Mud, books, and Greek mythology: interview with David Henningham

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David Henningham 

When we first caught up with David and Ping Henningham, of Henningham Family Press, they had just been commissioned to make a major public arts contribution to the Central Hall of Artists in Moscow.

Fast forward a couple of years, and the duo behind this dynamic printing press are once again deep into an exciting new creative project – and getting knee deep in mud to do so.

‘Mud’ is the new book by Chris McCabe, which follows his debut novel, Dedalus, also published by Henningham Family Press (HFP).

The couple have been raising funds to support the publication of the book through a recently launched Kickstarter project. And yet, in typical HFP fashion, this is no ordinary printed book – but rather one that blurs the boundary between art and writing.

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‘Mud’ – the new book by Chris McCabe, published by Henningham Family Press

Described by the creative duo as ‘an Artists’ Book in exquisite handmade and paperback versions’, Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with David Henningham to find out more about the project.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about Chris McCabe’s new book ‘Mud’ – and what you’re planning on doing with it.

HENNINGHAM

Mud is a story re-imagining Orpheus & Eurydice in contemporary London. Borak and Karissa must find a bubble buried in mud, somewhere. Along their way into the Underworld beneath Hampstead Heath, to scour the 24 types of mud, they are followed by their film crew and its odious Director. As they chance upon bones, bricks and talking Moles, they must restrain themselves from throttling each other. And falling in love all over again.

We have begun a quest with Chris McCabe parallel to that of his characters underground; an addition to the conventional editing process. We’ve been collecting different types of London mud to use as pigments and salvaging a half-brick, involved in a car crash, to use as our printing block (the perfect metaphor for Borak and Kar’s relationship). We used the faces of the brick to cast Orphic shapes resembling thresholds, mounds and tunnels of the Underworld.

This process will produce three versions of the book that use the same printed pages:

  • High-quality Paperback
  • Deluxe Hardback, representing a mud type with unique limited edition print
  • Deluxe Hardback, representing a mud type, in solander box with unique sculpture

INTERVIEWER

Why Mud?

HENNINGHAM

I can’t answer that, except to say that the notion there are 24 types of mud has totally changed the way I see the world. I keep spotting muds with extraordinary colour or texture and thinking ‘we missed that one!’ I suspect that somewhere in there, this sensation that language variegates experience of the world is “why Mud”.

INTERVIEWER

In an era of digital publishing, amid the rise of e-books and audiobooks; how important is it, do you think, that as readers we return to the physical value books have and invest in printed copies? Do you see your production of hand-made books to be a revolt against artifice or digitalisation?

HENNINGHAM

No, digital technology makes book production and selling cleaner, quicker, cheaper and easier at every stage, which is the most important aspect to us. Our handmade books are enabled by digital technology.

Ebooks are just a copyright thing, they prevent creative opportunity in my experience, but audiobooks are interesting to us. We love moving texts into different creative forms. I like the fact that our books will be among the best someone will handle, and that there’s something you can only get from the book because that means it is a book that has fully exploited the form. But I’m not interested in dominating anything. If someone thinks books aren’t important to them, I’ll wave them on their merry way. If they don’t like stories, I refer them to a special watch list at the Dept of Culture, Media, Sport, Shopping and Lawnmowers.

INTERVIEWER

In your Kickstarter project, you say you believe artist-Writers shouldn’t just be producing radical words; but also radical means of production and distribution. Can you expand on this – is there a Marxist element to your publishing ethos?

HENNINGHAM

Not Marxist, although I’m sympathetic to the Socialist publishing aspirations of B.S. Johnson you can find in Jonathan Coe’s biography, and admire Marxist friends who find a way to navigate the book Market.

What I mean by it is that, instead of approaching the current system of commissioning and selling books and trying to publish books that will change the world, the system itself must be changed in the process. Take diversity. Rooms full of privileged people are saying “how can we publish more diverse writers?” I suspect it isn’t working because the system is token operated. Not only are the people in the room almost all privileged, they begin by saying “how can we help these people?” The Hogarth Press had a fantastic record on publishing women writers. Because of what it was, not because of any policy. So if you want to make a Press that publishes X kind of writing, you need to make a Press the shape that will produce that writing. Not a mini-Corporate.

INTERVIEWER

How can aspiring artists and writers – or newly established publishing houses – reclaim the means of production and distribution from the corporate behemoths who dominate the publishing (and indeed wider media) landscape?

HENNINGHAM

The difference is between big organisations and partnerships of smaller organisations. Become a member of a group of smaller organisations and work together cooperatively if you want to take on the corporates.

If you simply want to make a few things and get them out there, you just need to find the right printer (production) and attend DIY book or arts fairs (distribution).

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk us through the sensation of crafting one of your books – is there a connection, do you think, between publisher and physical book that goes beyond a desire to sell copies? And where does the line between art and writing collide and/or blur?

HENNINGHAM

When I’m binding I’m very much thinking with my hands. I’m sort of aware of language, and thoughts apparently located in my head, but mostly it’s my hands working almost independently. I also stopped thinking ahead much, I seem to know what to do next without planning.

Afterwards, for me, it’s about getting the fruits of that process as close to readers as possible, but I suspect most publishers aren’t approaching it this way. They have babies, while I’m more of a midwife. Or a sorcerer.

INTERVIEWER

In many ways, the focus your project places on words influencing the physical design of the book – as well as the structure and form – makes this a thoroughly modernist piece of art and writing; yet the source material for the novel is from Ancient Greek mythology. What is the relationship, do you think, between the classical and the modern? And how important are the works of literary figures like James Joyce to informing any such debate on this topic?

HENNINGHAM

Well as you suggest, Ulysses took myth as its structure and embedded it in modernity. We don’t get equally influenced by all world mythologies, though. Some ancient stories are simply bizarre to us. It’s not just that we’re used to Greek myths, there’s something recognisable about the people and gods in them, and the themes, such as metamorphosis, we carry with us.

In the Penelope section at the end of Dedalus (his sequel to Ulysses), I suspect Chris McCabe wrote a kind of manifesto for himself, about writing myth. If so, he’s delivered in spades with Mud.

INTERVIEWER

Can anything ever be truly ‘new’, ‘modern’, or ‘unique’?

