Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ain't Too Proud To Blog 

Since I have him coming to talk to my MA students tomorrow night, I think it rather behoves me to link to my pal Mike's Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? project, now in its sixth year. It's a concept recently nicked by the BBC and it's a load of fun if you've got any interest in popular music. Enjoy.

And since I've been listening to this album for weeks with great joy (and bought their first album in New York this month), here's some video of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, with the title track of 100 Days, 100 Nights

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Just back from London, where we saw the Monty Python musical (great fun, though Peter Davison doesn't have much of a singing voice) and David Hare's latest play, 'The Vertical Hour' at the Royal Court. This is worth catching, with strong performances from the three leads, although it was hard to credit the sexual tension needed between Anton Lesser and Indira Varma who's more than a decade younger than Julianne Moore, who played the part on Broadway, and this weakens the play, as do the didactic bookends. Like Hare, I was against the invasion of Iraq, but a play's far more dramatically effective if the arguments are balanced, leaving us to make up our own minds. Instead, he seemed to be writing it for a Sloane Square audience who already agreed with him. Still, there was plenty of food for thought in this very talky play, and I discovered that the cheap gallery seats at the RC are fine for watching this kind of curiously old fashioned piece. On the train down, I read the Christmas Fiction issue of 'The New Yorker' which contains a fine anniversary piece on Pinter's 'The Homecoming' by John Lahr. This is one of the best plays of the last 50 years and has certain similarities to Hare's play (in Pinter, the professor son brings home a new wife from America who his father, Max, attempts to seduce. In Hare, the girlfriend is the academic) but 'The Homecoming' is so subtle and acute in its display of how power works that it makes Hare's play look incredibly old fashioned and naive - a bit like Pinter's anti-American poetry. Anyhow, 'The Vertical Hour' got lousy reviews and deserved better. Ignore the first five minutes (in which the bit part actor does a terrible Nicholas Cage impression) and the last five (a simplistic, silly ending that undermines the complexity of the play's most interesting character) and it's an absorbing play, well worth seeing from the cheap seats.

Oh, and, while I'm being superserious, here's the new REM video, the one song from their forthcoming album that didn't feature in the gigs we saw in Dublin last summer. It's rather good. Their UK tour dates will be announced any day now.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

New York Postscript 

I forgot to say that the photos above and below were taken by Georgina Lock, those of the panel by Tessa Hadley and the one at the bottom by a nice guy on Lenox who saw me taking a picture of Georgina and offered to take one of the two of us together. Thanks to all three.

New York New York New York 

David Mamet's 'November' is the lightest thing he's done in years, and the funniest. We strolled through heavy rain to get there and found that, while the expensive seats in the beautiful Ethel Barrymore Theater were full, the cheaper ones upstairs weren't, so we were able to move from the back of the gallery to the front when the lights went down. It's a comedy featuring Nathan Lane as a corrupt US president who's about to fail to be reelected for a second term, with Dylan Baker as his adviser and Laurie Metcalf as his scriptwriter. More farce than satire, it's a surprisingly bubbly, infectious piece of work and combined with the dance party that followed, was a great way to start the weekend. We hit the floor early. The young DJ proved adept at getting the forty and fifty somethings to dance, then pulling in the twenty-something MA students. My top moment was when he segued a great remix of my favourite dance song ever, the Jackson Five's 'I Want You Back', into Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Sweet Home Alabama'. Now that's what I call chutzpah.

Earlier in the day, I should mention an involving panel about creative writing tutors as whistleblowers in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy. Engagingly chaired by Jill Ferriss, this threw up a lot of interesting points without getting heavy or preachy and also gave me the opportunity to listen to and meet the author Jayne Anne Phillips, who I've long admired, on the panel as a fellow Creative Writing MA leader, in which context she gave plenty of sensible, thoughtful advice.

