human progress, and illuminating the path ahead on which we can strive to make a better world. She says:

“History is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited… Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

On the protection of democracy

Smith’s line of argument calls upon all of us to continually work to reimagine and challenge existing political and social structures. This calls to mind the thoroughly excellent arguments of that legendary titan of literature, Walt Whitman, who, in his collection Specimen Days, calls on all free-thinking people to continually challenge and probe the status quo. Whitman writes:

“I can conceive of no better service in the United States, henceforth, by democrats of thorough and heart-felt faith, than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”

What it interesting here is how Whitman lived through times that do not sound dissimilar to our own. He saved lives through the Civil War, witnessed the “miserably-waged populations”, the corrosion of idealism and collapse of democratic values into corruption and complacency. Yet the great American poet faces this dispiriting landscape with a defiant optimism, arguing that this is in a way the most countercultural act of courage available to us:

“Though I think I fully comprehend the absence of moral tone in our current politics and business, and the almost entire futility of absolute and simple honor as a counterpoise against the enormous greed for worldly wealth, with the trickeries of gaining it, all through society in our day, I still do not share the depression and despair on the subject which I find possessing many good people.”

Ultimately, Whitman notes that the only way to preserve democracy in America is also to preserve nature (to hark back to our call to tackle the catastrophic breakdown of our climate for a moment here). And, as current US President Trump and his collection of lunatic criminals in the Republican party continue to show flagrant disregard for the planet and its natural environments, this is a thought that is well worth revisiting. Whitman writes:

“American Democracy, in its myriad personalities, in factories, work-shops, stores, offices — through the dense streets and houses of cities, and all their manifold sophisticated life — must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will morbidly dwindle and pale. We cannot have grand races of mechanics, work people, and commonalty, (the only specific purpose of America,) on any less terms. I conceive of no flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element forming a main part — to be its health-element and beauty-element — to really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.”

Truth above all

Of course, it is easy to present arguments in favour of protecting the world and become downhearted when these are dismissed by the despots around the world – from Trump in the US through May in the UK, Putin in Russia to the incompetent National Liberal coalition in Australia – and ignored as being part of some fabrication or over-exaggeration of ‘progressives’ (as though we would feel foolish if we were to accidentally be fooled into creating a better world for nothing). ‘Fake News’ is everywhere, as we are all told. Here, it feels fitting to draw upon inspiration from legendary journalist Rebecca Solnit, who presses upon us our need to continue to stick to accuracy and truth when writing stories. In her collection of essays, Call them by their names, she writes:

“Precision, accuracy, and clarity matter, as gestures of respect toward those to whom you speak; toward the subject, whether it’s an individual or the earth itself; and toward the historical record.”

In an era of ‘alternative facts’, where language is increasingly used for malicious purposes, Solnit strives to persuade us of the importance of calling things as they are:

“To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt — or important or possible — and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.”

More than a century after Nietzsche contemplated truth, lies, and the power of language to both conceal and reveal reality, Solnit writes:

“There are so many ways to tell a lie. You can lie by ignoring whole regions of impact, omitting crucial information, or unhitching cause and effect; by falsifying information by distortion and disproportion, or by using names that are euphemisms for violence or slander for legitimate activities, so that the white kids are “hanging out” but the Black kids are “loitering” or “lurking.” Language can erase, distort, point in the wrong direction, throw out decoys and distractions. It can bury the bodies or uncover them.”

Breaking the narrative

Ultimately, Solnit calls on writers to continue to strive towards that goal of truth – for exposing the truth, using language that is accurate, that lays bare the reality of situations. Through truth, she argues, we can break and reshape narratives and stories that have been spun by the powerful against the powerless – and hopefully move toward a world where the only thing that is fake is Trump’s hair. She writes:

“The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view. News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo… This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian. You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.

Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives. For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general. This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women. In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy. But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot). Many people have gotten on board with the data, many have not, and so behind every report on a sexual assault is a battle over the terms in which we tell, in what we believe about gender and violence.

[…]

Future generations are going to curse most of us for distracting ourselves with trivialities as the planet burned. Journalists are in a pivotal place when it comes to the possibilities and the responsibilities in this crisis. We, the makers and breakers of stories, are tremendously powerful.

So please, break the story.”

You heard it here first, comrades. So, what are you waiting for? Get breaking!

If youd like to contribute to our site – and show off how good you are at breaking narratives – please contact us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why is BoJack Horseman so popular? Simple: it’s real

bojackhorseman

If you’re reading this article, the likely reason is that you’ve seen the name BoJack Horseman and clicked on a link somewhere out in the wilds of the internet or social media. You’ve recognised the name and it’s peaked your interest. Why have you heard that name? Simple – because since BoJack Horseman was released in 2014, it has gained critical and popular acclaim – showered in praise for the way it skilfully probes existential anxiety, interweaving zany, offbeat comedy with sometimes sly humour, as well as intensely sad or ‘dark’ moments. It’s popular, in other words; and for good reason: it’s real.

That a cartoon show about a substance-abusing middle-aged horse feels like the most real thing many people have seen for so many years says more about our current cultural malaise than we might like to admit. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

One of the factors that makes BoJack feel so real – so relatable – is the fact that the characters in the show must face the consequences of their actions. No character is “too big to fail” (in the way the banks that crashed the global economy were allowed to carry on Scott-free while the average person has had to shoulder the burdens and crises they created). As Arielle Bernstein writes in an article for The Guardian:

“Throughout the series, we see child BoJack, eager and wide-eyed in his little sailor suit, being verbally abused by his mother and father. But while the series encourages us to see BoJack’s own self-absorption as a response to a traumatic childhood, it also insists that BoJack not be given a free pass. In his heart of hearts, BoJack is never a “bad guy” per se, but his thoughtless choices often have very real impacts on everyone around him.”

