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October 2014

GUEST BLOG: Poetry and art - a wartime romance
17th October 2014 - 12 Midnight Christina Spens Read more »


Christiana Spens
is the Director of 3:AM Press/The Blue Pavillion, who publish paperbacks and artists' books, including a series of illustrated short stories. She has illustrated most of the 3:AM Press covers and has also provided illustrations for Galley Beggar Press. She is also the author of The Wrecking Ball, Death of a Ladies' Man (both fiction), illustrated title The Socialite Manifesto and a book of art and poetry called The Drone Age.

 

Here she looks at the important relationship between books and the artwork that adorns them, exploring some of the many factors and influences that jacket designers may bear in mind.

 

 

DuchampWhen I was 18, and at high school in Memphis, Tennessee for a year, I ventured up to New York City during Spring Break, ostensibly for some interview or other. It was then that I was lucky enough to stumble into an exhibition at the New York Public Library: French Book Art (Livres d'Artistes): Artists and Poets in Dialogue, which I then reviewed for Studio International in one of my first forays into journalism.

The show focused on the post-Second World War period of book art and collaboration in Paris, and the way in which poetry and art, together, were a response to the brutality and chaos of war. 126 artists' books were exhibited, showing how, as I put it then anyway, 'the poet needed the artist to elaborate his meaning in visual terms - and the artist needed a spark of inspiration... They needed each other equally. Amid the devastation of war, artists and poets recognized the most essential front against absolute destruction - human solidarity.'

 

I was at an impressionable and idealistic age, and I'm glad that was the exhibition I wandered into at that time. It was a turning point in my own development, as well as the beginning (or a first kiss, anyway) of a romance with artists and ideas that have become a lifelong love affair. I could never choose, at school, between writing and drawing, between politics and art, and though I assumed that eventually I would have to make a choice, to this day I am still balancing them all. Juggling a PhD on political violence and propaganda, with running a small publishing company (3:AM Press), and continuing my own writing and drawing, I find the ideas and ideals I came across in that 2006 exhibition more pertinent than ever.


The key to understanding how writing and art can work together is of course contingent on the particular project or function: illustrating book covers for short stories can seem miles apart from the elevated, celebrated collaborations of world famous painters and poets, or the use of art and / or poetry to respond the political disasters. But some key lessons apply to them all.

 

In book illustration, for example, the task of producing a cover for a story can spawn a minefield of problems and potential dramas. Various issues that need to be resolved include: does the illustration fit with the rest of the list? Will the cover help the book sell? Does the cover match the story, or rather, whose interpretation or experience of the story does it most match? Whose should it match - the author's? The publisher's? The illustrator's? The potential market's? And, talking of preferences, is the cover political? And are those politics (whether sexual, racial, or otherwise) suited to the story, the author, the publisher and so on? Whose politics matter most? Whose style matters most?


Passport to PimlicoClearly it is an effort to try to please everyone, and an effort that is often in vain. How we experience fiction, especially, is necessarily subjective, and so trying to produce a cover that can appeal to or satisfy all is a complicated task. Having experienced the process from the view of publisher, illustrator and novelist (as well as enthusiastic buyer of books), I have felt the frustration that these dramas can cause from each side - though mostly in the illustrator's role, I have to say, as it is hard to work tirelessly only for someone to complain. But that comes with the territory! Certainly the best part of juggling various roles has been the insight gained into the process as a whole, and the realization, ultimately, that those ideas explained in the New York Public Library were right: that collaboration can be wonderful, for all its inherent difficulties, and that dialogue is essential if it is ever to work.

 


My best experience of collaboration has been in the production of a chapbook for the exhibition, Passport to Pimlico, curated by Lana Locke this year. Though in the beginning we had grander ideas for the project, Darran Anderson and myself ended up producing a book, combining his poetry and my artwork, which was given out at the May Day exhibition in London, where a utopian space was attempted in homage to the film of the same name, where a small community locked out the state to create their own self-governed world. Darran is from Derry, and I was studying the Troubles at the time, and so Lana's project naturally reminded us of Free Derry Corner - a section of the city that was closed off and self-governed until it was dismantled by British troops in the early 1970s. Free Derry Corner was itself inspired by a similar exercise in Berkley, California, in the 1960s, experimenting with self-government and protesting the government also.

