Summer Reading Series: Sam Jordison & Stefan Tobler

It’s the end. Cases are packed. Summer jobs replace exams and deadlines. Offices are emptying; library books are back on the shelves. Is anyone still out there? And are you doing any writing?

If so, Sam Jordison and Stefan Tobler may want to know about it. They are on the hunt for literary talent and when they find it, they shout about it. Against the odds, the finance and the logistics they have compelling success stories to tell. They may look and sound gentle enough, but Jordison and Tobler are dynamos of the indie publishing world and an increasing threat to the bosses of big book publishing.

Amy Sackville; Sam Jordison; Stefan Tobler

Amy Sackville; Sam Jordison; Stefan Tobler

Jordison set up Galley Beggar Press in 2011 with Eloise Millar and their bookseller chum Henry Layte. It began when Layte was approached in his Norwich bookshop by an author unable to place his manuscript, a curious bit of ‘autobifantasy’ about the writer’s great-uncle Robert Graves. Layte read it and passed it to Jordison and Millar, who felt it had to be seen. Unwilling to leave the author at the mercy of vanity publishers, Jordison and co set up a press and printed a thousand copies of the book. The White Goddess: an Encounter by Simon Gough received rave reviews. ‘Thankfully’ says Jordison ‘we sold all the copies, so we didn’t go bankrupt.’

Since the first of those thousand copies hit the shelves, Galley Beggar Press has thrived, building a steady reputation as a publisher of solid literary fiction with surprising sales potential. When they launched Eimear McBride’s Baileys Prize-winning first novel ‘A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing’ last year, they knew it was good, but Jordison hadn’t foreseen the level of success it would bring. ‘Having a big prize winner on the list has been a huge boost.’ If you look for a copy of the novel on the GBP website, the gratifying words ‘sold out’ appear – but they certainly don’t apply to the publishers themselves, who are holding firm to their indie mantra of being ‘an old fashioned publisher for the 21st century’.

It’s a similar story for & Other Stories, the press set up by Stefan Tobler in 2010. Tobler was a freelance translator with a passion for Brazilian poetry. Frustrated by the decisions of big publishers who, for commercial reasons, failed to invest in writers deserving of an audience, Tobler set up his own company to do just that. & Other Stories publishes quality fiction and poetry written in and translated into English. Starting small with seed funding from the Arts Council, Tobler looked to the 18th century business model to run his press. ‘We run by subscription’ Tobler explains. By using crowd funding, the emphasis is not on pleasing a board of directors but on bringing books to an appreciative audience. Pay an annual subscription fee – ‘the cost of a magazine’ – and you can receive up to six books a year through the post, and know you are helping keep the publishers and their principles afloat. More on this, and on the ethics of the press, which is run as a not-for-private-profit company, can be found on the & Other Stories website.

Tobler’s dream of bringing a new readership to existing writers has extended into publishing debut novels. Like Galley Beggar Press with McBride, & Other Stories hit gold with the publication of Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, shortlisted for the Booker in 2012. Titles from indie presses are filling up the literary shortlists. While the big publishers remain risk averse, smaller houses have the time to invest in new or overlooked authors. ‘We are small and agile as an indie press’ says Jordison. ‘We are not tied to some person that has the chequebook. We are the chequebook!’ Tobler agrees, although he admits the chequebook is still pretty small. What about the lure of money for writers who are getting some interest? ‘Big publishers can take up authors once they are established’ says Tobler. ‘We’ve both lost authors that way.‘ It’s a sorry tale of riches over loyalty, but both publishers shrug it off – they have earned their stripes this way. And there are plenty of reasons why a writer should go indie regardless of the money. Both Jordison and Tobler love books as objects and believe in the aesthetic of the book. They use the same printers – ‘people with pride in what they do’ – to ensure consistent quality. They invest in their authors, promote them, support them with readings and appearances and get their books reviewed and onto prize lists. Alongside the traditional values of book publishing, they embrace the possibilities of technology too. Galley Beggar Press promote the short story as a monthly ebook sent to subscribers, a piece of hand-selling that, as Jordison points out, is only ‘possible through contemporary technology’. For Tobler, Twitter is a useful tool for creating a buzz about a book. ‘A large part of the publicity for literary books is through word of mouth, not on the sides of buses. Social media is great for this.’

If you are looking to get signed up by either press, you could be in luck. Both Galley Beggar Press and & Other Stories operate an open submission policy. You don’t need representation by a literary agent to be considered: there are no gatekeepers in the indie world. All Tobler asks is that you buy one of & Other Stories’ books – a policy that Jordison vows to take on. After all, ‘if you aren’t interested enough to buy one’ says Tobler, ‘why would you want to be published by us?’

Given the evidence, why would you want to be published by anyone else?

Galley Beggar Press is based in Norwich where the founders have their roots. Find them at . & Other Stories straddles continents, if in an unassuming eco way. Visit to find out how. Both presses and Tobler and Jordison are active tweeters, so do look them up.

That’s it for the term and the academic year. Thanks to our postgrad readers from the last in the Reading Series: Matthew West, Beau Jackson, Michael Milton and Jacob Peatey. Thanks for being at events, for listening, writing and reading.

Campus may be quietening down, but the summer will be full. There will be festivals. There will be nervous interviews. There will be grand graduation ceremonies in Canterbury Cathedral. And maybe there will be some Kent CW leavers in literary shortlists before the next year is out.

Have a great summer.



Summer Reading Series: David Miller

The decorous beige face of Keynes SCR is wearing a slightly twisted complexion. Design work on the walls, heads in glass cases, ceramic shopping bags. Flags of oversized print hanging above the audience. A man in an apron flaunting kitchen utensils over the speaker’s right shoulder. Postcards of grimacing Elizabethan clowns dishing out steaming bedpans.