Yet, while this is an admirable aspect of the show – that it has created extremely well-rounded characters who we can relate to – the true ‘realness’ of the show comes from the way it counters other aspects of our current society.

The power of the image

Firstly, we must consider the use of images in both the show and in our culture – and the way in which BoJack Horseman subverts what Lacan would term ‘natural’ images with referent – or ‘signified’ images. At its very basic, this is ultimately a joke about the fact that we are all animals – the playful humour of seeing a golden Labrador wearing a v-neck t-shirt, rocking aviator sunglasses and being obsessed with the skunk from next door is funny and surreal. There is also a clear use of Lacanian mirror imagery between BoJack and his ‘inverted mirror’, Mr. Peanutbutter. Mirrors can also be found between the ‘real’ BoJack and his TV personality on 90s sitcom Horsin’ around, as well as his TV detective character, Philbert – and during this portrayal the mirror line blurs completely in Episode 11, “The showstopper”, in which we all witness a very real “crossover episode”, to coin a favourite line from the show. Once again, visual and symbolic mirrors abound in series five episode 7, when we meet not BoJack, but ‘Bobo the Zebra’.

Yet for all BoJack’s surrealism and superficial escapism, the heart of the show carries messages that, simply, resonate with audiences. The escapism that BoJack and his cohorts pursue is the same that we ourselves seek. That it feels ‘honest’, and ‘true’ is often conflated as being ‘dark’ – as though the idea of a person who doesn’t quite feel that everything is okay within themselves, despite being rich and famous, and takes actions that are nearly always morally ambiguous or questionable, is in someway only explainable if we describe it as “dark”. Doing this, however, otherises such concepts and thus fails to recognise that the real reason the show has such an avid following and has picked up such critical acclaim is because the ‘dark’ aspects of the show aren’t dark at all – they are in fact extremely relatable, particularly for anyone who has ever found that their entire construct of societal expectations has been built around lies meant to satisfy shareholders; not to satisfy our egos or our real natures or purposes. Indeed, when faced with this realisation and reality, the actions that BoJack pursues, the depression, the anger, anxiety, denial, etc. – these become not only normal or relatable, but actually natural reactions to an extremely unnatural world and society.

In an excellent documentary series, The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis explains how, since the 1960s, there have been attempts by both psychiatrists and those in power to make us feel as though certain natural human responses to life are the symptoms of serious psychological or mental disorders. This is partly because the financial, marketing and operational models on which capitalism – and particularly consumerism – relies, have been built on the ideal of human beings as rational, self-serving, individuals. This, of course, flies in the face of evidence that suggests human beings are quite often irrational, altruistic members of communities, tribes and societies as a whole.

Living in a world in which we are told that to feel sad is a sign of a serious mental disorder; in which we are told we can only ever aspire to satiate our own desires by buying more and more things, despite the fact that we are ultimately just searching for real, meaningful connections with other people, places us all in an existential crisis that is vividly and expertly portrayed in BoJack Horseman.

Again, images are important here. In both societies (that of BoJack’s Hollywoo and our own world), materialism – and the images that go with it – run rampant. Consumerism is the order of the day; and both TV show and our reality are subject to the fact that consumerism as a socioeconomic is fundamentally built upon the engineering of desire through psychological manipulation, which is achieved by using images – including advertising and peer pressure – to make us inclined to purchase more and more stuff.

Why does this matter? Being bombarded and overwhelmed by images that are not real – that lack any substance beyond activating something in us that makes us feel empty and fuels our desire to consume, ultimately creates a genuine emptiness and aching for reality. As David Shields notes in Reality Hunger: 

“Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we year for the ‘real,’ semblances of the real. We want to pose something real against all the fabrication.”

The problem with materialism

BoJack lays bare the problem with materialism and consumerism in a way precious few TV shows have dared to do.

An impressive body of academic research suggests that materialism, a trait that can afflict both rich and poor, and which the researchers define as “a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project“, is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It’s associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.

Depression, anxiety, broken relationships; socially destructive and self-destructive. Remind you of anything?

There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. What’s more, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, we become more selfish, and more likely to act and behave in the ways large corporations need in order to make continual disgustingly large profits.

The irrationality of society

For years, then mainstream cultural programmes have adopted the use of imagery and story narratives to support and reinforce the myths that keep them in power and maintain the status quo – to help the consumerist models function; and to keep us spending money, buying more things – all in the ultimate pursuit of our supposed individual happiness.

There are obviously numerous problems with this – not least from a moral perspective. Yet events in recent years have markedly laid out some of the flaws in this approach.

In the first instance, the collapse of the world financial system (triggered in part by massive acquisition of unsustainable personal, individual debts) and subsequent global recession has forced millions of people in Western Society to live in times of extreme austerity. Among many other (perhaps more pressing) issues with this – such as child poverty, rising crime, inequality, – the era of low wages and job scarcity or insecurity that has been created by the austerity model has made it impossible for people to actually exist and function within the previous consumer system as they had been told to. In other words, they had been denied the means with which to participate in the consumerist culture. How can you buy the latest deluxe car when you can’t afford to heat your own home or pay your rent?

Without the means to participate in consumerism, people have started to recognise that the society in which they live, and the dreams they have been told to pursue, are in fact not recogniseable, achievable, or real. The reality of their situation is that the entire system has been broken – and so a world which continues to expect them to accrue personal debt in order to buy the latest fashion trend is not a world in which they can be rationally expected to live.

