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Peter Mortimer On... Creative Writing

Posted on March 06, 2017 by Rebecca Robinson


 

If you work at home you’ll be used to those regular doorstep callers who flip open a suitcase full of gardening gloves, dishcloths, feather dusters and chamois leathers while showing you a document explaining how they’ve been a bad lad but are now trying to make a new life.

I always buy something even if a couple of dischcloths can run out a fiver.  From the last caller I bought a special dog brush for seven quid. All I need now is a dog.

What follows has nothing to do with those guys except a new breed of caller has started ringing the doorbell – or at least my doorbell. These unfortunates are seeking sanctuary from a cruel and pitliless system that has thrown them on the scrapheap of life. They are not asylum seekers, redundant bank clerks from HSBC, or train guards laid off by Southern Rail.

No, these are individuals who often have invested their entire life savings in what they thought would be an education and a qualification which would open for them many doors.  Now they find all doors firmly shut and getting shutter by the month.

Imagine if this happened to doctors, engineers, or brain surgeons or other qualified folk whose education almost guarantees a life of full employment.

I give you, ladies and gentleman, one of the great tragedies of the early 21st century;

The creative writing graduate. Their numbers are increasing as are their fees. They will usually pay many thousands of pounds to be led into the world of the literati, to sit at the feet of great poets novelists and playwrights who will reveal to them the secrets of creative success. Or such is the theory.

Look carefully and you can spot them throughout the country. They can be seen, pathetically waving in the air their certificate to prove they have successfully completed the course. They make tracks to first one editor then another, they knock at the door of this publisher, then that publisher. They offer up their great works, their novels, their full-length plays, their epic poems. And to what response? None.

For as the number of these writing students has grown (no self-respecting university or college is now without its own creative writing course), so the world of publishing has shrunk – and alarmingly. Fewer books, fewer magazines, fewer newspapers, more online tosh. The last thing the few remaining publishers dream of is a whole new army of literary aspirants beating a path to their door. Many publishers don’t even answer.

A quick check of publisher details reveals many now advertise no postal address nor even a email submissions  address. Many will accept submissions from agents only (and ask any aspirant author about the chances of landing an agent). Some small publishers just bring out work from their chums.

As ever, a lot of the writers struggling for publication aren’t much good. But authors bearing creative writing degrees tend to think they are.

Good or bad, once outside the shelter of academia, these aspirants shiver from the cold reality of the writing world. As an editor, my heart obviously bleeds for them, though in this very act of bleeding I glance anxiously up the road to check if any more are heading my way.

Graduates of the creative writing degree have become the new deserving poor, people who dreamed of freeing themselves from the shackles of wage slavery only to discover they brave new world they fought so hard to enter has no interest in them.

What are they to do? Drag themselves back to wage slavery? Throw themselves off a very high stack of books?

 If these unfortunates seek any consolation it must be that they have at least helped secure paid employment for a small army of people who previously found themselves in a similar position to the current wretches  –  I speak of course of that growing band of author academics running the mushrooming creative writing courses. They seem to be doing alright.

 

Peter Mortimer is the founder / editor of IRON Press.

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OUTCOME: New from Arachne Press

Posted on September 16, 2016 by Rebecca Robinson

a guest blog post by Cherry Potts

I’m standing in a photographer’s studio juggling a slightly too big pile of books and a picture of myself aged about seven. I’ve been here a while. The books have been splayed into a fan across my chest, piled on my head, held out earnestly like Oliver Twist asking for more, currently they are in the crook of my arm and I am asking Tom who else will be in his Outcome project. He is reeling off celebrities, mostly male, mostly white; and actually mostly young(ish), I am thinking who else I know who would meet his criteria. Mostly writers, that would make for a not terribly entertaining collection of pictures, given we are supposed to be embodying our professions or hobbies. So, why, the childhood photograph?

 

Outcome is Tom Dingley’s brain child, and at this point is entirely based online. His brilliantly simple idea is to take pictures of LGBT people with pictures of themselves as children to show how far they’ve come. The project is aimed at young people questioning their sexuality and the purpose is to show that they is, very emphatically, life after coming out.

