Hannah Petch reviews The York Centre for Writing Poetry Series event, with Poet Will Harris!
On Monday 25th November I attended the second event of this semester’s poetry series; a reading and Q&A with poet Will Harris.
Will Harris is a writer of mixed Anglo-Indonesian heritage, born and based in London. He has worked in schools, led workshops at the Southbank Centre and teaches for The Poetry School. Harris kicked off the evening with a few readings before partaking in a Q&A with Caleb Klaces.
Prior to that evening I hadn’t read any of his poetry, however hearing him read aloud definitely made me want to buy a copy of his book. My favourite was a poem set in Wetherspoons, which Harris claimed he didn’t read out that often, as it required a lot of energy. And it was definitely energetic! It was really interesting as a Creative Writing student to hear a poem like that, it seemed more like a piece of theatre than a poem; it definitely gave me a lot of inspiration in terms of my own poetry. His poem ‘Another Life’ was also really interesting and sparked a lot of questions in the Q&A that followed. Harris wrote the poem after being shortlisted for a poetry prize against another poet, whose politics he did not agree with, and then subsequently lost out to that poet. It raised a lot of questions about prize culture and, as poets, who we write for. There was an interesting discussion about whether we ever write anything just for ourselves, or do we always write with the knowledge and intention of it being read by other people?
Overall, it was a fantastic evening. Will Harris is an excellent poet, his first full poetry collection ‘RENDANG’ is forthcoming in 2020, I would definitely recommend keeping an eye out for it.
There are also more events coming up in the poetry series next semester to coincide with the York Literature Festival with some fantastic poets, including Fran Lock and Mary-Jean Chan, already confirmed.
Find Will Harris on twitter or on his website for more information about his upcoming release and more of his exciting poetry!
We may as well start with the big leagues! The York Waterstones can be found on Coney Street and is definitely worth a visit, student or not. There is a wide selection of books and (as you probably know) more can always be ordered in. Our Waterstones is smaller than most in the big cities but certainly fun! The staff are friendly, there’s always tonnes going on – most recently a Harry Potter night that sold out almost right away – and there’s a lovely café on the first floor to have a sip of tea and read your new bookish purchases.
This Waterstones in particular is extremely child friendly, for children of any age. With the children’s section taking up almost a quarter of the ground floor, complete with a play area and small seats, it’s the perfect place to encourage kids to get reading.
The one small issue at Waterstones is that recently the horror section has been integrated into fiction making it harder for novice horror fans (like myself!) to browse the genre as a whole. But on the upside it’s made the Science Fiction section much bigger!
Though it may be small, York’s Waterstones is a lovely place, but we’ll see how it measures up to the rest of York’s wonderful independent and charity bookshops in the coming weeks!
Printed in the anthology of ‘Best British Short Stories’, Ellis Sharp’s story ‘The Writer’ had a lot to prove from the outset. It does not disappoint. Sharp manipulates the reader, scattering description and metaphor in a surreal context, introducing giant slugs, ravens that appear to have a sense of staging and a massive eight-legged creature. The story behaves as if it is a journey through a strange Picasso painting, wandering through strange images that are frequently symbolic or carry contextual baggage.
However, Ellis then rewrites his entire narrative, shattering everything that he has created through his direct address of the reader. The end result is a self-reflective story that question’s its own fantastical narrative as Sharp admits that the story is only remotely based on something real. The reader’s suspension of disbelief is torn down to recognise the story as just that, a story. Sharp demonstrates the power that the writer has over the everyday, to twist it into behaving however they like and the reader’s wish to believe whatever is written, no matter how unbelievable.
The question that the short story asks the reader is: ‘how much reality and how much fantasy do you expect a story to contain?’
Valente based Deathless (2011) on the Russian folktale, The Death of Koschei the Deathless, which can probably be best compared to Bluebeard. Ivan marries the warrior princess, Marya Morevna, who forbids him from entering their cellar. When he inevitably does so, he finds Koschei, a demon, chained up. Cue trials by Baba Yaga, numerous coincidences, a battle, and a happy ending.