Beyond the fiction of reality

This all, ultimately, leads us back to BoJack – a world in which to be self-aware is often to become self-destructive. To recognise the faults in the world can lead to despair (because you can’t hope to change things); but also in which ignoring reality and going along with societal pressures is to sacrifice any true sense of identity. Indeed, those characters which lack depth or sense of realness are those who lack any self-awareness – a ‘Ryan Seacrest type’, for instance; a character with so little identity he is only a trace (again to use a Lacanian term) of somebody else. In this world, the most natural response is one that does not seem ‘natural’ – as the system would like you to believe – but rather, to respond to a system that is entirely broken by becoming broken yourself; or reacting to the impossibility of the ask placed upon us as individuals by coming to impossible conclusions (see any of Mr Peanutbutter’s whacky ideas for starters here). The show feels real because the characters are negotiating a broken society that mirrors our own. As Slavoj Zizek has noted: “beyond the fiction of reality lies the reality of the fiction.” We are drawn to the reality of the fiction (in this case, a television show about a celebrity horse) because it is what Lacan would describe as the signifier of something we inherently lack in our own world: reality and realness. We experience so few ‘real’ images, that ones that signify truth – the reality of our situation – become precious and to be treasured.

Ultimately, this helps us more effectively bond with the characters and empathise with them. This is important – particularly in a world in which reports of loneliness are skyrocketing – because it illustrates how BoJack Horseman becomes nourishing, even redemptive; we become less alone inside because we recognise that our reaction to the impossibilities of the world is not confined to our own skulls. BoJack Horseman, then, helps us become less alone inside.

And that’s why we need it.

Book review: The study circle, by Haroun Khan

Nothing in the Rulebook’s resident book reviewer Tom Andrews digs into ‘The study circle’, by Haroun Khan, published by Dead Ink Books.

The Study Circle

This debut novel by Haroun Khan follows two friends from a South London council estate. Ishaq is devout and well educated, a regular at the titular Islamic study circle. His education at a university may give him a way out of the brutal poverty of the estate. His friend Shams is less fortunate and is obliged to make ends meet anyway he can, even if the means are not entirely legal or safe. The pair are caught between the gentle and wise Ayoub, the leader of the study circle, and Mujahid, who justifies his own criminal activities with radical politics and mangled religion.

Khan, writing from some personal experience, gives an unrelentingly grim portrait of the estate. It’s a hopeless and forgotten place, where violence is never far away, and the police are more of a threat than a source of protection. Choices and opportunities are impossibly limited; the characters wonder if it is possible for them to ever truly leave the place behind. Again and again, it is emphasised that outsiders simply do not understand the everyday challenges faced by young people in such an environment, abandoned and alienated while at the same time demonised and discriminated against by the society they live in.

This is a very timely, of the moment book that deals with issues of Islamophobia, racism and poverty in modern Britain. Unfortunately, it doesn’t deal with them in the context of an always engaging novel, but sometimes heavy-handedly in the form of extended essay passages between minimal slices of here and now events.

The last third of the novel is the first time that I had any sense of interest in what would happen next, any sense of drama. This welcome change of pace redeems at least some of what has come before, but how many would persevere to this point? It is not a long novel, but it would benefit from some editing.

The writer himself admits to feeling uneasy while writing this and says, ‘There is a lot I have said here that people can take issue with.’ That’s unavoidable when dealing with such heavyweight issues of race, religion and class. It certainly gave this reviewer uncomfortable things to ponder.

About the reviewer

tandrews

Tom Andrews is a Genetics graduate and book lover based in Somerset. He has previously attempted music and game reviews. He tweets at @jerevendrai 

Crime and punishment: rehabilitation through reading

prisoner_bible__86693

“In your cell reading, it’s like meditation. You can shut off the rest of the world, your problems, and just focus.” – Anonymous prisoner, HMP Pentonville, UK.

3 years ago, the UK High Court overturned a Conservative government-imposed ban on books inside prisons. Campaigners argued that books were an integral part of the rehabilitation process for prisoners, and a number of charities, notably The Reading Agency and Books to Prisoners have long championed literature as a tool of redemption and education.

Let’s explore this in more detail.

Transformation and metamorphosis

Books that seem to be popular among many prisoners are those that hold pertinent messages of transformation, like Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. These stories seem to help inmates craft a new identity for themselves – convincing them of the possibility of not only surviving but even thriving within the tough environment of prison.

And, with an estimated 50% of UK prisoners unable to read or write, the ability to access books, or participate in reading groups, provides not just motivation; but other practical skills, too.

Rod Clark, Chief Executive of Prisoners’ Education Trust, explains: “a seemingly simple book can be incredibly valuable to someone serving a prison sentence – from teaching him or her to read, to developing a love of learning, to feeling empathy for characters to encouraging people to tell their own stories”.

A great escape

An age-old, oft-made joke is that you can escape prison by reading a book. But it’s not simple escapism that literature offers those serving hard time; but something far more important – hope. For prisoners who are able to access and engage with literature – at whatever level, freedom doesn’t have to begin for them when their cell doors are opened and they are finally allowed to walk back out onto the streets in some distant future. It can begin immediately – whenever they open up the pages of a book.

This isn’t simple idealism. Rather, it is based on hard evidence that reading can dramatically improve the lives of prisoners. In the Critical Survey, ‘Reading for Life’: Prison Reading Groups in Practice and Theory, research concluded that another vital benefit of providing prisoners with books to read was that it helped alleviate feelings of depression. The author of the survey, Josie Billington, explains:

“A rich, varied, non-prescriptive diet of serious literature […] proved especially important in encouraging participants to engage in discussion and address their depression directly.”

The survey found that, not only were inmates starting to claim direct benefits of feeling happier, more content as a result of the literature they were reading; but that they were becoming more self-aware as a result of reading it. The authors note that there was “a significant proportion” of prisoners who found that, by engaging with specific set texts, they were able to rediscover old or forgotten, suppressed or inaccessible modes of thought, feeling and experience.

That prisoners, then, are often drawn to books about transformation may not be so surprising. For through their engagement with literature, many are undergoing a personal metamorphosis of their own.

