"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
For more information about the books of Nicholas Murray click HERE and access his website

Monday, 17 November 2014

Innovation-lite

This year's £10, 000 Goldsmiths prize "set up to recognise fiction that opens up new possibilities for the novel form" as The Guardian puts it, has just been won by Ali Smith for her novel How to be Both. The previous year, the first of this particular prize, it was won by Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. McBride's novel was originally published by a small press in Norfolk, Galley Beggar Press, and allegedly took nine years to find a publisher.  It has been re-issued by Faber (who presumably had turned it down during that nine year search) and, in spite of its radical formal qualities (essentially a technique of fractured syntax) that might be thought off-putting to the general it appears to be selling very well.

The Poetry Society also has an award which looks as though it is designed to foster innovation, the Ted Hughes Award for new work in poetry which says that it is looking for the poet who has made "the most exciting contribution to poetry this year".  In the words of one of this year's judges, Kei Miller:
"It’s hard to say what I would look for in terms of ‘innovation’. A lot of things are conventionally innovative – a bit of multimedia, a bit of hyperlinks thrown in. Perhaps then I’m just looking to be surprised, in a good way, and by something that accentuates the poetry rather than detracting from it. So much is available to us today – not just technology, but everything in the material world. The truly innovative poet will know how to choose carefully. That’s I’m looking for – careful choices, surprising choices, smart choices."
I must say I like the relaxed tone of this, its recognition that innovation comes in all shapes and sizes. Another judge, Julia Copus, says she is looking for work that "leaves me more keen-sighted, able to see the world newly and distinctly".  But isn't that what most of us thought any work of art in any medium was trying to do?

In a broadly sympathetic review of McBride's novel in the New York Review of Books Fintan O'Toole observed that: "The originality of this method has been greatly overstated – a mark perhaps of how far the mainstream of fiction has drifted from the modernist aesthetic."  He seems to be saying that most current fiction is "conventional" so any attempt to dislocate the form starts to look bold and dangerous. He goes on to say that: "McBride's gamble with the reader is that we will form meaning even when she does not quite give it to us."  This accurately describes my experience in reading the book.  I confess that the method nearly made me stop reading but I was eventually hooked by the compelling power of the story and 'got used to' the formal innovation which perhaps wasn't quite how it should have been.  The story (of childhood rape, a life of casual self-hating sexual encounters on waste ground, the dysfunctional family) was of course just the sort of underclass fable the metropolitan literati loves to read, innovation or no innovation.

I have forgotten who it was who said of experimental writing that the experiment should be over by the time we are invited to read it but I have some sympathy with that idea.  Words like 'experimental', 'avant-garde', 'left-field' are often tendered in a spirit of self-satisfied defiance.  Too many suburban Rimbauds are too quickly pleased with their ground-breaking attempts.  Too many currently vaunted 'modernist' novels simply cannot be weighed in the same scale as Joyce.  The assumption that writing that does not proclaim its innovatory qualities is conservative, traditional, conventional etc etc in my view doesn't follow.  Such limp writing does exist and I am not advocating it but equally the innovation-lite works don't always strike me as an improvement on the jejeune traditionalists.

Which brings me back to the comment of Julia Copus about new work that "leaves me more keen-sighted, able to see the world newly and distinctly".  That seems to me the real 'innovation' that formal experiments are there to enact.  Any artist, in words, music, paint, film, is trying to produce something creative and original which is literally innovative because it makes something new that was not there before.  It makes us see, feel, hear in fresh ways.  There should be no prizes for innovation; there should simply be genuinely new work.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Pelmeni Poets 2nd December: Come Along!

The Pelmeni Poetry Series

Please join us for the sixth in this series of poetry readings
on
Tuesday 2nd December, 2014
at
The Duke of Wellington
119 Balls Pond Road
London N1 4BL

020 7275 7640
6.30pm for 7.00pm
http://www.thedukeofwellingtonn1.com/how-to-find-us/
Featuring the work of
Eve Grubin, Kathryn Maris, Nicholas Murray and Chrissy Williams
Plus Special Guests from Pelmenis Past!
Pelmeni Poetry aims to bring together poets from the US, South America,
Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East to audiences in London, hosting
the best international voices and visions at a variety of venues in the city.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Dylan Thomas, like, wow, could write!