HENNINGHAM

It’s interesting to push it to the other extreme; to try making something the opposite of unique. It will always have this stubborn singularity.

INTERVIEWER

What’s been your experience of using Kickstarter to support your project? What role do crowdfunding models have to play in the current publishing and artistic sectors?

HENNINGHAM

We have been able to share our excitement around a project while we are still genuinely excited about it. Marketing afterwards is fun, but it’s more about sustaining that excitement and sharing a finished product. Involving people in the process and having a way of updating them as we make things for the book changes it too. The rewards structure has obliterated the barrier between our trade and handmade versions.  

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Modernism or post-modernism?

HENNINGHAM

Modernism

INTERVIEWER

Curl up with a book or head to an art gallery?

HENNINGHAM

Book

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

HENNINGHAM

Cult classic

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated writer/artist?

HENNINGHAM

Such a contested field! Agota Kristoff? Or I’d like to see Darker With The Lights On by David Hayden (which was acclaimed in the small press world) accepted wholeheartedly by mainstream booksellers and readers.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated writer/artist?

HENNINGHAM

Again, such a contested field! J.K Rowling. So slow and clunky. Magic for people who don’t like to be surprised. Why bother. Ctrl+v Diana Wynne-Jones.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

HENNINGHAM

British Viceroy Robert Bulwer-Lytton was a famous poet and responsible for the deaths of between 6 and 13 million Indian subjects in the Late Victorian period.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

HENNINGHAM

Drawing road-markings made Doug’s handwriting taller.

INTERVIEWER

What 5-10 pieces of advice can you give to people thinking of exploring crowdfunding as a means of getting their writing or artwork out there?

HENNINGHAM

  • Get advice and key questions from their representatives or online knowledge base and do everything they tell you to. They’ve done it a million times.
  • Contact 30 committed supporters and get them ready to pledge in the first 48 hours.
  • Involve people in a process. Make sure you are doing something for the project other than talking about money in that 30 days and make daily updates of the work in progress.
  • Have a theme derived from your project and apply it to all your reward names and updates.
  • Make a video. If it’s just you, a selfie stick and windows movie maker, that’s fine. Without it nobody really knows you.
  • Look out for trolls. If someone spends big, have a look at their identity before announcing you’ve hit your target and raise it with Kickstarter if you think they look suspicious.
  • There will also be spam.

 

To find out more about Chris McCabe’s new novel, and to pledge your support for this fantastic project, please visit the Kickstarter page

 

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6 things that should be better known

Better Known

At Nothing in the Rulebook, we love starting conversations and building new creative relationships. So we were thrilled to be invited onto a wonderful new podcast called Better Known Show, hosted by Ivan Wise, which seeks to uncover new things that guests think should be better known.

As Ivan set out in an article for NITRB, “If you need a recommendation right now, there will be no shortage of suggestions. The problem is that far too many of them are exactly the same.”

Well, we couldn’t agree more. On the show, we pick six things we think should be better known. If you don’t want to spoil the surprise – click the link and subscribe (on Android or iTunes), and check out our episode!

But, if you don’t mind spoilers, read on!

6 things that should be better known, according to Nothing in the Rulebook

  1. The Future Library project in Norway
  2. Dr Chuck Tingle Professor of Massage
  3. The bad sex in fiction awards
  4. No Alibis book shop http://www.noalibis.com
  5. Richard Serra’s “portend I slugten” at the Louisiana art gallery in Denmark http://channel.louisiana.dk/video/richard-serra-porten-i-slugten
  6. Josh Spiller’s IF comic book anthology on superheroes
    http://www.joshspillercomics.tumblr.com

And a few things that we mention that almost made the cut:

Now what are you waiting for? Go listen to the episode!

Beyond the popular canon: things that should be better known

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“We soon learn that Shakespeare, the Grand Canyon and the Bible are worthy of our attention because everyone keeps telling us so.”

If you need a recommendation right now, there will be no shortage of suggestions. The problem is that far too many of them are exactly the same. For instance, in looking for something to watch on a Saturday night, your search for “greatest films” will be answered with an infinity of lists compiled with varying degrees of judgement but surprising levels of consistency. Automated recommendations generally just give you more of what you have already asked for. Critical ones seem to clone themselves, as if unwilling to depart from an agreed line. Citizen Kane is repeatedly right up there, according to the American Film Institute (number 1 film of all time), Sight and Sound (number 2), Hollywood Reporter (3) and Rotten Tomatoes (4). But what if you’ve already seen it, and didn’t even think it was that good? What then?

By adulthood, most of us are aware of the historical figures, places and books represented by what can loosely be categorised as the canon: the list that you were taught at school, that books and newspapers tell you are the best and most important. Sometimes, we agree with them, sometimes not, but we soon learn that Shakespeare, the Grand Canyon and the Bible are worthy of our attention because everyone keeps telling us so. It is supplemented by a popular canon, as expressed by your social media, of more ephemeral, instant pleasures, that may have an unstoppable democratic force, but that does not mean that you always share them.

Any canon is important, as it provides a society with a shared catalogue of experiences and reference points; otherwise, how does one know what to speak about to a stranger? But your curiosity about the world need not stop there. How much more interesting, every so often, to put the canon to one side, and say to someone, “Tell me about a great book that I’ve never heard of.”

My podcast Better Known sets out to ask people what they love that the rest of the world does not seem to value. In short: what should be better known?

People are keen to answer the question, firstly because we all love talking about what we are passionate about, but also because we do not always get the opportunity. Most people have quirks in their tastes that are slightly unorthodox but we rarely get a chance to talk about our obscure preferences, precisely because other people are not familiar with them. Generally, in conversation, most people are looking to have their beliefs confirmed than challenged, and so they may not be in the mood to hear anything new. Instead, much of our social life only covers those topics which we know are popular and thus safe, and so it is easy to live one’s life with others only through the pleasures which the news picks out for us.

Through dozens of interviews, I have heard about the fascinating objects, events and ideas which guests hold dear and feels compelled to impress upon other people. The novelist Joanne Harris spoke about the Child Ballads, hundreds of traditional stories collected in the nineteenth century. Biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett discussed a book which her mother had written about a nineteenth century dinner party of writers and artists. Writer Ben Schott explained why movie posters look the way they do. It has been inspiring to hear and then take up these suggestions of things which I would otherwise have never known about.