Saturday began with a panel about ultra-talk poetry. I was a little hazy, but it was absorbing, and gave me the chance to meet up with poet Mark Halliday who talked us through the principles of this kind of poetry (which he first named: think Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems taken to the max) and read a fine new poem. Former US poet laureate Billy Collins came to the session and I grabbed a few words with him - mainly about what a great poet Paul Violi is - so when I went to buy a copy of the magazine that the panel was promoting, it had sold out. Oh well. Collins and Frank McCourt did a terrific joint reading later in the day, first time I've heard Billy read and (yeah, I know this is kind of shameful) first time I've come upon McCourt, who Billy introduced me to afterwards. Lovely guy, hilarious speaker, very good on school-teaching but the vast queue afterwards was mainly for Billy Collins, who manages the fantastic trick of writing about profound and complicated stuff in a way that is light, involving and, very often, funny.

That would have been a great way to end the conference. Georgina and I went out for a huge steak dinner, then found our way back to the Hilton for Martin Amis. Only he was on in the Sheraton, so we escaped the ballroom just before Louise Gluck took the stage and found Amis just before he finished his reading. Like most English writers who are from the generation below Amis, I have a complicated relationship with him, admiring 'Money' greatly and finding everything since a falling off, though the book he read from, 'House Of Meetings', is, I think, his best since 'Experience'. The relationship's further complicated by his having recently taken a job as a Professor of Creative Writing at Manchester University on a salary of £80,000 for 28 hours work, including four public appearances, one of which this was. On taking the job, Amis said that one of his main interests was to find out what young people were thinking these days (or, some cynics would paraphrase, to nick their ideas).

Amis was, as ever, entertaining, thought provoking and a little pompous, but, to be fair, unlike many of the US biggies, he did take questions from the audience. Three of them. And I got the last one in - asking how, a semester in, he was getting on in his new job and what he'd found out about his student's ideas (the question was rather more complicated than this, doubtless there's a transcript somewhere). Martin talked about the students' lack of ideology and how this was a good thing but had to confess that, no, he hadn't actually read any of the students' work (gasps from behind us). It soon became clear that he wasn't teaching creative writing at all, but good old fashioned literature. Potential Manchester students, take note.

The nightly dance party followed, where the awful free US beer was replaced by good old Heineken, and another great time ensued. Sunday I've already written about, but I should finish by mentioning the middle of Saturday, a beautiful day, when Georgina and I took a walking tour of the Lower East Side, touching on Tribeca, Chinatown and Little Italy before walking through Soho and into Greenwich Village, where I stayed last time I was in the US. Chinatown seemed to have gobbled up more of Little Italy but otherwise, most things were still the same. Bleeker Bob's was still in the village (see photo above) where I also found a couple of great new music stores and picked up the first albums by Band of Horses and Sharon Jones, plus some rare Can and the new Eels B sides collection. Washington Square, sadly, is mostly out of commission until next year, being refurbished, but there was one new addition, the small park on Christopher St (a stone's thrown from the historic Stonewall bar, which seems to have vanished since my last visit) dedicated to gay rights. You can see me sat by one of the two pairs of statues by George Segal in the post above.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

New York New York 

After a breakfast bagel at Pax Wholefoods, down 7th Avenue, I headed for the program directors plenary, which was compulsory, but also standing room only and not aimed at UK Creative Writing MA Programme leaders, so instead I hurried over to downstairs at the Sheraton, where I was in time for most of the first speaker of a fascinating panel about the problems of being a transatlantic writer. Then I went to the 'Queering New York' panel, primarily because I wanted to hear Ed White, only he wasn't there, but it was pretty entertaining all the same. The midday panel on my area, Young Adult Fiction, was outstanding. Mary Rockcastle chaired a discussion about the line between Young Adult, Crossover and Adult fiction with Caryoln Coman, Sharon Darrow, Julie Shumacher and Marsha Qualey. I got to meet Julie the next day and Marsha came to our Friday panel, lovely people with lots of interesting stuff to say. The three of us for the next day's panel sat together and compared notes afterwards, interested by how much more freedom US writers seemed to have but also by how many of the issues facing us were pretty much the same. (I'd go into this stuff more but I'm planning to write a paper about it so want to mull it over and keep my powder dry).

