The Road To Weaseldom

https://www.writing.ie/tell-your-own-story/did-you-put-the-weasels-out-by-niall-burke/

 

Did You Put The Weasels Out? by Niall Bourke

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Article by Niall Bourke ©.
Posted in the Magazine (Tell Your Own Story: ).

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My journey to publishing Did You Put The Weasels Out? started a nearly 4 years ago. I was 32 at time and, for many years, I had wanted to be a writer. Well I say I had wanted to be a writer but, to be honest, I’d never really done much about it. I had made some very, very half-heated attempts to start writing – maybe a handful over 10 years; a page here, or a poem or opening of a short story there – but whenever confronted with the reality of actually sitting down and writing I’d given up. I mean it was hard. And it was lonely. And invariably I’d find something else I’d rather be doing. So I suppose that when I say I wanted to be a writer what I mean is that I wanted to have written but didn’t want to actually go to the bother of sitting down and writing anything.

However, just before I tuned 33 I decided I’d do something about this. There was no specific epiphany that I recall, but my work brought in a scheme offering to pay half for anyone who wanted to study an MA. So, in a bid to rectify my writing malaise, I signed up for a part-time creative writing MA at the Goldsmith’s University of London.  At this point it’s worth saying that Creative Writing MA’s are certainly not a pre-requisite to learning to write or getting published, and – even with partial funding – they can still be prohibitively expensive. But personally I needed the structure and direction that a taught creative writing course provided; somewhat I guess like marking lines of play on a sports pitch to stop players running off in all directions and force them to move towards the goal.

It was during the MA that I started working on Weasels. Although my early drafts look nothing like what became the final version. Over the course of my reading I came across a (possibly apocryphal) story attributed to W.H Auden. When Auden was headmaster at Gresham’s School, one of his students expressed a desire to become a poet. Auden asked the student why, to which the student replied that he felt like he had a lot to say. Auden said ‘it would have been better had you simply said you liked words’. And this, in ways, seemed to mark a turning point in my ideas about poetry.

Poetry, I realised, must be about words and, by extension, uncertainty. Words, by their very nature, are always in a state of flux as they bounce back between writer and reader, speaker and listener. So poetry must, before it attempts to do anything else, celebrate the playfulness and uncertainty of language and, therefore, the playfulness and uncertainty what it means to be alive.

I realised that the poems I had been writing before were tepid. They took themselves too seriously, with erudition trumping enjoyment. They were esoteric, staid and what I might call very ‘poemy’. They were a laboured and exacting (but ultimately uninspiring) diagram of what poetry ought to look like, trying to say too much and asking too little. They often had italicised sub-headings under the titles saying things like: ‘after Chekhov’, and ‘for Wallace Stevens’. There were a lot of classical or what could be called ‘learned’ references (Heraclitus, Berkeley, Kant) And my language was also what might be called very ‘poemy’: essence, huge sublimity, amniotic beams, scorched, transfused, illuminations, solace, epoch, ponderosa, hue, azure, mastication, dark as slate, slate-dark, epicene, iambs. Many of my poems were epipahinical or near-epiphanical moments (on buses, looking at the sky, while driving), epigrammatical snapshots of pastoral scenes (donkeys, cats, fields) or responses to artists or writers or figures in literature. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with any of this this. And some poets do it very well indeed (I mean, just think of Elliot and Heaney). But, for me, it just wasn’t working because I was simply putting these things as gaudy decorations, putting them in because I thought that was what a poem was supposed to have.

The next (and very formative) thing I came across was The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth. This really encapsulated for me what poetry centred on the playfulness and uncertainty of language could become. It is a novel written in verse that charts the trials and tribulations of a group of thirty somethings in 1980’s San Francisco. It is written exclusively (including dedication and contents) in sonnet form, a form of sonnet called the Onegin (or sometimes Pushkin) sonnet. This is a form of sonnet invented by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and used in his seminal novel in verse ‘Eugene Onegin’. It is written in tetrameter and has an unusual rhyme scheme (AbAbCCddEffEgg – where the capital letters denote a ‘feminine’ rhyme with extra unstressed syllable and the lower case denote a ‘male’ rhyme.) It was the most fun thing I had read in a long time.