 

So we took on a similar continuation of that idea, though in the end it did not take up the side of a house, as we had first hoped. In another type of collaboration, I found out I was newly pregnant just before the exhibition, and so we had to abandon ideas of painting You Are Now Entering Free London onto a house in Pimlico, due to the confinements of morning sickness. My father had also died a few weeks earlier, so funeral costs and disarray made an artistic jaunt South seem unrealistic. Nevertheless, the collaboration happened, in a smaller, less expensive form: a chapbook, with the idea taking up only an A5 page, and Darran's poetry within.

It was with some amusement, then, a few months on, that I re-read my old review of the French Book Art exhibition in New York. Having experienced the cross-section of art and literature in myriad ways, my idealism has not changed, really, from that inspired by Magritte, Picasso, and Mallarmé eight years ago. It made me remember the root of their inspiration, and so ours: that even in the midst of death and malaise, art can and should happen. As Martin Amis said recently, poetry did not stop after the Holocaust; it was not even quashed at Auschwitz.
Art and literature are needed more than ever when the world becomes unbearable, and whom we love are lost; collaboration, and dialogue, are how they happen, because they are at the heart of all art. So from the sometimes tiresome difficulties of actually producing books (and their covers), to the exciting collaborations between politics, art and life, we would be wise to remember our forebears, and their original courage and artistic inspiration in the face of life's difficulties.


Visit Christiana's website

 

A book is for life, not just for GCSE
14th October 2014 - 12 Midnight Charlotte Pope Read more »

 

The choice of what children should be given to read by their teachers always provokes ferocious debate, as well all know how some of them will resonate with us for the rest of our lives. But the most important thing, Charlotte Pope from our Bristol Cabot Circus branch reminds us, is to encourage young readers to carry on that journey of discovery for themselves.

 

 

Of Mice and MenThe books we are forced to read at school can help shape our literary tastes for years to come. Without GCSE English Literature, how many teenagers would put down Divergent and voluntarily pick up a copy of Of Mice and Men? We discover Shakespeare for the first time sat at desks on plastic chairs, highlighting passages and soliloquies. Without school, a lot of great literature would pass us by.

 

For me, English Literature lessons could brighten a long, boring day. I'd hurry from an hour puzzling over algebra, delighted to finally be back in a world I understood. Ever since I was small I have adored books; school nourished that love. Would I have been such a bookworm without the primary school teacher who gave me her children's old books to read? Would I have gone on to be engrossed in the Harry Potter series without the substitute teacher who read aloud to us from the opening chapter of Philosopher's Stone?

 

It was a passion that stayed with me all through my school years, leading me to study English Literature at A-Level: this was where my literary education really took hold.

 

Without my AS Level coursework, I doubt I would ever have been prompted to pick up anything by Margaret Atwood. We were reading a book called The Handmaid's Tale, taking it in turns to read passages aloud in the tiny class of only four students, all girls. I discovered a book that would massively open my eyes to contemporary literature, and dystopian fiction. The character of Offred was a non-entity, we did not know her name, and we only knew snippets of her past, but she leapt off the page, demanding for her story to be heard.

 

The novel is set in the future, in the dark land of Gilead. Due to a massive decline in the birth rate, certain measures have been taken to ensure that the population continues. After years of sexism and cruelty to women, the land became highly religious and conservative. But the attempts to 'protect' women have only hindered them more. Offred is a handmaid. Her only job, as a fertile woman, is to reproduce. When she has had her baby she will move onto the next privileged family, and start all over again. Offred's small daughter was snatched from her arms, and she has no idea where her husband is alive or dead. But in the hell of her forced imprisonment, Offred somehow manages to keep her mind.