For some guests, the obscurity of their choice provides a pleasure. They like the fact that they have uncovered something that others have not. For others, they enjoy the obscurity, particularly of a place, for a more practical reason: if lots of people knew about the place, then its serenity, part of its appeal, would be ruined. But, most of all, they make their choices because we are all individuals, and sometimes what we like most of all may not have officially made the grade, but is nonetheless worthy of their – and maybe your – time.

Each episode aims to bring a person with private obscure passions to an audience eager to learn more about what is best in the world. Each guest selects six things, and so you begin to get a real sense of who they are through the range of their choices without necessarily knowing particular facts about them, their job or their life. By way of contrast, and to ensure we do not drown in positivity, they also get to pick one thing which they think should be less well known and it is frequently a highlight for me to hear someone go from such radiant optimism to unbridled cynicism so rapidly. Picnics, liver and jeans are among those proposed as being overrated. But the focus always then returns to what they like.

It is easy, as an adult, to stop learning anything new, and to exist endlessly off inspiration from the past. If you want to remain curious about the world, and continue to be inspired, you have to make an active effort. Better Known aims to be an entertaining introduction into a world of inspiration that you previously knew little about. You will not agree with all recommendations, but you will hopefully learn something new. After all, how many more endorsements for Citizen Kane does one need?

About the author of this article

IW.jpgIvan Wise presents the Better Known podcast (www.betterknown.co.uk). He is a former editor of The Shavian, the journal of the George Bernard Shaw Society, about which he has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Times Higher Educational Supplement and The Guardian website, and was the expert witness on an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives. He works in the charity sector, for Think Ahead, a mental health organisation that recruits and trains graduates to become social workers.

Creatives in profile: interview with No Alibis Press

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Emma Warnock and David Torrans, of No Alibis Press and bookstore

It is an increasingly rare sight to find newly published books that break with tradition in uncompromising, unique, surprising and challenging ways. This is, in part, a reflection upon our current times. We live in an era where the biggest publishing companies and media organisations are only concerned with stabilising profits for shareholders – and are prioritising making money over supporting originality and new creative ideas. This is strangling our modern culture – limiting us to a devastating cycle of reboots, sequels, prequels and franchises; where the only novels that are published so often seem to be ones we’ve already read; or else another celebrity biography. This risk-averse and profit-focused approach in turn risks homogenising our culture; and limiting our exposure to new ways of thinking.

At a time when we need new ideas and voices to counter the prevailing cultural winds, which tell us creativity is only of value if it sells, the role of independent publishers becomes more apparent. We need diversity and originality in our publishing; not ceaseless imitation and repetition in pursuit of a fast buck. We need books that experiment and take risks; not those that seem afraid to be different.

Yet of course, setting up and running an independent publisher is no easy feat – not least because anyone who does so must continually battle with the financial weight of the corporate monopolies that dominate the publishing sector.

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Based in a small corner of Belfast, No Alibis Press is a small publishing company with a big shouty attitude. As an independent press they’re relatively new on the scene, but for some time now they’ve been quietly incubating among the shelves of No Alibis bookstore where David Torrans and his team have been selling books for more than twenty years. One of their first books – December Stories I by Ian Samson – has already received praise from critics (including ourselves). So just how does a brand new publishing house shout loud enough to be heard over the noise emitted by the corporate behemoths?

Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with the team behind No Alibis to find out.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourselves and your background

NO ALIBIS PRESS

David Torrans, owner of No Alibis Bookstore (opened 1997) and No Alibis Press (founded 2018), both based in Belfast.

Emma Warnock, commissioning editor at No Alibis Press, joined in 2018 after 10 years of working in the industry for various publications and presses as a freelance editor.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

The people who take a leap of faith – whatever their discipline/job/motivation – and try to change the way things are done. In terms of writing that has been published recently, June Caldwell jumps to mind. Her collection of stories Room Little Darker (New Island, 2017) is a dramatic departure from the norm – both in terms of the writing itself and the subjects she is exploring. It is dark, uncompromising and incredibly inspiring.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about No Alibis Press – how was it borne into existence?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

Independent bookselling over the past 20 years has taught us the importance of independent presses in the larger publishing world. Independent presses to a great degree have helped us to survive by bringing in material that is exciting and adventurous, and that’s why it came to mind when we were thinking of ways to celebrate the 20th anniversary of No Alibis bookshop. Happily, this coincided with us coming across Gerard Brennan’s Disorder, which he handed in to the shop to be bound as part of his PhD in creative writing. Having asked if it would be all right to read it, we immediately knew we had our first publication, and this launched No Alibis Press in 2018.

INTERVIEWER

Has the press evolved as you expected since you first set it up?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

It feels too early to say how it has evolved, as we are only coming to the end of our first (incredibly busy and exciting) year. However, we have had really positive responses to our first two publications (Gerard Brennan’s Disorder and Ian Sansom’s December Stories 1), which has certainly given us the energy and inspiration needed to continue.

INTERVIEWER

What makes a work “uncompromising”, in your opinion?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

Writing that subverts conventional practices in some way – maybe through form or narrative voice – in order to tap into something new but recognisable. Very often it will defy easy categorisation. For example, Gerard Brennan’s novel Disorder explores the conflicting agendas of a number of characters on the fringes of recreational rioting without entering directly into characters’ minds. It is gritty, darkly funny crime fiction that is experimenting with the conventions of the genre, and it is very effective in creating an appropriately energetic pace. Ian Sansom’s December Stories 1 (a very different work) is also very difficult to categorise. It is a collection of varying forms that work as standalone pieces, but function at a more profound level as a whole. It is a very playful use of form that absolutely suits the insightful portrayals of the characters and their very different experiences of December. In addition to being examples of excellent writing, arguably both of these books are subverting common practice in some way and that makes them very exciting.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve recently published December Stories I by Ian Samson. What drew you to this work, and what’s it been like to bring it into literary existence?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

As soon as we read the manuscript we knew that we had something very special. The stories are characteristic of Sansom’s playful humour, while also exposing the idiosyncrasies of human nature and relationships that December brings to light. We felt very fortunate to be given the opportunity to publish such an extraordinary collection. Watching it come together with beautiful illustrations by the very talented Rory Jeffers was also very satisfying. Working with Ian has been fantastic. He filmed all 31 of the stories with his son Joseph Sansom (who fortunately for us is a filmmaker) which are available on our website.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk a little about the relationship between No Alibis Press and No Alibis Bookstore? How important is it to ensure there is a physical space to provide a platform for both the books you publish, but also for events and readings?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

Quite simply, No Alibis Press wouldn’t exist without the bookshop, without twenty years of selling books and getting to know how the industry works. As well as selling books, we have always held gigs and readings in the shop and at other venues, and we regularly participate in festivals across Ireland and the UK. It all comes down to getting writers in front of an audience, getting their work into the hands of interested readers. Publishing feels like a natural progression from that.

