The little-known poems of Chinua Achebe

achebe

The Nigerian novelist is rightly regarded as one of the greatest writers of the past century. His debut novel, Things Fall Apart, is still the single most widely read book in African literature, despite being published in 1958.

Yet despite his fame and status, few people are familiar with his lesser-known – though certainly not ‘lesser’ in any other sense – poetry. Indeed, this was something the great man himself was well-aware of: joking in a 1998 lecture at Portland’s Literary Arts event that there was a “conspiracy” theory against his poetry.

Yet his love for poems and poetry dates back to the very dawn of Achebe’s career as a writer. And the very title of his magnum opus is borrowed from a line in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”.

It was only thanks to Professor Wu stumbling upon this edited recording of his nearly two-hour long Literary Arts lecture during his idle trawling through the interwebs that we have discovered this fantastic example of Achebe reading three of his poems, later published in the 2004 anthology ‘Collected Poems’.

Please enjoy:

Complement Achebe’s poetry with some examples of poetry from our own fabulous contributors – or contemplate the role of poets and other creatives within society, and their place in culture.

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Creatives in profile: Interview with Russ Litten

Litten

In the latest of our ‘Creatives In Profile’ interview series,  we’re thrilled to introduce acclaimed writer, Russ Litten.

Litten is the author of “Scream If You Want To Go Faster”, “Swear Down” and “Kingdom”. His short stories have appeared in various international magazines and he has written for the screen and radio.

INTERVIEWER

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

LITTEN

I am a 47 year-old man from a working class background who lives and works in Kingston-Upon-Hull and entertains himself with fairly simple pleasures; walking the dog, going to football, sitting in the pub talking bollocks.  In between all of this I sit down and write. For the last five years I’ve been a writer in residence at a prison, but the funding got pulled in May when the current set of psychopaths got into government. So my lifestyle currently involves balancing the need to make money with the need to make time to write.

INTERVIEWER

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

LITTEN

I’ve always written and that’s the thing closest to me, but for years I was in a band. I played bass and wrote lyrics. I think this period was the closest I’ve come to achieving transcendence through the act of creation, but of course it’s a shared experience, and sooner or later you’ve got to push your own boat out. So music is my significant other passion. I still play bass guitar to amuse myself. I’d give anything to be able to sing though. That must be amazing, to be able to entrance a room with your voice, rather than clear it in seconds.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

LITTEN

As far as the writing goes, everyone and everything on the face of the planet and beyond, human beings especially. If you’re talking about heroes or influences on life in general these change from year to year, but the hard-core influences remain: Muhammad Ali, Quentin Crisp, Nelson Mandela, Jesus Christ, Chief Sitting Bull, Charles Bukowski, Kevin Rowland, Billy Whitehurst, Lillian Bilocca and Eddie Smith. Anyone who had a go, basically.

INTERVIEWER

Your 2010 novel, Scream If You Want To Go Faster, is rooted so firmly in the location and geography of your home city of Kingston upon Hull. What role does region and notions of ‘home’ play in your writing?

LITTEN

I was living in London when I started writing that first book. At the time, Hull had come bottom of some bullshit marketing gimmick “worst places to live” table. When I moved back up, Hackney took the bottom slot. So I’m obviously the kiss of death to any place I’ve previously lived. Except for Prague, hopefully. But generally, when considering notions of home and belonging, I refer to that Captain Beefheart song, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”.

INTERVIEWER

Your subsequent novel, Swear Down, has been described as “a postmodern triumph” – when you are writing, do you consciously attempt to create something that is ‘post modern’? Where does your focus, as a writer, lie when writing?

LITTEN

I certainly don’t set out to write post-modern stuff because I don’t particularly like post-modernism that much. I find it a bit tiresome and unhelpful. I like sincerity and stuff that’s from the heart. The focus for me when writing is purely to get the story down in as simple and as evocative a manner as possible. If that involves adopting a specific voice then I like that voice to be as authentic. I like Kerouac’s definition of literature as “a tale that’s told for companionship”.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any specific themes you’re interested in exploring as a writer?

LITTEN

I would very much like to write a love story. In fact, that’s what I’m doing next. A proper full-on exploration of love, in all its glorious fucked up wonder. Other than that, I like to start a story from an initial spark of intrigue and wander about within it until I find the thing that’s bothering me. It’s generally an abstract human emotion, like desire or jealousy or loyalty or grief, and out of that emerges the theme.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you write?