 

What about physical exhibitions? I ask. We talk about galleries, and somewhere in the back of my mind, while Tom tries to get me to look like I enjoy having my photograph taken an idea forms, to be swiftly dismissed. What about a book?

 

Arachne is a very small outfit – basically me, and a couple of friends I call on for proofing and to help at events, and my long-suffering wife Alix, who does front of house when I don’t feel up to it, and reads in for shy authors. We’ve only ever published text based books, but I spend a lot of time thinking about cover designs, and we have had an art exhibition… no we can’t; we can’t afford the outlay for full colour – it’s too high a risk.

 

I talk to our printer. He doesn’t do colour. That settles it. But then, he knows someone who could… the samples are awful. No we aren’t doing it. I talk paper stock with a number of other printers. They obviously think I’m mad, and a couple of quotes send me reeling in shock.

 

I talk to some more printers, I hold paper stock over pictures and discard sample after sample. Can we really afford this?

 

But then, it’s no good, I email Tom.

 

We talk to an art college about exhibition space, for the launch they can’t help, but we suddenly realise we might not have to pay for exhibition space- not everywhere at least, and that the show should go on the road.

 

So, if we do this book, I say to Tom, as we wait for the bus, wondering where in the UK to take the exhibition, we need lots more pictures and we have to sort out the gender imbalance, and the race imbalance, and the age imbalance, and where are the transpeople?

 

We’ll have to crowdfund, I say, as the 68 pulls up Are you up for helping? We’ve done a crowdfund before, twice. The first time we didn’t get the money, the second time we did, just. So I’m used to the process. I MAKE Tom speak on camera, he hates it. We set up the crowd fund. Money starts coming in. A LOT of money starts coming in – Do you think this guy hit an extra zero by accident? We email each other at 6 one morning, but no, we have our target in a matter of days. Do I think this book might sell? Do I!

 

We raise more than twice what we need, and start talking about the travelling exhibition. Tom hits the targets I gave him for numbers of photos, and we spend hours poring over little prints on my table, working out who goes in and who doesn’t, and the order of the pictures. HOURS!

 

We go to look at the gallery at University of Greenwich, and they remember Tom who did his degree there. It becomes clear they are very keen to have the launch at the gallery. We have lots of meetings, while I stave off the worst throat infection I’ve had for years, and try to say as little as possible. We agree an astonishingly detailed and exciting programme of events. Now we just need those books.

 

Steep Learning Curve – a phrase that was invented with me in mind. I know how to typeset a book, of course I do… but a photographic book? I’m back to first principles: different page layouts, no page numbers, working out the bleed actually matters! Some of the pictures don’t readily fit the format, to my horror stray elements repeat themselves on the opposite page, people’s fingertips go missing, and emails are sent saying strange things like – does the original file have more leg?

 

It takes several goes to get it right, and the printers do me a sample on the paper I’ve asked for, which looks – alright. I chase Tom for files of higher Resolution, and then we finally send the files – and no, it still isn’t right when we get the proofs. Kind printer talks me through what is going wrong and I resend the files trembling with anxiety. We are now a week behind schedule.

 

Alix and I go on holiday. I need that holiday! The books are due for delivery the week of our return. Then, a phone call. How many did I need right away? Because there is a stray intermittent fault – a mark on random pages, and they are doing a 100% check, but can only guarantee to deliver a proportion by the due date. We are now going to be two weeks behind schedule, possibly 3, and the launch has to be when we’ve planned it:, the University are sorted, rooms are booked, lighting effects agreed, miles of rainbow ribbon purchased… and anyway, it coincides with International Coming Out Day.

 

The advance copies for reviewers and crowd funders and the launch arrive and … It’s gorgeous. I hardly dared hope they would look this good.

 

Will the bulk arrive at the distributors in time? Will the distributors get them out to Waterstones in Greenwich who are stocking for the duration of the exhibition?

 

We’ll have to wait and see!

 

OUTCOME: LGBT portraits by Tom Dingley is published by Arachne Press.

 

The exhibition is at The Heritage Gallery, University of Greenwich, Old Naval College, Park Row, SE10 9LS 10-14th October 10am-5pm except Monday 10th 10am-4pm http://alumni.gre.ac.uk/outcome/

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IRON Press editor Peter Mortimer considers the irritating new use of a single syllable word…

Posted on March 24, 2016 by Rebecca Robinson

Editors can get obsessive about words. Writers too. When you’re both a writer and an editor, the obsession can become unhealthy. I ask myself what does it matter if someone uses the word disinterested when what they really mean is uninterested?
 