As Stanley Mitchell explains (in his introduction to his recent translation of ‘Eugene Onegin’) the tetrameter brings with it an inherent ‘lightness’ – and this lightness and playfulness is what attracted me to the Onegin stanza. But it seemed to me that that rhyming and lightness of The Golden Gate had somewhat fallen out of poetic fashion so I decided that, in response, I wanted to write something that paid homage to The Golden Gate but something that was also ‘new’ and had rhyme, lightness and uncertainty at its heart. So I decided on a perverse novel in verse.

The Onegin sonnets proved to be rather difficult. They were often creaking under the combined weight of having to advance the narrative, develop a sense of character and also be poetic in their own right. Editing became fiendish because changing even one word for the sake of the narrative meant disrupting the meter and the rhyme scheme (and vica-versa). There was an ever-present battle for dominance between the form and the narrative. I considered dropping the Onegin constraint for a while but, after discussions with my tutor, hit upon a novel (or perhaps novella) solution. I decided to use footnotes to explain parts of the narrative. This helped lift the strain from the Onegin sonnets and allowed them to ‘breathe’ as poems in their own right, but also allowed for a self-referential and uncertain playfulness in the text. And thus, after over three years drafting and editing, The Weasel was born.

(c) Niall Burke

About Did You Put The Weasels Out?

Sometimes, through no fault of anyone else, I find myself getting bored of knowing what to expect when I pick up a new collection. It takes a radical formal gesture to really refresh things, and that s what I found in Niall Bourke s Did You Put the Weasels Out? A surreal Onegin, endlessly, viciously playful, reinventing itself in every sonnet and sonnet-footnote like a linguistic Mandelbrot set. And what might have come off as a sophisticated but purely academic exercise is instead governed by a scabrous, self-effacing wit and a deep sense of love and its absurdity, which anchors every flourish into prose poetry and free verse and runs throughout the appendices and index. It s a debut so energetic, so bursting with ideas and insistent music, it reminds you why you started writing in the first place and, whether you like it or not, that you won t be able to stop.

Order your copy online here.

What I’ve Been Reading

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A list of what I’ve been reading over the last year or two (and I’m sure I’m missing a few) – I hope to review at least some of them soon if I get time:

In the ‘to-read next’ pile:

  • What Ends – Andrew Ladd
  • The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fford
  • The Knives of Villalejo – Mathew Stuart (poetry)
  • Room A Little Darker – June Caldwell
  • Night Sky With Exit Wounds – Ocean Vuong (poetry)
  • Conversations With Friends – Sally Rooney
  • The Evenings Entertainment – Mathew Paul (poetry)

Currently Reading – Rings of Saturn – W.G Sebald

Read ‘recently’:

  • Signs Preceding The End Of The World – Yurri Herrera
  • The Gospel According To Blindboy – Blindboy Boat Club
  • Fortune Cookies – Jenna Clake (poetry)
  • Solar Bones – Mike McCormack
  • Alarum – Wayne Holloway Smith (poetry)
  • Psalmody – Maria Apichela (poetry)
  • Open City – Teju Cole
  • Pereira Maintains – Anthony Tabuchi
  • Ubu Trump – Rosanna Hildyard
  • Rich Goodson – Mr Universe (poetry)
  • Leaving The Atocha Station – Ben Lerner
  • Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither – Sara Baume
  • The Golden Gate – Vikram Seth
  • Levitation – Séan O’Reilly
  • The Amoeba Game – Tara Skurtu
  • The Pardoner’s Tale – Geoffrey Chaucer
  • A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams
  • Crime And Punishment – Dostoyevsky
  • Sombrero Fallout – Ricahrd Brautigan
  • So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away – Richard Brautigan
  • Lights, Camera, – Stav Poleg (poetry)
  • Othello
  • Macbeth
  • Reading In The Dark – Séamus Deane
  • The Sisters Brothers – Patrick Dawitt
  • Legends of a Suicide – David Vann
  • The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
  • The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster
  • Bear – Chrissy Williams (poetry)
  • Translations – Brian Friel
  • Pond – Clare-Louise Bennett
  • Hostages – Oisín Fagan
  • The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
  • Willard And His Bowling Trophies – Richard Brautigan
  • The Hawkline Monster Experiment – Richard Brautigan
  • The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton
  • The Spinning Heart – Donal Ryan
  • The Mezzanine – Nicholas Baker
  • Beach Boy – Ardashir Vakil
  • Gallileo’s Dream – Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Northern Lights – Phillip Pullman
  • Game Of Thrones – George R. R. Martin
  • The Drowned And The Saved – Yannis Varoufakis
  • The Big Short – Michael Lewis
  • Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

 

Spill Simmer Falter Wither

 

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I have just started ‘Spill Summer Falter Wither’ and I must say it is very good so far. I am about 50 pages in – and nothing has happened, apart from a man has adopted a one-eyed dog.