The backdrop of the Fine Arts degree show may have heightened the irreverence, but David Miller doesn’t need much encouragement. Here was plain-speaking from the first moment. Miller interrupted his host (and client) David Flusfeder to rephrase his opening remarks: ‘I’m editing already’.  After the postgrad readers – Katie Szyszko’s memories of wheat barns and family tragedy, Alex Carey’s pacifists at an air show, Melissa Hicks’ sentient mirror and Charlotte Geater’s dawn gin & tonic – Miller deflected the attention back to the audience. If we had questions, we were to interject, not wait politely for the end and forget what we wanted to say. ‘I’m not here to do a miserable parody of a Samuel Beckett monologue.’

agent & client: David Miller, David Flusfeder

agent & client: David Miller, David Flusfeder and some familiar CW faces

David Miller has been an agent for half of his life. He schooled in Canterbury, studied theology at university and ‘hadn’t a clue’ what to do next.  Then he was tipped off ‘by the woman who was the object of my desires’ about an agent who represented ‘everyone I had ever told her to read’. The agent needed an assistant. Miller sent in his CV, and after three months of silence he phoned to ask if there was a still a post. There wasn’t, but he got an interview anyway, and started soon after as a receptionist at the agency where he still works, Rogers, Coleridge & White. ‘I was a smug twenty-three year old. I didn’t know anything, but I stuck around and now represent the authors I’m proud to have on my client list.’ It’s a list which includes Kent tutors Flusfeder, Scarlett Thomas and Abdulrazak Gurnah. So how do aspiring writers get on it, and what would someone like Miller do for them anyway?

Miller described the literary agent as ‘the ghost in the machine’, a shadowy role that encompasses counselling, representation, being a middle man, handling money, nursing bruises, industrial espionage, match-making and ‘acting as a Jiminy Cricket’. By way of explanation, Miller read an extract from the work of one client, Keith Ridgway, featuring a down-at-heel writer lunching with his exuberant agent. The writer, while determined to retain his integrity, is penniless, recently dumped and really just wants to get drunk. The agent, whose significant pauses are intended to suggest import but actually signify confusion, bemoans those publishers who only pay for inconsequential trash, and suggests that the writer gets a job to keep him afloat. Could he teach Creative Writing, perhaps? The writer is horrified. The agent smoothes him down.

Miller batted away applause for his reading. ‘Save it for Keith. Buy his book!’ When asked if this story was typical of the agent-writer relationship, Miller claimed that his relationships with authors are ‘singular’, atypical, and that the whole business is ‘disgustingly promiscuous’. Does every writer need an agent? ‘I have never said that a writer has to have an agent. So why do they?’ Miller puts it down to the amount of legal bureaucracy thrown at them by publishers. ‘A writer wants to go off and write. Some might want to run their own business, in which case they don’t need me to do it for them.’ An agent’s job, Miller said, is to ensure that a writer reaches ‘the audience they deserve’, but he baulks at the sense of entitlement that some writers convey. His own experience as a novelist made him realise that ‘a lot of people whine’, something he has no time for.  ‘When I took on the writer Magnus Mills, he drove a bus. He’s written nine books and he still drives a bus. He doesn’t feel entitled.’ By staying in the world of work, Mills is also well placed to gather inspiration for his writing. Miller admires those writers who have ‘lived a bit first’ and started their careers later in life, such as Penelope Lively and Anita Brookner: writers who embrace the ‘slow build’ of a reputation, rather than chasing the money and ‘going for advances’.

Miller conceded that publishers take fewer risks these days. ‘There was more originality and risk-taking twenty years ago’, when publishers were willing to create a readership for new authors. ‘It’s no surprise that people who have won prizes lately have been with smaller publishers, where there’s more ‘room’ for them.’ But publishers have to make their money too. ‘A publisher isn’t a charity.’ As far as Miller is concerned, part of the problem is that books are just too cheap. We’ve lost respect for them.  ‘You don’t think twice about spending £10 on a Pizza Express pizza, where the ingredients probably cost 60p. But you if you go into a bookshop and what you want isn’t in the Buy One Get One Free you think you’ve been diddled. Why do we think the price isn’t worth the value?’ While Miller feels that some of the blame for this rests with the publishers and their price wars, and the stranglehold of a few retailers, it is also our fault for ‘not valuing our literary culture’.

Much of what Miller had to say about selecting writers chimed with Lee Brackstone’s talk the week before. ‘Write a good book. Be careful about it, think about it and mean it.’ Miller won’t accept a partial manuscript, although other agents may. He doesn’t need any more clients, so if he takes one on, he knows it’s because he really wants them. Don’t send him your manuscript just because he has published something similar before (‘why would I want it if I’ve already got one?’). He promotes what interests him, which is why his list is ‘all over the place’.

If your idea of an agent combines the starchy non-nonsense comforts of a house matron with the irreverence and comic timing of that Elizabethan clown, David Miller could be the man for you. Find out more about him at

Last of the season: Ink, Sweat & Tears and Sabotage Reviews, 11th June; Gallery Beggar Press and & Other Stories, 18th June. Keynes SCR as usual, £2, 6pm start.

Keep writing.



Students in print

The new term is swiftly upon us, a summer that will see many Kent Creative Writing projects come to fruition.

The Reading Series will welcome professionals from the publishing industry over the coming weeks. Students will be able to share their work, receive advice and get questions answered. And many of them will already have something in print to share and celebrate.


The Book Project is a hugely popular module with Creative Writing undergraduates at Kent. An intensive course run by Simon Smith, it gets students writing new work with ambitious scope, building up a body of pieces or a novel that acts not only as a portfolio but a finished, saleable product. Students visit the Poetry Library in London and look at artists’ books in the Templeman. After a period of writing, planning and workshops, each student produces a finished book that is printed, glossily bound and ready for sale. A reading and launch is held. Participants get a true taste of the gigging writer’s life: deadlines, jacket designs, nerves, a live audience, applause. Selling and signing books. Exhaustion and elation.

What do they make of the process? I asked Joe Hill, whose experience with publishing his first poetry collection through the project may have given him the live reading bug. He found the module useful and informative. ‘While it’s been great on the creative writing side, it’s been equally useful to know about self-publication and the like.’ There’s a distinct camaraderie to the Book Project too – the students are in this together, facing similar challenges rather than bowing their heads over solitary desks or fire-fighting those editorial deadlines alone. ‘Like so many of the creative writing modules, you really get to know your fellow students well on a personal level.’ And what about the launch itself? ‘The reading was nerve-racking,’ Hill admits, ‘but really gratifying as a book-end (no pun intended) to the module.’

MA students have been getting their teeth into the magazine industry with a module run by Dragan Todorovich. Well versed in this medium, Todorovich has organised his team of students to work to professional industry standards. ‘I have organised the whole process to resemble editorial work in a proper magazine.’ There are five students in the group, each taking a clear role as well as forming the magazine’s editorial board. ‘This approach is working very well’ Todorovich says, with the team steering away from traditional forms of print-on-demand and opting for a magazine in a box.

Box[ed.] is in its final production stages now. As well as writing their own creative pieces during the term, the students have been active in advertising the magazine and seeking submissions, reviewing proposed pieces, working on design and production costs, building an online presence and keeping a journal of the whole experience. Editor-in-Chief, Jane Summerfield, has been keen to keep up the pace. Her task has included a firm grip on editorial meetings – ‘cutting down the chat’ – and reducing over 70 submissions to a final list for publication. The team has met regularly and reported back to Todorovich through weekly seminars, combining editorial with workshops of their own writing. ‘We informed our leader about our progress with the magazine and about the submissions we had,’ Summerfield states. After weeks of planning and work, the project started to come together and seem real. The boxes arrived, ready to be filled with the final selection of new writing. ‘It felt like a proud moment, as if we had all overcome another challenge with the project.’ Choosing the pieces wasn’t easy. ‘The process was heavy, and challenging people’s opinions was a tough action as Editor in Chief. Ultimately I made the call on pieces with a mixed reaction.’ But rejection from the magazine isn’t the end point. Summerfield has made a point of writing to all hopefuls, successful or otherwise, and asking them to keep in touch. The team is working on new projects and there will be further openings for student writers. ‘One of which is the new website, where we hope to have a writer’s spotlight and sub-sections of writing. An online presence is important.’

Find that presence at and keep up to date with publication and launch news.

More student work can be found in the new anthology Kent Review. Volume 1 of this biennial series will be launched on May 14th. It’s a book of some 30 selections, showcasing pieces from current and recent Creative Writing postgrads. Amy Sackville, one of the book’s creators, is justly proud. ‘The book itself is looking beautiful, with an elegant, contemporary design befitting the brilliant work within.’ And the work itself? Expect short pieces and extracts from novels in progress on diverse topics, ‘bees, bikes, ghosts, happiness and jazz…short stories that will make you think and leave you moved, unsettled, and possibly disturbed; poetry full of flair and flex, pushing at the boundaries of what text can do, and exploring the spaces left behind and between words.’

Kent Review 1 will be distributed to publishers, agents and the media, highlighting the writers and their potential. Celebrate the launch with staff and students at Waterstones, Rose Lane, Canterbury on 14th May, 6.30pm. The book will be available to buy at £7.99 at the event, from the Centre for Creative Writing and from Blackwell’s bookshop on campus.

See you at a reading soon.



Spring Reading Series: Open Mic

A change to the line-up of the last Spring Reading Series from a poetry double-bill to – well, a slightly different poetry double-bill, with side dishes. As Jane Monson was unable to join us, Patricia Debney joined forces with fellow Kent poet and tutor Nancy Gaffield, followed by an open mic featuring staff and students.

The premium spots of the evening gave us five minutes apiece of poised, polished poetry Patricia Debneyfrom experienced readers. Debney began, offering a change from her prose poetry (as seen in collections How to be a Dragonfly and, more recently, Littoral) with some works from her ‘newish collection’ Baby. Here were open planes of poems, free verse forms with the odd catch and hook of internal rhyme and assonance. Within each frame, microcosms of emotional relationships and the hovering presences of parental figures. ‘I can’t see your face’, we were warned, ‘it is some kind of horror space’. Seeing and not seeing: vastness and minutiae. The ‘I’ of the poems charted ‘water of biblical proportions’ and the rolling fog that ‘settles into valleys’, obscuring the view through a windscreen. Under the same scrutiny came a litany of material objects, ‘coral, gold pendants needing chains, kaftans’, the stuff of tasteful but empty riches that prove ‘hard to live with’. And as if a piece of trumpery can pass judgement on its wearer, the ‘single eye’ of a silver pearl ring ‘stares right at me…until it closes’.

Gaffield’s recent experiments have been with mathematical poems, employing geometry and the Golden Ratio. Working with the Fibonacci sequence has produced syllabic verse reflecting structure in sound as well as providing ‘attraction of form’ on the page.Nancy Gaffield Gaffield has been working on a sequence of these with fellow poet David Herd for performance at the forthcoming ‘Sounds New Poetry’ festival (see below), ‘but I’m saving these’… Instead we were given a poem inspired by Da Vicni’s Vitruvian Man, exploring the ‘harmony of symmetry’, while other pieces expressed and reflected upon sound and form. These were poems full of atmospheric landscapes, plays of light and natural forces. Wild weather and the wilful elements are not to be shifted with ‘soft syllables’ or ‘antiphonal phrases’. Even the laws of language and abstract mathematics are no match for a proper Kentish flood.

After our scheduled readers, MC Ben Hickman opened the floor to those brave / foolish enough to sign up on the door, whether they had planned to or not. The rules were clear – one poem or one page of prose. Offerings could be rough and raw works in progress or finely tuned and edited finished pieces.

There were plenty of takers.

First up was MA creative writing student Jane Summerfield, whose poem ‘Batteries Included’ – relating the exploits of a hormonal slumber party – has been created under the supervision of Gaffield.  Tutor & PhD poet Kat Peddie followed with a two-line poem in honour of the lost word ‘owhere’ (inspired by Gaffield’s recent pamphlet of the same name), committed to memory but jotted down ‘just in case’. Neelam Saredia, a final year CW undergrad, performed a memorised poem ‘Dress Sense’, a dress rehearsal of sorts for the Gulbenkian Poetry Slam (with prompt notes, ditto). In the only prose offering, I slipped in a page from my recently finished novel Eden (thanks for the cheers at this announcement). Tutor Juha Virtanen gave us another paperless piece, a word explosion extracted from a long sound poem, read from the screen of his phone. Geography and otherness peeped through the poems ‘My Friend from China’, read by Edward Greenward, and an extract from Sam O’Hana’s long poem, also written under Gaffield’s supervision. O’Hana was followed by three fellow final year CW undergrads: Tom Cox, who read his prose poem ‘Citizen’s Advice’, featuring cannibalistic chickens and chronic dissatisfaction; Joe Hill, whose joyfully silly and poignant ‘Much Against Everyone’s Advice’ chronicled a life of bad decisions and loss of body parts, and James Richardson, who gamely read a poem of muddy sinking and slippage, fresh from the clay of a recent seminar, which he titled on the spot ‘Already Stuck’.

after the open micAfter the readings and the consumption of all remaining wine, the talk and drinking moved downstairs to the Keynes bar, where the evening was balmy enough for us to sit outside and pretend it was already Summer Term.

This may mark the end of the Spring Reading series, but there is plenty more to come. Next term the Centre for Creative Writing will host a series of evenings with publishing professionals and readings from MA students. Many staff (as seen and heard above and elsewhere) will appear at the ‘Sounds New Poetry’ festival in May: for more details see the listings at . Some of Kent’s dedicated CW students, led by organiser Sam O’Hana (also see above), will be hosting the UK’s first Creative Writing Undergraduate Conference, ‘Vox’. The programme will run during the exciting ‘Full English’ literary festival taking place at Kent this June. Undergraduate creative writers from all universities are encouraged to submit proposals to ‘Vox’: the deadline for abstracts is 15th April 2014. For more details and the call for papers see .

Look out for a last spring blog celebrating our students in print, a final flourish over the Easter vacation…




Spring Reading Series: Alan Hollinghurst

Keynes SCR: fresh paint, beige carpets begging for red wine spills, standing room only at the back. A suitably salubrious setting for Alan Hollinghurst, ‘one of the guiding sprits of the Creative Writing Department’, whose novels The Line of Beauty and The Stranger’s Child are set texts on Undergrad and MA courses at Kent.

Alex Preston & Alan Hollinghurst

Alex Preston & Alan Hollinghurst

Alex Preston cited Hollinghurst as ‘one of the greatest living prose stylists’, a title that foreshadowed the main point of debate for the evening. Laurence Norfolk famously complained that Hollinghurst ‘doesn’t do plot’. A fair comment? ‘Plot is the thing that interests me least in a book,’ he admitted, ‘but I concede that it has to be done’. In poetry, image and sound are what matter, skills which Hollinghurst, first published as a poet, continues to bring to his prose. Starting a novel is not about sharing a story but ‘establishing the detail, the atmosphere’ from which the book can grow. He begins each novel with a new notebook, ‘and anything germane to that book goes in it…building up a world.’ From there, narrative style and characters grow, and eventually, something of a plot. (Reassurance for those in the audience who struggle with narrative structure.)

This interest in the atmosphere of a book is reflected in Hollinghurst’s literary benchmarks, in the ‘intimate, domestic scale’ of Woolf or Henry James, where chronological elision piques the reader’s interest.  Time passing without extended commentary causes the reader ‘to scramble to work out what has happened’ and to follow the development of character and action more keenly. Hollinghurst also places great emphasis on the pattern of the prose itself, of ‘wanting sound and rhythm in a paragraph to matter’.  Is this his poet’s ear at work? ‘I know when words are not sitting right’, he said, but also admitted that he dreaded ‘poetical novels’. ‘Somehow there is a need for the novel to be more robust.’ While he would love to go back to poetry, ‘it wouldn’t have me’. Aside from his pastiche of Rupert Brooke in The Stranger’s Child – a novel that Preston described as ‘the biography of a poem’, Hollinghurst has been bereft of ‘poem-shaped ideas’ for some time.

Preston praised the authentic feel of The Stranger’s Child, and asked how much research matters, given that we are in a ‘literary culture obsessed with historical authenticity’. ‘Who wants to shed daylight on magic?’ Hollinghurst replied. The ‘act of imagining’ matters more than being able to explain ‘how everything in the room is made’. A shunning of the historical novel that wears its research on its sleeve, but an admission that the writer ‘has got to get things right’. Easy enough in the age of the Google search. ‘The etymology of words is important’ too, not only to ensure credible speech for characters, but perhaps to create that illusive web of atmosphere that holds Hollinghurst’s fictional worlds together.

When his ‘twenty minutes of fawning’ were over, Preston requested a reading of ‘the most beautiful paragraph’ of The Line of Beauty, which closes the first chapter (page 19 in the paperback: read it and see why). Hollinghurst consented, summoning in delicious tenor tones the cloistered communal gardens of Kensington, ‘the dingy glare of the London sky’ fading into ‘weak violet heights’, the cool accomplishment of other people’s lives where Thatcher’s darlings hold al fresco supper parties, the open windows backlit with success. Like Nick, ‘leaning out over the iron railing’, the audience was rapt, ‘swept to the brink of some new promise, a scented vista or vision of the night, and then held there’.

After the readings, questions from the floor about finishing – or even starting – a first novel, the financial implications of writing a long novel, Hollinghurst books as style guides and writing gay sex. And after the applause, the unfurling of audience members from islands of unspoiled carpet, where the dangers of red wine and enthusiastic dialogue were clearly far from over.

Next Wednesday, the School’s own Patricia Debney will be joined by Jane Monson for a final Spring Reading. 2nd April, 6pm in Keynes SCR.

See you there.


Alan Hollinghurst is the author of five novels, including the 2004 Man Booker winner The Line of Beauty. His latest novel, The Stranger’s Child, was published by Picador in 2011.


Spring Reading Series: Evie Wyld

Walking to the Eliot SCR on Wednesday: spring warmth, gloaming mist, blackbirds singing in the trees. Blackbirds, unseen, clattering and whupwhurring somewhere nearby. And no other sound but the song of blackbirds.

My ears were tuned to Wyld wavelength. Her novel All the Birds, Singing, echoes with caws, screeches and cacophonous onomatopoeic renderings from crows and kookaburras. Birds are ominous, stress-triggers, links between two parts of a narrative: a dangerous past in the outback and escape to the freezing fogs of isolated island life.

Wyld, Preston

Evie Wyld; Alex Preston

Evie Wyld was in conversation with Alex Preston, who she first met midnight skinny-dipping in a lake at a UEA conference. It’s a rapport that made for a dynamic and relaxed Q&A. Introducing Wyld as ‘one of the best young writers anywhere, full stop’, Preston asked how she had faced following up the success of her first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice. Wyld said the pressure was slight; she spent over four years writing on All the Birds, Singing, reshaping the narrative structure and worrying about writing the same book twice. The two novels deal with similar place and matter, but as Wyld stated, she was ‘still interested in the same stuff’, and ended up tackling the same ideas in unique ways.

The structure of Wyld’s novels, which Preston referred to as ‘reflecting and refracting parallel narratives’, were a key topic for discussion. Having ‘confused readers’ with her first book, Wyld had intended to write a linear novel, but found that the story ‘told itself better if folded in on itself’. Following two narrative strands, All the Birds, Singing is written both backwards and forwards, producing one complete chronological account. The protagonist, Jake, lives in the present day on a sheep farm in an unnamed, imagined British island. Her past as a teenage arsonist, homeless prostitute and sheepshearer in Australia is revealed in reverse. To make matters more complicated, Wyld delivers alternative chapters of each narrative strand, writing the present in the past tense, and the past in the present. By placing these together, Wyld hoped to create a ‘third space’, just as colours resonate differently in juxtaposition. ‘I like the ambiguity of this’, she said, ‘of readers not being able to pinpoint where they are’.

Research for both novels came naturally. Wyld’s mother is a native Australian, and Wyld herself has lived there for periods. She expressed a ‘homesickness’ for Australia but an awareness that she doesn’t fit into the world of her ‘macho, hero uncles’ and their sugarcane farms, preferring the liberal cosmopolitanism of London, where she runs an independent bookshop. Writing about a place ‘where you are not’ comes easier to Wyld: ‘childhood memories are brighter’, she explained, and these are a ‘place to go to start on creative work’. When writing about the ‘reality in front of you’ it is ‘hard to let imagination take over’. Wyld found the contemporary UK sections of All the Birds, Singing much harder to write than those set in a recent Australian past.

Preston asked Wyld about her literary influences. Despite running a bookshop, Wyld considers herself ‘very badly read’, but cited Tim Winton as the first author who really made her ‘wonder what characters got up to next’. ‘My favourite book is always the last one I read’ – making the current star Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.

Responding to recent comments by Hanif Kureishi on the value – or otherwise – of Creative Writing studies, Wyld was quick to defend her MA experience at Goldsmiths. In a dead-end job at the time, Wyld saw the course as an opportunity to ‘take a year out to write’ without the pressure of other work. She advised against the culture of ‘sentence to novel to agent to publisher’, a hothousing of novel-writing at university that leads to the expectation of publishing success. Instead, ‘coming to stuff like this’, hearing writers read and discuss their work, working on craft at sentence level and a diverse and challenging reading list were what ultimately made her a writer. (As Preston pointed out, All The Birds, Singing is already core reading at Kent.) And when publication comes, Wyld’s advice was rare and valuable: take notice of independent booksellers, promote in small bookshops, ‘because these are the people who hand-sell your books’.

What can we expect from Wyld next? In place of birds, a graphic memoir with sharks. ‘There is something interesting about our relationship with sharks’, Wyld claimed, speaking of them as the last object of universal fear: ‘people feel they are ugly, malevolent, coming for you, if they had legs it would be game over… Oh, I’m doing my shark thing again.’ Aside from the graphic novel with artist Joe Sumner, she is working on a ‘new normal novel’ based in the UK, an ‘imagined memoir’ about her Grandparents’ relationship. Wyld is aiming to keep this one linear. Whatever form the narrative takes, the novel will be anything but normal.

Next week, novelist and translator Maureen Freely. Wednesday 19th March, 6pm.

Until then.



Evie Wyld is included in Granta’s list of Best of Young British Novelists 2013. All the Birds, Singing was published by Jonathan Cape in 2013, was shortlisted for the Costa Award and has just been longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize.


Writers, don’t get too comfortable.

We like to ensure that Kent writing students don’t get too comfortable sitting at their desks. Sometimes they need to take a pair of scissors to their text. Sometimes they get to finish each other’s sentences.  Sometimes we make them walk around in the rain.

Reading Week can mean a lot of silent cramming: reading, essay deadlines, project planning. So in the run-up, it’s good to stretch the legs a little and make some noise.

Here’s how my undergrad seminar group coped when we took a circuitous stroll to the campus labyrinth.

9.30am: Rain check. The slopes of Eliot footpath muddy but passable. The labyrinth lightly littered with sticks. Walking and kicking them aside attracts the attention of a muddy-footed terrier, two excitable children and two women in wellies and macs. One is, I realise, a local poet. We talk about the labyrinth as a place to escape, think, write. The children jump, hop, skip to the centre. The sky is clear. The dog dances with twigs.

10.00am: The rain starts.

11.00am: Seminar on postmodernity and the novel. We negotiate a path through the texts of Lyotard, Jameson and Baudrillard. We talk about smashing through the Spectacle, consider conspiracy theories, the reflective surfaces of White Noise and the fragmented maze of meaning in Pynchon’s prose.

12 noon: Workshop. Students present their ideas for writing manifestoes. What should writing do? There are rants, metaphors and playful typography. The drizzle continues. I propose the labyrinth. Several students whinny nervously.

labyrinth walk

labyrinth walk

1.30pm: The labyrinth. (Light) rain. I offer encouragement: this is a place for emptying the head, focussing ideas. It’s not a race, I say. Think Sebald, I tell them. Think Borges. The students jump, hop, skip and slide to the centre. Some mime a minotaur. They clutch damp notebooks. One of them actually writes things down.

2.00pm: Rain stops. The students squelch away, some smiling. Some grumbling. Maybe, just maybe, they will remember this.

Using the labyrinth for creative writing: three ways in

1)      The nugget. Before you walk, focus on one nugget to write about. Maybe you want to brainstorm a setting or character, or you are into a text and a question needs answering. Walk into the centre, thinking about your nugget. When you arrive, stop, get out your notebook, write your ideas down. Walk back out the way you came: your notes will echo in your head. Sit down when you return to the beginning: keep writing. It’s miraculous, but it works.

2)      The hiatus. Take a piece of text – a short passage of prose or poetry – and read the text to yourself as you walk. Whenever the path changes direction, stop and mark that point in the text. When you have finished the walk, use those marks to rework your text. Turn them into line breaks, or end points for cut-ups. Make them peaks and troughs. Let the labyrinth reshape predictable sentence constructions.

3)      The stream. Freewrite as you walk. Avoid all punctuation. Stop when you get to the centre. Walk back again, reading the text to yourself. Use twists and coils in the path as moments to pause, punctuate and edit.


Poets on the new undergraduate Innovative and Avant Garde Poetries module got to grips with sound and concrete poems this week. Here’s a glimpse of what they’ve been up to.

Do try this at home (though you may want to wait until the house is empty)

1)      Take a poem or piece of text. Choose one sentence that sticks out for you. What happens when you break that sentence down into its component sounds? What happens when you rearrange those sounds? What happens when you repeat some of them, or omit some of them? Write / compose a poem making use of these sounds.

2)      Choose just one letter of the alphabet and write down, for three minutes, a list of words that explicitly incorporate that word in all its phonetic guises (eg. for C, cat, cheetah, ceiling, chaise-longue etc). What happens when you break these words down into their component parts? Compose a poem that seeks to explore that letter of the alphabet in all its sonic possibilities.

3)      Sound and Performance Poetry Warm Up – begin to create a performance poem:

–  Using the recording device on a laptop, phone or other piece of equipment, make a recording of one of your shortest poems or a verse of a poem that you have written.

–  Read it a second time into the microphone in one of the following ways: shouting, whispering with your eyes open or closed, singing. Try to ‘lose yourself’ in this process. (Improvise on your original poem at this point if you wish to).

–  Select one word from your poem and reproduce its individual component parts – vowels and consonants; stretched, percussively or other. Experiment with the pace or musical tempo of your delivery by doing this either in slow motion or in very rapidly repeating sounds.

–  Aim for a recording length between 30 seconds and 3 minutes.

–  Email the resultant sound clip to yourself or to a friend. Errors are fine and there is no need to re-do the entire clip unless you wish to. Feel free to add any additional sounds that you feel contribute to your poem or to the experience of performing and hearing it.


For now, heads down and get those essays finished. But when the deadlines are over, get moving. Take your notebook out walking. Take it to dinner. At least buy it coffee somewhere: it will pay you back.

Don’t forget the next evening of the Spring Reading Series: Janice Pariat, Keynes SCR, Wednesday 5th March, 6pm.

Happy writing.


Many thanks to the students of my EN679 seminar group for being (reasonably) game, and to Nell Perry and Amy Evans for their inspiring poetry exercises.


Spring Reading Series: One Maria, Two Maggies and some music

Jamie McCarthy

Jamie McCarthy

A tempest raged, birds flew backwards and the M2 was closed. Eliot SCR was a beacon in the grey. A lone fiddle playing jigs and reels, the clink of wine bottles and the murmur of shirked coats: Wednesday’s reading felt more Tipperary tavern than literary salon.

There aren’t many authors who bring along their own musician: maybe they should. Maria McCarthy warmed up her audience with Irish tunes performed – and later sung – by her brother Jamie. A wise move, as McCarthy’s stories, from her new collection As Long as it Takes, draw on tales from the author’s extended Irish family and heritage.

Here were explorations of displacement, of the old country as home and England as a place to prosper. ‘Some people think Irish people aren’t very clever’, McCarthy’s narrator warned, ‘and you mustn’t give them any ammunition.’

‘A Tea Party’ told of a young girl’s confusion as she attempts to negotiate the adult world:

Maria McCarthy

Maria McCarthy

the roles of men and women, too many babies, Catholic rules and rituals. In this world, ‘God is in the priest’s thumb’ and marital communication stops as soon as ‘there are babies’. Family is subject to the forces of temptation, betrayal and disappointment: tough themes dexterously delivered through an observant child’s voice and strong lacing of wry humour. As the narrator enjoys a secret tea party with her father and the alluring Mrs Roberts, she notices silver balls on the fairy cakes, curling fingernails holding the plate and, leaning forward, ‘the line’ where her host’s ‘bosoms met’. After the adults return from their ‘talk about grown-up things’, the ‘too red’ mouth of the woman looms ‘like the felt pen’ stain her little brother ‘got on the living room carpet’, an indelible act.

Maggie Harris followed with ‘The Calipsonians of Ramsgate’, a story from her recent collection Canterbury Tales on a Cockcrow Morning. An accomplished poet, Harris’ prose swung along rhythmically, full of

Maggie Harris

Maggie Harris

alliteration and striking images. Three young men triumph and falter against the seaside setting of 70s Thanet, until life eventually gets them ‘in the throat’, ‘those beautiful boys’, all dreams of Hollywood glamour choked out by caught fish-bones, cancer and suffocating sickness.

A very different kind of community unfurled in Maggie Drury’s claustrophobic tale ‘Unexplored Territory’. Dysfunctional neighbours spy on each other, negotiating inner and outer worlds: sunbathing women and morning goodbye kisses, ill-conceived infatuations and paralysing private superstitions. Odd numbers

Maggie Drury after the reading

Maggie Drury after the reading

take on sinister significance. ‘The space between two heads is unchartered water’. People inhabit shared spaces, living separate, fantastical lives.

After a song from Jamie, Maria finished the evening with ‘More Katherine than Audrey’, a provocative tale of one of society’s ‘forgotten women’. Noreen inhabits the Longrove asylum, home to wayward women whose madness is signified by a refusal to fit in. A deft character study, McCarthy’s use of voice and subtle, slow reveal made for an unsettling and enigmatic story.

As with all good storytellers, we were left wanting more. McCarthy was careful not to give us the full force of a finished story. Want to know what happens? Buy the book…

As well as being an author and Kent alumna, McCarthy is the brainchild behind Cultured Llama, the independent publishing house set up with her husband, Bob Carling. After starting the press to produce her poetry collection strange fruits – an endeavour in association with WordAid, raising funds for MacMillan Cancer Support – Cultured Llama opened up for submissions of poetry, short fiction, and what McCarthy describes as ‘cultural non-fiction’.  According to McCarthy, running a small press is a labour of love, but this operation can ‘provide a better experience for readers and authors than the large publishing houses.’ Rather than shipping out stages of production and removing the author from the publication process, Cultured Llama’s books  ‘are edited and designed in consultation with the authors…the cover designs are individual and beautiful’ and, most importantly, ‘they are a good read’.

The Cultured Llama bookstall

The Cultured Llama bookstall

As Long as it Takes is published by Cultured Llama. Buy your copy direct from the author – and publisher – via the website

The deluge of the South West means the enforced cancellation of next week’s scheduled evening with Penelope Shuttle: she may yet join us in the Autumn.

More events after Reading Week: Janice Pariat joins us for the next reading on Wednesday 5th March, 6pm, in Keynes SCR.

Keep dry.



Spring Reading Series: In Protest

Another packed room for Wednesday’s reading, and a subtle shift in demographic. Alongside students, staff and alumni of the School of English: law students, social scientists and human rights activists. What had they come to witness? The radicalising power of poetry.

editor and poets gathering; familiar School of English faces await the reading

editor and poets gathering; familiar School of English faces await the reading

As every Creative Writing undergrad at Kent will know, poetry is potentially dangerous. It can expose, persuade, exploit. It makes the reader see the world differently. It can shake things up. Here was an audience keen to see the process at work. In Protest: 150 poems for human rights is a new anthology produced by the University of London’s Human Rights Consortium and Keats House Poets. The evening’s readers were contributors to the anthology, an experiment, according to one of its editors Laila Sumpton, born of modest aspirations. Putting out a call for poems of exile and protest ‘to create a pamphlet’, the editors were overwhelmed by more than 600 poems. The resulting publication was launched in October last year and features work from established and emerging poets. Sumpton explained how the book – divided into themes such as ‘land’, ‘sentenced’ and ‘expression’ – seeks to ‘rethink the frame of human rights poetry’ and ‘find new directions and ways in’ to the subject.

First to read was Alia’ Afif Kawalit, a PhD research student at Kent and tutor in the School of English. An Arab and English speaker, Kawalit’s poem ‘Turning a Blind Eye’ explored the discrepancies between media reports of violent clashes close to her homeland, Jordan.

Rooney and Kawalit beneath T.S. Eliot's youthful gaze

Rooney and Kawalit beneath T.S. Eliot’s youthful gaze

Sharing a mango with an Indian friend, notions of hospitality are set against the poet’s fears for the future. Imported fruit, like imported journalism, can lose its authentic taste. In ‘Dry Times’, the Arab upheavals (Kawalit shuns the term ‘Arab Spring’, another appropriation) crash into consciousness, where ‘little dreams wake…like whistling bullets’.

These were subtle poems whose power lay in expressive imagery rather than tub-thumping remonstration. Hubert Moore followed with poems of contrast, stating that poetry alone can present unlikely associations to its readers ‘with a straight face’. His poem ‘At the Approach of Dieback’ brought together diseased ash trees and the ‘slippered voice’ of a refugee’s aging parent speaking from afar. Similarly, ‘V Formation’ linked the image of a flock of flying geese with the ‘eleven locked doors’ between the poet ‘and the detainees’.

Kate Adams, an East Kent poet and Kent Refugee Help volunteer, brought personal and professional experiences to the reading. Her poem ‘Five Broken Cameras’, written following the death of a friend and fellow caseworker, set ‘sleet on the streets’ of Britain against ‘blood in the dust’ of Palestine. ‘Maybe the Rain’, another poem drenched in relentless island weather, spoke in broken English to mirror, as Adams put it, ‘the fractured, fragmented world of the refugee experience’.  Speaking directly from this experience was former detainee Ruhul, who Adams first met in the Dover centre. Ruhul shared a single, highly personal work written while in detention. A poem of apology and separation, the poet addressed his children with a string of ‘I’m sorry that’s, a reminder of some of the less publicised consequences of detention.

Last to read was the School’s Professor Caroline Rooney, an arts activist whose self-proclaimed ‘soap-box poems’ presented sharp images of war and protest. These are, said Rooney, ‘poems that won’t stay on the page’. Here were lines which – as dangerous poetry should – climbed in to the audience and slapped them around. We were drily warned that ‘stapling the mouths, not feeding them’ does not make good government. Bombed-out buildings lay open ‘like abstract paintings’. Here were the specifics of attack, the sim cards saved in shoes, the eggs thrown at embassy buildings, the flotilla of aid ships raided en route to Gaza.

the debate continues

the debate continues

Can poems be a force for social change, a tool for campaigning? Kawalit and Rooney cited the orphic quality of poetry, its authentic voice and its transformative power.  Adams and Moore spoke of raising awareness and reaching those otherwise ‘cold’ to the issues. The debate continued beyond the reading, but Ruhul summed it up: voices shout and journalists create headlines, but ‘a book is always there’.


In Protest: 150 poems for human rights is published by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

Next in the series, an eclectic evening with writers Maria McCarthy, Maggie Harris and Maggie Drury. Wednesday 12th February, 6pm.

See you there.



Spring Reading Series: Simon Smith

Seats and floor space were at a premium in Eliot SCR on Wednesday evening as the centre’s own Simon Smith launched his new collection, 11781 W. Sunset Boulevard.

Simon Smith

Simon Smith reading from 11781 W. Sunset Boulevard

Patricia Debney introduced Smith. ‘He lives, breathes, reads and writes poetry like no one else I have ever known’, she said, and praised his ‘always evolving poems’, each work seeming to ‘start afresh’.

Smith explained how the book, in two distinct parts, contains poems ‘about transport, rather than transfiguration’. A modest claim typical of Smith, though it was apparent as the evening went on that change and movement in these poems was about more than the mechanics of wheels and engines.

The collection’s title, 11781 W. Sunset Boulevard, is the address of the Getty Institute’s Accommodation in LA, which Smith visited in 2011 when his wife was a Getty Scholar. What first appears to be a rather static title for such a restless collection – a place fixed down by numbers, a point on a map – quickly gathers meaning. This address is more than a destination. It becomes the centre point of a frenzy of writing: 17 poems in 10 days, according to Smith. It is a springboard for departure, back into the poems of Kent and London in the second half of the book. And it is here that Smith spent a day with the archives of poet and translator Paul Blackburn, a catalyst for his current work on Blackburn and an experience explored in the breathless poem ‘11/1/11’.

Smith’s reading began with the first poem in the collection, a response, he said, to his hatred of flying. Written on the plane, ‘Ode: Sat Nav Narrative on Flying into LAX’ builds up details like dabs in a pointillist painting. Here are times, speeds and distances, precisely measured: ‘450 m.p.h. of ground speed dip down at / James Bay distance to LA 2513 miles local / time at present position 12.30p.m.’ Against this catalogue of control the poet’s eyes are ‘gritty-tired, / dogged, filled with the hours bursting / the grit full hours’. A curl of hair acts as a bookmark. The earth curves. Thoughts of home are suspended at 38,000 feet, where ‘everything’s made to look smaller’. Still, but hurtling forward: ‘now / is the moment for change & everything shifts forward next’.

And everything did shift forward. Smith gave us poems of the moment, postcards of fleetingly glimpsed places, impressionistic brushes with found text, street signs, song lyrics, news stations. Smith delivered them baldly, lines running together, taking us from the convoys of ‘muscle cars’ and motorcades past Pacific Coast palm trees and onto the plane home, a ‘long haul long hop deep breath’ of experience. ‘All these things really happened’ Smith explained, making the collection ‘almost like a diary’.

When the plane touched down, we were back in home territory, with part two of the book, ‘Gravesend’. Here was Smith’s ‘A Theory for a Materialist Poetics’, a poem detailing ‘experience crammed in as far as the eye can see’. Smith’s South East is a landscape of train stations, sweet wrappers and Paul Weller lyrics: washing on the line, brambles and railway sidings, a barely concealed threat of malice. ‘We don’t stop at Deptford. No one dare.’ ‘This is Dartford. This is Dartford. Heed the warning.’ Between the PVC and ice-cream van jingles, glimpses of Catullus, Dickens, Henry VIII. And through these detailed despatches recording the ‘ring-pull moment of chance’, the voice of the poet: clear, insightful, and always ‘in pin-sharp form’.


Simon signing books; some familiar faces from the Centre for Creative Writing

There were many questions, not least from poets in the audience. From Smith’s answers, a piece of distilled advice to keep in any writer’s pocket: ‘If you think it’s a poem, it’s probably not. If you think it’s not, it probably is.’

11781 W. Sunset Boulevard is published by Shearsman.


Next up, readings from the anthology In Protest: 150 poems for human rights, featuring poets Kate Adams, Alia’ Afif Kawalit, Hubert Moore and Caroline Rooney. Eliot SCR, 6pm, Wednesday 5th February.

Until then.



Simon Smith is a senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Kent. His previous poetry collections are Fifteen Exits (Waterloo Press) and Reverdy Road, Mercury and London Bridge (published by Salt). His forthcoming The Books of Catullus will be published by Carcanet.