Literary Crush – Carol Ann Duffy

carol-ann-duffyCarol Ann Duffy – the compassionate and authentic Poet Laureate.

As the UK’s first female Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy has re-imagined the role on her own terms. Gone is the notion of a patriarchal remote, aloof honour and in its place the Poet Laureate has become an open, engaged, and fearless defender of not only poetry but of social justice and equality.

Her impulse to address questions of justice and equality means that Duffy does not shy away from emotive subject matters such as climate change, the banking crisis, and more recently the Orlando nightclub massacre. It is these sorts of life-events that ignite her imagination and stir her to write.

Of her writing intention and process Duffy explains, “It all comes from the same place. There’ll be what you might call a moment of inspiration – a way of seeing or feeling or remembering, an instance or a person that’s made a large impression. Like the sand and the oyster, it’s a creative irritant. In each poem, I’m trying to reveal a truth, so it can’t have a fictional beginning.”1

I particularly admire Duffy’s compassionate search for the truth, her desire to remind us of the simple humanity of things. Her uncomplicated explanation of sexuality in Pink News, for example, was not just simply wonderful but important for people to hear “…it’s fantastic that I’m an openly gay writer, and anyone…who feels shy or uncomfortable about their sexuality should celebrate and be confident and be happy. It’s a lovely, ordinary, normal thing.”2

In my favourite poetry collection ‘Rapture’, Duffy invites the reader to experience the joy of new love, the ache of a lover’s absence and the heartbreak of love lost. The images of the natural world and of the changing seasons are frequently employed and personified to embody emotion, and to enlarge the landscape of the unfolding narratives. But also everyday objects, such as a mobile phone, are drawn into the drama and become the focus for action and feeling. In the poem ‘Text’ the obsessive beginnings of love is found in the words ‘I…look for your small xx feeling absurd.’3

Duffy’s poetry works so well because the reader can relate to it. It is authentic to our experience. She does not want poetry to be remote, either in subject matter or availability.

She is actively seeking out new poetry talent4 and wants poetry to be everywhere. As Jeanette Winterson observes, Duffy ‘has often spoken about poetry as an everyday event and not as a special occasion. She wants us to enjoy poetry, to have as much as we like, to be able to help ourselves to a good, fresh supply, to let poetry be as daily as talking – because poetry is talking.’5

The skill of ‘talking’, however, escaped me when I met Carol Ann Duffy.  I recall standing in the queue at the Warwick Words Festival in 2009, nervously waiting for her to sign my copy of ‘Rapture’. When I reached the front I told myself ‘say something memorable to her’. I managed to mumble shyly “Thank you for your poetry reading”. I remember she looked up at me, pen in hand, the edge of her hand pressing against the open title page “Thank you for coming” she replied, holding my blushing gaze, as she signed a kiss beneath her name and across my heart.

 

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/dec/04/poetry.features
  2. http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2009/05/01/carol-ann-duffy-sexuality-is-a-lovely-ordinary-normal-thing/
  3. page 2, ‘Text’, Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy, Picador, London, 2005 (paperback 2006)
  4. http://poetrysociety.org.uk/competitions/ted-hughes-award/ and https://web.archive.org/web/20121127102519/http://www.picador.com/Blogs/2011/9/Message-from-Carol-Ann-Duffy
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/17/jeanette-winterson-on-carol-ann-duffys-the-worlds-wife

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

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Literary Crush – Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

rita-mae-brown
1.  Rita Mae Brown

“The most revolutionary thing you can do is to be yourself.”2

These are the words of Rita Mae Brown, the 2015 Winner of the Lambda Literary Pioneer Award, and winner of the Lee Lynch Classic Book Award, and author of the seminal novel Rubyfruit Jungle.

Written in 1971, and published in 1973, Rubyfruit Jungle tells the story of the feisty, resolute and unapologetic heroine Molly Bolt. It was an immediate hit, outselling the capacity of its small press Daughters Inc. 3

Told in the first person through the voice of Molly, the reader intimately follows her development from childhood to her early twenties. Molly is determined not to be told who she is, or who she should be or what she can’t do or think. Her unapologetic attitude to sex in particular is liberating to read. She is her own person and that is her strength and allure. Her confidence glows out to the reader.

“I don’t care whether they [people] like me or not. Everybody’s stupid that’s what I think. I care if I like me that’s what I truly care about.”4

The story of Rubyfruit Jungle is one of a battle, bravely fought, against the casual horrors of Molly’s life. She fights hard to not be limited or defined by her illegitimacy, poverty, homelessness, sexuality, class, societal expectations, racism or by sexism.

However, as with true heroism, she does not escape scar free. When she is expelled from college for causing a scandal by sleeping with her female college roommate, it shapes Molly for good.

“I closed the door forever on idealism and the essential goodness of human nature.”5

And yet she is not a cynical character. She swallows her bitterness and refuses to give in on her ambition to be a film maker, despite the evidence to suggest her dreams are futile. This is inspiring.

Molly becomes a symbolic figure of defiance, a character of contrast to those around her who aren’t as smart or as bravely determined not to be limited by circumstance. Molly’s childhood friends and lovers succumb to their seemingly inevitable fates of marriage and jobs which fit society rather than them. The individual is seen to be lost if it is not claimed, created and fought for, particularly if your start in life presumes against this.

And that for me is the essence of the book – fight to find and be yourself.

Observers are often dismayed when Rita Mae Brown distances herself from seeing Rubyfruit Jungle as a lesbian novel.6 But if you step back from reading Molly purely as a lesbian role model to see Molly also as a campaigner for individual freedom, then you hit upon why Rubyfruit Jungle is so meaningful to so many.

Ultimately Rubyfruit Jungle is about the championing of free will, without which we have nothing other than that imposed on us by others.

“If Rubyfruit Jungle helped to push you on your path to freedom, I’ve done something right.”7   Rita Mae Brown.

  1. The Lavender Menace was an informal group of lesbian radical feminists formed to protest the exclusion of lesbians and lesbian issues from the feminist movement at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City on May 1, 1970. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavender_Menace
  2. https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/find-your-next-read/extracts/2016/jun/rita-mae-brown-introduces-a-new-edition-of-rubyfruit-jungle/
  3. https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/rita-mae-brown-rubyfruit-jungle-interview
  4. p. 36, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. Penguin Books, 1994.
  5. p. 131, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. Penguin Books, 1994.
  6. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/rita-mae-brown-awarded-as-pioneer-of-lesbian-literature-scoffs-at-the-term/2015/05/30/60169a62-00a5-11e5-833c-a2de05b6b2a4_story.html
  7. https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/find-your-next-read/extracts/2016/jun/rita-mae-brown-introduces-a-new-edition-of-rubyfruit-jungle/

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

Literary Crush – Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf 1 June 1939

Discovering the writing in the shadows of the writer.

I can’t remember when I first heard the name Virginia Woolf; I seem somehow to have always known of her. A tall slim-framed woman, with a long face and a slightly severe expression – set off by sad eyes, heavy lidded with the weight of her convictions.

As a member of the Bloomsbury Set2 of thinkers and artists Woolf was determined to challenge conventional thinking and intelligent enough to find the language to validate her life lived on its own terms.

And it was that life lived on its own terms that I first engaged with. I remember being enthralled by the scandal of her affairs with women, most notably Vita Sackville-West3, who inspired her famous gender-bending novel Orlando.

But here is the problem for me – I was so taken with her that I found I couldn’t see past the woman to find the writing. It was like her work was overshadowed by her infamy. I knew I needed a way into her writing but I just didn’t expect it to come in the form of an essay.

The essay On Being Ill4 was written by Woolf in January 1926 for The New Criterion5 and I was immediately intrigued by this quieter, less celebrated work.

Woolf, like so many creative individuals, infamously struggled to maintain her mental health. She endured terrible bouts of depression which ultimately led to her suicide in 1941, at the age of 59. My sense is that the price of seeking freedom from convention is not measured in sterling or dollars but in the degrees to which the human spirit can be tested and broken. There is nothing ‘free’ about free-thinking.

I wondered whether a hint of regret might emerge of the toll taken upon her by having lived a pioneering life. No, instead Woolf defiantly sets the ‘recumbent’ bed-ridden individual up against the ‘upright’ healthy as she explains that it is the ‘recumbent’, on their back ‘with their face to the sky’ who can see the world with a fresh perspective.

It is a perspective which scrutinises those ‘genial pretences’, such as sympathy:-

“We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown.”6

And there it was – shining, her writing, her beautiful prose, her imagination on the page.

Woolf goes on to explain that her imaginative powers became enhanced with illness.

