Friday, 29 January 2010

Absolute Beginners

Recently, I was commissioned by Academi to write an online guide about how to become a writer, what the literary landscape looks like today in Wales, and what opportunities were on offer. The online guide – book-length – is now available. I hope it will prove useful whether you're just starting out as a new writer or are a more established writer who's new to Wales and wants to find out how things work. Although the guide is designed with the writer in Wales in mind, a lot of advice will hopefully prove both practical and, crucially, supportive wherever you are based in the world.

I've written the guide from both sides of the table, as a writer and as an editor myself. You'll find nuggets of wisdom I've learned from brilliant writers and editors I've encountered, hard-won lessons I've learned for myself, straight-up advice on how things work, and loads of lively links to help you explore further and get in touch with the literary communities that are out there. There's the talent, of course. And then there's another kind, the talent that's in the choices. If you want to take a look at the writer's guide click here. All access is completely free. Happy writing.

Thursday, 28 January 2010


Over at Wales Home, Patrick McGuinness has an article rightly bemoaning the lack of mainstream arts coverage in Wales. It's an interesting piece and raises important – and familiar – points regarding the lack of mainstream arts coverage in broadcast and, of course, the lack of a daily broadsheet in Wales. Years ago, I heard rumours that there was a plot afoot to set up an exciting broadsheet in Wales. It never did happen. With the current climate, it's unlikely to in the foreseeable future.

But, of course, all's not exactly rosy over the border.

In recent years, the book review pages of the broadsheets have become that much more slender (and less rigorous). Less commercial titles – particularly volumes of single-authored poetry – have been jettisoned. When the BBC recently commissioned a poetry season (screened through spring to autumn last year) it was something of an event – one of the rare instances over the last decade when original arts programming was commissioned on such a scale, and for national broadcast, too. With the exception of the Culture Show and the Review show, those hungry for arts coverage on the Way We Were will have to largely content themselves with repeats from the golden era of the seventies, which, if they're lucky, they'll accidentally catch on BBC4. If you want more on the Way We Live Now, you'll be going to bed on an empty stomach, by and large. So, I don't think the limitations on a comprehensive, vibrant arts scene in broadcast or print media is a problem for Wales alone, although it's certainly true that Wales could be said to be in extremis.

I think Patrick raises particularly important points (in the piece and the ensuing comments) with regard to education and how this impacts upon the cultural consciousness and those who will come to be the future's opinion formers. Not so much making a case for drilling children in valley writing or the legacy of women's writing from Wales by rote. Who'd want that? No. More a case of making them aware of it in the first place. How many are? I wasn't. It takes a lot of effort and bloody-mindedness to find your way alone. Is that how tradition and culture should come to you? I wonder.

Anyhow, you can find the piece and the comments here.

Still Rock 'n' Roll to me

Author of Diamond Star Halo and New Welsh Review board member Tiffany Murray on her pick of the rocks.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Education, Education, Education

Sarah Waters and others on the teachers who inspired them in today's Guardian.

T. S. Eliot Prize goes to Philip Gross

The 2009 T. S. Eliot Prize has been won by Philip Gross. The prize is the most prestigious in British Poetry. Philip's winning book, The Water Table, was selected from a shortlist which included many accomplished poets, including Alice Oswald, Christopher Reid and Hugo Williams. As well as being a great poet, Philip is also a novelist, playwright, Professor in Creative Writing and a member of the New Welsh Review board. Congratulations to him.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Synecdoche, Adamsdown

As everyone with a good dictionary knows, a ‘synecdoche’ is a literary term where the part stands for the whole and vice versa. It is also a play on words for Schenectady in a film by Charlie Kaufman.

I had been looking forward to watching Synecdoche, New York – his film starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman – for some time, as I had missed its theatrical release, but I had the chance to watch it over Christmas. It’s not obvious festive viewing and wouldn’t compare favourably with, say, It’s A Wonderful Life when it comes to all-round holiday entertainment. In fact, my wife burst into tears at the end and said that it had been unfair of me to put her through it without advance warning.

It’s the story of a middle-aged theatre director called Caden Cotard, who wins a grant or ‘genius award’ from a prestigious philanthropic foundation at the very point where his life begins to fall apart. He is filled with doubt about his latest production. His wife leaves him and takes their child away with her. Afflicted by a variety of mysterious ailments, he believes that he is going to die. There is a particularly affecting moment where Hoffman peers into a toilet bowl and prods a recent evacuation with a spatula.

With the proceeds from his grant, Cotard embarks on a project filled with ‘real honesty and truth’. He builds a replica of his own neighbourhood in a huge warehouse, casts himself as a character and spends the next thirty years of his life rehearsing an enormous ensemble cast in a play based in the minutiae of his life. The play is never performed and Cotard dies friendless and alone, rejected or abandoned by the people he cared for most.

Becoming a poetic meditation on the sense of death in life, the film even underlines this by naming its central character after Cotard’s Syndrome – a psychiatric condition whereby the victim holds the delusional belief that he or she is dead. Kaufman described it like this: ‘I was trying to present a life, with its moments of nothing. There is something that happens to people when they get old, which is that they get sidelined. There isn't a big, dramatic crescendo and then their life is over. They're forced out of their work, the people in their lives die, they lose their place in the world, people don't take them seriously, and then they just continue to live. And what is that? What does that feel like? I wanted to try to be truthful about that and express something about what I think is a really sad human condition.’

The film is also an extraordinary, hallucinatory, multi-textured piece of work and that rare thing – an intelligent, allusive and innovative American movie. Some people will love it, most people will hate it, but barely anyone could be unaffected by it.

Writing rarely inspires envy or jealousy in me, but I must admit I’d be quite happy with Charlie Kaufman’s work appended to my CV. He is the most distinctive American film maker since David Lynch and my identification with the film was absolute.

One reason is that a few months ago I was given a Creative Wales Award by The Arts Council of Wales to develop my ‘creative practice’ as a theatre director.

If you’re wondering, it’s just the same as ‘a genius award’.

So, if you end up passing through Adamsdown in the decades ahead, that’ll be me.

Or, at least, someone looking a bit like me.

Guest blogger – Simon Harris

Over the next few months, Simon Harris will be dropping in to blog for us. Simon is a Cardiff-based director and dramatist. He was Artistic Director of Sgript Cymru, the first Wales Fellow on The Clore Leadership Programme and a Creative Wales Award winner in 2009.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to all our readers. We'll be back and in the swing of things soon enough, with some contributions from a new guest blogger, as well as news and views.

Looking ahead to the spring issue, some great contributors and work to relish, including Menna Elfyn, Tom Bullough, Lloyd Jones, Tishani Doshi, Sarah Corbett, Siriol Troup, Gary Owen, Peter Finch, Isabel Adonis, Dai Vaughan and Deborah Kay Davies. The issue will be published at the beginning of March, so do look out for it.