 

The book was utterly astounding, and probably the first example of real feminist literature I had ever read; and I was going to get to analyse and write about it for coursework! We could choose any other novel we liked to compare it with; I chose another novel set in a dangerous future, A Clockwork Orange. I got an A.

 

 

The Tiger Who Came to TeaWithout school, so many children may completely pass books by. If they do not live in a house filled with books, how are they expected to feel encouraged to even pick up a copy of Dickens or Tolstoy? School introduces books as a gateway into worlds of wonder. From the age of four or five when you sit cross-legged on the carpet of the 'reading area', mouth agape as you listen to the story of The Tiger Who Came to Tea or Funnybones, you discover how incredible books are. I still read We're Going on a Bear Hunt with the exact same rhythm as the teacher who read it aloud to me.

 

I think that everybody remembers at least one book they studied in their school days, whether it was the ubiquitous Shakespeare, To Kill a Mockingbird or Jane Austen. The fact that the book is nearly always remembered just proves how much of an impact our school reading can have on us growing up. It can introduce us to an author or a genre that we will love for the rest of our days. It can give us the courage to pick up a book that usually you'd never dream of reading.

 

Would I be a bookseller without all of those wonderful English teachers I had? It's difficult to say. It often seems like I emerged from the womb with a book in hand; I can't remember a time that I haven't loved books. But if I had attended schools that weren't so passionate about reading, my fascination with literature could have been snuffed out at an early age like a candle. I am therefore, forever grateful, that I received such a rich literary education.

 

 

GUEST BLOG: Floats like a lonely cloud, stings like a bee
6th October 2014 - 12 Midnight Declan Ryan Read more »

 

It would be easy to assume that there is little crossover between the worlds of poetry and boxing, but as Declan Ryan - who features a series of poems on boxing in his newly published contribution to the Faber New Poet Pamphlet series - explains, pugilism draws on qualities that many poets seek to understand.

 

 

On BoxingBoxing, to anyone unfamiliar with that particular 'sweet science', may seem little more than a brutal sort of pornography, a celebration of violence, an archaic throwback even. It does have an interesting relationship with time - more on that later - but to think of it as outmoded or uncivilised is to miss the point entirely. And anyway, as Joyce Carol Oates pointed out in her extraordinary On Boxing, 'Boxing is about being hit rather more than it is about hitting, just as it is about feeling pain, if not devastating psychological paralysis, more than it is about winning.'

 

I've been working on a sequence of poems to do with boxing for some time, one of which has just been published in my debut pamphlet, and while it's never a great idea to investigate one's motives too fully there are a number of reasons why boxing appeals to me as a subject. The first, and perhaps most important, is that boxing seems to me a rare place in which the ruinously modish tendency towards irony can gain no foothold. Peter Cook noted, following the satire boom in the 1960s, that 'Britain is in danger of sinking giggling into the sea'. Where once to satirise or ironise was to be subversive, or radical, in the landscape as it is today - one littered with groaningly tedious panel shows, comments pages and Twitter 'wags' - it appears that the rhetorical mode of much cultural media discussion is that of the arena-friendly stand-up. The default tone is one of a jaded non-commitment that fears feeling; dressing up conservatism and insecurity as a superior sort of lifestyle choice, in which troublesome things such as deeply-held convictions or non-ironic declarations of love appear as anachronistic as grainy footage of Rocky Marciano training in an aeroplane hangar. In the words of a far more accomplished sort of comic, Stewart Lee, the last taboo left to us appears, at times, to be 'a man trying to do something sincerely and well'.