LITTEN

Because if I don’t I get unwell. I realised this a long time ago. I write to get it all out of my head and put down somewhere safe where it can’t bother me anymore.

INTERVIEWER

In his work, The Psychology of Writing, Ronald T Kellogg explored the role of the daily writing routine in producing inspiration and enhancing creativity. Sometimes these are pretty specific. Virginia Woolf, for instance, spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-a-half foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to work both up close and from afar. Do you have a specific daily writing routine? If so, what is it?

LITTEN

I do have a preferred writing routine, which is to get up, go for a run around the park, come back and start typing at around seven am. This is a summertime routine though. In winter, I usually avoid the running part. Generally, the earlier I start the better writing day I have. I like to write to music as well, instrumental stuff mainly, ambient or classical. I don’t like music with human voices when I’m writing unless it’s a language I can’t understand. I used to have this routine where I had to listen to Ralph Vaughan William’s “The Lark Ascending” in its entirety before I could type a sentence. But you have to be careful with routines; they can become crutches, which are a bit unhealthy.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of writing fiction, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

LITTEN

That you’re probably going to change everything, so it absolutely doesn’t matter. Just enjoy yourself. It’s the best bit, the first draft. It’s like spewing up and then immediately feeling better.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in literature, what are your thoughts and feelings on the publishing industry as a whole? And how would you advise aspiring writers to break out onto the ‘scene’?

LITTEN

I think it’s fair to say that the cramped financial restrictions on mainstream publishing means that it’s become a lot more safe and cautious, less experimental or willing to take risks. As a result, the books they push tend to be a bit dull and samey. Everyone seems to be frantically copying each other in the hope of emulating commercial success, hence the plethora of books about birds and grief, or girls in a variety of locations. Most of the interesting stuff comes from the small presses and the underground. As for aspiring writers, I’m not sure I’m well qualified to offer any hints or tips outside of the obvious stuff – write from the heart, don’t try and chase the obvious trends and find the thing you really want to say. Sooner or later some else will notice.

INTERVIEWER

Within this scene, is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?

LITTEN

Not really, no. I try and ignore trends or any attempt to ride the zeitgeist. I suppose self-publishing will become more and more popular as a way of avoiding the traditional gate-keepers and I think that can only be a good thing.

INTERVIEWER

How is the digital age impacting writers?

LITTEN

As soon as you can reproduce anything digitally it is worthless. You now have a generation that don’t realise you should actually pay for music. An artist now has to identify the people who are into what they do and hope that they feel enough passion and loyalty to part with some money in exchange for a physical thing. In a more practical sense, the digital platforms enable a writer to get a story or book or whatever straight to an audience pretty quickly.

INTERVIEWER

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

LITTEN

I really don’t know. I think the temptation of the last few years has to be sensationalist or extreme or brutal. I’m a bit bored of all that to be honest. Twitter is a good example of this, where people often feel the need to be endlessly sarcastic or cutting or witty. To me, it feels like one big public audition for people who want to be the next Charlie Brooker. It’s back to that post-modern thing, the endless self-conscious wink of the eye.  The best way to stand out is to be truly yourself.  Which is a task in itself.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

LITTEN

Not really, no. I write initially to amuse or engage myself and if anyone else recognises something of worth in there, then that’s ace. Writing to a specific audience would only end in disaster for all concerned.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

LITTEN

It’s a spiritual thing, and it involves breathing from within. Opening your head up like a radio receiver. It doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny. It used to amaze me when I was in a band, having four or five of you in a room hitting bits of metal and wood and then all of a sudden there’s something there that did not exist five minutes previously. Swop guitars and drums for a typewriter and the effect is much the same.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

LITTEN

Someone who writes things down, regardless of whether it gets read by anyone else or not.  A recorder, an observer, one who scratches marks in the mud for posterity and kicks.

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?