In Deathless, Marya is the protagonist, rather than Ivan, which allows Valente to answer the question of why on earth Marya was hiding Koschei down there in the first place (something which Alexander Afanasyev clearly forgot to ask when The Death of Koschei the Deathless was first collected in Narodnye russkie skazki). The imagery and scope of her novel is as rich as one would hope of a fantasy kingdom running parallel to revolutionary Russia.
The novel is only made a tougher read because Valente is preoccupied with the inevitability of the fates of Marya, Koschei and Ivan. She clearly wants us to question the agency of a fairytale heroine, but by having characters that know exactly what will happen, and say as much (frequently) it serves to weaken the tragedy. She doesn’t so much toy with the element of surprise, as beat it into submission, and also tends to be heavy handed with large and anticlimactic time jumps between the sections of the novel.
The structure of the novel is frustrating, but the beauty of Valente’s unambiguous, vivid prose makes Deathless overwhelmingly readable.
I’ve yet to meet someone unsurprised to learn that the Studio Ghibli anime, Howl’s Moving Castle (dir. Hayao Miyazaki) was based on a 1986 novel of the same name, and the first of Wynne Jones’s Castle trilogy.
The book being so little known is probably due to the radical approach Ghibli takes to its adaptations; other western fantasy novels adapted by Ghibli include Tales From Earthsea, from the Earthsea novels by Ursula Le Guin, Arietty based on The Borrowers series by Mary Norton , and Ponyo, inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid.
As Howl’s Moving Castle goes, book and film are a study in opposites. Jones avoids the conflict of war; Ghibli gives us a magical dogfight. The book’s sense of place and imagery is weaker than the vivid look of the film, but the plot is more detailed and expansive. Jones’s kingdom of Ingary is more logical than the groundless magic typical of Ghibli.
Despite these radically different approaches, Jones’s Sophie is still at the centre of a Bildungsroman, but with a stronger sense of agency, her own magic, and holds her own against Howl’s tantrums. Howl’s back-story is fleshed out with an almost C.S. Lewis parallel world absent from the film; Howl is pathetic, and a more overt womaniser, making the ending hard-earned and satisfying.
The book is far and away the stronger narrative, but the film has Ghibli’s inimitable aesthetic presence. The two versions of the story support one another; they’re both too good to need to compete.
Jack Fallows is a comic book artist and illustrator from Newcastle Upon Tyne. He has been self-publishing comics for the last 12 years and reading/making them his entire life. He worked at the Travelling Man comic book shop for 5 years, where he founded the Paper Jam Comics Collective in 2007. Between 2008-2011, he delivered workshops in schools, libraries and youth centers teaching young people how to make their own comic books. This eventually led him to pursue a career in primary teaching. His work has been sold and exhibited internationally and his latest title Axolotl has been reviewed highly. For more information on his works, go to: http://jackfallows.com/
What inspires you most? Do you act on all inspiration or choose which ones will be worth it?
I consume quite a lot of art and I think that’s an important thing to do regardless of which creative sector you’re working in. I’ve had movies inspire my music, I’ve had paintings inspire writing, I’ve had music inspire comics etc. I find artists who care about their craft and who have something new to say most inspiring. But what motivates me to sit down and do things is really just looking back over the last thing I did and hating it. It sounds kind of cynical but being able to pick fault with your own output, striving to make it better and wanting to make sure it isn’t the last thing people see before you die really lights a fire under you.
If you do any contract work or commissions do you just do what they’ve asked for or strive for something inspired?
It really depends on the client. I do a lot of commissioned work in the local music scene here in Newcastle and that’s always a lot of fun. Lots of the bands and promoters know my work now and give me a lot of free reign to take the seed of an idea and put my mark on it. Because I teach full time now and don’t need the money as much as when I was self-employed, I’ve decided these are the only commissions I’ll be taking on for the foreseeable future now. It can get extremely arduous and self-deflating working with clients who are trying to get an end result from you based on work they’ve seen by other artists, without really considering your own merits or limitations. Unfortunately, even as a freelancer, you mostly have to subscribe to the motto of ‘the customer is always right!’
Have you ever started writing anything and changed it radically mid-way through because you’ve been inspired differently?
