Michael Loveday Interview with Jonathan Cardew
Welcome to Connotation Press, Michael Loveday. We’re thrilled to have you aboard the May Issue!
You recently started a new venture called Pagechatter, in which you write and invite others to write about the intersections between prose and poetry. Can you tell us a little about the genesis of this project?
Thanks Jonathan. Glad to step aboard. With Page Chatter, I kept feeling an urge to draw something different into my routine, and to give back to the writing community – with something that wasn’t about my own writing. I thought hard about setting up a publishing house, or a new magazine (I ran a poetry magazine from 2005-2012), but in the end was persuaded by the idea of experiencing new territory. I decided: why not explore my three favourite forms (flash fiction, poetry & prose poetry) through a series of interviews, celebrating other writers and their craft? I’d encounter new writing, and I’d learn from studying writers closely. I hoped that other people would find it interesting too.
Poetry, flash fiction, and prose poetry walk into a bar. What happens next?
The novel is a bouncer at the entrance, trying to block them. Poetry gets a black eye, prose poetry is sent home for not wearing the right shoes, but flash fiction charms its way in – and then probably asks screenwriting to buy a round.
You work as a creative writing tutor, a manuscript editor, and writing workshop leader. What’s the worst advice you can give to an aspiring writer? The best? What was the most helpful/ least helpful writing advice you ever received?
That’s such a tricky set of questions! I do think it’s possible to give too much advice. I’ve certainly made that mistake before, and probably keep making it. Sometimes its best just to throw one tennis ball, and then make sure someone has caught it.
I once had a tutor who pretty much focused on one thing only in his fiction feedback, which was to hammer home the message of single-mindedly depicting a character (via their actions) moving through time from a consistent point of view. I had a term’s worth of workshops with him, and he never seemed to comment on anything else, only a series of variations on this theme. At the time, I felt some frustration at the repetition, but actually he was doing really really good work –we badly needed his advice at that time (and probably still do).
Often, advice from teachers has merged together, to the point where I can only occasionally remember who introduced what idea to me and when. Some gems I do remember: of endings, Kathryn Maris saying, “close the door, but leave it ajar”; recently Shira Erlichman posting on Twitter: “Sensuality > Concepts” (an expression I love – so much better than that reductive cliché “Show Don’t Tell”); David Lehman: “Nouns and verbs are trombones and trumpets, adverbs and adjectives are like the triangle”; Paul Perry: this Chuck Palahniuk essay about “burnt tongue” and “received text”; Philip Gross saying “Be sceptical of people who “understand” too much. Not knowing is part of the art.”
In your story, “Trapeze with Fire Jugglers,” I love the juxtaposition of the Russian trapeze troupe on television and the conversation between the mother and daughter (especially at the end when we have the two competing images of a “cold metal slab” and the portly men hurling flaming torches in the air!) How did this story start--with the trapeze troupe or the mother/daughter dynamic? Tell us a little about your writing process when it comes to flash or hybrid prose.
I don’t really have a general process as such (every new piece seems to emerge via its own rules). This story started via a writing prompt on a course with Randall Brown (thoroughly recommended – the course book “A Pocket Guide To Flash Fiction” is fascinating reading): write a story beginning with an incident that challenges a character’s belief system, and ending with the character reaching some new understanding of the world. I latched on to a dynamic between mother and daughter.
The story got churned through a lot of drafts, as mine always seem to do. Early edits involved rewriting the beginning to feed in the exposition gradually (the first draft had begun with backstory). It was obvious once Randall suggested doing so, but not evident to me in the very first draft.
Only later did I drag the description of the circus act into the foreground – a circus on TV was mentioned in passing in the third or fourth draft but it took a while before I started describing it in more detail. And then, eventually, the circus started demanding to have the final say in the story.
To be honest, I’m not sure I can claim to know everything that the final image is saying. Not understanding this sort of thing can help me to write something that more strongly resists closure. I love working with the unconscious in that way. I began with poetry, and it encouraged me to enjoy symbols and images and “saying the unsaid”. European poets of the mid-20th century, especially, are celebrated for using images or metaphors as a tactic for outwitting the censor, often (in their case) for political reasons. Sometimes I like trying to outwit my own censor, saying something for which I don’t have words, or something that is code for something else, even if I don’t know what that is.
Congratulations on your forthcoming book with V Press! What was your process/experience of pulling together a collection of flash, editing it, and then sending it off into the ether?
