Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Interview with Jen Campbell

Jen Campbell (not related, honest) is the author of the fantastic Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, as well as being a short story writer and poet. To promote the launch of her debut poetry pamphlet, The Hungry Ghost Festival, which was published by The Rialto on Monday, Jen agreed to an e-interview for this here blog.

I’ll start by mentioning how this came about, because we’ve never actually met. I read one of Jen’s poems in a copy of The Rialto magazine last year in which she name-drops the 35 bus which runs between South Shields and Sunderland – a bus I took to Sixth Form nearly every day for two years. Checking the authors’ notes, I discovered Jen is originally from Tyneside(!) After a few email exchanges, it emerged we went to the same school. A writer, from Cleadon, who went to the same school as me, who writes fantastic poems and has some of them published by an equally fantastic outfit? Well, I just had to know more!

Jake: Hello, Jen! Firstly, thanks a lot for agreeing to do this (rather bizarre) interview. For those who don’t know you and your work, how about a quick introduction?

Jen: Thanks for having me! Well, as for an introduction, I'm a writer and a bookseller. Poetry is my first love. I grew up in the north east, went to Edinburgh University and now live in north London, where I work in an antiquarian bookshop. I also have unhealthy obsession with tea and Jaffa cakes. 

Jake: Some of your poems deal with your childhood home and the surrounding areas in the North East, often focusing on memories of school and of your family. Has moving to other parts of the country, settled as you are now in London, affected the writing of these poems at all?

Jen: I think distance definitely affects writing. I very rarely, for instance, find myself writing about London. I don't know if that's because I live there and my poetry is linked in with nostalgia - I think that probably is the case. I do know that I miss the sea a lot, and I'm also interested in folklore surrounding the sea [especially mermaids and selkies], so when that appears in my poetry I normally link it up with memories of the north east.

Jake: If I’m not mistaken, Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, which originally featured as a part of your blog, became the book it is because of a re-tweet from Neil Gaiman and the fan base and literary contacts he has. How do you feel about writers and their relationships to the internet? I know that’s quite a dense subject to take on, but I wonder if – despite all its benefits – the internet can sometimes just detract us from the important business of putting pen to paper?

Jen: Weird Things... was never supposed to be a book [it was a very pleasant surprise when it became one!]. I started putting the quotes up on my blog, and the links to those posts were thrown around Twitter by other bookshops and publishing houses; it was mentioned in The Guardian, Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post. I'd just signed with my agent, Charlie, for my fiction work when Neil Gaiman then blogged about 'Weird Things...' which again opened it up to a much wider audience. One of the people who read his blog post on my blog post [*mind boggle*] was Hugh, who works at Constable and Robinson. He used to work at Ripping Yarns [my bookshop] ten years ago, and found 'Weird Things...' amusing. He got in touch to ask if I'd be interested in making it into a book. We never thought it would be as successful as it has been [sitting in The Sunday Times Bestseller List for five weeks], which has been another pleasant surprise!

So, I can't fault Twitter in the amount it's helped me connect with other writers and also how it's helped me [and other bookshops] in the organisation of talks and events. It makes the book world a whole lot more personable, which is fab. 

However, there is that quote knocking around: 'Writing a book is 3% good writing and 97% not getting distracted by the internet.' There's definitely something to be said for that, too! Procrastination is a nasty bugger. 

Jake: Your poems often seem to me like Russian Matryoshka dolls; showing us, initially, quite a grand scene, but really there are many smaller things going on below the surface. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about the processes you go through in writing poems like ‘The Patron Saints of Animals’, which to me is a great example of writing that appears simplistic, but is deceptively complex and well crafted?

Jen: I'm not going do an Alice Walker and say that my poems [like her characters] talk to me. However, I do find myself building scenes for poems in my head a long time before I start to write them down. They're forming there, until I feel the need to really write them down. That doesn't happen with every poem, but it does with ones such as 'Patron Saints...', 'Memories of His Sister' etc which have a bit of a narrative. 'The Patron Saints...' is, in my head, set in a farmhouse that was out the back of my parents' garden. So, to me, it's about a farm, but also a dysfunctional family who don't communicate with each other. There are also elements of the supernatural and rituals weaved in and also references to Animal Farm [to reflect the strange nature of the family it depicts]. So, one initial image does grow like a Hydra when I'm writing it; I try to capture it as best as I can, and just hope that other people enjoy it. 

