With a busy year ahead – working on 2 new novels and a possible poetry collection and/or chapbook, plus the promotion of my new Wordcatcher titles as well as those of Original Plus authors, plus the editing of The Journal – I am not going to be blogging as regularly as I did in 2018. Nevertheless, here goes....
Beginnings – Bricolage (January 1st 2019) / More aspects of ageing - use of language? (4th February 2019) / On Heroes (20th February 2019) / Lies (5th March 2019) / 1997 (19th March 2019) / The knees of turkeys bend backwards to take them forwards (3rd April 2019) / Another Beginning (Earth cleaned) (16th April 2019) / On reviewing new poetry and poetry reviewers (27th April 2019) / Self-analysis (after reading a Martin Stannard review...) (15th May 2019) / Apposite? (Extract from 'Everyday Objects Repurposed As Art) (24th May 2019) / Bravery a Necessity (6th June 2019) /
So much of art can start as a happy accident. Although for that accident of itself to be considered art could be a tad premature.
It is usually not enough to rely solely on assemblage, to gather together sounds for instance and to call that gathering music. Or to collect colours and textures together and call that assemblage visual art. Or to put words together on the same page and call that page poetry. No, these gatherings are but the beginnings.
Now, the gathering complete, is when the internal editor/critic/compiler takes over. If a composer one tries laying one sound partially over another, asks if that could make a viable chord. Does it respond to that click sound? Should it be repeated? Could the pairing become the motif for a larger piece? (See Neil Carter CDs.)
While for the colour splashes now is the time to consider the dynamism of any juxtaposition. Or what you may want the piece to become. Or, and more likely, what the piece may want to become. Are those large then small splodges creating an unwanted perspective? Do those four colours so close together look possibly representational? Could that hint of an image be put to use? Or will it then look too much like so-and-so's work? Or could this smudged photo become art if...?
A red pen is required for the word-gatherers. With no preconceived narrative in mind it could be that there is a sense of something lurking in this wordy gathering, a possible otherness asking to be conveyed. A couple of words might be preventing that. Remove them. Change the order of some others? Make it present tense? Past? Now it is starting to become art... That is if Art should end/not end where wonderment/imagination begins.
© Sam Smith January 1st 2019
What happens to certain people in their forties and onwards that their language changes and they become these pompous establishment types who trot out things like, “Your dad used to be a bit of ladies' man.” Instead of, an expression appropriate to my generation say, “He was always after getting his end away.”
Let's call them premature-previous-dotards, because these people my age can often also be seen wearing ever-pressed trousers and the women getting their white hair precociously permed.
Could it be that hormonal changes have these premature-previous-dotards feeling that they are now living the second, maybe even the third part of their lives – childhood, then their busy breeding age, and now their imminent dotage? - that they are now different people to what they were? So they have to adopt a new persona? Have to use other terms of reference? And the only models they have were their aged parents, uncles and aunts, and what they used to say: “In my day...”
All our physical components change, cells renew, die, some get replaced... Every 7 years apparently, and like Buddha's ox-cart we become composed of different parts. Our thinking processes though, our emotional responses, remain largely the same. Could that be what these peculiarly old-fashioned responses are, an attempt to reconcile our extant emotional states with the wreckage that has become of our bodies and, because of our age and adult circumstances, our now limited opportunities? So do these premature-previous-dotards resort to archaic platitudes: “When I was your age...” “I'll give you what for young...”
Could it be that, after all the uncertain fumblings and errors of youth, wrinkles and grey hair have bestowed upon them an unexpected and unlooked-for respectability, and they want to exploit this new role to the full: “Youngsters these days...” “Think life's hard now...” “What they need is....”
© Sam Smith 4th February 2019
I cannot afford heroes. Hero-worship is a static state and creativity demands a continually changing perspective. Which means that I am uneasy whenever anyone is made a hero, especially when they are made heroes by the media. One knows from experience that no sooner has the media conferred heroism on them than somebody else in the media, maybe even within the same periodical, is looking for the new hero's clay feet. The story can then run and run.
For hero read celebrity, and given tabloid intrusion into the lives of celebrities I find it difficult to believe why anyone would even dream of becoming a celebrity, a media hero. Hence I do not allow myself even the fantasy of celebrity, of heroism. I am a common-named fool, have done and continue to do many foolish things. (Could these here, for instance, be the diary entries for another gross Nobody called Smith?)
Given awareness of my own clay feet what I also find difficult to understand is the near religious adulation offered up to singers/performers. For me the performance, the posturing gets in the way of the material. I prefer always a self-effacing interpretation to a virtuosic display. Unless of course the performer is the material, which is why I do so enjoy kitsch and camp.
I cannot likewise understand the loyalty given over to sports teams. I enjoy watching some soccer, some rugby; but I admire technique, skill and prowess, regardless of which side wins.
My distrust of the process of heroism, my own fallibility, is probably why so many of my own heroes have been damaged people, often failures by their own light – John Clare, Jack London, Edward Bibbins Aveling, Phillip de Marisco, Van Gogh, Bothwell... And why I am drawn now to those – not shock-jock controversialists being scandalous for its own sake, or to establishment pets like Fry and Perry, become parodies of themselves – but to those whose principles dare them to be different – Meredith Monk, Laura Riding, George Galloway, Tariq Ali, Caroline Lucas, Bjork... Equally poet friends like Paul Sutton, Alan Corkish, Jan Oscar Hansen: their obstinate outspoken existence I approve of, purely for the light they let into any exchange-of-clichés debate.
© Sam Smith 20th February 2019
Sometimes it can seem that throughout the whole of my writing life I've been forced to undo lies. Some of my own, youth's boasting, and those lies that seemed necessary at the time to get me into or out of love affairs. Into jobs as well. But like all readily-believed liars what I instead wanted was to impress with the truth. But lies were easy, the truth hard, and people seemed to prefer the familiar off-the-peg lie.
Most of my lifetime's lies though have come from the lives surrounding mine, clothing mine.
Let's take the '68 anti-Vietnam war reporting – of the Vietnam war itself, and of those many who were campaigning to have that war stopped. Even now, harking back, there continue to be deliberate misrepresentations. In the USA the National Guard did shoot and kill several unarmed demonstrating students. While here in the UK, in Grovesnor Square, the police horses did come charging into us protestors before any horse ever got hit with a placard stick.
Sometimes it feels as if I should pitch into every FaceBook thread to say No, it wasn't/isn't exactly like that... Set the record straight, tell the young, “But it's true. It wasn't some game. The threat of World War Three and nuclear obliteration was real. Politicians believed it. Governments built bunkers to hide themselves in. Just themselves.”
Nor is it solely the young and new to life who get it wrong. I made this note to myself in 2010: 'Live long enough and our own lives become a fiction. Which could be why old men talk so much – to try to recapture the reality of their lived life?'
Before that, in 1997: 'Self-mythologies are the stories we come to believe about ourselves, stories that make our small lives more than pathetic.'
What I have always wanted, in writing, has been to accurately describe the real, the actual. Unequivocal accuracy though is difficult verging on the impossible. And it's the totality of truth where I most often fail. A detail unconsidered, or deemed inessential, omitted, the context unexplained; and so I too add to the misrepresentations.
Plus all my writerly efforts are reliant on my readers' knowledge/expectations/prejudices; and whether they have come to my work to have their views reinforced, or they came with the intention of pulling it apart. The latter happens especially when I have penned a piece where I have attempted to defy the direction of the words, to bring them back to what I actually wanted to describe, shake them out of the mould the words had made for themselves.
I believe that it is because we are alone when we write, just ourselves and the page, that we can achieve an honesty rarely found elsewhere in our lives. Try for instance criticising a book in the author's presence. There can then be no pretence at objectivity because most people won't want to be unkind, will possibly, sociably, even seek to make themselves well thought of by the author. Or, if they have taken a dislike to the author, they may find themselves being wantonly cruel. Alone with the page however they can, either way, caution themselves to be dispassionate.
Alone with the page is where I am myself.
© Sam Smith 5th March 2019
Going by these kept jottings 1997 must have been even more changing than I realised at the time. I was busy.
'Odd that although I am happy to accept other people being different to me they are not happy to accept my being different to them. Christians refuse to believe that I'm not [being an English-born ex-choirboy] a patriotic Christian. Performance poets that I honestly do not enjoy performance poetry, etc.' (3.3.1997)
'Rimbaud in reverse: I did my living early, gave it up to write at 25.' (29.4.1997)
Explanation for that last note to self:- From adolescence onwards I'd been eager to sample each and every aspect of life. But as a recipient, not an actor. So I took my curious self to strange places, into new situations, to see what would happen to me, how I would react. Which was how I've been both street-fighter and pacifist. Singularity, wholeness, was never my objective. And in all my doing, in action, had not been desperation, nor a frantic sadness, more a tempered exhilaration. What next? While at the same time I was wary of causing unnecessary offence and thus depriving myself of the possibility of yet another new experience. Small wonder that I left both lovers and acquaintances confused.
1997: when I was full of having had my first collection, 'To Be Like John Clare,' finally in print, my mentor and friend Derrick Woolf asked me, “What's worse than a first collection by Salzburg?”
I face-shrugged a Don't Know.
“A second collection by Salzburg.”
How soon are our bubbles pricked. Which probably led to this:- 'Seeking now, not an impossible permanence, more a point of rest, a comfortable predictability.' (8.7.1997)
That year however there were some beneficial changes to my psyche. This note to self was written years later:- 'Never try to repair machines in a hurry or in anger.' (13.6.2008), but was a cautionary reminder of my having read in 1997 Pirsig's 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.' That was the book that physically changed my life. Pre-Pirsig I had broken coffee tables that got in my way, had thrown malfunctioning telephones the length of hallways, and I had chucked unco-operative lawnmowers over garden hedges. Post-Pirsig offending tables got moved, phones put aside, and lawnmowers mended.
O the power of literature.
© Sam Smith 19th March 2019
While many of us can give the appearance of belonging, of being in the know, of being at confident ease with ourselves and our surroundings, most of us know that it is an act, that it has and will only ever be appearances.
When young I knew who was bullshitting who, be it a lad's lad priest, or disciplinarian teachers, or got-to-be-hard-like-me squadies. Nowadays it's all down to guesswork.
Tattoos for instance used to be the province of Pop-Eye sailors and borstal boys, or pretend borstal boys. On any girl's forearm the usually smudged self-tattoos were in among the self-harm scars. Nowadays however the arms of effete musicians are blue with intricate tattoos, body beautiful athletes have them on their calves upwards, and the smooth shoulders of plump young women sport roses or dragonflies.
It is though still all about belonging. Young people still seek ways to be accepted, go looking for what they have to do in order to belong. As I once did, knowing then the rules. But every part of that imperfect world contributed to its imperfection; and I also knew that I wanted a life larger than my parents' home, than the village, larger than the county, than the country; a life larger than life itself.
What I can't understand is why anyone young now doesn't want that. Because even if one ends up old and lost in memories, in all that still not-knowing what precisely it was that I wanted, the seeking of it took me down so many roads, and I at least have the memory of those roads.
At odds with most people most of the time, there were of course occasions when, out of sorts, I had to decide whether everyone else was being honest, or it was me being deceitful – to myself if no-one else. But usually they wanted me to belong more than I wanted to belong to them, individual or group; and when to belong all too often required some form of denial. A truth pushed aside; and the insistence, unsaid, that I become like them. So when I questioned, possibly detailed their inconsistencies, they might indignantly and self-righteously deny them; or, with a shrug, they accepted; just the way of it.
It was that acceptance always that I questioned.
Chip-on-the-shoulder cynic I may have been. But back then I was also a fool. I once assumed that everything in print, because it was in print, had to be important – not knowing then the hit-and-miss process of publication. So back then I read everything, tried to both understand and identify with it. To belong somewhere. And I saw any failure to understand as mine.
But I did eventually learn. I know now to spot the code word/phrase, its hinterland of attitudes, and I will skim-read on, or discard. Be off on my own again.
© Sam Smith 3rd April 2019
It was the beginning of the world. Another beginning. There had been an end. Another end. But in this ending only the Northern hemisphere had been wholly destroyed – by a nuclear catastrophe centred on the UK. (Known possibly in parts of the Southern hemisphere as The Last Night of the Poms?)
By the beginning of this future history however the North has become by and large clean again. Temperate Europe has once again been colonised from Africa. Our hero though is not clean. He has unnameable memories polluting his everyday vision, pre-verbal mentalese, new primordial instincts....
Europe's cities have disappeared, little evidence of their having been, even archaeological. Rather like the trillions of books published in the preceding millennia, all that remains of them will be in the indexes of electronic libraries, brief descriptions of some of them and of some of their contents.
In a renewed continent, inhabited by basic character types, will our hero go – Brian Aldiss-like – in search of a mystic land where, possibly, he believes he will be able to talk to the animals? This maybe because he was told that humanity and quadrupeds had once shared a common language? Could it be that he will discover the only word remaining to both is that which means 'man'? When the crow uses the word it is 'caw'. A harsh goat bleat sounds the same. Therefore, when introducing himself to boars and horses, might our hero place his palm flat to his chest and say, “Caw”?
© Sam Smith 16th April 2019
Self-analysis (after reading a Martin Stannard review... and angrily looking at a clutch of my own notes for a potential poem.)
Soft-skinned commuting workers
stand shoulder-to-shoulder, back-to-back,
not stepping on toes, not sniffing a rose. (A rose! Sniffing a rose! What the hell does that mean? This is where a dementing need for rhyme can lead one – to meaninglessness, or hoped-for portentousness. Jaysus!)
One pair of shoulders moves to platform's end,
stands with his back to a rainbow
squinting at winter's sun. (An attempt at ironical, and clumsy, observation here – always we're missing something. Shakes bald head.)
the self-engrossed and thick-haired young,
along with the sleepers-out in their
street-rancid clothes. (Description alone never enough for me, conscience says I must include some social observation, cliché and pathetic as that may be.)
With all of the need-to-earn-a-wage gone
pavements now are long patterns of stone. (Behold the slant rhyme sneaked into what was, by its appearance, claiming to be free verse, and has me ask how many more months – I'm hoping years – before brain decrease has me rocking and singing the same phrase over and over like a Dylan Thomas villanelle?)
Single old men emerge to take their small dogs
for the second of the day's four walks, pause
to catch their breath and consider. (...how many more months for them? Or are these lone men also travelling inscapes seeking their own slipped-away names/memories?)
Gate-leaning they hope for someone to gasping pass,
know them well enough for a verbal exchange -
of weather, of health. (Gawd! I the observer am so very very superior.)
One old man has been left indoors
caring for his even older father, both with
mouths sealed shut. Next door's sharp old woman,
also mute, treads carefully to not disturb
her parcel of pains. (So did I look to end with a poignant touch, and definitely rhymeless. With all that's left being to crumple the paper and take aim at my best-friend bin. Or use it to self-lacerate...? The answer herein. Damn! Another accidental rhyme.)
© Sam Smith 15th May 2019
The following has been taken from Chapter Twenty of my novel, Everyday Objects Repurposed As Art. Seemed apposite, especially after the collapse of the Labour Party's vote yesterday - https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=Everyday+Objects+Repurposed+As+Art&i=stripbooks&ref=nb_sb_noss
Chapter Twenty has the writer starting work on his proposed TV script....
[Actor beside or in front of photo of Aveling. Maybe we’ll need our own set, real or virtual, actor walking between hanging portraits/screens]
Aveling’s declared enemies were Ignorance, Ugliness and Poverty.
Unlike those self-righteous sober-minded socialists [sombre men in suits], unlike those who seek to make saints of themselves [add halos] by condemning the pleasures of those whose means enables them to partake of those pleasures [Victorian gentlemen carousing] - Aveling [actor signifies portrait] saw nothing wrong in enjoying himself, nor shame in showing his enjoyment. [clips of satirical programmes, stand-ups & laughing audiences] There is an innocence and an honesty in laughter - laughter being the enemy of all those with grandiose notions of their own importance. Aveling’s foremost criticism of Jesus in the New Testament was that, [running text]
“Nowhere in it does it say that He smiled.”
As a people we have lost faith in socialism. [Tory 1980s poster – Britain not working]
“Or open with that? Or ‘Britain not laughing’?”
He sits silent, then grunts. “More impact.” He studies the screen. “Move it later,” he says, and bends again to the laptop.
[Actor at lectern]
We generally no longer believe that international socialism can be achieved, nor even if - as Aveling foresaw it - it is any longer desirable. But then we have seen its application [footage of marchpasts in Russia, China & North Korea], have several examples of its failure [stills of Russian and Chinese 20th century famines]. And not only the reactionary and restrictive communism of Russia and China; but the feeling, or rather the fact, that socialism was long ago sold out by the British Labour Party wanting to be seen as respectable. [footage of Mandelson, Hune, Brown & Blair] Could be argued here therefore that our disillusion is due to the failure of Aveling to make his socialism international.
The only English group who now believe in international socialism are the Trotskyists of the Fourth International [their logos and any footage of their speakers, placards on demos, etc]. They can find but a few however who share their belief in international socialism.
Since Aveling’s day socialism’s enemies have quintupled. Now genuine socialists not only have to fight capitalist establishments, but also those undemocratic establishments [clips of deposed dictators, Gadafi, Pol Pot, etc] who, to give their dictatorships a moral respectability, called themselves socialist.
Now not only do socialists have to deplore the crimes of capitalism [landscapes laid waste by corporate greed] but those of the terrorists [bomb aftermaths] who call themselves socialists. Socialism and nationalism have become so inextricably entangled that socialists now have to apologise for all kinds of government before they can even begin to espouse their cause.
Of late we have witnessed wars that to Aveling would have been unthinkable – one ‘socialist’ country against another ‘socialist’ country. [b&w footage of artillery bombardments] Nor are our capitalistic enemies so obvious – in this country poverty is no longer raggedly offensive to the naked eye. Now it is a lower income limiting where one shops for one’s clothes. [High Street franchise shopfronts] And socialism’s philosophy being originally materialistic hard to say that there is no joy in wage-earning affluence, that most of those living in suburbia are deprived of joy [shots of one bleak suburban estate after another]. And should socialists here take up the cause of those in impoverished countries they inevitably find themselves again confounded by nationalism. [footage of flag-carrying nationalists on the march]
For 19th century Aveling it was simpler. [period footage/assemblage shots of slums] Aveling was a romantic socialist, saw himself with a straightforward battle to be fought and a solid victory to be gained. And it is because Aveling was defeated by his own, it is because Aveling’s [portrait] international socialism was diluted, that socialists today find themselves in this dilemma. Aveling had the courage of his convictions. While socialists today may have the courage, they certainly lack the convictions. Hesitating now to ally themselves to any one group, lest for expedience they choose to back what our armchair socialists [cartoons of armchair socialists] believe to be an unworthy or divergent cause, they do nothing; and doing nothing they change nothing.
Do we have any right therefore to criticise those Labour Party founders who did by their compromises achieve something? I doubt many of us today could come close to matching even the sheer energy of their daily lives. We still have - just about - the welfare state, [NHS logo] we have (did have) a forty hour week, we have adult suffrage [voting slips]. Yet all those concessions from the system have cost us international socialism.
So do we dramatise Aveling’s life here? [image of stagey Victorian theatre] Do we make his life into a socialist soap opera? Call it An Amoral Moralist after Shaw’s An Unsociable Socialist? [book cover] Or do we further examine Aveling’s thoughts? [portrait]
Aveling’s mental processes however are way beyond our scope. There are so many outdated signifiers meaningless to our latterday mindset. Aveling was a doctor – most of us do not have even his antiquated medical knowledge. [antique stethoscope?] Nor do we have his lifelong enthusiasm for the atheist Shelley. [portrait] As for Aveling’s attitude to women – free love is no longer an issue. The pill [usual blisterpack] has made promiscuity a commonplace, while AIDS and chlymidia have muddied those permissive waters. Aveling [portrait] had an aptitude for other languages – most of us speak only English. [Costa Brava English abroad] And not only did Aveling have a better understanding of Marxism he actually helped translate Das Kapital. [book cover]
Could we make Aveling subject of a musical? Have song titles like ‘Socialism can be fun.’ [doctored clip of various Labour leaders appearing to dance] Should such a musical however become a commercial success, the popular music world being what it is, would make any message cynically self-defeating, would be to let profits exploit him, would offend more people than it persuaded. Like the trendy 1970s boutique that was called Che Guevara. [shot of Kensington High Street] The apolitical, that is the unthinkingly Tory owner couldn’t understand why he kept getting bomb threats.
Let us instead get to the nitty gritty - the infighting of the various socialist camps [banners & logos galore] that were to prove Aveling’s undoing. Not that I want to give ammunition to the enemies of socialism, rather to present a man of ideas [portrait of Aveling] to anyone searching for hope.
As we will be concentrating on 19th century socialists, for the sake of balance assume that the one thing they all agreed on, then as now, was that Tories [footage of lounging parliamentarians] were gluttonous reactionaries. Then as now Tories were petty opportunists who vied only in respectability and its hypocrisies; unthinking, uncompassionate, unimaginative, intolerant, smug, vulgar, unforgiving, overbearing, overweening, warmongering dolts; their fragile self-confidence terrified of anything new. Unlike our latterday Labour Party the socialists of Aveling’s time looked upon the Tories as being like their queen [statue] – emotionally and intellectually deficient, short, stout, ugly and unamused.
[actor assertively to camera]
If you, viewer, have not yet learnt that needless drudgery, poverty and wars of patriotism are a stupid waste of human talents, then do not bother to watch the rest of this series. It will only offend you.
“What’s the betting they don’t keep that last bit in the script.”
He scrolls back up the screen. “Still needs to be punchier. At thirty quid a minute this is too wordy. Too wordy by far.”
He roots around in his beard.
“Needs images. Playlets.”
Taking his hand from his beard he decides to keep on spilling out his research. He can chop the prose later, rechunk parts, reassemble it; shove in repeats of the salient aspects for those slow on the uptake.
© Sam Smith 24th May 2019top
There are those who would seem not to know the crude mechanics of fame (connections, chance). I have heard them scoff at the attempts of those not yet famous. Their scoffing seemed to be saying, “How dare this person like us aspire to be different to us.”
For myself I've never craved pop-star type fame, that intrusive following/adoration of fans. What I've aimed for is the quiet kind of fame that would get my books read. The kind of indoors fame where people would chance upon a photo of me and say, “I thought he'd be much different.” That I'd be more in their image, or a mental image of one of my characters say.
For those writers for whom the very act of writing, of following ideas through the tips of their fingers, point of their pen[cil], is the primary attraction and not a necessary but tiresome step towards performance, even book-signings can be blushingly/stammeringly difficult, especially for us who are not at ease performing. But they have to be undergone, if only for the sake of our publishers, because even a quiet indoors fame requires us to occasionally venture out if we want to sustain our small renown.
As to 'natural' performers, I've been to readings with those circuit poets who have learnt their pieces by heart (including the introductory anecdotes); and every time I've heard them, even years apart, they trot out verbatim the same words/hestitations; and still they call themselves writers. Don't they get tired, I can't help but wonder, of pressing the same audience buttons, get a chuckle here, a sentimental aaaah there?
I have more affinity with those who, paper or book held to their face, stumble over their – not necessarily first time – delivery of their - not necessarily – latest work.
And it is here that we meet with the thin skin required to produce art, a skin sensitive to one's surroundings; and the thick skin required to put one's self – one's work as much as one's physical self – on public display. Here the necessity of bravery, steeling oneself to defy the sneers imaginary or real. Or worse still to behold the turning away indifference, that polite but reluctant putting together of hands... Would be a gross exaggeration to call such a brief clatter applause.
© Sam Smith 6th June 2019