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

As a small press, we all end up doing a little bit of everything, so the day can involve processing orders, updating the website or promoting our publications, which may mean tweeting reviews or corresponding with event organisers. As we only publish a couple of titles a year, we can devote a huge amount of energy to the production and promotion of the next book. This means we have been obsessed with December (Ian Sansom’s December Stories 1) since about March. We have submissions coming in all the time, and reading new work is a time-consuming and highly enjoyable part of daily life.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a publishing house or printing press should be for?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

For No Alibis Press, publishing is about getting books or stories that may not appeal to more commercial companies out into the public arena. This might be because they are experimental or slightly subversive, or simply exceptional writing that larger companies aren’t willing to take a risk on for various reasons.

INTERVIEWER

Julian Barnes has suggested that mainstream publishing companies are only interested in “publishing copies of novels that are copies of other successful novels”. Do you think this is a fair assessment? And how can independent publishing houses help address the balance – championing new voices and new ideas?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

One of the pleasant surprises for me over the past year is to see how supportive publishers and editors are of one another (both small and large). I think that’s because there’s a sense we’re all aiming for the same goal – to support writers in a difficult industry at a time when outside players (whether online giants or supermarkets etc) are creating unsustainable conditions. There are lots of very talented hardworking people in mainstream publishing companies and many of them are producing original books while still responding to the demands of readers. Sometimes they might be more restricted in certain areas than smaller publishers, or have slightly different motivations, but I think there is a recognition that both small and larger companies are playing different but equally vital roles in producing a range of material.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see your own work as having a political element to it at all?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

I suppose publishing fiction – particularly when you are looking for experimental, new or subversive work – is always political because the writing tends to defamiliarise the everyday and challenge norms. We want to publish unheard voices and stories, which is one of the reasons why we decided to publish an anthology of short stories and have opened this up to submissions (until 31 Jan 2019). But besides wanting to promote equality and traditionally under-represented voices, we don’t take a particular political stance. Having said that, personal politics determine many of our choices – we’re never going to publish fiction that champions far-right perspectives, for example. We’ve also rejected manuscripts that carry misogynistic undertones.

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the way we communicate. What role do you see traditional presses playing in this new “digital era”?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

The digital era prioritises convenience, but arguably something is lost along the way. There is still a strong desire among readers to hold the printed object in their hand. That’s why when it comes to design and formatting we put extra effort into making sure the books we publish are the right quality of paper, the right size, and that the text is beautifully arranged. We don’t see it as a competition with digital, however. Plenty of people want to read some books in a digital format and keep others on their shelf.

INTERVIEWER

The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current industry trends – where are we heading?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

It’s true, we’ve been hearing about the imminent demise of the novel, of traditional publishing, the local bookshop for some time now. Yet, novels are still selling in huge numbers – Milkman by Anna Burns is a good example of that, reprints having exceeded expectations. Of course, not every novel attains the readership of a Man Booker prize-winner, but it does demonstrate that there is an appetite for reading, there is a potential audience. For independent presses, this is a very exciting time. Recent successes of Tramp Press or Galley Beggar Press, for example, remind writers looking for representation that smaller publishers can be an attractive option. At No Alibis Press, we’re really not trying to predict what the future holds, we simply continue to look for the best writing we can find and get it out there on the bookshelves.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

I’d say the main challenge we face, which is the same for all publishers big or small, is the financial aspect. As we do not receive external funding, we need money to be coming into the shop and through book sales in order to continue doing what we love. We have to ensure our authors and readers are happy with the price and available buying options, and that we are not compromising on quality or content. We have to find ways to promote the books that don’t cost a lot of money, for example releasing videos of Ian Sansom reading on Twitter and Facebook, and we rely on our authors being prepared to get out there and talk about their work. Financial restraints can bring about more interesting ways to promote books, however, so it’s not all doom and gloom.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

The process of dissecting what you witness or experience, and representing it in a new, original form.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for No Alibis Press? What should we look out for?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

We are currently reading submissions for an anthology of short stories, to be published summer 2019. The purpose of the collection is to celebrate writing that is both exceptionally good and challenging conventions in some way, doing something very new with voice or form. We have been very impressed by the quality of submissions already received (submissions are open until 31 Jan 2019), so we anticipate an exciting volume.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

Sure. Here’s some historical fiction with a strong female lead:

Once upon a time, she was.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring writers and artists?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

  1. Don’t be swayed too much by what other people are doing, or by the market.
  2. Don’t rush to submit work without rewriting (many times).
  3. Find a way to make your work unfamiliar as you redraft – writers’ techniques include printing out work, changing the font, reading aloud. The aim is to read it as though for the first time.
  4. Embrace failure.
  5. Please believe manuscripts are rejected for many reasons – don’t quit on account of rejection.

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

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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.

“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.

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“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.

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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

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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.

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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.

 

Writers and artists have a collective duty to mock Trump, the thin-skinned charlatan

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Sometimes, the only thing you can do is laugh.

Around the world, brutes have risen – and continue to rise – to power. Far from challenging these despotic tyrants, our supposedly liberal western democracies have cow-towed to them, flattering them, and inflating their egos. In the UK, the weak and decrepit conservative party hangs on to power with long vicious fingernails and asks the taxpayer to foot the bill of hosting one of these new brutish demagogues so that they can shower him in pageantry and golf. 100 years ago, America and Europe were united in trying to create and preserve a new world peace where liberty and human rights would flourish, and the horrors of imperial wargames would cease. Now these same powers squabble like school children, trading insults and threats, seemingly unaware that theirs in an order that requires radical change – not more of the same.

