(Pre)historical fiction

During the month of September, I’ve been the guest blogger for Southerly, the journal of the English department at Sydney University.

I’ve been in Europe for most of September. It’s been tricky getting the posts typed up and sent off at times! But it’s also been a great opportunity to reflect on my trip, which was a research trip for a work of what I’m calling ‘pre-historical’ fiction (apparently, ‘prehistoric fiction’ is the accepted term, but to me, that sounds like the fiction itself is prehistoric, which would refer to something entirely different – narratives from pre-literate oral traditions, or something like that – so I’m sticking with my own awkward coinage). It’s been nice to have the freedom to meander on any literary topic I like – though I was quite firmly focussed on my trip during September and I think this comes through in the posts…

All the posts are up now – here they are:

  1. Historical fiction
  2. (Pre)historical fiction
  3. Mode, genre and time
  4. Klekkende Høj

There is a new issue of Southerly (the journal itself) coming out soon, too. I’ve got a piece in there as well – but I’ll link that up once it’s launched.

Hymn to Saraswati

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The sixth issue of Abraxas was launched last Friday (26 September 2014). I was in London that day, so I made it to the bookshop (Treadwell’s, just around the corner from the British Museum and SOAS) in time for the copies of the journal to arrive from the Belgian printer, before getting on the plane. It’s a handsome, full sized magazine, glossy and beautifully laid out. I’m pleased that sonnet ‘Hymn to Saraswatī’ is one of the two poems included between its covers.

[ full info at Fulgur ]

Crowds vs Clouds

In an essay-length review, I looked at three books on social media for the Sydney Review of Books: Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future, Volker Eisenlauer’s A Critical Hypertext Analysis of Social Media: The True Colours of Facebook, and Trebor Scholz’s Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory - with some references also to various books by Franco Berardi.

A recent video advertisement by Apple captures perfectly, if inadvertently, the ambivalence of technology’s role in contemporary life. A montage of contrasting shots depicts the variety of human experience and achievement, the panoramic juxtaposed with the intimate: deep-sea divers, a toddler’s first stumbling steps, a hiker on a snow-capped mountain. Everyone, of course, just happens to be using one of Apple’s tablet computers. To a stirring orchestral soundtrack, a voiceover informs us in thrilling tones that while science and technology can do remarkable things, it is poetry that matters because it is what we live for. ‘What,’ we are asked, ‘will your verse be?’

Something odd is happening when a tech company downplays the significance of technology in favour of ‘poetry’…

[ read the review on Sydney Review of Books ]

New Trad, volume 1

The first volume of poetry journal New Trad has been published. New Trad originates in an idea I’ve had for a few years now: a home for contemporary poems that are written in archaic forms. The first issue features original poems with a diverse array of influences—Sapphic lyric, Dante’s terza rima, mediaeval alliterative verse, carmina figurata, the sonnet, Yu Xuanji’s classical poetry, liturgical music, Pindaric ode, the glyconic, the English ballad, the rubaiyat, the rondolet, and skaldic poetry.

The longest work in there is a previously unpublished extract from Bev Braune‘s wonderful epic poem ‘Skulváði Úlfr’. It was coming across another excerpt, published in Cordite, that convinced me to move forward with New Trad and make it happen.

There are two samples from issue one available online: ‘The Man from Ithaca’ by Charlotte Innes, and ‘Our Colossus’ by Tegan Jane Schetrumpf. They’re both excellent pieces and should give a flavour of what to expect from issue one, which is available to purchase from various retailers, including the big ones.

My involvement with the issue was as editor, rather than writer; but I did write the series introduction, ‘A Roll of the Dice’, which can also be read on the website:

The predicament of contemporary poetry, as described at the outset, is its rampaging self-cannibalisation, its impatience with metrical form and structure, its destruction of the ground on which poetry has traditionally stood. How can today’s poets renew poetry, when the last century has been a blur of novelty-seeking? The conviction of New Trad—and it is, I will freely admit, more of an intuition than a fully conceived hypothesis—is that the future will only be won by reference to the past…

Our emphasis is not on the recent pre-modernist past. There are several venues already in existence for the rhyming, metrical poetry that immediately preceded the onslaught of free verse and has been maintained by the likes of Robert Frost; we have no desire to replicate them. Rather, we seek to revitalise ancient forms and traditions so long fallen out of use as to have become mere objects of scholarly study. What if we still wrote like the ancient Norse skalds? What if we had never stopped writing spells and invocations in the manner of the Akkadians? What if the Sapphic lyric or Horatian ode were still with us…what would they have become, for us—what can we make of it in our own era?

For more information, check out the website. And then buy a copy!

Cheat Mode

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Issue 215 of Ambit is on sale now. Includes my story ‘Cheat Mode’. Extract:

How angry his uncle will be when he realises, as he must, that the phone has been stolen. Everyone will know who has done it. That moment of recklessness—of greed, of envy bubbling up and congealing into something criminal, irreversible—hovers in his mind: lifting his relatives’ bags into the car, full of a dull resentment against his cousin, who can step briefly into this monotonous country life, just visiting, a nice change—quaint, if a little boring—and then stroll out again, as easily as a bird drifts on the breeze, back to the city, where anything is possible; seeing Toti’s phone fall out of a bag, and stooping to pick it up; crouching there for a second, the adults’ god-blesses muffled through the judder of the car’s engine; thinking, wondering how it would have been if he had not seen the phone fall—if it were still there later when the relatives have driven away—maybe finding it himself; hearing Toti’s nasal, whining voice, and glimpsing his fat face through the window of the car door; the sight of that insufferable spoilt pout convinces him, draws the spite that has been pooling in his heart down the veins of his arm to his fingers; almost involuntarily (and it is the almost for which he cannot forgive himself, because it was not a madness, it was a decision, a moment of surrender to evil) slipping the phone into a pouch hanging around his waist, to nestle with his dog whistle and stale pieces of yesterday’s unleavened bread; standing up, pulling the drawstring with a stealthy movement as he shuts the door with his other hand. At the same time—he now realises—he slammed it on the prospect of leaving the farm. He slammed the door on the city, on school, on being an engineer. Selfishly, stupidly, he slammed the door. Even then, he had a chance. He could have knocked on the window, given it back: look, I found your phone on the ground! But a thrill was tingling through him like the first twinge of a fever. Toti’s favourite gadget: his, now. The car rumbled forward; he waved; they drove away.

[ buy Ambit 215 to read the whole story ]

The Towel & The Patriarchs

Two of the shortest stories I’ve written appear in the latest issue of Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, published by the University of Chester (table of contents here).

They’re too short to excerpt meaningfully here. But the magazine is only five quid!

[ buy it ]

The Determinist’s Tale

On Goulburn St, nestled between Chinatown and the Spanish quarter, the old Trades Hall building was once the nexus of the New South Wales labour movement. Now, it feels more like a museum: giant banners from the early twentieth century, hung in the central courtyard, extol the eight-hour day, the rights of women at work, and the unions of various trades: stonemasons, ‘liquor trades employees’, tile-layers and shop assistants. Many of the offices are now rented out to companies and organisations that feel incongruous: law firms, consultancies – and the Sydney Writers’ Room. The Room is a good place to write: high ceilings, spacious desks, and most importantly silence, except for the tapping of keyboards and scratching of pens on paper. I’ve been a member for about six months.

The Sydney Writers’ Room has now produced  Chinese Whispers, an anthology of its members work. It’s a curious experiment: each piece is written by one of the Room’s members, about another of the Room’s members, chosen randomly from a hat. The resulting book is quite odd: diverse, certainly, both in style and in quality. Some of the pieces are rather slight, and at least one is in very poor taste. But there are also some delightful pieces in there: hilarious, affecting and occasionally eerie. I particularly enjoyed Stephen Lacey‘s whimsical short story ‘Limbos’.

My subject was the theatre director and librettist Sarah Carradine. I have neither the aptitude nor the inclination to write biographically, so I wrote ‘The Determinist’s Tale’, a choose-your-own adventure in the style of those 1980s second-person kids’ books. It relates to Sarah in a very nebulous way; I’m still not sure if it really works, but it was certainly fun writing it. A nostalgia trip, if nothing else.

Chinese Whispers is now available on Amazon in ebook form.

[ buy it ]

Against World Literature – Emily Apter

For a book that sets out to deflate ‘the expansionism and gargantuan scale of world-literary endeavors’, Against World Literature has some sizeable ambitions of its own. Even when Apter talks about literature, it is usually at one or two removes. Often, the real object of her attention is the theoretical exegesis of a work, rather than the work itself. It is a hectic journey through such a wilfully eclectic range of intellectual terrains that it is sometimes unclear how we came to be discussing the point in hand, and for what purpose. The density of the prose does not make it any easier to follow the thread. It is no small feat to write a gloss that is more opaque than the quotation from Jacques Derrida it is intended to explicate.

My review of Emily Apter’s Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (Verso, 2013) is out on the Sydney Review of Books.

Update 1.10.14: I’ve just noticed that this piece has been included as required reading on Stanford University’s ‘Comparative Literature 101′ course (see syllabus).

[ read it ]

The Cause of the Human

By their nature, drones clear away the ‘fog of war’, and provide some moral clarity. That latter phrase, in the context of war, was given a bad name recently by the Bush administration; liberals pleaded for some appreciation of nuance and subtlety. But the Bush wars, and the whole regime of surveillance and torture that accompanied them, were framed by the constant invocation of the 2001 suicide hijackings, and explicitly grounded in relativistic utilitarianism: we have to bend the rules because of the situation we face. After the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, the standard excuses were trotted out. A few bad apples. War is hell. But war is not hell for a flying robot; and nor is it, pace the human-interest stories in the Western media, for drone operators…

[ read the full paper at academia.edu ]

Mr Morden’s Tree

So pleased that my thousand-word-sentence / flash fiction piece ‘Mr Morden’s Tree’ has been published in Oblong Magazine, a flash fiction journal based in Brixton:

…this was what he did, plant trees, though there was no point, really: trees grew of their own accord, as they had done before the first bald, bickering apes descended from their branches, and they would do so long after the extinction of this interloping species, a thought that gave him some satisfaction in those moments when he accidentally read the headlines, or someone tried to speak to him, as the man next door almost did at that moment, catching a glimpse of Mr Morden’s hat dipping as he pushed and twisted at the ground, desiccating it and slicing through fat earthworms with the point of his shovel, which brought a comment to the lips of the neighbour, something about his own rose-beds and the intransigence of the earth giving him blisters, stillborn words turned to a cough, because he remembered in time that Mr Morden was not one for a chat, surly old bastard…

To read the whole story, and many others (including another one of mine, a tiny hundred-one that’s been used as the volume’s preface), you will have to get hold of a copy of Oblong volume two. It’s only three quid!

Update 13.09.13: It’s now also online on the Oblong website.