This is exactly the type of book I like – nothing happens per-se, yet the minutiae of nothing happening is described with such ferocious clarity and precision that every thing from opening a fridge to going to the shop becomes an event worthy of record in its own right. Is this not really how life works most of the time?

Many  books I’ve really liked recently have large amounts of nothing happening – The Wind Up Bird Chronicles (which has a 10 page scene with a man sitting at the bottom of a well), Leaving The Atocha Station, Open City, Mezzanine (now there is a book where nothing happens – 3 page foot notes on the invention of the bend in a straw), Reading In The Dark, Hunger, Sombrero Fall Out, Tristram Shandy, The Adventures Of Augie March. You may have noticed there is a distinct lack of female author’s on that list. This was something that was pointed out to me a while ago by my girlfriend and is, in part, why I decided to start Spill Simmer Falter Wither.

The last plot driven novel I read was probably The Luminaries. I quite liked it (although it took me about 6 months to get through). I was really in awe  of the plotting. How Catton managed to map out and track and weave it all together I have no idea – quite awe inspiring. But on the whole I like books where nothing happens, it seems.

And the less that happens the better.

Jack Underwood’s 20 Poetry Tenets

Keeping with the theme of guidance for writing, I reckon you could do worse than follow some of Jack Undwerwood’s 20 poetry tenets, which I have pasted below.

I had the pleasure and privilege of working with Jack at Goldsmith’s and although these ‘tenets’ are somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I feel they do in fact say something serious – that poetry must be more than a lecture, more than a self-help or how to guide gifted by the poet to the reader, more than the poet imparting their deep and poetic wisdom and we should be thankful. Above all else, poetry must be enjoyable and interesting – or quite simply why should anyone bother?

You could also do worse than checking out his excellent collection ‘Happiness’, published by Faber.

Jack Underwood’s 20 poetry tenets

Jack Underwood’s 20 poetry tenets

By Jack Underwood 29/07/13

Earlier this month the Faber New Poet and all round creative good egg, Jack Underwood, began tweeting his poetry tenets. So, young poets, take note. These may well make you a better writer…

  1. No word is poetic. Only ideas are poetic.
  2. Poems should not recount events but be events.
  3. In poems, don’t talk like more of a knob than usual.
  4. A poem is a question and not an answer.  
  5. If a poem wanted you to know exactly what it was about, it would be a boiled egg.
  6. A poem is the shoe you saw as a child, by the side of a road, and you asked yourself about.
  7. Good poems are like the thoughts of awful tennis players between points.
  8. Description refers to something in terms of what it is whereas poems refer to things in terms of what they are not.
  9. Never put out a burning poem with a wet person.
  10. Plath: “I have never put a toothbrush in a poem”. “My next poem is called The Tootbrush,” says the next poet.
  11. All sighs are poetic because they shift the feeling without altering the context.
  12. The more something tries to convince you, the less convincing it sounds.
  13. A figure of speech is a public figure, and therefore should not be trusted.   
  14. Form is a kind of visual grammar, not a job description.   
  15. A poem is getting into a too hot bath without any water in.
  16. There’s only a bit of “craft” in “art”.
  17. “Hello” said the poet. “You don’t live here anymore,” said the poem. “But you can look round”.
  18. When you’ve finished writing a good poem, it should feel like you’ve just borrowed a close friend’s saxophone.
  19. Language isn’t fixed so you don’t necessarily have to break it.
  20. You will find less than five really good poems.

 

Selected from the @underwood_jack Twitter feed 09.07.13 #poetrytenets

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Bandersnatch and Creative Collaboration by Diana Pavlac Glyer — A Pilgrim in Narnia

I am a rapid writer, someone who works in fits and starts. I benefit from binges of work, closeted away to get down what’s been rolling around my chest for hours or days. It took a decade for me to figure this out—and another half-decade to be okay with it—but I know how I work […]

via Bandersnatch and Creative Collaboration by Diana Pavlac Glyer — A Pilgrim in Narnia

Teju Cole on writing

Ever since reading his excellent ‘Open City’ I have been a big fan of Teju Cole. He is often described as ‘Sebaldian’ (you know you are doing well when you get your own adjective!). Now, I have never read Sebald but if Cole is really Sebaldian I will be adding him to my reading list. I came across Cole’ s advice on writing  at http://www.aerogrammestudio.com/2014/09/24/teju-cole-rules-on-writing/ and have pasted below for any writer’s looking for inspiration or any teachers wanting to help their creative writing students.