This is all such madness it would be funny, if it weren’t so easy to feel terrified by it all.

Donald Trump is clearly the most obvious fault-line in the current alignment of our stars. The charge list against him is impossible to tolerate: there is the racism of his immigration policies that bans people from Muslim countries entering the USA, and which separates young children forcibly from their parents; then there is the threats posed to the rights of women, people of colour, and LGBT people. He ignores the catastrophic effects of man-made climate change or the fact that our rampant over consumption is threatening our planet’s survival. He sucks up to tyrants, launches trade wars, insults allies, praises fools and dictators, and campaigns against the free press. He is also a coward and a fraud who has tiny hands and evidence suggests he regularly pays prostitutes to urinate on him.

Our response to Trump, as writers, artists, creatives and – ultimately – human beings, is crucial. It must be appropriate, balanced, and precisely reactionary. If only to support Newton’s third law, our reaction to Trump’s hatred, fear and bigotry, must be equal in its opposition to these traits. In other words, it must be one of love, bravery, and inclusivity.

To our minds, there is nothing that brings people together more so than laughter. There is nothing braver than laughing at those who would beat you (or worse) for doing so. And there is nothing that can invoke feelings of love more than the euphoria of hysterical humour.

It is for this reason that we call for all creatives to unite in mocking Trump as the thin-skinned charlatan he really is.

Join the resistance

To an extent, the mockery of Trump through satirical art has already begun in earnest. There has been a huge influx of resistance-themed art, whether it’s commentary on world leaders with the graffiti styling’s of Mr. Dheo or Bambi (pictured below), or more simply the crowd-funded Trump baby balloon, which has been flying above London during the President’s visit to the UK.

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Bambi

The proliferation of this kind of art perhaps recognises the fact that to continue making art as before is an insufficient response to the state of the world. The dark reality is that intensity, beauty, and devotion to making beautiful creative things are insufficient to halt violence. Indeed, one need only to look to history – to see and hear the march of Nazism accompanied by the tunes of Wagner – in order to realise how these aspects of art can become the accompanying soundtrack to evil.

We do not use terms such as evil lightly. To label everyone and everything one disagrees with as fascism is surely to dissolve the meaning of a term that threatens the fabric of democracy and liberal decency. And it is for this reason that aggressive art – art that seeks to create representations of darkness, evil, violence and hatred – are equally ill-equipped as positive, beautiful art, for confronting the realities of our times and challenging them. Holding a mirror to violence and anger reflects, but does not shatter, the illusion of power that they hold. Only by making fun of and satirising those who trumpet hate and division can we truly expose the intrinsic lack of power that they have.

Exposing Trump

Trump is in many ways the epitome of the weakness of hate and anger. His inflated ego and thin skin make the giant Trump baby currently floating in the skies above London a perfect symbol of a man who is nothing more than hot air: a thin-skinned charlatan who uses racism, homophobia and misogyny to stoke fear among people struggling to get by in a country riven by divisions caused by incessant neoliberal capitalism – that has left the vast majority poorer whilst an extreme minority of billionaires collect ever more wealth. The fragility of Trump’s ego is easily exposed; one need only witness how he rushes to defend the size of his hands, the size of his penis, or that he doesn’t need to use Viagra, to see how afraid the man is of being exposed.

Indeed, in every encounter with Trump he appears like all those bullies at school who tried to pull the chairs from beneath girls they liked, or boys they were not as smart as, or kids who were more athletic and better looking than them. He exhibits all the behaviours of someone trying desperately hard to scare people into not mentioning his countless failures; his ugliness; his stupidity. If he were your grumpy, rude co-worker who made uncomfortable comments in team meetings, you might think him a sad case of a person who has never known love.

But Trump is not your grumpy, rude co-worker. He is the President of the United States; a great country that has irrefutably shaped the world (not always for good; but certainly not always for ill); and he is a representative of how the USA is in a moment of deep political crisis – as is all Western Democracy.

Challenging him and his ethos would usually fall to journalism or traditional media. Yet his clever use of ‘fake news’ and the inability of his opponents to mount an effective alternative to his reign has proven that traditional approaches will not suffice in this instance. Into the breach in its stead must step art – specifically, satirical art, and writing, which can put political pressure on misinformation, folly, and the abuse of power.

The power of satire

Satire is so subversive – and often politically fatal for those who rule – because it exposes the absurdities of power. Authority attempts to assert itself partly through a veneer of respectability and seriousness. When that is stripped away, its legitimacy can be lost, along with our subservience.

Historically, one can trace the power of Satire through such notable pieces as Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’, which brought public attention to the plight of the Irish people and attacked those British politicians who had ignored the famines ravaging the country. You can also look to the satirical art that accompanied the French Revolutions which, as Will Self notes “were each accompanied by a satiric outburst”. Prior to and during the American revolutionary war of independence, satirical cartoons mocking King George “the buffoon” flourished in towns across America. In all these instances, it was the power of artistic satire that united people together to challenge the status quo and demand change; more so than the anger or shock of individuals could ever hope to achieve.

This point is crucial: our own individual convictions are worthless if all we do with them is try to shout more loudly or aggressively than ever other angry voice.

Anger at our political elite seldom fuels action to do anything about it, engendering instead an enraged passivity: people WRITE POLITICAL RANTS ALL IN CAPS on Twitter and Facebook, but this serves no purpose. No one reading these ravings who does not already agree with them will find anything of value to them. At best, it will confirm their belief that the world around them is full of anger and best avoided if possible. They will not engage with anger and hate unless it is an anger and hatred they already feel.

Burst the balloon

Here is where quality satirical art plays such a crucial role; because it helps engage those who otherwise find politics tedious. Laughter, it is famously said, is the best medicine. It’s true. You only need to have ever told a joke and made others laugh to see how they immediately warm to you. If you make people laugh with you, you can more easily direct their attention to the failures that exist in society. You can help them, gently and warmly, recognise the faults of those in power. And from there, they are far more likely to choose to fight against people like Trump who seek to sow fear and anger rather than laughter and love. And even if they don’t fight, their laughter at the cowardly bully trying to look tough may just be enough to burst his ballooning ego.

A call to arts

There is of course an argument that we need art that lifts up other, dispossessed voices. That keeps their ideas and creativity alive at a time when their existence is threatened by the policies of Trump and his right-wing cronies.

This too, we need. Of course this too. There is too much hate and anger in the world and we need diversity of thought more than ever. We need to support emerging artists and voices; but we also need to fight back. But it is not the pen that is mightier than the sword; but rather the laughter of millions that is more powerful than the fearful rage and angry Twitter ramblings of an infantile, cowardly egoist.

So, join in the good fight, comrades – before we can defeat Trump, we must deflate him. All power to your satirical typewriters and easels!

 

Get involved and submit your satirical pieces of art or writing to us directly through our contact us page. To get the ball rolling, read our collection of ‘Donald Trump poetry‘ – lines and verses taken straight from the rambling mouth of the fat dotard himself. 

 

 

 

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Anna Saunders

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Are there any sights more cheering than crowds of readers tramping across a field carrying books, or sitting under canopies discussing the minutiae of a single line of poetry, or a page of fiction? Increasingly, we live in such a fast-paced world that leaves precious little room for these acts of literary activity (for ‘activity’, may we read instead, ‘rebellion’?). Instead of thinking about Tennyson, or Eliot or Woolf or Plath, we must spend our days flicking through the endless annals of social media; while corporations pipe endless Muzak into our ears and other orifices, and we slave away for 80 hours a week for stagnating wages, just so we can afford the shiny and colourful things advertising billboards and signs on every public surface insist we must purchase immediately.

In such a world, events that enable literary conversations and communion to flourish are, therefore, to be cherished. It is an honour, therefore, to bring you the following interview with Anna Saunders – founder of the Cheltenham Poetry Festival.

Anna is the author of Communion, (Wild Conversations Press), Struck, (Pindrop Press) Kissing the She Bear, (Wild Conversations Press), Burne Jones and the Fox ( Indigo Dreams) and the Ghosting for Beginners ( Indigo Dreams, Spring 2018 ) described as ‘ a beautifully evocative read’ by Fiona Sampson.

She  has had poems published in journals and anthologies, which include Ambit, The North, New Walk Magazine, Amaryllis, Iota, Caduceus, Envoi, The Wenlock Anthology, Eyeflash,  and The Museum of Light.

Described as ‘a poet who surely can do anything’ by The North, ‘a modern myth maker’ by Paul Stephenson and as  ‘a poet of quite remarkable gifts’ by Bernard O’Donoghue, Anna founded the Cheltenham Poetry Festival in 2010 as an all-singing, all-dancing festival – one that fuses poetry and music, film, drama and visual art. Most importantly of all – it helps brings creatives together (which is where they belong, if you ask us).

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

SAUNDERS

I live in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire though originally come from Hoylake – a coastal town not far from Liverpool. I am lucky to be able to go ‘home’ often and enjoy the vibrant cultural life of Liverpool, and walks along the shore, as well as having a home in the heart of the Cotswolds.

I come from a family of journalists and writers – one boss said I had ‘ink in my blood’. Most of my life has revolved around the literary arts; consuming or producing them. I am a poet, author of 5 collections of poetry and the Founding Director of Cheltenham Poetry Festival, I also teach creative writing.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

SAUNDERS

I love any immersive experience – walking by the sea, watching live music, reading, going to the theatre, spending time with people who inspire me.

Running a poetry festival is a great joy too – it’s exhilarating to have a creative vision and see it come to fruition. I really enjoy ‘poet shopping’ when I am building the programme. It’s always a thrill to bring your literary idols to town. Last year for example I booked Matthew Sweeney, whose work I’ve always greatly admired;I programmed Kathy Towers, Sasha Dugdale, Fiona Sampson and Wayne Holloway Smith, too. It was a thrill to meet them all and I felt a little star struck.

INTERVIEWER

When you write – be it poetry or fiction – how much of the finished manuscript is in your mind when you start out?

SAUNDERS

When I started writing my last two collections, I had some idea of the shape of the books, or at least their driving themes.

Burne Jones and the Fox (Indigo Dreams) was inspired by a love affair between Maria Zambaco and the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne Jones, I tell the story of their intensive and destructive love affair through a series of poems, the collection also explores what I see as the duality within us – between the feral and the civilized, the artist and the fox.  Ghosting for Beginners also has a consistent theme – i.e. what ‘haunts’ us for good or bad.  I guess both these books are like concept albums!

INTERVIEWER

Joyce Carol Oates once said that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out “are they as crazy as I am?” Do you have any particularly crazy writing habits?

SAUNDERS

I usually have to write first drafts on rough scrappy paper – ideally without lines! I do a lot of walking around, muttering to myself – is that crazy enough?

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. What voice does Anna Saunders, poet, speak with?

SAUNDERS

I have been told I ‘write like an American’ –perhaps that’s because of my direct, ostensibly conversational voice. Rory Waterman said my work was ‘superbly imagistic’ which was a huge compliment – I aim to empower my work with the use of potent images, and of course I use legend, and classic narratives.Paul Stephenson called me a ‘modern myth maker’.

INTERVIEWER

Does your reading affect what you write?

SAUNDERS

Yes – absolutely. I read a lot of poetry and while I am writing I keep dipping into books. It’s impossible for me to write well without reading, it’s like needing to hear the music before you start to dance.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in poetry, what are your thoughts and feelings on the ‘poetry industry’. If we can define it thus. And how would you advise aspiring poets to break out onto the ‘poetry scene’?

SAUNDERS

I think the poetry scene is thriving.  We’ve seen a huge increase in audiences at Cheltenham Poetry Festival and poetry book buying has surged too. There seem to be some incredibly talented spoken word artists and poets emerging daily and I am completely in awe of the work being published by Nine Arches, Indigo Dreams, Bloodaxe, V Press, Seren and other publishers. It is, however, a really competitive industry – and the route to publication can be a convoluted one! I’d advise aspiring poets to read copious amounts, study craft, write every day and keep their eye on journals and on line publications, keep submitting and build up that CV so they can meet the requirements of the publishing houses.

Though having said all that – it should be all about the creative act really, rather than public success. As Virginia Woolf said ‘writing is the most profound pleasure, being read the superficial!’