Strolling through Bloomsbury today what should I see, parked in a piece of open space on the very cusp of Fitzrovia, but Dylan Thomas's writing shed.  Except that, er, it wasn't.  It was a faithful reproduction that is being towed around these islands, having started out of course in Wales where I should have caught up with it before.  It is being called The Pop-up Writing Shed and inside (I learned when I read the handout after I had left the scene) visitors were being asked, "in honour of Dylan Thomas' love of words" to help to compile a dictionary of fresh new words.  "Be playful," the Shed's curators say, "be rhythmic, be onomatopoeic, be brave".  Had I noticed this option I think I would have posted to the projected Dictionary of Dylan the word "shamshed".  Instead I pottered amongst the reproductions of letters, photographs, and what may have been actual books from his boathouse.


It was very popular and it was soon difficult to turn round in the small space for fear of treading on eager poetry, or at any rate, Dylan lovers.  One woman expressed astonishment at the sight of his neat, legible handwriting on a letter spread out on the table.  "That's amazing, I didn't think he would write so clearly if he was drunk all the time."  I scanned her face for signs of irony but no, this is what she genuinely believed.  "Perhaps he had an old-fashioned Welsh education, taught how to write in pen and ink," I offered primly.  This earned me an old-fashioned look.  It's true that I may not have been careful enough in my perusal of the shamshed, but I couldn't see any poetic manuscripts about. But in a sense that's not the point.  DT is the point.  He is, as Cliff Richard said of Elvis "a phenomena".  He is popular, unlike most poets, so let's not carp.  And if you are in Fitzrovia this weekend there's a special "Dylan Thomas in Fitzrovia" festival which should be a lot of fun.  But get to the shamshed early before it's crowded out.

Monday, 13 October 2014

War, war

I am looking forward to taking part with some other writers and anthologists in an event on the First World War at the Working Men's College in Camden organised by Lucy Popescu on Thursday 6 November.  I won't actually be talking about my book on the war poets (illustrated here) but will be reading Trench Feet my verse satire on an academic who decides to turn the clich├ęs of the Great War into a TV career opportunity and comes badly unstuck.  I am also talking, but this time about the more serious book, at the Special Forces club on Monday 10th November and I have a forthcoming review in the Times Literary Supplement on some recent books of war poetry.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Brave New Worlds

I hugely enjoyed giving a talk last Friday (10 October) at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature on Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.  I was arguing that his 1932 novel is still highly relevant to current political and cultural debates, but I also was looking at its specific historical moment, at where it came from, at what made Huxley write it.  It was an excellent Cheltenham audience with some very interesting an intelligent questions.


Friday, 19 September 2014

Satirical Poetry: More Please!

Satirical poetry is relatively thin on the ground just now – it can hardly be for lack of provocation – but I have found that my own attempts have been sufficiently well received to make me think that it is worth more writers having a go.  I have tended to think that it works best when using relatively formal metres but of course that isn't a hard and fast rule.  My satire (or do I mean diatribe?) against the Coalition Government, Get Real!, published by Rack Press in 2011 used the very satisfying form perfected by Burns and my most recent one, Trench Feet, also from Rack Press earlier this year, has just earned some kind words from the Poetry Book Society selectors.

The PBS pamphlet choice for this quarter is Holly Hopkins' Soon Every House Will Have One (Smith/Doorstop) but they singled out several runners-up, including Trench Feet about which they wrote in the new PBS Bulletin: "After Get Real!, Murray's 2011 pamphlet satirising the Coalition Government, he now turns his attention to the celebrations of the centenary of the First World War.  Here bright, ambitious academic Jeremy Button, is commissioned to make a TV series focusing on the War Poets, but things do not go according to plan in this witty and erudite lampoon."  I should say that the wildly exaggerated scenes satirising a London literary prize-giving party are drawn from life but, no, I am not going to tell you where and when!

Get Real! is out of print as a pamphlet but the full text is in my Acapulco: New and Selected Poems (Melos Press) and it can be ordered online from Melos.  Trench Feet is still in print and can be ordered online from Rack Press or from poetry-loving bookshops like the London Review Bookshop in London or Foyle's.


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Mass Escape from the Zoo!!!

What is happening?  The thunder of animal hooves rushing down the gangplank from the Ark is being heard everywhere.  Ted Hughes's Bestiary just published is only the latest in a surge of animal poem collections.  I have even contributed to it myself.  Pascale Petit's Fauverie from Seren containing poems sparked by the Paris zoo, John Burnside's latest collection, poets in residence at London Zoo, workshops on animal writing...where will it end? It is good, I suppose, that we are all being tender towards our fellow creatures on this planet.


My collection of animal poems (pictured here) can be ordered online from Melos.