LITTEN

I would identify that “other” as the subconscious. If you write often then your subconscious mind tends to bubble to the surface and you become less elf-conscious. I think that’s a vital part of finding your own writing voice; letting go of conscious hang-ups and telling the truth as you perceive it.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

LITTEN

I’m writing a love story and a non-fiction book about prison. I’ve also got a collection of monologues in the pipeline and a longer animation project for kids that I’m tackling next year.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

LITTEN

Probably not, no. Oh, hang on …

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

LITTEN

  1. Turn off the internet
  2. A long walk throws up many answers.
  3. Most TV isn’t worth watching
  4. Listen to The Beatles
  5. Don’t measure your success against others
  6. Pull down the blinds
  7. Try and finish everything you start
  8. Don’t worry
  9. Read stuff you don’t think you’d like
  10. Try and tell the truth unless the lie is more sincere

 

 

River of Ink – A portrait of a reluctant revolutionary

River of Ink

River of Ink, the debut novel from Paul M. M. Cooper, is set to be published by Bloomsbury on 28th January 2016 – and we here at Nothing in the Rulebook are already excited about it.

Combining the intrigue of Wolf Hall, the drama of Game of Thrones and the elegance of My Name is Red, the novel promises to be one of the most thrilling new novels published in recent times.

Madeline Miller, Orange Prize-winning author of The Song of Achilles, says: “Potent, beautiful and wholly absorbing, Cooper’s  portrait of a reluctant revolutionary had me in thrall from its first chapter. A wonderful, memorable debut.”

True power lies in the tip of a pen

All Asanka knows is poetry. From his humble village beginnings in the great island kingdom of Lanka, he has risen to the prestigious position of court poet. When Kalinga Magha, a ruthless prince with a formidable army, arrives upon Lanka’s shores, Asanka’s world is changed beyond imagining. Violent, hubristic and unpredictable, Magha usurps the throne, laying waste to all who stand in his way.

To Asanka’s horror, Magha tasks him with the translation of an epic Sanskrit poem, The Shishupala Vadha, a tale of Gods and nobles, love and revenge, which the king believes will have a civilising effect on his subjects.  Asanka has always believed that poetry makes nothing happen, but, inspired by his love for the beguiling servant girl, Sarasi, as each new chapter he writes is disseminated through the land, Asanka inadvertently finds himself at the heart of an insurgency.

True power, Asanka discovers, lies not at the point of a sword, but in the tip of a pen.

About the author

Paul M. M. Cooper was born in south London and grew up in Cardiff, Wales. He was educated at the University of Warwick and UEA, and after graduating he left for Sri Lanka to work as an English teacher.  There he returned again and again to the ruins of Polonnaruwa, learnt to speak Sinhala and to read Tamil. About River of Ink, Paul has said:

‘I was inspired by the life of Thomas Wyatt and how he used his translations of Petrarch to vent anger at Henry VIII, due to his rumoured romantic relationship with Anne Boleyn. I loved the idea of the poet using translation’s slipperiness to hide his sedition but wanted to set the story elsewhere.’

Analysis

Professor Wu says: “All of us here at Nothing in the Rulebook are eagerly anticipating the release of what appears to be a stunning debut novel from a really exciting young writer. It’s so important that, in this day and age, we continue to invest in and support aspiring writers – because it is through them that our literary canon can be expanded and taken in new and exciting directions.”

“Once again, it looks as though the University of Warwick writing programme has given us yet another fantastic novelist. Paul clearly has a fantastic literary career ahead of him. We’ll be sure to bring you a detailed interview with the author, along with a detailed book review. So watch this space, comrades!”

Now you can watch a novel being written in real time with this website

novel

Writing, we know, is a serious business. Behind the scenes, many writers admit they struggle with the daily work of writing, clocking thousands of solitary hours staring at blank pages and computer screens. Most agree on common hurdles: procrastination, writer’s block, the terror of failure that looms over any creative project and, of course, the attention sucking power of the Internet.

But it is largely thanks to the wonderful attention sucking power of the Internet that we have stumbled upon a rather intriguing writerly discovery!

A new initiative from novelist Joshua Cohen lets you watch him write his next novel, in real time, with video.

Called PCKWCK, it’s a Google Docs style app that lets you watch the novel develop from start to finish, complete with typos, re-writes and other mistakes.

writing

You can even chat with Cohen and anyone else watching, and highlighting the text in the live view sends ‘hearts’ to him, similar to Periscope (because isn’t that just adorable).