As Wolfgang Iser recognised long ago, literature has the power to change and restore. This is because when you read a story, you can find yourself temporarily transported from bad, anxious, troubling or unhappy thoughts because of your absorption in a story. In this way, the relationship between a reader and a fictional work is different from that between an observer and an object – it is different from that between a viewer and a television set, also. It is an active relationship that requires the reader to possess a moving viewpoint which travels along inside that which it has to apprehend. Readers have to create worlds and characters for themselves, partly through their imagination, and partly guided by the author of any given text.

This is why readers become “caught up in the very thing they are producing,” as Henry James put it, which means “they have the illusion of having lived another life.”

Real rehabilitation

This is a powerful reaction to produce in a human being – and one that helps readers discover new awareness of empathy for others. When readers empathise with people in books, they are mimicking the same empathy they would feel for people in similar situations in real life. For prisoners who have often struggled with notions of the impact their actions have on others, this is a critical part of their rehabilitation.

Again, this proposition is based on hard evidence. In 2014, the UK Ministry of Justice produced a report that indicated prison inmates who had access to educational courses that focused heavily on literature and reading were 8% less likely to reoffend than those who did not have access to such courses.

Freedom through literature

What all this seems to come down to is the way prison, in its current form, is designed not only to keep inmates physically confined; but mentally restricted, too. Yet by closing down the thoughts of prisoners, you restrict the opportunity for their minds to perceive of the world as a land of opportunity and freedom; and instead only as a place of narrow paths that likely follow the same routes that ultimately lead back to prison.

Literature – and access to it – changes such a worldview. Reading helps support the inquisitive mind of the individual human to discover new ways of looking at the world. As John Steinbeck wrote:

“The free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.”

So, let’s make the case to help prisoners free their minds through books; let’s make this the moment when prison libraries are given due attention, improved where necessary, made much more accessible for all prisoners and put at the heart of a learning culture in prisons. Through prison libraries and reading groups, it might be possible to create an oasis of sanity and a door to a new world.

 

 

 

 

Book review: ‘Mumur’ by Will Eaves

Murmur image

“I cannot help wondering if the real nature of mind is that it is unencompassable by mind, and whether that Godelian element of wonder – at something we know we have, but cannot enclose – may be the chief criterion of consciousness.” So opines the narrator early on in the latest terrific book from Will Eaves. Startlingly ambitious in its scope and form, Murmur invites us into a world of philosophical mathematics and artificial intelligence. What’s not to love?

Now when it comes to these topics, Eaves has touched upon these areas before – for instance, within The Inevitable Gift Shop. Yet here in Murmur he explores it with an astute intimacy from the perspective of an avatar, Alex Pryor, a character based on the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

It is not whether or not machines can think that is the main focus here; but rather, a potential inverse of the proposition – whether or not humans think like machines. Murmur is more concerned with the nature of human consciousness, how we come to be – whether we are pre-formed, destined to live pre-determined lives following a set of codes within our basic DNA, or if we are our own programmers (to stick with the computer theme).

As Turing himself argued in his seminal paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, when asking the question ‘can machines think?’, it is firstly of critical importance to “begin with definitions of the terms ‘machine’ and ‘think’”. Determining whether or not something possesses artificial intelligence is not based on empirical fact, but rather, decision – the decision of the human beings setting the frames of reference for any AI test (the computer can play chess; can fool a human into believing they are conversing with another human; etc.). That a machine may ‘pass’ such parameters does not necessarily mean they have acquired genuine intelligence. As Noam Chomsky has argued, conversing with a computer shows only that a piece of software can be programmed to breakdown the codes of our language and repurpose them (as it has been told to do so by a human programmer). This is not intelligence; but parroting.

Yet the notion of conversing with a machine opens up linguistic questions and challenges. Numerous pieces of research have shown that language not only shapes our culture – but also shapes and manipulates our personalities. Language programmes us, in that sense. With this in mind – and considering the subject of Eaves’s book – the Turing test, which has for so many years been the gold standard of measuring a machine’s intelligence, becomes even more central to the core of Murmur. By choosing to frequently adopt a conversational style within his writing, the reader must begin to question the formal structure of the novel, and their relationship with both the words on the page, and the characters within it. Are we, as readers, engaged in a Turing test of our own? Asked without directly being asked to assess whether we are in conversation with machine or man; or, more simply, whether we are able to assess for ourselves what does and does not have consciousness? Do characters feel, if their actions and thoughts on a page make us as readers feel? Are books themselves alive, if they contain within them what looks, feels and appears for all intents and purposes to be consciousness?

These questions of course invite further questions. For instance, is it mere coincidence that formally, there are times Murmur’s structure resembles some of the (at first) seemingly disconnected pieces of text – memories, questions, letters, and so on – that might be produced by some of the ‘AI’ writing programmes that have been developed in recent years? Coincidence perhaps; yet the fragmentary nature of the novel certainly asks us to think about the ways our own ‘intelligence’ – or consciousness – is structured.

We like to think of ourselves as straight thinking, coherent and logical beings despite all evidence to the contrary. There is no clearer feature of the mind than its willingness to construct wholes out of fragmentary parts. Our memories inevitably have gaps within them. Our focus can so easily be lost to distraction. Thoughts and memories pop up seemingly at random. A innocuous smell or sense of touch can make us involuntarily recall feelings and thoughts both good and bad; as well as those we have suppressed.

Life and consciousness are not logical (though they can of course be assessed and reviewed with logic). And this is one of the many things that Murmur does so well – it is, by its very nature, both an accurate representation of consciousness and human experience, as well as a thorough, logical analysis of these things. Through Alex Pryor, Eaves has developed a protagonist through which we may see these inherently complex ideas more simply.

This would be a triumph in itself; yet Eaves goes further – creating characters that are not simply tools through which we may explore high-level concepts, but through whom we empathise with, laugh with, and love with.

Perhaps this last part is the most important (as it so often is with a good novel). For all that the writing is excellent (as we have come to expect with Will Eaves); and for all that the book grapples with a veritable menagerie of ‘worthy’ ideas (there are so many more we could have discussed at length in this review); and for all that it provides another worthy voice to consider in the ongoing conversations surrounding artificial intelligence – none of these are really what the book is ‘all about’, or what readers should take away as being the most important aspect of Murmur. Because ultimately, what it all comes down to is that this is a novel about love. And it is the way in which Eaves presents this most human of emotions, that really makes this novel truly intelligent.

Book review: Ghosting for beginners, by Anna Saunders

Ghosting for beginners

Anna Saunders is haunted by many things: myth, legend, her political concerns, environmental problems and, most engagingly, the ghosts of people she knows, living and dead. This diverse range of ghouls work their way into her fifth and latest poetry collection Ghosting for Beginners.

Haunting can be a tricky theme to pull off, as it’s well-ploughed territory and can lead easily to Gothic melodrama or cliché. However, Saunders avoids this by stretching the theme a long way, using the ongoing theme of ghosts to expose interesting perspectives on other ideas, rather than appearing to write strictly to a gothic or eerie theme. It feels as though the poems emerged organically, united by feeling rather than the need to stick to a particular topic. The book as a whole feels melancholy: the ghost of Saunders’ father emerges gradually over the course of the collection. There is a moving moment in ‘The Ventriloquist Dolls of the Dead’ when Saunders sees a familiar gesture of her father in a stranger. She imagines her father is somehow doing this himself, using the man’s body to reach out, briefly, from beyond the grave: ‘The gestures are identical/and he’s moving as if/he were a dummy/brought out of the box long enough/for your dead dad/to show that even though you can’t see his lips move/he still fancies a chat.’

Brexit, Grenfell and ongoing political turmoil all make appearances in the poetry. In ‘A Murmuration is Seen Above the City’, Saunders imagines the starlings above the city of London as the ghosts of Cabinet Ministers, ‘wishing that in life/they had acted differently/but airborne, and dead, it is too late.’ She doesn’t hold back. Working with an impressive command of language and a rich knowledge of myth and legend, Saunders communicates effectively and efficiently through her poems. There is a touch of Angela Carter about the way she sees people and animals, likes to examine humans through their ghosts. For me, reading Saunders reminded me of studying Carter at school – words like ‘pelage’ and ‘papillae’ had me reaching for a dictionary but, as with Carter, having to stop and take stock to soak in the words on the page didn’t hinder the experience. You’re not supposed to speed through this stuff. The more I read, the more I find some texts are like Magic Eye puzzles. You don’t see it, you don’t see it, you don’t see it and then you see it. And then you have go out and tell everyone, because you’ve done something meaningful.

But there is light in the grief, in the disillusionment. Even at her most political, Saunders has an almost Neil Gaiman-esque twinkle in her eye, bringing characters from myth and legend into our world, having the Angel of Revelation struggle with the bead-curtain hanging at the entrance of the New Age Centre, Jesus spurn the ticket barriers on the London Overground. There’s a fun side to the hauntings – not all ghosts are bad.

The strength of the collection is the portraits of the real people and the glimpses we have of Saunders’ own interiority. In its weaker moments, the poetry spirals into abstraction, tries to do too much – the ideas behind ‘The Ghost Room’ are interesting but rely on sensations too far removed from everyday experience to be profound. We hear the Ghost Room is ‘airy and immaterial as this stanza/but it will occupy your thoughts.’ Far more interesting is the plea of the wife, telling her husband to put on a dark coat so that their neighbours will not mistake him for a ghost and kill him. The poem ‘I said Thomas, There is a Piece of Work About the Ghost’ is based on real events; a man tried for killing a labourer called Thomas that he took for the Hammersmith Ghost. Thomas’ widow had reportedly warned her husband that, in his white overalls, he looked particularly ghostly. Told from the point of view of the wife as she warns her husband, the poem is urgent and moving, tragic yet bizarre. Haunting.

Saunders draws some beautiful portraits in this collection. The pheasant ‘dangling clumsy from string like a plummy yo-yo,’ in ‘Befriending the Butcher’ is startling and real. However, she has a tendency to take poems a beat too far. The lines ‘No longer able to walk, he scored the floor/with wheel chair marks as if ticking items off a list’ would make for a blistering ending, but Saunders goes on to add ‘and the single bar of the fire was a winter sunset;/a thin scarlet line, blazing with its own heat/as it slipped down silently, into the dark.’ Pretty though this image is, I’d stick with the old man, carving his achievements into the ground with the wheel of his chair, to which he is bound forever.

We have the same situation in ‘A Murmuration is Seen Above the City’, returning again to the ghosts of politicians as birds, swirling above Westminster, Saunders ends the poem by saying, ‘We shiver, as we watch them wheel and turn,/Our bones almost through our skin.’ This is haunting; but it would be far eerier if the poem was left to burn at the end of the previous stanza: ‘The sky is bruised with the bloated bodies of/Cabinet Ministers/fat with stolen fruit, they eclipse the sun.’

However, the final stanza of ‘Sowing Seeds’ is perfect. The poem is a meditation on climate change, on Donald Trump’s denial of its existence and the difference we, the little people, can make. Walking with a friend or partner on the beach, Saunders brings the poem to a close with the lines ‘The sea, its salty tongue working/like someone who will not stop speaking,/gets the final word’.

A collection occupied by the idea of what we leave behind, Ghosting for Beginners left me feeling agitated and comforted in equal measure – both aftertastes intended by Saunders I’m sure. The poems are successful in portraying the world and humanity as contradictory; friendly and unforgiving, beautiful and ugly. And who knows what we’ll leave behind.

Ghosting for beginners is available for purchase directly from Indigo Dreams online http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/anna-saunders-gfb/4594255832

About the reviewer

Ellen LavelleEllen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelleon Twitter.

“What It Was Like, What Happened and What It’s Like Now”

There are countless examples of famous creative artists struggling with mental health issues or turning to addiction. Yet for every troubled genius who made it, there are countless others who didn’t. In this article, musician Christopher Tait shares his personal experiences of living with addiction – and what can be done to help provide support for struggling artists and musicians.

Passenger pic

“What It Was Like, What Happened and What It’s Like Now”

– The AA Big Book

I vaguely remember being curled up on a filthy mattress, praying to anyone/thing to make the pain go away. I recognized the pain – acute pancreatitis. It felt like there was an alien pushing though my sternum, and my veins were on fire. I’d experienced it before after some serious benders, and the only relief was to lay fetal-style and wait for it to pass. Or…go to the ER and beg for Dilaudid.

It was 2005 and I lived above Detroit’s premiere (and only) goth club in an old hotel called The Leland. The weekend I moved in, someone jumped off the roof after taking acid and wandering from the basement club up to the top of the building. That set the tone for my stay there.

I was gone half the year on tour, and the other half was spent living like a vagrant and shoveling tour profits up my nose. I’m not sure what made me think that that could go on forever, but as soon as I felt better, I’d escape the ER and walk down the hall, past my room with the dirty mattress where I prayed for help, and head straight down to the dealer’s place. (It helps to have the goods in-house during those cold Michigan months, fyi. While I enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, there was nothing like buying a baggie from the guy down the hall).

When you’re in it, bad things keep happening to you and it’s always someone else’s fault. And incredibly, if you say that enough times you start to believe it.

Flash forward six years to 2011 – I wake up in a hotel in Nashville, not sure where I am. Again. No other band members are staying in the room, and there is vodka left in the jug. It was always a bad sign if there was booze left and the jug was in the trash – that meant I hadn’t put it there. It was probably thrown out based on behavioral backlash. At first it was just another morning of waking up and wondering what I’d done, and searching for keys, wallet, phone, etc. etc.; forget repeat; forget; repeat.

I woke to several texts and a knock at the door. I was sat down and told I’d be leaving the tour. After driving the tour van over a laptop (I hadn’t had a drivers license in nearly a decade), I repeatedly tried to fight multiple members of the group. I had this super power – when I was at my most unhappy with myself, I’d start drilling at everyone around me. Shockingly, my hotel roomies had had enough and gone elsewhere.

When I read back on what I just wrote, it sounds like badly-drawn Bukowski without much glory or wit. All signs point to insanity, but not when you’re in it. When you’re in it, bad things keep happening to you and it’s always someone else’s fault. And incredibly, if you say that enough times you start to believe it. The universe was against me, and the bottle was my only friend. Or the dope man, on nights where I had enough scratch.

Flash forward again to 2013 – I’m on tour with Electric Six in the states, then Canada. Sober for two years and trying to stay sane on the road. I’m drilling at myself by this point, and my head is rampant with anxiety and paranoid fear that the others I’m touring with think that either I’m boring now, or that I’m a self-righteous turd (the ego is truly an amazing thing; two weeks into a van tour, everyone is just trying to get a few hours sleep, five minutes of peace, and laundry on a lucky week).

The fact that I think anyone gives a shit either way about me or anything other than staying sane at that point in the tour is in itself delusional. I’ve tried to go to meetings on the road; local AA info has led me to a bowling alley in Asbury Park, and an open field in Little Rock. In Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, we arrive late. There are no meetings around, my data doesn’t work, there is no green room, the Starbucks is closed. It is freezing cold out. I sit in the van and listen to an old AA tape on a laptop (Adam T – La Hacienda Reunion. An old chestnut in the world of AA speakers). I start to think to myself that it should be easier than this.

“Communication…that’s where the change began and continues”

I’m not here to rattle off war stories without purpose, and I don’t regret every single thing I did when I was actively using either. I’m here to present a cautionary tale, and a solution that helped me: Communication. At it’s very heart, that’s where the change began and continues personally.

When I’m on tour, I go to meetings. I have a show to do and beyond that, the gig environment is none of my business. When I’m off tour, I work with others that share the same issues. “Defects” even, as you often hear in recovery. I like the term “Character Defects”. It reminds me that it’s not something I can put a bandaid on, hoping it will go away. It’s there; But the garbage floating around my head – the anxieties, fears, and apocalyptic inclinations will recede if I discuss them with others who might be in a similar boat. And that’s enough, with regularity. If I open up, they diminish. If I keep them in, they get heavier until the bow breaks and I’m screaming at people who can’t hear me down the express way.

When I let my guard down, I can get vulnerable. I can laugh about this shit. I can sit down and talk with strangers anywhere in the world that relate, and the weight is lifted. I’m not alone, and much as my ego would like me to be the only single “tortured artist” on the planet that’s ever dealt with this, I’m not. We’re everywhere.

Before, my only answer to anything was to jump into a bottle. I suppose it was easier, until it wasn’t. But this is better. Life is still life, but I can handle it without the crutch of numbing myself. I live with, understand, and appreciate consequence and accountability. I have options; I don’t have to let everyone down, I can be there for myself and others, my bills are paid, I know where my wallet is etc etc repeat remember repeat. I still screw up, but I attempt to make right.

Passenger was started as a very small, simple, feet-on-the-street service in Detroit – If someone is on tour or traveling, they can call or email us and we will flesh out times with them to make sure they have options. If they have time for a meeting between soundcheck and stage, we’ll get them to a meeting. If their time is limited, we have a clean green room that’s just coffee, internet, peace and quiet.

For the last year, we’ve worked on The Compass – a metropolitan meeting-finder that will be updated through user interaction and central offices. We hope to make it like a Waze for people in recovery on the road. Efficient and current. Simple.

passenger AA pic

Passenger’s Compass tool is a GPS-enabled app that offers directions and info for travellers to multiple types of meetings including AA/NA, buddhist recovery (Refuge), and mental health (NAMI).

Our campaign was put together with artists and musicians alike, both in and out of recovery. Our hope is to present a united front where artists from all walks of life can stand together to support those who have recognized issues or concerns in their own lives. We ask anyone who’d like to help to visit the campaign page and see how they can contribute:

https://www.patronicity.com/project/passenger__compass#!/

Help us provide resources for travellers and touring musicians struggling with mental health & addiction issues.

About the author of this post

Christopher TaitChristopher Tait has written and performed for Electric Six since 2002. When off tour, he’s at Brighton Center for Recovery (a treatment center outside of Detroit, MI) working with others who are struggling with addiction issues. Before starting Passenger in 2015, Chris was a freelance curator for Beats/Apple Music in Culver City, CA

Noticing the Journey

20180604_115334

One morning I was given a lift into work by my parents. I climbed into the middle seat of the back and then spent a while leafing through emails on my phone, followed by aimlessly watching the road blur above the dashboard until we arrived. A perfectly average lift, by any means; nothing remarkable about it. Yet in making these unremarkable journeys time and time again, I have begun to ask myself an important question:

                          When was the last time I really noticed a car journey?

I don’t mean just noticing how far I’m travelling and which turnings we took to get there; but being aware of all that we were passing through. How many people driving or being driven right now are actually looking out of their windows and thinking about the landscape that they’re in; about the noises, the shades of colour, the rise and fall of the fields and forests and buildings as they merge? And then how many people are seeing nothing but the blur of the motorway at seventy – an interminable rush beyond a window; hearing only the sound of the engine and the air buffeting small gaps in the windows as if “outside” does not exist at all – as if a journey is only a state of limbo between destinations?

If you were to ask someone who had driven from Birmingham to London yesterday what they had done on that day, they’d probably say something like,

“I went to London”, and then they might tell you what they did there.

Or, just after arriving in London they might say,

“I’ve been driving.”

Driving.

It calls to mind the image of a car interior and wheels rolling by at high speed. There is no place attached to it, no sense of a world it fits into, just an idea of getting somewhere fast. This is convenience – the quickest route from a to b – and in many ways it makes sense that this is what we routinely settle for, in our modern world of crammed schedules and fast-paced living.

But this is not the way that journeys have to be, and it is not the only way to travel.

20180710_130840.jpg

The moment you decide to take the scenic route on the train, or choose to cycle through the woods, or boat your way down the winding waterways of a country, you are forced to slow down and look around, opening yourself up to something quite amazing: noticing the journey. Not just noticing the journey as movement, but as a discovery of place, self and mind.

As you slow down, you allow yourself to become more aware of your own thoughts, of the interactions between yourself and your environment, and begin to engage mentally with the full height and breadth of a space as a historic and imaginative pool of potential. Giving yourself this mental breathing room in your day to day journeying is how problem solving is tangled out, how we process our own desires – how poetry is born.

It’s too easy nowadays to neglect making time for ourselves in this way, time for making sure we understand how we are connected to the worlds we inhabit. It’s also time we need for processing and distilling observations and experience into something meaningful, something that lasts in the mind.

Walking or floating down the canals of the UK, for example, offers up a whole wealth of ideas and stories if you allow yourself to slow down and engage with the journey: in the conversations of passersby, the memories of long lost boats and boaters, the years of trains and wars and disuse, and the rallies that brought them back into being. There is so much there to contemplate whilst the leaves bow in and out of view, and the birdsong and constant running of water set the pace to your thoughts and movements.

This slow time for contemplative thought is, for me, much of what makes poetry and poetic thought possible. It is an opening-up to feeling the sensory past and present of place and moment, to feeling the rhythms that surround us and that we automatically orient our lives around. It enables us to learn how to play off these feelings, pushing and pulling against the pulses and sounds to create something evocative, something that captures the unique way our thoughts fall against one another and gradually coalesce into meaning.

I find that poetry is so often a discovery of new and beautiful ways of seeing. It captures the unexpected in the things that we think we know – life, love, cities, nature, people, words. But in order to access any of those multitudes of perspectives, in order to see the extraordinary within the ordinary, we must allow ourselves time for observation of our surroundings in the first place.

This is what a journey can be, if we let it; this great storing-up of inspiration, a way of focusing the mind and processing ourselves. So next time you’re about to get into a car, think about slowing down and taking a different route, think about getting out of the car and experiencing some new way of getting to and from the places you think you know; think about what you don’t know – what is waiting to be discovered all around you.

About the author of this post

32880562_10208750525599857_7033432400910614528_n.jpgJessica Kashdan-Brown is a poet and writer based in both Bath, where she lives, and Coventry where she studies as part of the University of Warwick Writing Programme. She is currently working on the installation of a poetry route within the Bath flight of locks along the Kennet and Avon canal. This is a large-scale poetry project designed to draw attention to the Bath canal as an imaginative space, and as an alternative mode of transport to cars in Bath. For more details on the project, please follow this link.

 

The Poetry of The Communist Manifesto: a combination of past and present

IMG_4662

What would have happened if Karl Marx had become a poet? In this article, Peter Raynard takes The Communist Manifesto to new, poetic levels. 

The Foundation

“Capitalism has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities. Capitalism has agglomerated population, centralised means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands.”

As many readers will know, Karl Marx wrote these words, but used the term ‘bourgeoisie’ instead of capitalism. The words were swapped in a 2012 lecture by John Lanchester (he of Whoops, and Capital) marking Marx’s 193rd birthday, to show how prescient he was in describing the structure of capitalism and the way in which it changes the landscape.

But as well as Marx’s prescience, he has also been lauded for his literary style of writing. In Robert Paul Wolff’s book, ‘Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: on the literary structure of Capital’, he references Edmund Wilson who likens Marx to the great ironist, Swift.