The process was long, confusing, frustrating, revelatory and rewarding all at once. The manuscript took me 6 and a half years to write (though I did work on other things as well during that time!). I worked through hundreds of drafts and asked a number of people to comment before I considered sending it out. Publishing individual stories in magazines helped sustain my belief in the project, but it felt like tough going at times, as small details matter so much in flash fiction, and the project seemed to be only crawling forward. On the plus side, it taught me a lot. Maybe.
What creative projects are you working on at the moment? Anything else in the pipeline?
I haven’t written many new pieces recently – work has taken over. I hope to restart in the summer. I do have some other manuscripts on the go – a miscellaneous flash fiction collection, a poetry collection and a separate poetry pamphlet. I’ve got an idea for another novella, but I’d prefer to get one of the other manuscripts out of the way first. Juggling four manuscripts at once has been a bit crazy! Though, no doubt, I’ll find some other way to make things difficult for myself. I quite like the idea of doing some critical writing about science fiction at some point. Fingers, pies.
Trapeze With Fire-Jugglers
When she came to me one morning, all wet-eyed and incoherent, you’ll forgive my surprise:
“I’ve done it, Lulu. It’s over.”
“What’s over, mum?”
Her hands were fidgety. She was chewing her lower lip. “Kevin. I showed him alright.”
“Kevin, that guy I’ve been telling you about for the last six years.” I had no idea who Kevin was. “The guy who’s been screwing me up all this time. Now who’s screwed up!”
Over and over my mum had rescued me from my crises when I’d no right to expect help. Debts, dictator-boyfriends, reckless colleagues – mum would materialise, rescuing her daughter with a cheque, a hug, a re-written email. Mum was always right about my world.
“Mum, what have you done?”
“I left a letter for his wife. At their home. He’s away in Oslo – some… conference.” She voiced the word with disdain. “By the time he gets back he’ll be ruined.” She picked at a flap of skin at the corner of her mouth, looked at it on the tip of her finger, then swallowed it.
It had never mattered to me that she was hopeless at managing her own life. When it came to me, by some miracle she always dredged up solutions. When you watch someone graduate from shit-soiled nappies to shit-stained adulthood, you’re entitled to act the authority. But now she looked at me with an expression that made me uncomfortable.
“Well, whoever he is and whatever you’ve done, he deserves it,” I said. “You’ve always told me not to lead a double life.”
They’d been lovers, she confessed, since my dad died. He’d promised to take care of her, leave his marriage, fill the hole in her days. And now, after six years, my mum had klaxxoned her existence to Kevin’s militant, silicone-enhanced wife.
I turned down the blare of the TV – some Russian circus act cavorting round the inside of a tent – and sat on the rented sofa beside her, reaching my arm over her shoulder. “Mum, it’s okay. The world’s not ending. You’re safe, you’re loved.”
Except suddenly she seemed inconsolable. The regret was evident in broken, sobbed phrases, her reluctance to drag her gaze from the floor. Maybe she should… should’ve given him a bit more time. She’d risked the whole relationship. He’d never leave his wife now. He’d never… forgive.
I’d heard her tell me a hundred times: you are safe, you are loved. Now I realised you could speak the words without really believing them.
“You’ve stood up for yourself,” I said. “He was stringing you along. Like biker Dave did to me, remember? What did you tell me then?”
“I don’t remember,” she said. In front of me, a blonde in a Tarzan suit clung to a trapeze, playing at losing her grip while the audience laughed and clapped.
“You said – he doesn’t deserve you. When you finally act like people have to earn your love, the right one will come along.”
“I said that?”
“Yes.” She seemed surprised, as if it hadn’t been her truth. She ran a hand over the arm of the sofa, distractedly. A layer of dust lifted into the light. I couldn’t remember exactly what she’d said either.
“Love yourself more than you love another. Remember? I still have that letter you wrote me. Stand up and fight for your life.”
She looked at me, confused, then stared back at the TV, eyes glazing over. I ploughed on, inventing a chain of quotations. At last I knew that something within me was alone, unreachable, and always had been – and within everyone else too, for that matter. It felt solid and safe and cold, like a metal slab.
The Tarzan blonde hung upside-down, dangling on the backs of her knees. My mother and I watched a ring of portly men approach from below and hurl blazing torches at her outstretched hands.