“In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poem by Mallarme or Donne, some phrase in Latin or Greek, and the words give out their scent and distil their flavour, and then, if at last we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having come to us sensually first, by way of the palate and the nostrils, like some queer odour.”7

With every page I turned, Woolf the celebrity gave way to Woolf the writer. Not only in her lyricism, but as she explored the notion that ill health had given her a unique perspective on life, her way into new levels of creative experience. No famous novel could tell the reader this – no journey To The Lighthouse, no party with Mrs Dalloway, could afford such insight.

And as my snowfield glistens, Virginia Woolf is no longer in the way of Virginia Woolf.

 

Virginia Woolf (25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941)

  1. Photo: Gisèle Freund/IMEC/Fonds MCC, printed in the Telegraph 9 July 2014 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/10914210/The-last-photograph-of-Virginia-Woolf.html
  2. The Bloomsbury Set. http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/bloomsbury-group/introduction/profiles
  3. Vita Sackville-West. http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/03/09/a-thing-that-wants-virginia/
  4. ‘On Being Ill’, by Virginia Woolf. The Hogarth Press, 1930. Virginia Woolf The Complete Collection
  5. The New Criterion https://thenewcriterion1926.wordpress.com/
  6. ‘On Being Ill’, by Virginia Woolf. The Hogarth Press, 1930. Virginia Woolf The Complete Collection
  7. ‘On Being Ill’, by Virginia Woolf. The Hogarth Press, 1930. Virginia Woolf The Complete Collection

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

Literary Crush – Ali Smith

Other Stories and Other StoriesOther Stories and Other Stories.

It is to Ali Smith’s absolute credit that I have found writing this blog incredibly hard. It has taken many drafts to begin to edge towards an explanation as to why her collection of short stories entitled Other Stories and Other Stories work in such an affecting way.

I love the way she has made me feel – it’s like I’m trying to peer into the magician’s hat to see if I can fathom the magic being made. And by magic I mean the way in which the stories resonate way beyond the actual page.

It seems to me that the ‘magic’ is created by a combination of content and craft, which work together to create a tension between what “is known” and what “must be discovered through the act of imagination”.

The collection’s twelve diverse stories address themes including relationships, trust, loss, loneliness, innocence, sexuality, emotional distress, poverty, and isolation.  Such evocative content produce direct and troubling narratives.

In Kasia’s mother’s mother’s story, for example, we nervously follow a desperate woman’s theft of a crucifix from a church, sharing in the explicit peril of the act. ‘Now all the woman can hear is her own heart. She slides along the seat, opens the buttons of her coat…’1

I was left worrying about why the woman had stolen the crucifix. Who or what was behind the unseen threat she needed the crucifix to protect her from? As with all of the stories in the collection, I was left caught up in an ending, without an ending.

This technique of withholding information from the reader is hinted at in A story of love.

In A story of love the narrator is chatting to her female lover about storytelling, as they cuddle in each other’s arms, in their bed, with the seasons changing around them. The narrator confesses, ‘So I told the next story, and as it unfolded I realised how exciting it could be to know more about a story than you knew. I hadn’t really understood how exhilarating it could be to hold your attention like that.’2

A story of love also provides another clue to Ali Smith’s craft at work, as the narrator explains, ‘There was once, I said, a story that was told by way of other stories.’3

Indeed every story in the collection is ‘told by way of other stories’ that seem to deviate from the intention and theme suggested by its title. This creates a tangible tension between what is expected and what is given. For each of the twelve stories it is up to the reader to build connections and create the narrative from the individual parts – to seek what must be discovered.

And so I am left, my imagination working overtime, in awe of Ali Smith the literary magician who can make me wonder how it is I am thinking of the rabbit she didn’t in fact pull out of the hat.

  1. p162, Kasia’s mother’s mother’s story, Other Stories and Other Stories by Ali Smith, 1999, Granta Books.
  2. p173, A story of love, Other Stories and Other Stories by Ali Smith, 1999, Granta Books.
  3. p176, A story of love, Other Stories and Other Stories by Ali Smith, 1999, Granta Books.

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

Literary Crush – W H Auden

W-H-Auden-people-pageAnimating the inanimate.

Having a literary crush, for me at least, doesn’t automatically mean I know the object of my affections inside out. In fact, sometimes it only takes one piece of work from an author to affect me or to influence my writing in some way – just as in life, where one smile exchanged, or one fleeting moment with a stranger, can stay with an individual for a lifetime.