Teju Cole’s Rules On Writing

Teju Cole's Rules on Writing

 
In this guest post Emmanuel Iduma, co-publisher and creative director of Saraba Magazine, shares some inspiring and practical advice from Teju Cole.

Eight Letters to a Young Writer evolved as a fictional exercise addressed by Teju Cole to an imaginary young Nigerian writer. With the encouragement of Molara Wood, the editor of the series, Cole tried to move from discussions of simple writing precepts to more complex things like voice and calling. Those pieces, first published in the now defunct NEXT newspaper, were made available by Cole as a single downloadable PDF file. From that PDF I have gleaned 20+ tips/lessons on writing. I consider the letters one of the most important resource on the art of writing fiction that has come out of Nigeria in the last five years. And I share in Teju Cole’s aspiration that young writers in Nigeria and elsewhere find the tips useful.

Here, then.

  1. There are few things more resistant to tutoring than the creative arts. All artists are after that thing that resists expression.
  2. Keep it simple. There are many who use big words to mask the poverty of their ideas. A straightforward vocabulary, using mostly ordinary words, spiced every now and again with an unusual one, persuades the reader that you’re in control of your language.
  3. Remove all clichés from your writing. Spare not a single one. The cliché is an element of herd thinking, and writers should be solitary animals. We do our work always in the shadow of herd thinking. Be expansive in your descriptions. Dare to bore.
  4. Avoid adverbs. Let the nouns, adjectives and verbs carry the action of the story.
  5. When reporting speech, it is enough to say “she said” or “he said.” You must leave “he chortled,” “she muttered,” “I shouted,” and other such phrases to writers of genre fiction.
  6. Aim for a transparent style so that the story you’re telling is that much more forceful.
  7. Read more than you write. In expressing the ambition to be a writer, you are committing yourself to the community of other writers.
  8. Your originality will mean nothing unless you can understand the originality of others. What we call originality is little more than the fine blending of influences.
  9. Be ruthless in your use of what you’ve seen and what you’ve experienced. Add your imagination, so that where invention ends and reality begins is undetectable.
  10. Be courageous. Nothing human should be far from you.
  11. Avoid writing narratives that have only a single meaning
  12. Characters do shocking things, not because the author wishes to shock, but because it is in the character of humans to misbehave.
  13. If you are withholding information, there should be a reason for it. The trick of it will be to give information, when you give it, in a way that feels organic.
  14. Continue to fail better—failure of a kind that might even be better than certain forms of success.
  15. One of the things that matters most is voice. Great writers know all about it, and ordinary writers ignore it.
  16. What all great works have in common is that the voicing is secure. There is evidence, throughout, that how the tale is being told is precisely how the author wishes it to be told.
  17. Try to better bind the reader to life. Place at the heart of a story a voice that is neither so vague that it applies to everyone, nor so eccentric that none can relate to it.
  18. What I try to do in my work is to find out how the gestures of various arts can be smuggled beyond their native borders, music that exceeds music, painting that exceeds painting.
  19. Look at your environment as though you were a child, or a foreigner, or an alien from another planet. But to see what is happening, you need to reform your eyes. Your writing talent should consist of making the ordinary interesting.
  20. In a field of unexceptional events, zoom in on the pungent detail. Your sensibilities have to be retrained so that they catch what others miss.
  21. Luxuriate in the formalized chat that is called an interview. At times, you can read something in one of those conversations that feels like it is a secret code passed from the author directly to you, in the guise of a public utterance
  22. Keep an inner fire; keep it on your own behalf and on behalf of so many people who are suffering because of the system.

Teju Cole was born in the United States in 1975 and raised in Nigeria. He is the author of Every Day Is for the Thief and Open City, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Internationaler Literaturpreis, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the New York City Book Award, and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His photography has been exhibited in India and the United States. He is Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College.

Image Credit: Teju Cole