I don’t think I’ve ever sat down with an idea and stuck with it right until the end. Even the act of creating something changes it from an abstract notion in your head to a concrete thing in front of you. A lot of the time, I’m making decisions as I go, especially with illustration work and with prose. Comics don’t have quite as much leeway because you have to consider everything at the same time but they do constantly evolve and change. Is it okay to have multiple projects going at the same time?
For absolutely no reason whatsoever, I’ve spent most of my creative career under the assumption that it isn’t okay to have multiple projects going at the same time. In the last year or two, however, I’ve been trying it out and the results have been incredible. Instead of trying to plough through those not so enjoyable projects and really struggling to motivate myself, getting behind on deadlines, scolding myself etc. I’ve been balancing those out with other, smaller and easier jobs. That means all the projects are getting done faster and to a better quality, and I’m not going gradually crazy. I guess everyone works differently but I’d definitely recommend trying it both ways to see what works for you. Of course, the danger with taking on multiple projects is spreading yourself too thin and not being able to manage time properly. But as long as you’re sensible and keep dates and deadlines in mind, you should be okay!
How do you begin your writing/drawing?
It’s different for each project. With longer stuff like The Big Bang, I started by deciding on everything that needed to happen in an issue. Then I broke that down into events, pages, panels etc. Then I wrote a script for the whole issue and kind of did thumbnails as I went to make sure everything flowed okay. After that, I took it a page at a time and pencilled, inked, scanned and shaded each page in order, on A3 paper that would be reduced to A5 for print. But I found this really laborious so I’ve taken a completely different approach for my new (and I believe, better) title Axolotl. A lot of this, I’m making up as I go along. It’s an anthology of short strips, so I can dip in and out of each story depending on whether the ideas/motivation are there. This way, nothing is forced and I’m having fun doing it – which will always improve the quality of the output. I’ve given up on adding greyscale because I don’t think the results are worth the effort – at least not with my work – and I’ve been enjoying the challenge of making striking images in pure black and white. I’m also working entirely in A5 Moleskine sketchbooks now and drawing when I’m out and about in coffee shops and pubs etc. which breaks up the monotony of sitting at a drawing desk alone for 8 hours and gives the stories more context.
What about music, do you do lyrics or music first?
From time to time, I’ll be humming away and come up with a little song in my head that I’ll then set music to. But usually, I just mess around with different instruments and if a nice sounding riff or melody emerges, I’ll let the mood of that dictate what the song will be about and set lyrics to it. I love making and performing music but I don’t really have any idea what I’m doing, most of the time. Do you then use an editor to finalise your work?
When I’ve worked on anthologies, there has usually been editorial input. Alexi Conman worked as a co-writer and editor on The Big Bang but that was a very natural, collaborative kind of arrangement. If I’m self-publishing, I take complete, megalomaniacal, creative control over everything that happens. I think listening to and acting on feedback from peers is really important though, so I’ll often take works-in-progress along to the Paper Jam Comics Collective meetings to see what people think.
When you were younger did you decide to become a writer/artist/musician/teacher?
Since I was about 5 years old, I’ve always enjoyed writing and drawing and making comics and playing songs. I think everyone pretty much keeps doing the things that they enjoy for as long as they enjoy them and I’m still not tired of any of it. It wasn’t until I had to start thinking about GCSE subject choices and A-Levels and job prospects that I started researching ways to make money from any of it. While I was self-employed, I started running comic workshops for kids and realised that I loved the creative challenge of teaching and that’s what led me down that career path.
Should new writers accept working for free?
A horrible drawback to working in the creative sector is that unfortunately, yes, it is the industry standard for you to prove your salt for no money to begin with. That’s why it’s best to do this while you’re still in education so that you can make inroads and do some networking before you’re out there in the big wide world. I did a lot of free gig posters while I was at university and that’s why I’m being paid to do posters and album artwork etc. now. Writing and drawing are extremely competitive fields and getting yourself noticed is a big challenge. Equally, you need to realise your own worth and not be afraid to make that step into saying ‘you need to pay me for this service’ when the time is right.
Any advice for aspiring writers or students?