Is it the end of the world that there appears no difference between the word flammable and inflammable? People are dying in tsunamis, drowning in small leaky boats, being blown up in airport terminals or beheaded online and here’s me fretting about the fact there is no known rhyme for the words oblige, silver or month. (I’d mention orange but everyone knows that one).
 
Governments cannot legislate on language usage. It is its own engine. Yet its apparent abuse can drive us mad. Successive French governments have long (and unsuccessfully) sought to control the americanisation of their own language, be this americanisation  through the virus of new phrases, the swamping of the music charts by US singers/songs or the sheer vulgarity of the Uncle Sam culture which along with its unstoppable energy creates a lethal mix .
 
No-one understood better the fact that our use of language was both an intellectual abstraction and a powerful political force than the great George Orwell. Read Orwell’s essays where he bemoans sloppy and obscurantist language abuse, but  also read (or reread) his classic novel 1984 where the use of the chilling new language Newspeak is a highly effective tool which makes us realise how much more than an intellectual abstraction our language is.
 
I shan’t dwell on the meaningless nature of such phrases as at the end of the day (now passing out of fashion), in the final analysis (which may be past its sell-by date too), or going forward (alas, still much in vogue), none of which mean a damned thing and all of which can be removed from a sentence without any change in the sense. My own theory is that such linguistic tosh is used partly as a breather so the speaker can think what he or she will say next, partly in the misguided belief that such phrases add gravitas to what is to follow.
 
We now have a newcomer to the ranks of linguistic miscreants. I can barely call it a phrase as it constitutes no more than a single syllable. You may even not have noticed its slow infiltration, but after reading this piece and listening carefully to a handful of interviews with MPs, PRs and celebrities, you will be more than irritatingly aware f its pervasive presence.
 
I refer to the word, ‘So’. The interviewer ask a question - for example, ‘when will this piece of planned legislation become law?’, the interviewee begins the reply with the word So.
 
The word is followed by a brief pause, after which the answer to the question begins.
 
The word ‘So’ has no function in these circumstances, it fulfils no purpose. How does the fashion for such a word start? Does a directive in the form of an email, tweet or Facebook message instruct people to begin their reply with same word?
 
Presumably not, so what prompts them to do it? Are they even aware they are doing it?
 
Does it matter? Should I get a life?
 
I shall begin my answer.
 
So……..’

 

 

By Peter Mortimer, editor at IRON Press

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Boatwhistle Books: a singular new publisher

Posted on January 20, 2016 by Yen-Yen Lu

Hamish Ironside of Boatwhistle Books, one of our newest publishers, talks about the domino effect spanning thirty years which led to Boatwhistle's first publication of a previously unknown writer this year.

I first discovered the poems of Ernest Noyes Brookings in the late 1980s as I began reading the Duplex Planet, an American zine that recorded the thoughts and conversations of the residents of a nursing home in Massachusetts. Brookings had started to write his poems only when at the home, in his eighties, and having never before had any interest in poetry, as far as we know. The subject matter for his poems was whatever was suggested to him by David Greenberger, the activities director at the home (and editor of the Duplex Planet). This could be a dead dog, eggs, the letter P, Vermont in Winter … the poems are playful, spontaneous, very simple and yet very strange. It was the strangeness I liked most.

20 years later I included a Brookings verse as an epigraph in my book of haiku, Our Sweet Little Time. A friend and colleague, Mike Fell, showed an interest in Brookings’s poetry, and we contacted David Greenberger (the administrator of his estate since Brookings’s death in 1989) about collecting the poems in book form for the first time. David energetically supported the enterprise from the start, and so began what became the first Boatwhistle book, The Golden Rule: Collected Poems of Ernest Noyes Brookings.