“Compare the logic of Swift’s ‘modest proposal’ for curing the misery of Ireland by inducing the starving people to eat their surplus babies with the argument in defence of crime which Marx urges on the bourgeois philosophers…: crime he suggests, is produced by the criminal just as ‘the philosophers produce ideas, the poet verses, the professor manuals,’ and practising it is useful to society because it takes care of the superfluous population at the same time that putting it down gives employment to many worthy citizens.”

Where Marx may have used satire in Capital, The Communist Manifesto is more of a Promethean tragedy; or as has been argued, Marx is more of a dialectical Promethean;

“the idea or practical conviction that what is made can be unmade, what is bound can be unbound by purposeful action. It is the sober acceptance that stealing fire from the gods will have serious consequences that will ultimately lead either to the emancipation, or the annihilation, of humanity.”

The Combination

Karl Marx had two great loves in his late teens, which he put into practice by joining two social clubs when at the University in Bonn; the first was the Tavern Club, which his father disapproved of because of the prevalence of drunken duels (it’s said that Marx did in fact engage in a duel); the second, was the Poets’ Club, of which his father did approve. Writing to his father however, his love of poetry was superseded by the events around him, ‘I had to study law and above all felt the urge to wrestle with philosophy.’ I wonder what impact he would have had, if he became a poet.

But as we all know, he didn’t and some twelve years later, he wrote The Communist Manifesto. However, the mix of prescience, satire, and tragedy in theses writings seemed to me to be the perfect ingredients for a poetic response.

In January this year, I was introduced to the poetic form of coupling by Karen McCarthy Woolf. The form is a poetic response to a piece of text, where the poet divides up lines of prose and responds with lines that include rhyme, repetition and assonance. I took a paragraph of the Communist Manifesto. I decided to explore the form further; writing the Preface, then Part One, and so on, until three months later I had matched 12,000 words of Marx’s masterpiece with roughly the same amount of my poetic own.

Drawing on a wide range of references, I have tried to situate the Manifesto in a variety of contemporary cultural places, in particular to emphasise the dialectic nature of the text, in the form I am presenting. This is complemented by a series of images, again matching the bound with the unbound. As far as I am aware, this is only the second poetic response (after Brecht) to the Communist Manifesto.

Below is a sample of the book, where Marx is describing the rise of the bourgeoisie:

Extract from The Combination

(rise of the bourgeoisie)

The feudal system of industry, in which industrial production
a set of pipes excavated from the intestines of serfs

was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed
because the human body parts were too emaciated

for the growing wants of the new markets
who were still yet to discover the delights of the flesh

The manufacturing system took its place.
robots of various stomach sizes, blustered and bulged their way ahead

The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class
something the middle class did very passively aggressive like

division of labour between the different corporate guilds
confraternity contracts between belligerents, some say

vanished in the face of division of labour in each single workshop
atomising systems turning the metal of men into powder

Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising.
man-sized tissues no longer required, as it was nothing to be sneezed at

Even manufacture no longer sufficed
hands took to the machine not the article of craft

Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production
playthings of the mind, exponential change in fortunes, spin the wheel

The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry
all hail the shibboleths of mammon and their bloody tongues

the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires
poor souls in the middle playing catch and missing

the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois
come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough

Modern industry has established the world market
connecting cracked palms that never shake hands

for which the discovery of America paved the way
with their independent isolationist do-what-I-say

This market has given an immense development to commerce
so fly high my sweet nightingales of the east, you bulbul song birds

to navigation, to communication by land
enabling the troops of civilisation and Sodom to rape for progress

This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry;
a cleaning up if you will of virulent middle-aged faces

and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended
like a pop-up book with a mind of its own

in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed
maturing like cancerous cheese on a wood-rot board

increased its capital, and pushed into the background
its nodules of self-aggrandisement, displacing

every class handed down from the Middle Ages
and so say some of us, and so say some of us, for

We see, therefore, how the modern bourgeoisie
the one percent to you and me

is itself the product of a long course of development
yes, yes, yes, we know what you meant

of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange
round and round we go, where will we stop – hold on, I know!

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied
by the ‘gertcha’ of Chas and Dave eulogising the end of days and

by a corresponding political advance of that class
who still dance on this parliamentary isle to Milton’s ‘light fantastick’

An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility
as it was, as it is, as it was always meant to be

an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune
oh for those lazy, crazy anarchistic days, sat around a smoky haze

here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany)
where townsmen gave purchase to their rights with moneyed fists

there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France)
the 98% of us scrapping over a share of bronze medal

afterwards, in the period of manufacturing proper
the threads of stratification began to untwine

serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy
the Naxalites of India can tell you a thing or two here

as a counterpoise against the nobility,
it always comes down to standing, back straight!

and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general
whose spines were now curving to the submittal

the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry
with all its rising fallacies and clocking on palaces

and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State
the porous borders of innovative disorder

exclusive political sway.
you turn if you want to, but the old lady of England, is not for turning

The executive of the modern state is but a committee
with their bingo numbers to hand & Saturday night covers band

for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie
so not the main party to make us all free

About the author of this post

Peter Raynard Photo (6)

Peter Raynard is the editor of Proletarian Poetry: Poems of Working-class Lives (www.proletarianpoetry.com). He has written two books of poetry, his debut collection Precarious (Smokestack Books, 2018) and The Combination, a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto (Culture Matters, 2018), available here.

 

References:

Barker, Jason (2016) EPIC OR TRAGEDY? KARL MARX AND POETIC FORM IN THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, (sourced here)

Lanchester, John (2012) Marx at 193 (LRB podcast)

Nicolaievsky, Boris & Maenchen-Helfen, Otto (1933) Karl Marx: man and fighter (Pelican Books)

Wolff, Robert Paul (1988) ‘Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: on the literary structure of Capital’ (University of Massachusetts Press)