If you don’t enjoy writing or drawing or whatever it is you’re hoping to turn into your career, don’t bother. You’re setting yourself up to either fail or somehow succeed against the odds and be unfulfilled for the rest of your life. Enjoying what you do enables you to keep things fresh, stay motivated, meet deadlines, improve your craft and put out the kind of work that people want to pay you to do. The worst thing that can possibly flash into your brain is ‘Hey, this seems really popular and lucrative, maybe I’ll give it a shot’. I often meet people new to the comics scene, who have seen a handful of superhero movies and come to conventions with an idea for a 500 page graphic novel. You need to take the time to understand what you’re getting yourself in for before taking a dive as big as that otherwise the rejection can be really discouraging. Dip your toe into lots of things and figure out what inspires you the most.
A long time ago you told me that things get so much better after high school. When would you say are your best years?
Hopefully I’m yet to have them! My school years were pretty rough but everyone has different experiences. I think I might have just been listening to ‘You Were Cool’ by The Mountain Goats a lot when we had that conversation.
How do you market your self-published works?
I go to comic conventions, get work stocked in comic shops and use Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, Etsy and my own personal website online. I’m very proud to say that the comic scene is extremely welcoming of new-comers, so don’t be afraid to use any of these avenues if you’re looking to get involved.
For more of Jack’s writing, artwork and music, go to http://jackfallows.com/
So it’s been a pretty exciting November. On the 7th we had a fabulous book launch with Nuala Casey and Matt Haig here at YSJ. Matt read from his latest novel, The Humans, and reminded us all why it’s great to be a human, from the point of view of an alien. Matt’s lively and moving writing is highly recommended. Nuala Casey, a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing here at YSJ, read from her debut novel, Soho 4 a. m. Nuala held the audience with her atmospheric and gritty prose, taking us through the shady streets of Soho. Nuala doesn’t wait around either, her next novel, Summer Lies Bleeding will be out next summer. Both writers responded to questions from the audience with generosity and refreshing honesty, and we all got an insight into the discipline and hard work necessary to become a successful writer.
Last week we were incredibly proud to see our first cohort of joint honours Creative Writing students graduate in the grand York Minster. We were all dressed in our finery, struggling to balance our hats and comparing our gowns. JT Welsch definitely won that particular contest…
We know that all our students are going on to do great things, and are happy to have the pleasure of continuing to teach some on our MA.
Finally, novelist Barrie Sherwood gave a wonderful reading of his latest work, Sandia, yesterday evening. Barrie was a lecturer here at YSJ for five years and recently left to teach in Singapore. It was lovely to see him again, and lots of his previous students turned up to wish him well and thank him for being an inspirational teacher. Barrie’s new novel is remarkable, a work that shows a novelist at the height of his ability. I was bowled over by the control and power of the prose. I can’t wait to read the whole thing.
There are more exciting events coming next year, including a reading of Holophin by Luke Kennard, who will be joined by Tom Chivers of brilliant independent press Penned in the Margins. We are also welcoming an literary agent, and looking forward to the York Literature Festival, where we’ll get to see Germaine Greer, Nicholas Royle, Alison Moore, Emily Berry, Helen Mort, Rebecca Goss (to name only a few).
To help celebrate National Poetry Day on Thursday 3rd October, The Basement at the City Screen held a poetry reading, featuring our very own Creative Writing and English Literature tutors, Abi Curtis and Steve Nash. With the theme being poems around the water, the poets read and performed their best water-related poetry, as well as other non related themed poems. Some were serious; some were funny, but all in all, a very entertaining night indeed.
With each poet reading their work while engaging with the audience, and then introducing the next poet (including a funny introduction from Steve, pretending to mix up Abi Curtis with the actor Tony Curtis) it was a great way to enjoy all the readings and to get to know the poet a little bit.
Before the reading, I and a few other students weren’t really sure what to expect of the whole event. We had never been to a poetry reading outside of university, and although we had our own ideas, we were generally clueless.
Despite it being slightly different from what I imagined it would be like, it was certainly a fun night, and everyone I asked seemed to think that too. For me, it opened up a new experience and positively altered my views towards poetry. If you’ve never been to a poetry reading before, I would recommend you try it at least once, for it’s surprising how it can change your feelings for it.