Simply locating copies of all the poems was a huge undertaking, and it took several years before we were close to having a first proof of a book. In the meantime a second Boatwhistle project began: a book of haiku unlike any that had come before, with twelve writers each contributing a month’s worth of new haiku to form a full calendar year of haiku, one per day. What was unusual was the selection of writers: half of them were very experienced haiku poets, such as George Swede, Michael Dylan Welch and Matthew Paul, while the other six had never (or almost never) written a haiku previously. In the latter category were the poets Hugo Williams, Sally Read and Matthew Welton, and the singer-songwriter Momus. Then resulting haiku were a fascinating mixture of styles and approaches, with those writers who were new to haiku perhaps bringing a freshness to the form and not feeling so restricted by some of the conventions that have become established in the haiku community.

The resulting book was Off the Beaten Track: A Year in Haiku. In 2015 Boatwhistle was awarded an Arts Council grant to commission original illustrations by twelve contemporary artists for each of the months in the book, and also to support the launch of both of these first two Boatwhistle titles, which were published this month. Initial responses to the two books have been hugely encouraging.

And where do we go from here? Boatwhistle’s only aim is to produce 'singular books for singular readers'. That does not necessarily mean poetry – we may produce works of prose fiction, or environmental science, or biography, mathematics, ornithology …

It's clear that we can look forward to many great things from Boatwhistle so don't miss out on being one of the first to order their books on our website now.

Our Sweet Little Time was published by Iron Press in 2009.

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Forget the Awards, by IRON Press Editor Peter Mortimer

Posted on January 06, 2016 by Rebecca Robinson

Editors have their own quirky likes and dislikes. I hate embossed text on a cover, especially if it’s in silver or gold. If you ever see an IRON Press cover thus adorned, you will know Peter Mortimer has been replaced by an alien, (hurrah, say some) and the extraterrestrial invasion has started.

I’m also not keen on individuals’ unattributed gushing quotes on the front or back cover.

Such quotes are often from the author’s mates, rarely spontaneous (the commercial publishing field has people who trawl round persuading people to supply the same) and are often agreed to even before the person quoting has read the material. Of course they feed the ego of that same person who gets his or her name on the cover of a new book without having to write it!

But for IRON Press, only quotes from credited reviews are allowed. And for small presses of course, such reviews are few and far between. These tend to come too late to be used in publication, unless there’s a reprint (we wish), so most of our books contain no cover quotes at all.

Another dislike is book prices of £5.99p, £6.99p or the like. Do publishers really believe the reading public is stupid enough to see a price of £5.99p and think, “Oh good! A book for only £5!” Treat your readers with the respect they deserve. Round the price up.

My major quirky dislike concerns a different matter. It is the deep hostility I feel towards the epithet award-winning. I have only to see or hear these two words preceding an author’s name to break out in to a rash of contagious spots consisting of various colours and hues.

Authors who employ award-winning in their biog notes obviously have a deep desire to impress their audiences. OK, so all authors have this same desire, otherwise they wouldn’t write. But that small consideration apart, the use of award-winning seems a slightly desperate attempt to gain often unwarranted credibility.

If you’ve won an award of some real stature, fine – say so. Name it. But arts awards are scattered far and wide these days and it is a pretty poor professional author who cannot lay claim to have been given some wretched award or other. I know I have.

The use of the description award-winning suggests great showers of accolades descending on the author from Olympian heights to the accompaniment of sustained and tumultuous applause from the populace at large.. The fact it could refer to the Grindthorpe & District Leek Growers Annual Short Story Award 1984 (two entries) or the East Grinstead Butchers Association Award for the Best Traditional Poem about a Sausage (one entry) is neither here nor there.

Though in fact it’s very much here. Can I suggest that our national language supremo, when appointed, uses his or her dictatorial powers to ban this vague term from all biog notes, book cover notes or other self-penned author descriptions?

Much better to be self-deferential when describing yourself. People will warm to you. Thus, ‘his books have been received mainly by a thunderous silence’ suggests to me a much more interesting writer than one sticking in the accursed epithet mentioned above.

I find an immediate rapport with a author describing herself thus; ‘her books have rarely received much critical acclaim and seem unlikely to start doing now’ than some boasting braggart throwing around the phrase award-winning.

I once read an author’s biog notes that were neither hyperbolic nor deferential but had a strange fascination. I quote: He is constantly startled by the grey rose.

Now there’s someone worth more than a cursory look – award winning or not.

 

By Peter Mortimer, editor at IRON Press

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