The main events of my day were social, so I'll slide over the smug, shallow event with Joyce Carol Oates, a great writer who wasn't given much chance to do herself justice and stick to lunch and dinner. I had lunch (he didn't, having just come from a Writer's Guild board with free food) with one of my favourite crime writers, Lawrence Block. Our ostensible purpose was to discuss the Ms. of his long story 'Speaking Of Lust' which Five Leaves publish in the Crime Express series later this year. But mainly we talked about other crime writers, American TV, especially 'The Wire' and, well, stuff... it was an honour, and I only wish I'd picked up this book set in the Greenwich Village where he now lives and first published a staggering 47 years ago, a day earlier so I could have got it signed. His Crime Express is a real treat. Watch out for it.

In the evening, I forsook the chance to see John Irving's keynote address (and Richard Thompson's 1,000 Years Of Popular Music show, which was on down the road) to have dinner with old friend, poet Paul Violi, who I hadn't seen since '99. We slipped straight into our ongoing conversation about American politics, poetry and - since I now teach in a university part time, as he does - we had new topics of conversation, writing students and academic management. I can recommend the restaurant, Le Monde on the Upper West Side, and their house Viognier. Afterwards, I meant to go to the opening night AWP dance party, but a surfeit of alcohol combined with the slowness with which text messages travel to the UK and back again meant that I ended up back in my room watching the Democratic CNN debate before crashing, only to wake with a headache that combine jetlag, hangover and migraine to powerful effect, just in time for our Friday panel.

Which went fine. Less people than at the previous day's, but then we were in the Sheraton basement. And if we'd been in the Hilton, we'd have been interrupted by a fire alert half an hour in, just as the Virginia Tech tribute got under way. There should be a photo above showing my valiant colleagues, Georgina Lock (chairing), Julia Green and Philip Gross, who all did a great job. We had some good questions too. And, while I went to a poetry reading afterwards, I was really ready to unwind and, rather than stay for Sue Miller's reading in the evening (pity, because I love her books), instead we headed out in the pouring rain to see the new David Mamet comedy on Broadway. Of which, more tomorrow, because now I have to go and teach.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

New York 

At half past one, US time, yesterday morning, five hours after we were meant to be in the air, I thought I might not be here now. Earlier, just as we were about to take off, a warning light had come on in the cockpit, and the engineers couldn't locate the problem. They'd stripped, then rebuilt the engine and were about to test it. 'We're going to give it a try,' the pilot said. 'And if it works, we'll be leaving in 45 minutes. Otherwise, we're not going anywhere tonight.'

The rest you can work out. Earlier in the day, Georgina and I went shopping (like the hat?) then took the subway to Harlem, where we walked round for a while in the glorious winter light. We'd heard rumours of trendy whites scooping up cheap property, but it looked exactly the same as last time I was there, 13 years ago. And Sylvia's soul food restaurant hadn't changed either. I ate fried catfish, collard greens and garlic mashed potatoes with freshly baked corn bread and a Bloody Mary thrown in while listening to the gospel brunch group, including Sylvia's daughter on vocals, all for $24 including service. A joy. If you're ever in NYC, head over to 328 Lenox.

We were in New York for five days, presenting a panel at the AWP conference (7,000 students and academics from US university writing programs, plus about a dozen Brits) which I'll write about tomorrow, probably. On our first day, before the conference proper began, we took the metro towards Ground Zero but boarded an express by mistake and ended up going to Brooklyn which, unlike Harlem, was greatly transformed since my last visit, hugely gentrified, with loads of restaurants and chicish shops on 5th, 6th and 7th Avenues. We walked around a lot, visited the library (interesting YA section, replete with armed cops) and, briefly, Prospect Park. I wish we'd had longer. Maybe I'll go again when it's warmer.

The conference had numerous parties sponsored by different programs but we only went to one when we discovered that you had to endlessly queue then pay for your own expensive drinks. But that one was worth it, because I was able to reacquaint myself with one of my favourite crime writers and invite him to contribute to a series I edit. He didn't say 'no', which is a start...

The remainder of that first day is a bit of a blur. I remember watching some of the Republican TV debate, and listening to the Vampire Weekend album I'd just bought, happy to discover that it wasn't as short as I'd initially thought, as the official version has two extra tracks. Then I went to bed with a manuscript, because I was meetings its author for lunch the next day.

To be continued.

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