Friday, July 30, 2010

Get ready for some contemporary Austrian poetry

For some time I've been listening to "Nachttaxi", the German-language podcast of Austrian author and poet Martin Auer. Sadly, the author has been experiencing some health problems which have resulted in the suspension of the podcast for some time. However, I've long been impressed with Auer's voice, with its combination of honesty, world-weariness, and compassion. Auer spent six months working as a driver for call girls in his home city of Vienna and wrote a book about it, "Hurentaxi: Aus dem Leben der Callgirls" that Auer serialised on his literary podcast.

The book offers a deeply moving glimpse into the lives of these disadvantaged young women, largely from Eastern Europe, who come to work as prostitutes in Austria, often for financial reasons - they can make ten times the money they'd earn as waitresses or nannies, and infinitely more than they could earn at home. Auer's reportage is unflinching and unsentimental, revealing the most confronting details without ever devolving into any kind of salaciousness. It documents without judging or theorising, allowing his depictions of these girls' circumstances - enlivened in the podcast by Auer's pitch-perfect impersonations - to speak for themselves. At the same time, the author doesn't try to paint himself out of the picture. He is not afraid to reveal himself and his own weaknesses and conflicts. Auer's compassion for his subjects is evident throughout, and the portrait of the man is as interesting in its way as the picture of Austrian prostitution.

Auer has also written some very fine poetry, which I've long wanted to have a stab at translating, so I could share it with others (alas, I have few German-speaking friends!). I wrote to Martin Auer and he has agreed to allow me to publish some of my translations of his poems on this blog, a prospect I'm quite excited about. I've finished the translations and sent them to the author, whose English is good, for approval before posting. So hopefully within the next few days I'll be able to share with you some of my favourite works of his: little gems that I think work very well in English, though they'll never be quite the same as they are when performed by Auer himself, in his gravelly, soulful German.

If you do happen to speak German, check out his website at

Monday, July 26, 2010

More ideas about ideas...

I was just interviewed by Alec Patric on Verity La on the subject of the ideas that fiction springs from. You can read the interview here. I've had a few follow-up thoughts to that discussion which I thought I'd record here. What sparked this was the experience I had this morning of successfully bringing a song back from inside a dream, something I've never achieved before. I've actually quite often had the experience of hearing music in a dream and desperately wanting to be able to record it - but of course it evaporates like so much mist as soon as I wake up. This time I was actually able to hold onto the tune and the words - even if the words were a little strange upon waking. It certainly aint 'Yesterday', which was also born in the dreamworld, but it still seemed pretty good when I was singing it in the shower... Unlike dream jokes which are always so 'hilarious' at the time... Well, it will be interesting to see what I can make of it with my guitar.

Anyway, the upshot of this was that it caused me to reflect upon the source of ideas again, and the mysterious way they seem to come from both within and beyond us. The power of this song, regardless of whether or not it turns out to be any 'good' in a musical or poetic sense, was that it came straight out of my innermost being in response to certain things in my life I've been grappling with. It was in fact the answer to these questions, a sort of spontaneous soul-song that expressed the powers I needed to call forth in myself in order to overcome those particular struggles. Not an intellectual insight such as we might get out of therapy, but a sort of home-brewed musical-rhythmic-poetic medicine.

When something like that song comes in a dream, the 'otherness' of the creative source is very apparent. I didn't sit down and try to write a song, I just found my dream-self singing it, with intense emotion. The surrounding dream was permeated with a sense of beauty and mystery - that strange aura that Jung called the 'numinous'. I remember seeing white birds flying at an immense altitude, so high I at first mistook them for satellites or shooting stars against the backdrop of the night sky. This sight filled me with awe and joy. It's the sort of compelling vision we try to capture in poetry or fiction, even though our words always fall short.

