Here at Burning Eye we have a weakness for the skinny shorter fiction form that is the Novella. Now we are not going to get into some point less debate about what strictly constitutes a novella because we do not believe in rules, but the random selection we grabbed from the book shelf to illustrate this post comes in at no more than 150 pages (many less) with on average I guesstimate 300-350 words a page. What are these skinny beauties? Long short stories? Short novels? We like to think of them as the chapbooks of the novel world. Somewhere to experiment and stretch with more time and space than a short story will allow but without the necessity of the scale of a full blown novel. Some of our favourite books are skinny little fellows. You can often find us loitering in a bookstore scanning the shelves for a slender spine. We love the sharpness that brevity can conjure. The thrill of that short but exhilarating ride. A form for the 21st Century? You bet it is.
There is something about a chapbook or pamphlet. Something concise and satisfying. Something in the thrill of discovering something new whether that is the first foray into print of a new voice or finding an artist exploring something that would not necessarily fit into a full collection or book. Pictured above is a random selection from our bookshelves. It includes Climates by Ruth Fainlight from Bloodaxe in 1983 highlighting that the simple chapbook has played a role in helping notable publishers find their way as much as helping poets cut their teeth and experiment. Chapbook publishers like Knives Forks and Spoons use the format to showcase experimental and visual poetry and there is a particularly rich and vibrant scene here in the UK with publishers such as Happenstance, Nine Arches, The Tall Lighthouse and Oystercatcher to name but a few. At prices that are often south of a fiver you can’t go wrong. Whether you call them chapbooks or pamphlets they remain a vital literary ingredient and as those clever chaps at Silkworms Ink are showing one that is adaptable to the digital age, and therefore one that will be with for a very long time yet!
A few years ago in the house in Bristol where we lived for nigh on ten years the roof leaked. It chose to leak above the box room that we used as study and library. More importantly it chose to leak directly over the book shelf that housed our poetry books. Luckily not too many were destroyed and most that were damaged dried out in a wrinkled but readable manner. The exception was a block of collections by Brian Patten including Little Johnny’s Confession, Notes To The Hurrying Man and Grave Gossip. These were fused together in an immovable block with Duo Duo’s Looking Out From Death between the second and third of Brian’s books mentioned above. They remain on our bookshelf to this day in this fused and unreadable state.
What irks us is that we cannot buy new copies of the lost books and read the poems as they were originally conceived and presented in the original collections. Yes we know we can scour Abebooks and buy second hand copies but we have bought numerous books this way over the years and some have arrived with so much scribbling on them from studious former owners than they are unreadable. No. We want new fresh crisp copies or we want digital copies. We want to read again the Little Johnny poems in the order they were first presented. We are picking on Little Johnnys’ Confession because it is a significant collection which echoes down the decades. No Little Johnny no Carol Ann Duffy one could argue for instance. We also think there is something to be gained from going back and getting to know a poet chronologically. Yes yes a greatest hits is all very well but there is nothing quite like going back and mining the depths for rarely seen gems. Easy enough in the world of music. You can put your hands on some pretty terrible Wings albums in a few seconds so why in the era of inventory free print on demand and e-books can we not put our hands on a copy of Little Johnny’s confession? Has no one in the poetry publishing world read The Long Tail?
We will admit to being tempted by the first edition copy pictured above but…
OK we admit it. We love everything by the late great master of the absurd Mr Richard Brautigan and we nearly nearly went for Trout Fishing In America (for those who have not read it: the definitive guide to Trout Fishing in America that no angler should leave home without !) but Sombrero Fallout is almost the definitive Burning Eye book. Easily readable, free-wheeling narrative, beautifully kooky, a bit bonkers, wonderfully absurd but with a depth and emotion that speaks to all of us. Essentially the book tells of a depressed writer whose Japanese girlfriend has left him taking her beautiful long hair with her. Our hero is trying to write but after starting a story about a Sombrero that falls out of the sky in a small American town he is too depressed to continue so consigns the page to the waste paper basket where the story decides to carry on alone. What do you mean you haven’t read it? What is the matter with you?
Under rated and under appreciated within the poetry establishment we feel Performance Poetry has a vitality that is often lacking in much middle of the road mainstream poetry. It also has that magic ingredient: popularity. Just about every town and city of any size in the UK has a live poetry scene with weekly events that solid crowds of people attend on a regular basis, yet try and find books by for instance Francesca Beard (above) or many of the poets that are the mainstays of say Apples and Snakes and you will have a struggle on your hands. You see Performance Poetry does not translate to the page. It is official. It is a “rule” of poetry. We think such rules are for breaking however and here at Burning Eye Books we plan to champion the transition of Performance Poetry from the stage to the page. But before we do here is the late great Dogfather arguably giving birth to British Performance Poetry Live At The Albert Hall and Ash Dickinson performing Chiller Queen. Enjoy.
In his review of Carrie Etter’s Diving For Starters for Stride Magazine Martin Stannard says:
“This is a poetry of elegance and grace, of things spoken and unspoken, the known and almost known and the intuited, and it’s quite stunning. I don’t know exactly what it all means, but it’s stunning and unforgettable nevertheless, which is something like what poetry should be, isn’t it?
We bought our copy as a result of Martin’s words and holy cow is he right! This is a poet writing with confidence and surety. Yes we are at the experimental end of things, out there with the kooky fringe dwellers painting with words, but what words, what poise, what perfect balance of imagery from beginning to end. Etter says in her recent review of Carol Watts Occasionals “in much avant garde poetry, the poems create meaning not line by line but through the whole of each piece“. This is equally true of Diving For Starters. These are not linear narratives and nor are they intended to be. These poems are scatterings of words carefully positioned on the page in order to evoke, to intimate, to hint. To draw an emotional response, to conjure and probe. Like eating at a Michelin Star restaurant it is not until every flavour on the plate has compounded on your taste buds that you appreciate the whole.
Rather than quote from the poems I am going to point you here to the Shearsman site (where you can download a sample for yourselves), because to quote you a fragment of any of these poems is to entirely miss the point and it would quite rude to quote a whole poem without permission!
If there is any justice in the world this excellent collection will win Carrie Etter the next TS Eliot award. Or the Ted Hughes or something with some press miles, prestige and sales boosting rockets attached. But if the recent Forward list is any indication Carrie will need to wear a comedy beard and speak gruffly to qualify. Regardless she gets our Avant Garde Hero of The Year Award.
While we warm up for the momentous task of throwing open our doors for submissions we thought it would be a good idea to give you an idea of what we like. First up is Andrew Kaufman’s slim but splendid little book All My Friends Are Superheroes. Why do we like it? Because it is short, sharp, pacey, packed with quirky characters and brilliantly kooky. Mr Kaufman keeps you hanging right to the final sentence. The writing is tight and light of touch and like all good writing doesn’t get in the way of the story. A 5* Burning Eye recommendation we wished we had published ourselves.
What is the story? What is the plot? What is it about? Hey, go read it, we are not going to spoil it for you!