And that’s how it is with me and Auden. Just two poems O Tell Me the Truth About Love and Funeral Blues is enough for me to say with conviction that Auden has influenced the way I write.

For example, Auden showed me the inherent power of personification as a tool for description – the art of bringing alive the inanimate elements of a scene or an emotion, with the aim of enhancing the effect upon the reader.

In O Tell Me the Truth About Love Auden personifies the emotion of love, humanising it, asking in the penultimate stanza:-

‘Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races?
Or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.’1

So when I wanted to describe the pain of Eve Eddison’s heartbreak in my forthcoming novel, Highland Fling, I drew on Auden as I personified the unseen nature of emotional pain as a ghost lingering with baseball bat, poised to inflict agony on the next victim:-

‘Like a baseball bat swung toward and struck bluntly with a thump directly at the heart, it never ceases to surprise that our emotions often physically hurt. And yet there is cruel futility in ripping at your shirt, searching your bare chest for the wound made by the strike, for there is no purpling bruise, just the awful sensation of invisible pain. And like the sinister haunting of a ghost, the shadow of emotion lingers before passing to the next unwary soul, bat in hand, arm out wide, poised.’

But it is not just Auden’s use of personification which has inspired me; it is also his ability to reimagine the familiar so that it works in a new and evocative way. Using simple images he is able to transform the unimportant to become important, and the universal to appear small and personal. In Funeral Blues, the sun is ‘dismantled’, the ocean ‘poured away’ and the wood ‘swept up’:-

‘The stars are not wanted now; put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.’2

So when, in Highland Fling, I needed to describe what it was like for Roxanne when she felt like she’d lost everything, thanks to Auden I understood there was no limit to what I could reimagine to express what I needed to say:-

‘It is a good thing that time waits for no one, and that life carries on without us. That we are not relied on to spin the earth, or pull down on the sun to set, or encourage the autumn leaves to fall. No, that is not our work. Our work is to find a way to live, even if for some upsetting reason we find that we no longer recognise our life.’

And yet, if I was asked “who inspires your writing?” there are so many writers, who together – one poem, one novel, one wisdom at a time – have made and are making me the writer I am and the writer I want to be. But it will always be Auden, expanding the limits of my imagination, and animating the inanimate for me.

W H Auden (21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973)

  1. p9, O Tell Me the Truth About Love, by W. H. Auden, Tell Me the Truth About Love, Ten Poems by W. H. Auden, 1994, Faber and Faber Limited.
  2. p29, Funeral Blues, by W. H. Auden, Tell Me the Truth About Love, Ten Poems by W. H. Auden, 1994, Faber and Faber Limited.

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

 

Literary Crush – Maurice by E M Forster

E M Forster

Publishable – but worth it?

‘Publishable – but worth it?’ are the words of E M Forster, inscribed on the cover of the typescript of his novel, Maurice.1

 

Completed in 1914, Maurice depicts the turmoil of middle-class Englishman, Maurice Hall, who falls in love with another man at a time (1912) when to do so risked everything. “I’m an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort.”2

Maurice was one of the first gay books I read. And at seventeen, with no language to express my longing, to find the words that spoke of it meant everything to me. Maurice Hall’s turmoil was my turmoil, his fear of discovery my fear, his internal questioning my questioning, and, above all, his wish for ‘a friend’ my own heartfelt desire:-

“The second dream is more difficult to convey. Nothing happened. He scarcely saw a face, scarcely heard a voice say, ‘That is your friend’, and then it was over, having filled him with beauty and taught him tenderness. He could die for such a friend, he would allow such a friend to die for him; they would make any sacrifice for each other, and count the world nothing, neither death nor distance nor crossness could part them, because ‘this is my friend’.”3

Okay, so it’s a little intense, but that intensity reached out, especially to a teenager who thought no one else was gay. It made no difference to me that the characters were men, what mattered to me was that Forster was describing an emotional, and importantly, physical love between two people of the same sex. Love is genderless after all. The feelings we express transcend everything.

So the thought that Forster questioned the merit of publishing Maurice fills with me horror. It was eventually published in 1971, after Forster’s death, as he’d requested. But by 1960, Forster worried whether Maurice had become dated,4 its sentiments out of touch with the, arguably, progressive modern world.

I want so much to tell him, ‘Mr Forster, never doubt the continued resonance and importance of Maurice, never question whether it should have been published. Please understand how much it has meant to so many and that many more are still waiting for the ‘Happier Year’ you dedicated Maurice to.’

After all, what would happen if those who wrote LGBT literature began to question whether they should publish their work, whether there was a market, whether there was a need? What if there were no LGBT books? Would we just accept it, as we do with so many things we know in our hearts we should challenge?

Or, would we be brave and write what’s in our hearts, despite everything and everyone, claim our sexuality, underpin our identity, and gather at book festivals, shoulder to shoulder with those who share our passion to celebrate the diverse nature of our LGBT world?

You bet we would. I look forward to meeting you at the Bold Strokes Books UK book festival in June.5

Oh and Mr Forster, when I stand and look out at the audience who’ve travelled from all over I’ll be thinking of you, my heart full of pride at how ‘worth it’, it all is.

E M Forster (1 January 1879 – 7 June 1970)

  1. p10, Introduction, by P N Furbank, Maurice, by E M Forster, 1972, 20, edition, Penguin Books
  2. p139, Maurice, by E M Forster, 1972, 20, edition, Penguin Books
  3. p26, Maurice, by E M Forster, 1972, 20, edition, Penguin Books
  4. p221, Terminal note, Maurice, by E M Forster, 1972, 20, edition, Penguin Books
  5. https://boldstrokesauthorfestuk.wordpress.com

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

Literary Crush – Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

A very peculiar thing happens to me when I discover an author I come to cherish – I feel a momentary sense of panic at the thought that I might never have discovered their work in the first place. I fleetingly imagine my life without their words and feel an odd sense of loss. This is how I feel about Elizabeth Bishop – panicked at the thought of my life without her.

Alarmingly, it was only by chance that I discovered her work when I came across the film Reaching for the Moon, a biopic of Bishop’s life in Brazil with her lover Maria Carlota Costallat de Macedo Soares (Lota). I remember hoping that the film would be well acted and well made. It was.

And then I heard ‘it’, her voice, revealed in the opening stanza of Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’, spoken in the background of a scene in the film,

‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.’1

It may have been the actresses’ voice that spoke the words but it wasn’t her voice that I heard – it was the voice of the poem – it was the voice of Elizabeth Bishop.

I could hear it immediately – warm, yet clipped, controlled, measured.  And that’s how I know when I like a writer, when I hear them, when I feel them, when their words affect me.

Shortly after the film, I feverishly hunted down second hand copies of her work online and was thrilled days later when the demure brown cardboard packages started to arrive.

I thumbed through line after line of her poetry, pausing reverently at the closing stanza of ‘One Art’, absorbed in the beauty of its understated expression of personal loss.

‘-Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.’1

‘One Art’ is everything I love about writing – clear and unfussy, yet clever, skilful, and moving.

Clear and unfussy writing, however, is not achieved without great effort. Bishop was a perfectionist and I imagine the edge of her hand stained with ink as she drafted and re-drafted each word.

I was particularly intrigued by one book, which arrived late on my doorstep, ‘Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker – the complete correspondence’. It had ‘San Diego County Library’ stamped on its flyleaf, and I wondered why the library had given it away or indeed whether it had been furtively slipped under a jumper, a thought that lent my purchase an illicit allure.

Not that I needed any alluring, as I plunged further, chest deep into Bishop’s world, exploring more of her poetry, her short stories, and her prose recollections.

The deftness of her descriptions of people and places drew me in. At the turn of a page, I was privy to the intimacies of her friendships with artists, poets, and editors, or I would travel with her imagination to distant places I had never been, fixated on the extraordinary detail of the everyday world she carefully depicted.

In the short story, The Village, I found myself standing in a country lane in Nova Scotia, and for a moment, I am transfixed by a cow doing what a cow does naturally…

‘Nelly, oblivious, makes cow flops. Smack. Smack. Smack. Smack.
It is fascinating. I cannot take my eyes off her. Then I step around them: fine dark-green and lacy and watery at the edges.’2

It seems to me, heady with reading, that no detail is too small or unimportant for Bishop and moreover, no emotion is too big or too real for words. The right words, mind, expressed with the utmost care.

As I reluctantly put her work aside, I turn back, glance at the reassuring stack of her books, just to check that she is still there.

Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911 – October 6, 1979)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Bishop

  1. One Art, p.40-41, Geography III, by Elizabeth Bishop, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2008.
  2. In the Village, p. 263, Elizabeth Bishop, The Collected Prose, The Hogarth Press, London, 1984.

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.