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk to us about the ethos behind the Cheltenham Poetry Festival – is it important, do you feel, to bring writers and creatives together?

SAUNDERS

I think the Guardian put it perfectly when they described the Festival as ‘a poetry party with a healthy dose of anarchy’ – we try to have a punk spirit; and be questioning, free thinking and speak out against the system from time to time.

We are serious about poetry, but like to have a good time too.  There is a great buzz when the festival runs – with audiences getting the chance to hang with some of our greatest living writers. Since the festival kicked off in 2011 we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy performances by some stellar names– they include John Cooper Clarke, Fiona Sampson, Owen Sheers, John Hegley, Hollie McNish, Don Patterson, Clare Pollard, Matthew Sweeney, Murray Lachlan Young, Jacob Polley– to name just a few. And yes, it’s incredibly inspiring for creatives to meet the writers they admire.

INTERVIEWER

James Joyce argued poetry was “always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality.” In the modern world, ‘actuality’ is increasingly hard to define – with reality often seeming more fictitious than fiction and beyond the imagination of mainstream culture. How does poetry revolt against actuality in a reality increasingly ‘false’? And what role can poetry play in protest and activism – specifically protest and revolt against current dictats of ‘reality’?

SAUNDERS

My recent work has been inspired by events on the world stage, politics and the crisis of austerity – but I try use dark humour and some aesthetic beauty to address these subjects.

I have found it increasingly difficult to turn away from some of the horrors we are experiencing due to governmental decisions.

I am working on a new book which uses figures from Greek and Roman myth to explore contemporary issues – in one of the poems Persephone goes on Question Time to interrogate Hades, who has abducted her and taken her into the underworld to starve – a great metaphor for the punitive measures of austerity.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give us your top ten writing tips for writers?

SAUNDERS

  1. Read widely and copiously – not just the poets you admire but the ones you find challenging, even dislike. Study the craft. We can learn so much from the writers we love or even loathe.
  2. Ignore the Inner Critic – give yourself time to free write – set a timer and just let your ink flow for 10, 15 minutes – let your imagination have free reign, don’t stop to correct spelling or punctuation. Write wild.  Your most exciting ideas can emerge this way.
  3. Write regularly. Keep your appointment with the page and the muse will know when to show up.
  4. Keep a journal, or a writers notebook – open your eyes and ears to what is around you. Get in the habit of being a word magpie and steal conversations, quotes, scenes from around you and get them on the page.
  5. Use a mixture of Latinate and Anglo Saxon language. Too much of the first and your work may seem overwritten and too much of the latter, and it may not sing.
  6. Edit. As Hemingway said ‘first drafts are shit’. Revise, redraft again and again.
  7. Avoid clichés and tired expressions. Avoid abstract nouns and excessive use of adjectives.
  8. Listen to feedback and accept intelligent critiques of your work if they help your hone your craft.  Embrace any opportunities to learn ( I studied for a Masters in Creative Writing).
  9. Take risks, believe in your vision, keep going.
  10.  Ignore all advice. Except this advice.

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Michael Caines, co-editor of the Brixton Review of Books

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It increasingly appears as though we live in an era where the biggest publishing companies and media organisations are only concerned with stabilising profits for shareholders – and are prioritising making money over supporting originality and new creative ideas.

With the largest corporations influencing so much of the culture we consume, this has the potential to limit us to a devastating cycle of reboots, sequels, prequels and franchises; where the only novels we read are copies of novels that are themselves copies of commercially successful novels. This risk-averse and profit-focussed approach in turn risks homogenising our culture; and limiting our exposure to new ways of thinking.

Yet there are reasons to hope. Across the world, new creative ideas are being put to seed – supported by groups of energetic and enthusiastic individuals.

We caught up with the team behind one such creative endeavour: the Brixton Review of Books, a new literary quarterly magazine – published by a team of creative volunteers who help ensure the magazine remains completely free to readers (though you can also have four copies delivered straight to your door for a tenner).

It’s an honour to bring you this detailed interview with Michael Caines, co-editor of the Brixton Review of Books. Caines also works at the Times Literary Supplement, and is the author of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century and a founder member of the Liars League.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

CAINES

I’m an editor on the Times Literary Supplement by day and a layabout by night. I write the odd review, and the odder poem as a private distraction, and have made limited forays into academia, such as writing a book about Shakespeare and the eighteenth century, and editing some plays by female dramatists of the same period. Brigid Brophy and T. F. Powys are among my more recherché hobbyhorses, although I’d argue, of course, with the tedious fervor of the true acolyte, that both should be more widely known that they are at present.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

CAINES

Brigid Brophy and T. F. Powys. Jane Austen. William Makepeace Thackeray. Anne Thackeray Ritchie. Vernon Lee. Sylvia Townsend Warner. Ronald Firbank. Italo Calvino. Alberto Moravia. Christine Brooke-Rose. The Oulipians. Marguerite Youcenar. Penelope Fitzgerald. Michael Haslam. Lorrie Moore. Peter Reading. Weldon Kees. Elizabeth Bowen. Elizabeth Bishop. Henry Green. Nicholas Mosley. Stewart Home. It’s an incoherent set of influences, I grant you. Yes, they are, some of them, names off the top of my head. There are others who will come to me later. More seriously, there are others who are mainly TLS editors, of infernally greater mental powers than me – damn their eyes.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about Brixton Review of Books – how was it borne into existence?

CAINES

It’s an experiment, you might say:  people take all kinds of free newspapers and magazines at tube stations around London, but might some of them take a free literary paper made up of long reads rather than short ones? There are some obvious and quite brilliant models – such as the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and the TLS itself – to which I suppose the BRB pays the impudent homage of imitation, while paradoxically trying to do its own thing at the same time. I hope for some readers the BRB will serve merely as a suggestion of what’s to come if they aren’t already readers of one of those other, infinitely more prestigious publications. This particular literary newspaper is free, though, and available to all who pass a tube station at the right time, or spots it in a café, bar, bookshop, library, gallery, waiting room etc (the kind of places to which we’re also distributing it).

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The Brixton Review of Books – look out for a copy at tube stations around London.

INTERVIEWER

It’s no easy feat to bring a new independent literary magazine into existence. What are some of the main challenges you faced in establishing Brixton Review of Books?