The vision seems to come from beyond us, and we have the same sense when we are writing with inspiration, "in the zone". Words that give you chills as they come off your hands. But is it really beyond us? Only if we think of ourselves as that part of us that is made of the prosaic stuff of everyday life: our tired old thoughts and motivations and habits, everything circumscribed by the known. But take a look at any child and it is apparent that in our essential being we are made of something far more illustrious than that. We do get so encrusted with the detritus of accumulated life that we lose touch with the living substance that we are really made of. I'm thinking of Joni Mitchell and Shakespeare: we are stardust, we are such stuff as dreams... etc. We lose touch with it, but it is there under the surface, like a subterranean river, like lava beneath the crust: the inner process of our life, always flowing forward.

That is my argument against the notion of the short story writer "living off his principal", this scarcity idea. The literary agent who put forward this theory may well have been a lover of literature, but he was not a writer, he was not a creator. Under the surface there is always the stream of Images. And nor is it hard to find, not really. It's there like a silver vein running through that story or poem or song you're working on, that little glint of the numinous woven into the weft of the thing. You can always tug that thread, follow that vein down.

The thing is it takes courage to go there, because this liquid stuff is also destabilising, transformative, demanding. It undermines our comfortable lives, asks for more, reflects truths we'd rather not see. This is where our wounds and secrets and fears lie. It has real significance and moral weight. That's why we fear it and suppress it even while we pretend to cultivate our creativity as if it were a tame thing. Beware: here be sea monsters! But our folk tales tell us that where the monster is, there also is the treasure.

Friday, July 23, 2010

I recently finished Emmett Stinson's "Known Unknowns" - the latest in Affirm Press' Long Story Shorts series. I enjoyed the book greatly. Emmett writes like a writer, and that is no mere tautology. He's a writer who makes you trust him to the point that when he does indulge in some wild experimental excursion , you're willing to follow along, assured that he is still in control, even if on occasion you might feel a little lost! Emmett's a smart guy and his fiction reads that way: it's clever and challenging and absolutely contemporary in its sensibilities. For me the combination of street-wise edge (shades of Thomas Pynchon's 'V') with elegant, razor-sharp prose is very appealing. I think my favourite story was "The Sound of the Fury". It's worth the proverbial price of admission for the title (understood in context) and the last line alone.

My only gripe with the collection are the few moments when the heavy fingerprints of academia smudge the otherwise pristine prose. Academia is so often about proving you're clever enough to master the argot, and there were just a few moments in this collection where I felt the author was trying to impress me with his cleverness. In the Age Short Story Competition winning "All Fathers The Father", for example, we get a brief serve of Lacan's theory on the role of the father, followed up by the ironical observation that it's all "a load of horseshit". So why bring it up? To dazzle the reader with ideas that the author's dismissal seems to imply he is too clever for? Don't get me wrong, I loved this story in so many ways, but I remain unconvinced that the short story is the right forum for excursions into academic philosophy. By all means, provoke thought, but let's leave Lacan in the Baillieu, please.

Nevertheless, I strongly recommend you go buy the book. It's not always easy, but it is funny, it is surprising, it is intelligent and you'll definitely know you've just read the work of a real writer. Can't wait for Emmett's novel. I just hope he doesn't try too hard.

On my own writing front, jazz-focussed literary journal Extempore will be publishing my story 'The Thief', the tale of a jazz guitarist in the sixties running from commitment into a desolate future. The story was an example of how long it can take to shape a story. I actually submitted the story that 'The Thief' was based on to Extempore's short story competition in 2008, where it got precisely nowhere. I knew it wasn't right, and I think I must have written six different incarnations of the same story before finally nailing down this one. It was a case of fiction winning over over reality. The story started as a sort of melancholy ode to my old jazz guitar teacher Peter Roberts, who died of a stroke probably ten years ago. It ended up as a purely imaginative riff based on something he said to me once about hearing Procul Harem's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" for the first time. That happens to me increasingly these days: a root in the solid earth of autobiography puts forth an entirely fabulous tree.