Jake: Poetry pamphlets seems to be the ‘in thing’ at the moment, and not just for emerging writers – many established poets are using them to try and flesh out concise ideas or sequences, and the best examples often end up as beautiful pieces of art in their own right. Did you intend to produce a pamphlet sized collection of poems first, before thinking of a full collection, or was it quite an organic thing?

Jen: I hadn't always planned to, but I could tell when I was writing poems such as 'Angel,' 'Mountain Miners' and 'Cross-hatch' that I was collecting a lot of north-east themed poems. I could also tell that it wasn't going to be a full-length collection [I'm working on one of those at the moment which is about deformities and freak shows, tied in with myth], so a pamphlet seemed like a good thing to aim for, and rather appropriate for my first collection to be centred around my childhood. Pamphlets are a great way to get your work out there, and I've loved The Rialto for a long time so I was thrilled when they agreed to publish the collection.  

Jake: Finally, what’s next for your writing career, Jen?

Jen: Well, I'm working on a full-length poetry collection, and a novel. There will probably be a sequel of 'Weird Things...' at some point - at the moment I'm getting ready for the release of that in the States. :) 

The Hungry Ghost Festival is officially out now from The Rialto. Go and buy a copy!

To hear Jen reading one of the poems, have a look at her blog.

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Reluctant Protestor

Now that the Occupy Movement seems to have died down, or, rather, now that the majority of commercial media seems to have grown bored of it, this summer seems a pertinent time to use that distance as a point for reflection. I remember, last winter, when Occupy set up camp at Grey’s Monument in Newcastle, echoing the protests of those outside St. Paul’s and Wall Street.
For many, they were a figure of fun; washed-out hippies to be sneered at by passers-by on their way out of the Metro station. For others, the ‘core’ group, it seemed, acted as a catalyst for splinter movements of varying dispositions: from students in Che Guevara t-shirts to the city’s homeless, if there was one thing Occupy did well it was to provide an alternative sphere of congress within the super sphere of commercial life and ‘normality’ that tried, and succeeded, in going on around it.

I was working at a large, national bookselling chain opposite the protesters’ camp almost throughout its brief history. On lunch breaks in the staff room, we often heard various projected protests, as disgruntled people chanted into megaphones and tried, despite the rain and cold, to reclaim a little piece of the city. A criticism which has been directed at the Occupy protestors, and there are many, is that the Movement is undermined by a lack of clear goals. I’ve read and agreed with many deconstructions of the ‘we are the 99%’ slogan – of which this is the best – and a large part of me does agree with the people who said that their protests were futile because they sought an abstract absolution; some total revolution which was going to swiftly replace all the evils that those bankers did with sunshine and rainbows, complete, presumably, with golden pots of money to be redistributed Robin Hood style to the taxpayer.

But the part of me that wasn’t swept away by point of sale and conversion forecasts said otherwise. While perhaps there are various, easy blows to be aimed at the protesters, it somehow seems to me, now that I’m out of that job and can view the period with more objectivity, that what went on at the foot of Grey’s Monument last winter was, in the long term, probably far more important than the Christmas sales targets of the large, national bookseller. The 16 year old punk-rocker within me would have empathised, albeit far less cogently, with the ethos of the protesters, but 16 year old selves must evolve and sitting in the freezing rain in the middle of Newcastle in December is not for this 23 year old graduate. In a sense, this is rather sad and all too typical a condition of working, however briefly, in retail (and indeed within the consumer-capitalist society we inhabit).

A band I used to listen to tirelessly at that ‘16 year old punk-rocker’ stage was Rise Against. Their politically sharp lyrics, combined with a reckless sense of optimism in the face of an unjust world, all over the top of soaring riffs and machine-gun drums, were what formed and challenged some of the core beliefs I had, and, in some cases, still have. While I accept that a 16 year old’s perspective is necessarily bound up in being influenced a little too easily by alternative music and culture, and is arguably not to be trusted, I somehow resent my 16 year old self and the gung-ho approach to making things right that I thought I could embody. That same attitude was apparent in the Occupy Protesters. But I had bills to pay, an overdraft to get out of, a future to save for – it would have been, if nothing else, a forced anachronism on my part to pretend I still burned with the same fury.