 

Not so in boxing. The training and discipline required to prepare for a fight are more onerous than the fight itself, and to arrive at a point where you're standing near-naked under lights as blows are aimed at your head by someone equally well-prepared is to enter a world in which irony's 'get-out' of 'well, I didn't mean it anyway' cannot be resorted to. That discipline is key, as are those exposing lights. Feeling, passion and our old friend 'devastating psychological paralysis' are no good for poems without the leavening influence of control. Poems without restraint are like fighters who punch themselves out in the first round: fun for a few moments perhaps but ultimately naïve and self-thwarting. There are parallels to be drawn between the experience of watching a fight and reading the work of a great 'confessional' such as Robert Lowell - the way in which one is turned into a voyeur, the way one witnesses someone 'not avoiding injury to others/not avoiding injury to myself' as Lowell writes in 'The Dolphin'. I wouldn't want to go too far down the road of 'boxing as metaphor for poetry' however because that would be to imply, perhaps, that boxing isn't already poetry enough, or that fighters need someone to articulate anything for them that the bodily genius of their careers hasn't said already.

 

ZaireTime's function in boxing is another major attraction. Great fighters achieve some secular version of sainthood and immortality, with their names and victories perennially evoked - it would be a rare occasion that a fighter leaning on the ropes did so without the spectre of Ali in Zaire being mentioned by an effusive commentator, say. But the past's ability to remain present goes deeper than that - young fighters learn from their trainers but also from their predecessors, both living and on tape, even as they look to overthrow those who've gone immediately before en route to the top. But for improved nutrition and conditioning the sport hasn't changed all that much; the fundamental tenets endure. The great remain living examples, and in the experience of watching them fight they live again, perpetually rising from the canvas - 'getting up when they can't', to paraphrase Jack Dempsey's definition of a champion. To be a fighter is to be brave not only physically, risking actual harm, but to risk existentially too. To drive oneself towards realising the limits of your capabilities, to not avoid suffering but rather learn how to endure it and continue, to commit to something knowing a single error can result in catastrophic failure. These all seem noble impulses at a time when so much 'experimentation' or 'daring' involves little more than listing things one shouldn't care about, or parodying them so accurately as to merely reinforce their unhelpful presence.

Declan will be among the poets appearing at a special event at the Faber & Faber offices on Monday 20th October; more details here

 

 

GUEST BLOG: I want my opera house!
1st October 2014 - 12 Midnight Jacques Testard Read more »

 

Jacques Testard's experiences as co-founder of literary journal The White Review and as a commissioning editor at Notting Hill Editions led him to feel that there's a demand for serious and intelligent writing that British publishers aren't fully satisfying.

 

The result was Fitzcarraldo Editions, set up with the intention of a work of fiction and an extended essay three or four times a year. With the first titles, Zone by Mathias Enard and Memory Theatre by Simon Critchley, now available instore, Jacques explains what to expect from the book world's newest indie publisher.

 

 

FitzcarraldoOne of my favourite films tells the story of a man who wants to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle more than anything in the entire world. To raise the considerable amounts of money required to build the opera house, he embarks on a hare-brained scheme to claim an isolated parcel of rubber trees in between two tributaries of the Amazon, one of which is inaccessible due to rapids, the other because of a hostile indigenous tribe defending its territory. Undeterred, our hero recruits a crew, sails upriver, accidentally cons the indigenous tribe into believing he is a God by playing them opera from a gramophone as he sails past them, and has them drag his 320-ton steamer over a muddy hillside and down the other side into the rapids, which lead back upriver towards Iquitos. Fitzcarraldo, as he is called, is almost certainly insane, his grand plan almost certainly doomed to failure. Almost certainly, not definitely.

 

Naming a publishing house after this film could be construed as a not-so-subtle metaphor on the idiocy of printing and selling books in this day and age. I disagree entirely: I just think it's a good name. And I decided to launch Fitzcarraldo Editions this year because, very simply, I believe there is space in UK trade publishing for a serious literary press focusing on ambitious, imaginative and innovative writing, both in translation and in the English language.