CAINES

Well, for the most part, I put together the first issue by myself, and I enjoyed that a great deal. But it’s a relief to have a small team working on the paper from here on.

Then there’s the money. This “experiment” wouldn’t be happening at all if it weren’t for the generosity of the Literature Matters awards established by the Royal Society of Literature. They gave the BRB the funds and the endorsement to get things going.

Thirdly, there’s usually some agony with the administrative side of these things, such as subscriber copies going astray in the post.

And I also worried for a time that the first issue would be universally despised and scorned and laughed out of existence. That hasn’t happened . . . yet . . . that I know of.

INTERVIEWER

What, do you think, are the biggest opportunities for independent writers and artists within the publishing sector?

CAINES

I suppose there’s a sense in which all writers and artists are (or ought to be) independent, assuming that all trade on some inalienable, intrinsic idiosyncratic approach to their work. Some are just more obviously amenable to the established trade publishers than others, perhaps, and therefore able to cut some kind of a deal. It depends on what a writer or artist truly wants. Publication can mean many things – this airport novel or that pentagonal limited edition with unique perfumes embedded in every leaf – but maybe there’s a mode of publication to suit all tastes. So I suppose the opportunity is out there, and the challenge is finding the right one.

INTERVIEWER

In an era of digital content and e-zines, as well as ‘fake news’ and social media; what role do printed publications like Brixton Review of Books have to play?

CAINES

I’m one of those people – it’s not just me, I hope – who stare at screens for a large portion of the working day but love print. I think I even mean that I can love the material book as a work of art, and reading online, necessary though it often is, forms an instructive contrast to that art. But, er, in less hilfalutin terms, I hope that reading the BRB, or any newspaper or printed work on paper, is simply a change from reading on a screen, and being continuously poked in the eye by electric light.

INTERVIEWER

As editors, do you feel any ethical responsibility for the content you publish?

CAINES

Absolutely – although I tend to mistake ethical responsibility, in this context, for aesthetic responsibility. The two are so easily confused, don’t you think?

INTERVIEWER

Julian Barnes has stated that the problem with the big publishing companies is that they are too risk averse: they are only willing to “publish novels that are copies of other successful novels”. Do you think that independent magazines have a duty to champion independent voices of authors and essayists whose writing may never be given a chance by the bigger companies in the sector?

CAINES

Perhaps, unfortunately, the indie economy as a whole doesn’t have much say in the matter. But either way, I guess that there are plenty of writers temperamentally too rich for the mainstream, and who flourish in indie magazines and in the literary communities to which those magazines belong. But it depends on the magazine’s character. There seem to be some indies that seem to embrace underground-ness, and others that nurture more commercially lofty ambitions. There’s room in the world for both, I hope.

Regarding an aversion to risk: beyond the world of books, some big companies run (what I think they call) “accelerators”, designed to promote and invest in innovation, because innovation is precisely what big companies, for the most part, don’t do well. It’s interesting that so many big publishers, for their part, now run nimble, pseudo-indie imprints, which are arguably meant to play a similar role. The real indies, meanwhile, don’t necessarily receive the recognition and remuneration they deserve – but that inability to er realize an investment may be a further mark of their indie-ness.

INTERVIEWER

The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current industry trends – where are we heading?

CAINES

I’m no industry guru. So rather than second-guess the future, may I instead offer you a naïve wish-list?

1) That the books business gets over its daft dependency on the insipid drug that is literary prize culture.

2) That the indie scene flourishes in perpetuity.

4) (3 was unprintable, even online, and was basically a curse on reviewers who think their duty is to their pals in the business rather than their readers.) That somebody in television works out how to make a show about books again.

5) That Amazon mends its ways.

(Well, I did say “naïve” . . . .)

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

CAINES

A terrible problem we all have to deal with, but some of us are more successful at banishing it than others, poor souls, who have to slog out their guts over “novels” and “villanelles” and the like. Pity them in their enslavement to the myth of art!

Sorry, what was the question again?

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little about your editorial and submissions process? How can aspiring writers get involved?

CAINES

For the most part, we’re commissioning reviews, and trying to come up with an eclectic mixture of voices: younger writers and worn-hoarse-by-time-but-very-much-still-worth-hearing, from different backgrounds, with varying interests. We have three months between issues, and it’s the middle month when things start to get serious – when deadlines becoming more deadly serious/merely deadening etc. I hope we’ll be trying out new writers (writers new to us at least) in every issue, albeit probably not as many as we’d like. The budget isn’t limitless, and dependent to an extent on advertising. Aspiring writers are welcome to get their moneybags mates to take out full-page ads in every issue.

INTERVIEWER

What advice would you give to authors thinking of submitting their work to BRoB – or other publications?

CAINES

We’re only publishing four issues a year, and most of those issues will be full of reviews. We’re planning to run poetry in every issue, and maybe some fiction from time to time. So with expectations suitably lowered, I hope, I suggest that anybody who’s still interested check out our website, then drop us a line and declare some area of especial expertise or even enthusiasm.

I’m not so interested in “pitches” for particular books, incidentally. I’m not ruling them out altogether, but pitches can sometimes seem a little intellectually suspect: it’s not that I sense outright cronyism in every e-mail; rather that I wonder if the would-be reviewer has already made up their mind about the book, whether they’ve read it yet or not. So the result may be fine, terrific even, but can also feel shop-bought and stale rather than nattily bespoke.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for Brixton Review of Books? What should we look out for?

CAINES

In the not-too-distant future, we’ll do the decent thing and expand the website to look proper n all. We’re hoping to put on a few bookish events around town. (Go on, guess which part of town. Go on!) And there are going to be some good things in the paper itself later in the year. I’m very much hoping, for example, that a few writers with Brixton connections are going to give us little stories about their personal experiences here. That’d be an acceptably educational digression from reviewing books, I hope.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

CAINES

Joan arrived, kicked ass – and left.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring writers and artists?

CAINES

I’m still aspiring myself, and must stock up on gnomic tips for these occasions. Revise until it looks like you haven’t. Remember style is the ultimate expression of substance. Read New Grub Street. Um. Don’t automatically “um” in the presence of uncertainty? And I’ll get back to you when I’ve thought of a fifth. . . .