Hypnotizing to watch, or just another excuse for you to put of writing that novel you’ve been working on? You tell us! Let us know whether you think this is a cool idea, where aspiring writers can get a new insight into how a novel is written, or is it just more of the self-referential narcissism  we now expect from ‘digital writers’? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

Some of the finest advice on writing – Kurt Vonnegut on stories, structure and style

vonnegut

Fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays and five works of non-fiction stand as a towering testament of Kurt Vonnegut’s ability to show us the fantastic in literature, and the extent to which books and writing can make us feel sublime. He is rightly admired by writers, readers – and most people who have had the fortune of stumbling across some of his work. Countless resources exist within the babbling expanse of the internet, based on his writing, and what he can teach us about writing – from the perspective of the writer, the reader, and the human being.

In this article, we attempt to bring some of these resources together – a mini-compendium featuring some of Vonnegut’s timeless wisdom on writing.

A first rule: no semicolons

By way of introduction, we believe it is of paramount importance to highlight Vonnegut’s self-defined “first rule” of writing. Lovers of the semi-colon should look away now.

In a delightfully dogmatic writing rule of thumb, Vonnegut offers the following advice for aspiring writers: “A First Rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All the do is show you’ve been to college.”

Leave those semicolons by the wayside, then. Now, onwards and upwards!

An old favourite: the shape of stories

A much viewed clip available on YouTube is an old favourite of the team here at Nothing in the Rulebook. In it, Kurt Vonnegut maps out the shapes of stories, with equal parts irreverence and perceptive insight, along the “G-I” axis (Good Fortune and Ill Fortune), and the “B-E axis” (Beginning and Entropy). The footage, an excerpt from a much longer talk, is best accompanied by the transcript of the full talk – in ‘A man without a country’, an almost-memoir Vonnegut published in 2007.

The fundamental thesis behind the delightful graphs Vonnegut uses to depict everything from Cinderella to Kafka to Hamlet, is that, in his own words “stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper”.

The shape of Cinderella

The shape of Cinderella

Yet this thesis, which he submitted in pursuit of a master’s degree, was rejected – according to the man himself – because “it was so simple, and looked like too much fun”.

We’ll let you decide for yourself what you make of it:

Interestingly, these plottable graphs have been creatively reimagined by graphic designer Maya Eilam, in new infographic format.

The importance of style

Vonnegut’s 1985 essay, “How to Write with Style”, published in the anthology How to Use the Power of the Printed Word, begins by reprimanding what he perceives as the impersonal sterility of journalistic reporting. This fuelled by Vonnegut’s musings on the single most important element of style, which writers of all creeds must possess – a revelation of self.

“Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writing. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.

These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time […] Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your reader will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an ego maniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.”

Choose to ignore such a warning at your peril!

Find your routine

The idea of finding your ‘routine’ as a writer is often bandied about and discussed at great lengths on various writing forums, threads, advice boards, literature festivals, creative writing seminars and classes, and so on. Writing is, after all, a discipline; and is perhaps more about working terribly hard at something and focusing intently on that, rather than simply spending your days living life as a “creative”.

Yet recognising the importance of a writing routine and actually developing one is a trick not learned easily – and made more difficult by our increasingly 24-7 lifestyles (both working and social). For inspiration, Vonnegut serves as an icon to aspire to, with his gruelling daily routine, often noted in a marvellous collection of his letters.

In one letter to his wife, Jane, dated 28 September, 1965, for example, Vonnegut describes how he would work for 90 minutes before a short break for breakfast at 8am, then continue working until 10 am. Here, he then walks into town, runs errands, swims at the local pool, returns to his house for lunch at noon, then spends the afternoon preparing for his classes (he was working at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa), then an evening spent reading and listening to jazz music. Throughout the day he does “pushups and sit-ups” and occasionally visits the cinema, where he has his heart broken.

Perhaps it’s time we all brought a little more discipline and heartbreak to our writing routines!

8 Simple tips for writing a great story

There are plenty of such #WritingTips lists floating about. But Vonnegut’s simple list on how to write a good short story deserves repeating in full:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Vonnegut's signature self portrait

Vonnegut’s signature self portrait

Make your soul grow

Finally, one last, and perhaps most important piece of advice from Kurt Vonnegut. One year before the author’s death, he wrote a letter in reply to a group of New York City school children who prevailed upon him to come and visit their school. His thoughtful reply provides advice that goes beyond tips for writing or reading; and instead simply teaches how to lead a good life.

A transcript of the letter here follows:

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana. 

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, butrhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut