Reading & Being Read Manchester

Reading & Being Read Manchester welcomed writers, readers, publishers, students, academics and interested members of the public to a full day programme of talks, readings and workshops on aspects of small press publishing.

The Contemporary Small Press’s latest event, Reading & Being Read Manchester, was held at Manchester Central Library on Saturday 12 November 2016.  Organised by Dr. Leigh Wilson and Dr. Georgina Colby, Institute of Modern and Contemporary Culture, University of Westminster, and supported using public funding from Arts Council England, the event welcomed writers, readers, publishers, students, academics and interested members of the public to a full day programme of talks, readings and workshops on aspects of small press publishing.

Leigh Wilson introduced the event, contextualising the themes of the day and saying that ‘small presses are producing some of the most exciting work in contemporary literary publishing’.

Short fiction is a genre still largely overlooked by mainstream commercial publishing, yet Manchester-based small publisher Comma Press is passionate about the development and publication of the short story form.  ‘Something happens in good short stories that’s quite unique to them as a form; the imaginary worlds they create are coloured slightly differently to those of the novel.  Their protagonists are more independent and intriguing.  The realities they depict [are] more arbitrary, accidental and amoral.  Comma believes British publishing is missing out on something in its neglect of the short story, and to make up for it we are currently the most prolific hard copy publisher of short stories in the country.’

Ra Page, founding editor of Comma Press, spoke about the vitality and anarchic potential inherent to literary short fiction:  ‘Literature is about providing alternative narratives to what we’ve been told.  The purpose of literature is to increase sales resistance.’  As a less-commercially-profitable product than the long-form novel, the short story has the potential to both provide an alternative narrative and to offer resistance to the commercial sales imperative of the bestseller.  In this way, and in the sense that the short story is ‘a very smuggle-able form’ in its ability to cross national borders undetected, Page suggests that ‘publishing short fiction can be an act of resistance.’  In recognition that the ‘history of the short story is not confined to one place or country’, Comma Press publishes a wide range of international short fiction in translation – crossing international borders and suggesting alternatives to dominant national narratives.

Writer Michelle Green, whose short story collection Jebel Marra focusing on the ongoing conflict in Darfur was published by Comma Press in 2015, agreed that ‘the space of the short story to do things that are not in service of commercialism feels really urgent right now.’  She also makes the case for short fiction providing alternative narratives, structures, perspectives – a form that resonates with the fractured lives of war and conflict, and with the daily struggle of life with a disability: ‘short fiction as a form is a great place for experiment and shift, and it does not assume resolution.  It does not tend towards the triumph over struggle, the big budget achievements.  It takes life in pieces, and in the world of the story, that one piece is all.  This, to me, feels familiar.  I recognise it.’  She summarises the difference between long-form and short-form fiction by saying, ‘short stories are not tiny novels that are waiting for water.’  Michelle read her tender and beautiful story Winter Song from Jebel Marra – the first live reading of this story that she has given.

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Ra Page & Michelle Green

Perhaps even less commercially profitable than the short story, contemporary poetry is also being passionately published by the small presses rather than the big publishing houses.  Manchester-based poetry press If P Then Q publishes contemporary experimental poetry that’s designed to be friendly, welcoming, and encourage people to read.  James Davies, founding editor of If P Then Q, showed a collection of early matchbox poems he had made with the intention of being affordable, accessible and experimental.  Davies acknowledges that small poetry presses like If P Then Q publish books that wouldn’t otherwise have been published, bringing the work of new and experimental writers to a wider reading public through their reading networks and live-performance events.

The relationship between live performance and the written word on the page is a productive one for If P Then Q.  Poet Holly Pester was initially spotted by James at a performance and he subsequently published her first book, Hoofs, with the press.  For Pester, this relationship ‘opened up new opportunities for publishing poetry as live performance scores, which maintained the trace of the live utterance.  Maintaining the playfulness of live performance was an important part of publishing my first book with If P Then Q.’  Holly says, ‘the shape of the poem on the page and aural shape of the poem in my voice relate to each other in a not necessarily harmonious or analogous way, but they have to set each other off, nervously.’  James notes that ‘editing is an important part of the collaborative process between writers and publishers,’ recalling how Hoofs was shaped collaboratively to include elements of the live performance that they both wanted to ensure were included in the book, even though they weren’t part of the original manuscript.

Holly read extracts from Hoofs, a work she completed six years ago, remarking on its ‘uncannily resonant, playful approach to apocalyptic thinking.’

 

zimZalla’s Tom Jenks broadened the discussion after lunch to introduce ‘avant-objects’ which move poetry ‘beyond the book’.  zimZalla publishes a range of poetry objects that deviate in a variety of ways from the standard book form – from Sue Birchenough’s Takeaway Britain in a burger box to Stephen Emmerson’s aleatory text board game, A never ending poem read with dice that goes on to explore the possibilities of human intervention within the context & illusion of chance.  Jenks says he is interested in ‘reclaiming the physical: the handmade, tactile, imperfect objects; limited in number, locally produced.’  He says, ‘there is a sensuous quality to physical objects that you don’t get digitally, just the pleasure of picking something up and handling it.  zimZalla publications are designed to surprise and delight.’

Tom led an afternoon workshop in collaborative experimental poetry creation.  Working in groups, with improvised phrases and cut-up paper, an experiment in Mobius strip poetry was conducted – the results placed into test-tubes to become unique avant-poetry-objects for everyone to take away.  All leftover phrases were collected into a glass jar and labelled with the zimZalla seal of approval as a collective poetry object.  The experience of live-poetry-object-making was a lively and enjoyable part of the day, getting everyone involved with this tactile and collaborative process of writing poetry.

After the workshop, Sally-Shakti Willow read from The Unfinished Dream published by Sad PressThe Unfinished Dream experiments with a creative writing style drawn from Ernst Bloch’s utopian function of art and literature, predicated on an experience of non-alienation between writer and reader/artist and audience – an experimental form with cross over points between text and image, book and performance.  Publishing with a small poetry press enabled the book to be created to specific dimensions as an A4 chapbook, allowing space for the text and images to be re-presented in their original size – all parts of the book are recombined from a series of handmade originals in A4 exercise books, the aesthetic deliberately evoking the scribbled and doodled pages of a school exercise book to reflect the unfinished nature of the utopian project.

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The Unfinished Dream

The next Reading & Being Read event will be held at Newcastle Library on 18 February 2017.  Details and full line-up will be announced soon!

Life in Pieces

I stumbled around inside each story until I could find my way out. One thing that short stories do is hold a piece, a moment, and in that way they are the perfect medium.

On Saturday 12 November, The Contemporary Small Press will be at Manchester Central Library for our next Reading & Being Read event.  Writer Michelle Green will be joining us to discuss her latest collection of short stories Jebel Marra, and her experience of being published by small publisher Comma Press.  Here Michelle offers fragments of insight into the various aspects of her unusual life as a writer.

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CSP: Your newest collection of short stories, Jebel Marra published by Comma Press draws upon your own experiences of working in a humanitarian aid centre in Darfur in 2004-2005.  You suggest that short stories ‘hold space for the fractured pieces, for the broken bits of something that once made sense’ – in what ways can you liken this to the lives of those you encountered in Darfur, and would you agree that the short story form is the perfect medium for telling those stories?

MG: War fractures what we think of as ‘normal’ life, as does violence, as does forced migration. The pieces don’t match up the same way again. They just don’t. What I witnessed in Darfur is not resolved – not for any of those involved – and its outcomes are far from known. The war still rolls on today, morphing, changing form: now chemical weapons are being used, splintered rebel groups, a rebranded proxy militia. People are still homeless. Perpetrators are still unaccountable. Lives are broken. It’s hard to talk about a warzone in a cohesive way, because a warzone isn’t cohesive. Short stories were the only way I knew to write about something that disjointed and vast, and in saying that, I certainly don’t claim to have ‘covered it’. I know I haven’t. I stumbled around inside each story until I could find my way out. One thing that short stories do is hold a piece, a moment, and in that way they are the perfect medium.

You also suggest that short stories became something you could add to the ‘incomplete images’ of war presented in the UK news media – beyond your own direct experience in Darfur, how difficult or easy was it to research for these stories on your return to the UK?

There wasn’t a lot in the mainstream media outlets. Most of it repeated the same few scraps of information from major press releases (and certain reductionist details, like the view that it was/is an Arab vs Non-Arab conflict – something I tried to draw out in the stories). I had help from former colleagues, and as it took me a very long time to write the book, I was also able to read and learn from the testimonies of others as they emerged – books like Daoud Hari’s memoir of his time as a translator, writing by prominent rebel leaders, work by bloggers and civil activists, as well as the reports and access maps on specific humanitarian aid sites.

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Michelle Green, Jebel Marra: Comma Press

On your website, you’ve made comparisons between the short story structure and living with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME)  – suggesting that it might be possible, or desirable, to ‘write life differently’.  Can you elaborate on this connection and the ways in which alternative structures to the long form novel might provide alternative structures for shaping a living?

This is something I’m trying out day by day. Life with a disability like CFS is constantly changing, stuttering, and it does not fit well into a 9-5, Monday to Friday world in which we are encouraged to make long-term plans based on assumptions of meritocracy and ‘leaning in’. CFS-life is forced stops, abrupt endings, the loss of status, of opportunity, of the ability to hustle. It demands slow in a world that keeps speeding up. It is anachronous to so much of our culture, and to so many of the dominant stories of our culture that deify struggle as something to be – finally! – overcome.

The connection for me is this: short fiction as a form is a great place for experiment and shift, and it does not assume resolution. It does not tend towards the triumph over struggle, the big budget achievements. It takes life in pieces, and in the world of the story, that one piece is all. This, to me, feels familiar. I recognise it.

As far as stories providing structures for living: in the same way that representation matters, that seeing oneself reflected in the themes, plots and characters of our cultural stories is important in helping to form possibility and validation of self, I think that not just content but form itself can offer a reflection of experience, a ‘you are here’. I, like many others, do not live in long form, in linear, or in a commercially viable pattern – and when I experience short form fiction, poetry, and alternate story forms that fragment, shatter and twist, I see my experience reflected, reminding me that, ‘Yes, this shape is real. This shape and this story-world is whole just as it is.’

You have recently begun a new Manchester-based writing project that aims to support attachment and wellbeing: could you explain a little bit about what is meant by ‘attachment and wellbeing’ in this instance, and what the project involves?

WordPlay involves working with literature and related artforms in community settings in ways that help foster good health for those taking part. As a small group of writers and artists, we have been working together for years on what we called life-writing projects, particularly working with people who are vulnerable in different ways, whether that be due to immigration status, gender, or having experienced mental distress, for example.

We realised that what we were actually doing was creating the space for people to make positive and healthy connections (or attachments) to each other, their varied communities, their families, and ultimately to themselves and their own histories. Writing was the tool. We’ve come up against the sad assumption that community arts means low artistic quality, and that is something we actively challenge by supporting and developing excellent writing in our projects. We’re currently developing some work with particular groups of women in Manchester, which we will hopefully be able to announce soon!

You have a history of making zines – can you tell us about one of your favourites: what it was made for, how it was created, what were the ideas that shaped its production? 

My favorite is my first. 1999, Edmonton, Canada: The Back Of The Bus. A big chunky thing made with two dear friends – Shaz, and Shely our fearless leader who already had a few zines under her belt. It didn’t occur to us that we should try to convince someone to publish any of it for us. We just made it.  It was DIY with photocopiers, glue sticks and scissors, and it contains mountain road trips, a pizza review photoshoot, stuff on local bands, essays on mental breakdowns and bereavement and moving, having to move, on coming out in a hostile land, a ton of comic strips and altered ads, art from friends, and a creatively written CV. It reads like a collective diary – big on the self righteousness and big on the love. We made it to distribute around town, but now it feels intensely personal.

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Here’s my home haircutting manifesto (as well as a writer, I’m now also a barber, so I guess that’s been coming for a while).

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Thanks Michelle!  

Michelle Green will be discussing Jebel Marra and her experience with small presses at Reading & Being Read, Manchester Central Library on Saturday 12 November, 11am-4pm.  Tickets are £5.  Manchester-based MA and PhD students can register for FREE.  Click here for more details.

FREE TICKETS for Manchester Students!

Manchester-based MA and PhD students can now register for FREE tickets to our Reading & Being Read event on Saturday 12 November.

Manchester-based MA and PhD students can now register for FREE tickets to our Reading & Being Read event on Saturday 12 November.

Click here for more details and to register for your ticket.

LOOKING FOR SOMETHING NEW TO READ…?

READING AND BEING READ

with Comma Press, If P Then Q, Michelle Green, Holly Pester & ZimZalla

MANCHESTER CENTRAL LIBRARY

Performance Room, Ground Floor

St Peter’s Square, City Centre, M2 5PD

11am to 4pm, 12 November 2016

Tickets £3 before 1 November / £5 after

FREE tickets for Manchester-based MA and PhD students!

Twitter hashtag: #ReadingBeingRead

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Reading & Being Read : Manchester

Reading & Being Read Manchester with Comma Press, If P Then Q, Michelle Green, Holly Pester & ZimZalla

LOOKING FOR SOMETHING NEW TO READ…?

READING AND BEING READ

with Comma Press, If P Then Q, Michelle Green, Holly Pester & ZimZalla

MANCHESTER CENTRAL LIBRARY

Performance Room, Ground Floor

St Peter’s Square, City Centre, M2 5PD

11am to 4pm, 12 November 2016

Tickets £3 before 1 November / £5 after

FREE tickets for Manchester-based MA and PhD students!

Twitter hashtag: #ReadingBeingRead

cropped-cropped-cropped-dpress-e1432290661262.jpg

The last few years has seen an explosion of new small presses and independent publishers around the country, publishing new and exciting fiction and poetry. If you are a keen reader and want to know more about the difference being a small press makes to how they work and what they publish, come along to hear from local small presses, Comma Press and If P then Q. The day will feature readings from two writers, Michelle Green from Comma Press and Holly Pester from If P then Q.

 

Small presses are often able to give much more attention to the physical characteristics of the book. Tom Jenks from zimZalla and James Davies from If P Then Q will be discussing and presenting poetry books as objects to give a creative insight into one of the distinctive characteristics of a small press.

 

If you think it’s fine to judge a book by its cover – and typeface, paper and page layout! – this is the event for you.

Tickets are £5 (£3 for early booking), and can be booked via Eventbrite by clicking here.

MA and PhD students in Manchester can register for FREE tickets by clicking here.

Reading and Being Read is organised by The Contemporary Small Press at the University of Westminster, Institute of Modern and Contemporary Culture, supported by public funding from Arts Council England.