Before embarking on this project, I co-founded The White Review with Ben Eastham, and found that there was an appetite for fiction that grappled with contemporary themes and issues as well as experimenting with form and style. As a magazine editor, I got to know the British trade publishing landscape, and found that there are few presses willing to take risks on serious and 'literary' fiction, much less when it is translated. At Fitzcarraldo Editions, we'll be publishing three novels in the first year and the aim is to try to contribute to the culture by publishing books we feel are important - 'literary' novels that explore and expand the possibilities of the form, that are innovative and imaginative in style, that tackle subjects and themes that are relevant to the world we live in.

 

As well as working on The White Review, I also worked as a commissioning editor at Notting Hill Editions for two years. At NHE we published long-form essays: both new editions of classics like Joe Brainard's I Remember (which, surprisingly given its 'cult' status in the States, had never appeared in Britain before), and new work by the likes of Deborah Levy, Joshua Cohen and Jonathan Littell. When it comes to the essay, British publishers are equally conservative: the big publishers tend to stick to publishing 360-page non-fiction blockbusters, whereas their counterparts in France or Germany have imprints dedicated to publishing shorter essays by their important authors.

 

ZoneThe first two books published by Fitzcarraldo Editions are perfect examples of the above. When I was looking for a first novel to publish a few months back, I was amazed to find out that Zone by Mathias Enard, which I'd read in French when Actes Sud published it in 2008, had never appeared in Britain. It tells the story of a French secret agent, Francis Servain Mirkovic, travelling on a train from Milan to Rome with a briefcase full of information about the war criminals, terrorists and arms dealers of the Zone - the Mediterranean - that he plans to sell to the Vatican. On this train journey, he recounts the violent history of the Zone in the twentieth century, starting with the Balkans War, in which he fought for a far-right Croatian militia. It's an ambitious book in terms of subject matter, but it takes form very seriously too: it's a 528-page stream of consciousness novel written as one long sentence (but broken up into twenty-four chapters). It sounds hard to read, but isn't - the rhythm of the language, and the intensity of the episodes and anecdotes it recounts propel the reader along. It's also a politically-engaged book that poses many questions about the violent foundations of the Europe we live in today. Charlotte Mandell's translation, for the 2011 US edition by Open Letters, is excellent. I couldn't have wished for a better novel to launch a publishing house with.

 

As for Memory Theatre by Simon Critchley, it is similarly ambitious in subject matter and form - taking as its starting point the discovery of a hand-drawn astrological chart predicting the author's imminent death - but firmly rooted in the classical essay tradition that begins with Montaigne. It's had some very high praise: the novelist David Mitchell, author of The Bone Clocks, called it 'a brilliant one-of-a-kind mind game occupying a strange frontier between philosophy, memoir and fiction'. It defies categorisation and is also a short book - 72 pages - two things that scare traditional publishing houses.

 

Fitzcarraldo EditionsAnother motivation behind the launch of Fitzcarraldo Editions is design. We wanted to design the books to make them visually striking and desirable as objects, because that's how we believe books will survive in the new media age. It's difficult enough to sell books, and good design makes you stand out from the crowd. With this in mind, each book is published as a paperback original with French flaps, using a custom serif typeface (called Fitzcarraldo) drawn by Ray O'Meara, who also designs The White Review. His radically classical design is reminiscent of the timeless covers of the Ulysses-era Bodley Head editions or of continental publishers such as Gallimard - simple and striking. We value the content, therefore we value the way it is presented: these things go hand in hand. A little bit like opera.

 

 

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Latest Blog
GUEST BLOG: Poetry and art - a wartime romance
17/10/2014

Christiana Spens, illustrator and Director of 3:AM Press, looks at the the important relationship between books and the artwork that adorns them.

A book is for life, not just for GCSE
14/10/2014

Charlotte from our Bristol branch on how the books we read at school often resonate with us throughout lives, as well as starting us out on a lifelong journey of literary discovery.

GUEST BLOG: Floats like a lonely cloud, stings like a bee
06/10/2014

Poet Declan Ryan reveals the unlikely overlap between the worlds of boxing and poetry.

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