Funny, then, that on listening to the new Rise Against album, Endgame, (released 8 years after Revolutions Per Minute, the album which inspired much of my teen angst above), the first lines should be: ‘Are there no fighters left here anymore? Are we the generation we’ve been waiting for? Or are we patiently burning, waiting to be saved?’ I don’t think I need to give any further explanation on that one.

The author and public speaker Charles Eisenstein – whose humility and insight in broaching the ‘big issues’ is genuinely refreshing – offers [though I am shoe-horning his comments to fit this retrospective narrative] a gentle reminder of the true purpose of the movement: to bear witness and tell the truth. ‘The physical presence of the Occupiers’, Eisenstein writes, ‘allows them to bring truths to public awareness, to speak the unspoken, because unlike words on a screen they do not go away without confrontation.’

That ‘bear witness’ speaks to the me of 2012 in a big way. In my last blog, I complained about poetry’s tendency to avoid political discourse. I agree with those who say political poetry should not be preachy, but the opposite – not even tackling the issues – is surely worse. While I’m not the same person I was when I was 16, and while you’ll probably not find me camped outside a monument next time a protest kicks up, you will, I hope, find me attempting poetry which seeks simultaneously to question, chronicle and make sense of these bizarre, infuriating and hugely interesting times in which we live. And I aim to embrace some of the contradictions and hypocrisies I’ve considered above, mashing my own quirks and flaws into the varying political discourses that surround these strange times. Auden said, ‘All  I have is a voice’. Sometimes, a voice is all you need to have.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Down Time

You’ll have noticed from my recent blogs and Facebook rants, should you be ‘my friend’, that I’ve been a bit pissed off recently. I don’t want to delve too deeply into the whys and wherefores (hence the title of this post), beyond saying that I’m fed up with several things at the minute, one of which, sadly, is poetry. I feel the urge to take a step back, to get some air.

A while ago, Clare Pollard talked about the ‘overwhelming’ British poetry scene. She noted how it got her down: ‘millions of us, all frantically posting and waving and shouting ‘read me’’, suggesting sometimes she needs to remind herself why poetry is important, finding more and more that that importance, that urgency, stems from poetry written by those whose nations’ stability and freedoms are somewhat more precarious than our own.

While I’m all for blogging, networking and self-promotion, I have now reached a point where I really don’t want to hear about poetic in-fights and squabbles every time I go online. I don’t care who rejected you. I don’t care if you’ve set up a new magazine and are looking for talented new voices. I don’t care if you’re organising a workshop for young adults in Bognor Regis. At least not all the bloody time. And it is just about every time I go online that I see nihilistic PR or emotional rants, themselves often followed by a torrent of cynical cat-fighting and fakery. I’m certainly complicit – be it within the poetry community or not – in what Clare describes as the thousands of voices ‘jostling for position’. It’s all gotten very rat-racey; pandering, I think, too much to the dominant paradigm of consumer capitalism, a paradigm that is surely, in its current guise, at or close to a snapping point.

I’ve sensed my own work becoming more politicised lately, only I’m reluctant to push it any further in that direction for the time being because I’m aware of how hypocritical I come across. Take the above: you’ll doubtless see me promoting my upcoming reading in Norwich, or the workshop I’m running in August for the SeaChange project, or something else to do with poetry and books at some point in the coming days, weeks and months. Fine. Fine for me and fine for all the other jostlers, all of us trying to arse-kiss our way onto Faber’s list.

But I’m not writing the type of poetry that I think this country needs. I talked recently to a close friend who is not caught up in this bizarre world (a world, coincidentally, that my own publisher labelled equally as odd, stating that if people acted in such strange ways in any other profession, their colleagues would tell them to fuck off) who recited Adrian Mitchell’s (in[?])famous quote on poetry and its (often lacklustre) audience: ‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.’ While he admires my poetry and has enjoyed some of the other performances he’s seen and things he’s read, his opinion still stands. And it is hard to argue with.

So what type of poetry do I think this country needs? Well, for a start I think it needs the courage of projects like The Dark Mountain Project. It also needs the ingenuity of things like 81 Austerities (with perhaps a little less irony), and it certainly needs more of the attitude and honesty of bands like Jim Lockey and the Solemn Sun. But a list of upgrades and refinements isn’t going to do much. For now, I’m going to take a back seat and brood a while. If there’s one concrete reason why people still choose to ignore poetry, I think, frankly, Mitchell has already nailed it: a lot of it is dull and is wholly disengaged with the world outside of that which it purports to shine a light on.