Failing at Figuring Out Fantasy

In a creative writing workshop a few years ago a friend of mine had finally worked up the courage to submit her newest piece.

“So what do we have for us today, Eleanor?” I remember our teaching asking.

“It’s a fantasy epic, about twin sisters learning how to harness their innate auras.”

Our teacher let out a long audible sigh. “Well,” he said, “At least it isn’t zombies.”

As I’ve gotten older I’ve tried to conquer my literary biases. Most of the time it’s a simple matter of finding an author that speaks to the styles and themes that interest you. Even though I found most science fiction to be the equivalent of wading through countless metric tons of techno-babble, there is the rare author that can make me appreciate the inherent advantages that science fiction can give.

But the one egg I haven’t been able to crack is Fantasy. I’ve done my homework – I’ve read Lord of The Rings, dabbled in Harry Potter, even gave Game of Thrones a go. But even in the best of circumstances my response is always an abstract thought rather than a raw emotion. Scenes that have made my friends weep in Harry Potter leave me thinking “Well, that was competently written.” We are apparently on different wavelengths.

And that would be fine, except I like to give rational reasons for the way I feel. I recognize that a memoir is usually a solipsistic journey into the fraught world of internal conflict. Crime fiction appeals to so many of us because it usually posits a way to confront and deconstruct random chaos. Poetry is meant to hang around your mind for weeks on end, its meaning only revealing itself once your subconscious has wrestled it into submission.

But fantasy? I’m still left cold. I can objectively speak to questions of craft, of dramatic stakes, of giving thematic weight to fictonal landscapes. But subjectively? I am completely at a loss.

In discussing this with another writing friend, he noted that his reason for disliking fantasy (and most genre work) is that the trappings often become more important than the characters. Bad writing runs rampant in amateur workshops because people get hung up on the details instead of realizing that, say, there’s no dramatic conflict for the first twenty pages. And I’m willing to buy part of that argument, but even before I started showing up to workshops I had an innate dislike for the world of fantasy. Bad writing or not, my personal feelings towards the genre have very little to do with the fantasy writing (some good, some bad, and some excellent) I’ve seen in workshops.

So let’s try broadening out the question. For those who like to read fantasy, what part of it appeals to you?

Is it the focus on adolescent/teen empowerment? I fucking devour teen fiction (including the horrible stuff), but the second you give Johhny the ability to flick fireballs from his fingers my emotional reader just switches off.

Is it the ability to explore a world and society alien to ours? I somehow managed to make it through 1984’s longwinded historical section (if you’ve read it, you’ll know it) but found Lord of the Rings to be one of the most excruciating reads of my life. No, I do not care who this characters father, mother, and best friend were. Just get on with it, for chrissakes.

Or is it just about the inherent coolness in getting to shoot fireballs out of your fingertips? Is a love for fantasy tied to our childhood? Did I miss out because my mother used to hand me threadbare copies of Nancy Drew mysteries instead of  Pratchett’s Discworld?

One last note to further muddy the waters. This inability to connect with the fantasy genre extends to multiple mediums. Whether its Willingham’s Fables, NBC’s Grimm, orBethesda’s Skyrim my response mirrors the sigh my instructor once gave.

Rich, Alex, I know that this is your guy’s home turf. I’d love to hear your thoughts on why you write fantasy – what drew you towards it in the first place and what’s made you return to it again and again?

Oh, and I should probably mention – Not much a fan of zombies either, cultural zeitgeist be damned.

Steve Timberman

Page vs. Stage


I often find myself wondering about the difference between “poems for the page” and “performance poetry”.


If you go to most “spoken word” performance poetry nights in London, the style of the poetry performed will often be closer to stand-up comedy or rap than it will be to a literary text. Poets will usually perform from memory, and will use gestures or be more obviously performative in their delivery. Whether as an audience member or performer, it involves stepping into a very different world from the world of the poetry which is successful on the literary scene. People like John Cooper Clarke can carve out entire careers as poets without needing books in print as support.


Is it possible to write poems which are successfully memorable in both page and stage environments? Here are some thoughts about what makes a poem work in performance.


(1)   accessibility – there is something about standing in front of a group of people that requires the poet to meet the audience more than half-way and read poems out that are accessible. It’s easier to wrestle your way into a difficult poem on the page when there is time to study, to go back to ponder phrases, to winkle out meanings. In a performance the poet has no such time and leisure in which to charm the audience. The recipient must glean enough satisfaction from the poem on first hearing. (Accessibility in this context tends to depend upon syntax, I think. The complexity of sentence structures, rather than the diction. You can get away with complex word choices in performance if the sentence structures are simple). Does this mean that the page poet cares less about how welcoming their poems are? No – there are simply different expectations about what is reasonable in terms of accessibility. Charles Simic has said of poems: ‘once you read one you have to go back and start reading it again. That’s what a poem does.’ A poem in performance doesn’t have this luxury.

(2)   immediate dramatic impact – similarly, because you only get one bite at the apple on stage, there must be an immediate dramatic pay-off in performance. The audience is paying for material that they can’t carry around with them in their pocket and refer to again, they can only carry a memory of its immediate impact.

(3)   pattern – a poem in performance benefits from some pattern or structure as a kind of scaffold for climbing inside the audience’s ear. The ear (which is naturally inclined to be lazy and must also try to recall 20 or 30 other poems performed only once that evening) suddenly wakes from slumber and pays attention if there is pattern. This means establishing some kind of terrain within the poem which becomes familiar – rhythms, sound effects, patterns of imagery or word choice, structural form. Good performance poetry is about establishing patterns, and possibly then disrupting them as part of the effect.

(4)   mood – Robert Frost said a good poem moves from delight towards wisdom. In a similar way, I’d argue the audience needs to have been charmed early on with entertaining material, before a poet risks their serious material. If they open with a serious, sober poem, the mood in the room shifts, it’s much harder for them to extract full value from light-hearted poems after that. If they read out material that makes the audience feel sad or morbid (an audience with little option but to stay in its seats and endure the poem – they can’t turn the page) it had better be good. That said, it does depend on the poems read out by the previous performer. Maybe the previous poet did all the necessary charming, and a shift in mood, opening with something poignant, becomes effective.

(5)   poems with background stories – a poem with a personal anecdote attached or interesting biographical context can come to life when performed. The story can draw out underappreciated aspects of a page poem. And it strengthens the link between the “I” in the poem and the real person on stage, giving poems greater emotional impact than they would have if read in isolation.

(6)   topicality –subject matter that’s been in the news recently can generate additional interest. When a group of people gather, somehow the collective consciousness in the room responds in a way that is greater than the sum of its parts, like laughing at a joke louder when others are around you laughing too.

(7)   diction – performed poems succeed by relying more on the natural language of verbal conversation. A tendency to use Latinate diction, high-falutin’ terms, or more ambitious /  ostentatious turns of phrase are harder to tolerate when heard live. Poems which unwittingly diverge from ordinary phrasing are harder to connect with live. This is different from poems which deliberately play with unusual or unnatural speech. (For similar reasons, poets are repeatedly advised to read their poems out loud as part of the editing process, to uncover awkward turns of phrase).

(8)   poems which suit the venue – poems that work well in a pub are unlikely to work well in a church or a library setting. If they are, the poet is probably onto something special.


I wonder if we can think of “Page vs. Stage” as similar to the difference between film actors and theatre actors. It’s possible for some people to be good at both types of work. But watching a movie (=reading a poetry book) people can revisit the subtle gestures, the tiny details, on second or third viewing. We therefore appreciate quieter methods. In theatre, the actor’s performance must have a visceral connection that hits the audience in the gut or the drama fails that night. More subtle gestures are less likely to be noticed.


If a poem like Homer’s Iliad can survive initially by recitation alone yet still succeed when scrutinized on the page, is that not the greatest achievement a poem can hope for? Ultimately, a good poem in either context still boils down to the same central contract with the reader: memorability. Don Paterson has said a poem “is no more or less than a little machine for remembering itself”, which I think is a memorably intricate way of reminding us that a poem is a device whose aim is to get into the bloodstream as permanently as possible.


What after all are the great poems of past centuries if they are not poems which are remembered?


– Mike Loveday



Postmodernism at the V&A / Postmodern Literature

A few weekends ago I went to the Postmodernism exhibition at the V&A. It wasn’t very good. I’d even go as far as saying that it was a bit of a let down.  This was partly due to my own overblown expectation, at last some clarity on Postmodernism, and  my own idleness. I had failed to take in the whole of the exhibition title, the V&A’s target audiences and its curatorial style.

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 could just as easily been called, Postmodernism: A bit of bad architecture, awful product design and greed gone mad. Or possibly, Postmodernism: consumerism and popular culture for cokeheads, bankers and other greedy bastards, with the odd bit of visual art ( Jenny Holzer, Laurie Anderson and Robert Rauschenberg) and a subversive musician (David Byrne of Talking Heads)  thrown in, just to remind anyone who has read any theory on postmodernism in arts and culture, that this was the very same subject, on display at the V&A.

It was good to hear again the iconic opening music of  Bladerunner’s soundtrack and to see the flying cars and futuristic-old-meets-new-cityscape (Hong Kong with flying cars in the rain, to anyone who’s been there). Though I don’t recall seeing any mention of Philip K. Dick or his novel  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

In fact there was no real mention or representation of literature in this exhibition at all, other than The Face magazine. Yawn, yawn. More popular culture aimed at teenagers. Don’t get me wrong I loved The Face (as a kid), and the last room of the exhibition;  all record sleeves,  magazines and kraftwerk,  did take me back to my brother’s bedroom, sitting listening to music on his head phones, whilst watching him put on eyeliner. But come on, has the world really gone so mad, that so much value is given to things that kids, with juvenile tastes and experiences, want to buy? – Is youth culture really where it’s at? – I guess that’s a rant for another time.

So as way of righting a wrong,  I thought it would be fun to put together my own Top Ten Postmodern Literature, Classics.. or stuff I read in the 90s, that I think should-be on display alongside The Face at the Postmodernism: Whatever, exhibition.

Not in prize order. I’m just writing them down as I think of them…

1. American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis

2. Highrise – JG Ballard

3.Blood and Guts in High School, Kathy Acker

4. The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter

5. Virtual Light, William Gibson

6. Generation X: Tale for an Accelerated Culture, Douglas Coupland

7. Cock and Bull, Will Self

8. Life Afer God, Douglas Coupland

9. Time’s Arrow, Martin Amos

1o. The Handmaids Tale, Margaret Attwood

Please feel free to add to my list if you wish 

– Alison Gibb

Alison Gibb

Alison Gibb

CONGRATULATIONS to Alison on her debut pamphlet,’Parallel to Red in Chorus’, launched at a wonderful event last evening as part of the OXFAM poetry reading series.

Alison Gibb is a poet living in Cambridge. (b.1973).

She holds a BA (hons) in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College (1998) and a MA in Writing Poetry from Kingston University, where she is currently completing a MFA in Creative Writing.

Her poems have appeared in a number of small arts and poetry publications.  The Knives Forks and Spoons Press published her first pamphlet of poetry Parallel To Red In Chorus, in August 2011.

Alison is interested in the shared creative practices and theories within contemporary art practices and poetics.

Earlier this year she participated in Beyond Text: Making and Unmaking Text Across Performance Practices and Theories Conference, and continues to collaborates with artists and choreographers to produce live performances and poetic texts.

Title: ‘Parallel To Red In Chorus’

Poet: Alison Gibb

Pages: 29

Publisher: Knives, Forks and Spoons Press

Review _| Volatile Rune


Parallel To Red In Chorus is a sequence of poems that follows a journey between London and Isle of Skye, via Cambridge. Poems happen in and out of real time, generating new narratives and abstract forms. Text from external sources including: photography manuals, song lyrics, road signs and chemistry are woven into the fabric of the poems to create a multiple layered text of shifting surfaces, images and meanings.

Shared word from Alison on writing it:

I originally wrote Parallel To Red In Chorus for the creative submission for my MA dissertation. After spending a frustrating second year on the MA trying to overcome more traditional approaches to poetry and struggling to carve out a place for my own writing, I finally was able to push through creatively with this piece and to write something experimentally, poetic and hopefully accessible to all types of curious readers.

I was greatly encouraged and supported by my supervisor Todd Swift, who introduced me to some wonderful poets – theorist including Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein and Veronica Forrest-Thomson. Our supervisions tended to focus on the academic side of the dissertation, the essay, what I was reading and how this could inform and develop my creative practice. Towards the end, Todd turned the pressure up a notch and had me send him poetry everyday for about a week, to make sure I was producing work. It was somewhere in this constant haze of reading, thinking and writing (a poetic state you could say) that my own writing emerged and took off.

I finally got hold of what the potential for poetry could be. And it is this potential for poetic activity in language, which continues to excite me and compels me to write.

Shared words from Alison on how she got published:

‘In Feb 2011 I took part in The Beyond Text Conference, where I presented and displayed ‘Parallel To Red In Chorus’. It was well received and I met some really inspiring writers and artists. Following the conference the organizers kindly recommended me to Alec Newman of Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, who invited me to submit the piece for his consideration. Happily, he liked the poems and offered to publish it as its own single pamphlet.

 Beyond Text: Making and Unmaking Text, Conference 2011

‘Parallel to Red in Chorus’ is now available to purchase at:

Elphicks, 160 Columbia Road, London, E2 7RG


Knives, Forks and Spoons Press

Or directly from Alison:

This beautiful pamphlet was launched at the latest in the series of OXFAM Poetry Readings, hosted by Todd Swift, sponsored by Kingston Writing School, at OXFAM Books and Music, Marylebone High St. The event also featured Mark Scott, over from America; Jill Battson, from Canada by way of France; Grahame Davies from Wales; and London’s own John Muckle. Also from Kingston Writing School: Venetia Adamson, Sam Cole-Rogers, Neil Gregory, Mia Jerome, Kim Lockwood, and Maria-Faith Mendoza.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


Translating a book to movie presents its own unique challenges to story. There are problems concerning how to be faithful to the characters and plot. But the medium itself has its own unique challenges. Just as a single word can change the meaning within a sentence—and through that the meaning of a paragraph, a chapter, a character, the story—the way that a movie scene is edited can affect the same things.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is about a mole hunt within the highest levels of the British intelligence. The original novel is by John le Carré, and the recent movie adaptation is directed by Thomas Alfredson. The climax of both novel and movie is when Smiley, the awkward middle-aged retired intelligence officer, discovers just exactly who the mole is. The climax of the movie is relatively faithful to the same scene in the novel, except in one very important way.


In the novel, we have both Smiley’s point of view, and the point of view of Smiley’s assistant Guillam. Smiley discovers who the mole is when he hears the mole’s voice through a planted microphone, and Guillam makes the discovery a few seconds later when they both enter the room the mole is in. We are given Smiley’s disbelief, his “angry doubt,” his resentment, how he is “deceived in love and impotent in hate” at this mole’s betrayal of him both as a man and as a spy. Guillam’s feelings are simpler, but still given to us: Guillam had looked up to the mole as a role model, only to discover that he had been responsible for the deaths of people under Guillam’s command.


The movie stays with this general sequence of events—Smiley hears the voice, Guillam makes the discovery when he enters the room. But in the movie, it is not clear whose voice we are hearing, nor are we shown Smiley’s reaction to it. Instead, we are given the discovery solely from Guillam’s point of view in a slow-motion camera pan showing a stunned Guillam, a very calm Smiley already present in the room and, finally, the mole himself. The emotions are no longer there, the physical action of entering the room is absent, and we lose the point of view of Smiley entirely.


The feeling we are left with is one of being unsatisfied. Such a crucial moment in the story has been reduced to merely being glossed over. The buildup is left unfulfilled. While the time devoted to the reveal is proportionately more in the movie compared to a few quick pages in the novel, it is the novel that has the emotional punch.


I have few complaints about the movie otherwise: the acting is superb, especially Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, and Mark Strong, and Gary Oldman certainly gets a nod as Smiley. It also stays relatively faithful to the overall storyline, though some arbitrary changes are made that only take up more screen time than necessary. But if there is a cinematic rival to le Carré’s novel, it is not this movie but the BBC’s 1979 adaptation with Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley.


One word of warning: if you plan to see the movie, don’t watch the miniseries first. While Gary Oldman is wonderful, there’s no comparison to Alec Guinness’s awkward, aging, yet brilliant Smiley.


–Alexandra Little


A (sort of) love story … a (sort of) literature …


A (sort of) love story … a (sort of) literature …


Ok, so I wanted to talk a little about Andrew Haigh’s film Weekend. Whilst this is not intended to be a review of the film, as such, I feel a need to talk about it before I reach my point.

Whilst I sat and watched this film in a cinema in Covent Garden I was sure that the vast majority of the audience were of the LGBT community, which was of no shock to me. However, what did…perhaps shock is the wrong word… but what did take me unexpectedly were the universal themes at work in the film and its characters, regardless of the main relationship being that between two men.

The film centres around two guys, Glen and Russell, excellently portrayed by Chris New and Tom Cullen in an unassumingly honest and gentle way. To call it a romance would probably not sit well, nor be the intention of the writer/director, but it is a (sort of) love story nonetheless. The two meet in a bar one night and what both anticipate to become a one night stand evolves over the course of one weekend into something unexpected – a moment of ecstasy one night transverses into questions of love, windows of opportunity and relationships.

Waking up the next morning, still half naked and in the sheets from the night before, the awkwardness of the situation is soon extrapolated by Glen shoving a Dictaphone into Russell’s face and informing him he is part of an ‘art project’. He then asks Glen numerous questions about the previous evening and records his responses, saying he will become part of the art if he “makes the grade”.

The morning after transcends into an afternoon, then another evening, and melds into a whole weekend of conversation, introverted self discovery and sexual exploration. Whilst neither of the two seems to know what they want from the other, a bond nonetheless forms, which is complicated by the fact that Glen is leaving the next day to join an art course in America, where he will be staying indefinitely to pursue his career and ‘art’.

“…when you first sleep with someone you don’t know, you’re like the blank canvas, and it gives you an opportunity to project onto that canvas who you want to be”

We also discover over conversations between the two that Russell has a list of all the guys he has slept with over the years, coupled with a paragraph of writing detailing their ‘coming out’ story. A subject which fascinates him due to the fact that he was a foster child who never had true ‘parents’ and so never experienced ‘coming out’ to his family. In missing this gay rite-of-passage in his life, he seems to be collecting the experiences of everyone else he meets in compounding his own homosexual identity.

Whilst the film is a liberal, artsy conversational piece, it is quite unassuming and not in-your-face as might be expected, nor does it feel forced or claustrophobic, but holds a great and touching realism, with some beautiful shots that would make excellent still photos. Without then giving away the end of the film for those who haven’t seen it, it then turns to the question of whether the two leave their relationship as Glen leaves for America or whether they want to dive into the depths of love out of lust. What could be a typical run through the rain to stop the other from leaving, is actually a much more realistic and touching depiction of fighting over your head and your heart, believing in opportunity, fate, and the desire for love.

It is Glen’s art project and Russell’s list that have stayed with me from the film in terms of myself as a writer. Since I saw the film a few weeks ago, it has inspired me to look at some of the writing and other things I have done in my life that I have not before considered to be ‘literature’ or ‘art’; not least because I myself have a list or log very similar to Russell’s of the people I have slept with. Whilst my list does not chronicle the ‘coming out’ stories of its inhabitants, it does provide snapshots of me, my life and my sexual identity. I have written many poems and short stories and even used my experiences as catalysts for longer prose pieces, but it wasn’t until watching this film and feeling the beauty of both Glen’s Art and Russell’s list that I looked at my log from a new perspective. I actually came home that night and read my log with new eyes, and for the first time it was not just a list, not just a chronicle of parts of my life, but I actually saw it as ‘literature’, as ‘Art’… even though perhaps not something I will ever want to share publically, but still…

It is a question that always has me pondering, and has always had thinkers wondering over the centuries, but what is it that makes something suddenly become ‘literature’ or ‘art’?

Here is the trailer, and if you haven’t seen the film, I would strongly recommend it, and not just to the LGBT community…


  • Rich Mallender =]


Homeland Prologue


A Defence of Television as Great Art


Every September, television networks begin their public ritual of throwing dozens of new shows on the air and seeing which ones, if any, manage to hang on. Last year was a particularly rough year for scripted television; no network walked away with anything that could be called a smash hit. NBC’s American Idol knock-off, The Voice, was the best pickings in a very shoddy harvest. Out of five “on the bubble” (shows whose renewal is uncertain until the very last minute) shows, FOX declined to renew a single one. And on cable networks, things haven’t exactly been much better – ask any avid television watcher to tell you about FX’s Terriers for that story.


So every September, I have my own ritual. Until a new show is picked up for an entire season, I won’t watch a single episode. This ends up meaning that I’m a bit like the guy who always shows up two hours into a good party. I’m never there when the hosts are vacuuming up the floor, when the cheese poofs are still in the pantry and the beer cans haven’t yet been thrown into the QuickThaw freezer. The good news is that I avoid getting attached to shows that I objectively know won’t be around this time next year. With its lavish sets, frothy romance, and swinging sixties backdrop. I avoided Pan Am like a man avoiding the score to last night’s match. Last week ABC announced that Pan Am had been pulled from the schedule. I avoided another heartbreaker.


The trade-off with my “No New Shows for You!” declaration is that I’m perpetually playing catch up with fan communities. In ye olden times when there were only a few major networks, you were left with two options – tune in to find out if Ross and Rachel were back together, or hear about it the next day from your coworkers. Because the internet moves so fast, even showing up a year late to discuss great television is a lost opportunity. In 2006 I waited until late April to tune in to CBS’ How I Met Your Mother, despite it featuring actors I had enjoyed in other projects (Jason Segel) and an immediately appealing premise (A male version of Sex and The City). Hopping online, ranting and raving about how great and funny and insightful this little gem of a show was, I suddenly felt regret. Like when I first listened to Bob Dylan at 16, I wondered why I hadn’t listened to Bob Dylan at 15.


While living in England I’ve heard a few Brits disparage the American model of television, citing the endless ream of shows that have stayed on the air far past their prime. (Welcome to the party, U.S. The Office!) Why can’t anyone realize that every aspect of the show has degraded, that the whole product whiffs of tired setups and re-heated plotting? Because it goes beyond innovation or raw objective measurings of quality. It even goes beyond our affection for a particular character or location. It is about maintaining a relationship, a facet of our lives that is as ritualized as kneeling in the pews on Sunday or grabbing a whole wheat bagel on Wednesday.


As 24 used to announce in its opening, events occur in real time. Television thrives on dependability, on knowing that every week you’ll get to spend a little more time with the same group of people. Whether they’re fictional doctors, cops, lawyers or criminals, their purpose in our own lives is closer to a support group. And you can’t start forming that relationship unless you’re taking part in it week after week.


Originally, this post was meant to be about why I broke my self-impposed rule to watch Showtime’s Homeland from the series premire. I was going to talk about the way it expertly creates nuanced characters, instantly sets up dramatic stakes with a few short scenes, its ambiguous and enigmatic portrayal of The War on Terror. And I will write about all those things in time. But before I did that, I wanted to write about Taking the Leap.


All of this probably reads like hyperbole, trying to conflate a commercial product with a living, breathing relationship. But for any of us who have called their parents two time zones away to tell them who got voted out of the tribe, who have spent nights curled up on a couch with a lover while Gil Grissom catches another killer, who have held weekly viewing parties for multiple season of Top Chef – we understand that this is what culture is meant to do. It is the glue that binds us together, that taps us on the shoulder and reminds us that we are not alone. Isn’t that what great art is meant to do?


Next Week: Why Showtime’s Homeland is Worth Investing In.



Steve Timberman



talking pictures

This week I’ve been thinking about poetry inspired by paintings, for two reasons.

1 – because I’ve been reading Nancy Gaffield’s amazing book of poems inspired by Hiroshige’s 19th Japanese woodcuts, Tokaido Road.

2 – because we had a class on Thursday with James Byrne (poet and editor of the Wolf magazine) on this topic, “ekphrastic” literature – written texts which repond to art (music, photos, movies, sculpture, paintings etc).

So here are some verbal doodles on this topic:

(a) writing a poem (I’ll say poem, but you can substitute prose here for the rest of this) which only describes the picture (or movie / sculpture / photo etc) faithfully is dead boring for the audience or reader.

(b) but! writing a poem which “only describes the picture faithfully” is fundamentally impossible. you have to be selective – you can’t capture everything that’s there, plus the subjective eye naturally interprets and has biases.

(c) It is however always fundamentally possible to remain dead boring even when being selective. A good poem responding to visual art has to be descriptive and then do something more. it has to go somewhere inspired, or set up an interesting relationship with the painting. otherwise people might just as well enjoy the artwork, there’s no need for the poem.

(d) the word “correspondence” seems relevant. the poem shouldn’t correspond to the artwork it’s describing (shouldn’t be its verbal equivalent). it should correspond with it (should be in some kind of written dialogue with it).

(e) sometimes what’s left out, what doesn’t get transferred from the artwork into the poem, can be the most interesting part of the poem.

(f) but how authentic does the description have to be, I wonder? is it ok to deliberately overlook something visually important? is it ok to invent things?

Here are some of the things we might consider when selecting material in response to a piece of visual artwork.

  • Would you want to say something that’s factually inaccurate – Look at the elephant in that Rothko abstract! That’s artistically insincere, surely?

(and yet, with a widely recognisable painting, the Mona Lisa say, one that doesn’t require reference to the picture for most readers, a poem that contains a “lie” might become the most important part of the poem, the key to making it work as a poem).

  • What about something that’s only arguably inaccurate – “Look at the pink elephant in the painting!”

(there really is an elephant, except the painter painted one that’s really white or pinky-white, not pink). Is that insincere or are we allowed some creative licence? (Maybe, because of subjectivity, there has to be some leeway. maybe the poet is colour blind. maybe the rest of us are colour blind). how does it matter to authenticity if two writers decide to interpret the same pink elephant differently? “Look at the embarrassed pink elephant!” vs. “Look at the nervous pink elephant!”

  • Do you want to make the picture come alive in words in a way that’s impossible in paintings?

See how the pink elephant’s legs move awkwardly as it runs!”
Is that somehow inauthentic if it’s a poem about a painting?

  • Do you want to imagine a backstory or wider social context?

the poor pink elephant, that wild species so endangered now because of pink elephant hunting, that its beautiful ivory is even more valuable”

  • Do you want to imagine an object or something that’s just off the edge of the picture, outside its frame?

Look! here comes the cash-strapped game hunter arriving with his pink elephant trap.

Look at the elephant calf, lagging behind, about to be caught!”

  • Or maybe write about something within the frame but not visible without a 360 degree view – i.e. there are several elephants facing away from the viewer, but you still want to say “Look at the elephant which has no tusks!”

Is that inauthentic?

There might be examples of greater or lesser authenticity: you might describe the elephant’s face that’s not visible and give a description of its trunk – we know it’s got to be there, but it’s not actually visible in the painting because of the angle. Is that somehow inauthentic too?

  • Lastly what about the writer themselves – how much of the “I” that’s looking and writing do you choose to put into the poem, explicitly? (at some level, even implicitly, the observing “eye” is always there)

How heavily do you feed in your personal reactions and beliefs about the artwork?

And / or do you springboard into a connected personal story, or reflection?

Do you use a (character/persona) “I” voice that’s commenting in a way that’s slightly different from your own personal beliefs?

Mike Loveday

Michael Loveday – ‘He Said / She said’




Michael Loveday

CONGRATULATIONS to Michael Loveday on the launch of his debut pamphlet, He Said / She Said’.

Michael studied English Literature at Merton College, Oxford.  He is editor-publisher of ’14’, an illustrated magazine devoted to sonnets,
ghost-sonnets and stranger fourteen-line poems. His poetry and prose appears
in many publications. His debut pamphlet, ‘
He Said/She Said’ was published
by HappenStance in July, 2011.

He is completing an MFA in Creative Writing at Kingston University.

Michael Loveday

‘He Said / She Said’
28 pages of poems

The pamphlet describes a faltering relationship between two people of different nationalities (Polish and British), and explores culture, language and otherness through that relationship. The sequence, like the title suggests, is about opposites (male / female, private / public, sameness / difference, remembering / forgetting), but the main emphasis of the pamphlet is about love and loss. And my grand theory is that maybe those two things – love and loss – aren’t opposites.

For more info on the pamphlet, and to purchase it online:

The pamphlet was launched at the latest in the series of OXFAM Poetry Readings, hosted by Todd Swift, sponsored by Kingston Writing School, at OXFAM Books and Music, Marylebone High St. The event also featured Annie Freud, Ilya Kaminsky, Todd Colby, Khin Aung Aye (James Byrne translating).

The next OXFAM reading features Denise Riley, David Lehman, and Todd Swift, launching his new collection, England Is Mine.





Paul Maliszewski – Reading List

Paul Maliszewski

PAUL MALISZEWSKI is a writer of short stories, criticism, and essays. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Paris Review, and The Pushcart Prize anthologies; as well as in Granta, One Story, BOMB and The Baffler.

Paul Maliszewski also edited an issue of McSweeney’s (2002), Paper Placemats (2004), and two issues of Denver Quarterly about real and imagined places (2004), as well as a forthcoming issue of J&L Illustrated. He is currently working on a book with photographer Steve Featherstone about New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell.

Paul lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and son, whom he drives crazy, and his old cat, who drives him crazy, not that that evens it out.


Fiction –

Prayer and Parable (2011) – short stories

Non-fiction –

Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders, (2009) – a collection of essays

Paul Maliszewski was one of the first residents at Kingston University’s MFA program in 2009, with Lynne Tillman and Steve Erickson.

Paul’s Recommended Reading

‘Some books, in the order of how I thought of them:’



William Gaddis, JR

Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

Melanie Rae Thon, In This Light

Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman

Robert Walser, Microscripts

Grace Paley, The Little Disturbances of Man

David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress

Tibor Fischer, The Thought Gang

Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

Aleksandar Hemon, The Question of Bruno



Nicholson Baker, The Size of Thoughts

Renata Adler, Canaries in the Mineshaft

William Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life

André Schiffrin, The Business of Books

Michael Martone, Racing in Place



David Berman, Actual Air

Laura Sims, Stranger

An interview with Paul Maliszewski:

Another interview, with Scott Bradfield participating:

A third interview, marred only by its complete lack of participation by Scott Bradfield:

An annotated playlist of music inspired by Scott Bradfield:

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