Quality Filters

Wendy Cope said in a Q&A a few years ago that she now only writes a handful of poems a year. These days she can tell at the start of an idea whether it will make a really good poem or not. She seems to be jealously guarding her reputation from accusations of diminution in quality in old age. I sympathized, but felt sorry for the rejects I would never get to read.

All writers have an internal quality filter, though mine used to be pretty nonselective: I wrote for my own amusement and that of my acquaintances, and I let online editors decide if any of it was worth showing on a screen. But now I face a quandary, because I’ve broken into a prominent print literary journal, The Dark Horse http://www.thedarkhorsemagazine.com/. While these poems will probably be read by more people than usual whom I have heard of, they will probably be read by fewer people I actually know. They would need to get a physical copy of the journal, either from the website, from a library, or borrowed from me or another subscriber. It isn’t on Amazon and I doubt many bookstores carry it. Almost everything else I have published is available onscreen at the click of a mouse.

Don Marquis said, “Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.” But what sort of echo am I even looking for? Do I want to establish a serious literary reputation or do I want to entertain my friends?  Things written for the latter can be counter-productive for the former. The only things I have written that were good enough for serious print journals were the product of unusual flashes of inspiration. Do I wait for those, as Wendy Cope now seems to? Or do I plod away at exercises and follow prompts from The Spectator in the hopes that something can be eventually be polished to be good enough?

Editors of print journals have always acted as a quality filter for the readers: available content was limited to what they thought was worth reading. Now everything is online so we can judge for ourselves – but where do we even start? This affects science and journalism as well as the arts: the whole publishing industry seems to be going through a crisis at the moment. If the audience for printed media is disappearing, then how can it survive? Gerry Cambridge, the editor of The Dark Horse, darkly advised me to cash my honorarium cheque quickly.



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Spaghetti Towers

A while back I attended a course on project management. Why can I never have a 30-minute lecture telling me what I need to know about a subject? No, if it’s to do with HR in any way then it has to be a full-day course filled with breaking into small groups to brainstorm over a flipchart, and doing a godawful team exercise.

This one was a classic: we had to build a tower out of spaghetti with a marshmallow on top, and it had to remain upright for 2 minutes: tallest wins. I immediately said I thought a tepee structure would be the most stable, with a thin bundle extending out the top to support the marshmallow. We all seemed agreed and started mocking out how to put it together. Then when we were told to move from the planning stage into execution, the senior manager sitting next to me said, “I know, let’s build an Eiffel tower!” and scooped up the spaghetti and started trying to tape a square together. I kept saying things like, “I really don’t think that will be stable,” and “I don’t see what is going to keep the sides from collapsing in,” while she ignored me, and her recently-hired assistant played along to humour her.

Then halfway through the moderator swapped her with someone from another group, and after a short period of continuing her nonsensical design we abandoned it and threw together a quick tripod. It held together well and was only an inch or two shorter than the winner (which was a tepee structure exactly as I had originally suggested).

In the post-mortem afterwards, the manager said the problem was that she had missed the criterion that it had to be the tallest. That’s right: one of the 2 requirements passed her by, and this was said as if it were the moderator’s fault for not communicating more clearly that the tallest structure won. No acknowledgement that she consistently ignored the advice of a physicist that her design was never going to stand.

So in the end the exercise was a poignant metaphor for the state of the world. Expert is a dirty word these days, and the towers are collapsing all around us. But never mind: at least we have strong leadership.

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Billy Goat Pie

Has anyone outside my family ever heard this phrase? (Referring not to a meat pie but a fable?) There’s no trace on the internet. Where did it come from, this story my Appalachian grandmother used to tell about Billy Goat Pie? As I remember, the story was that all the farm animals were sent out to pick fruit to make pies, but the greedy billy goat ate all the fruit he picked instead of putting it in the basket. So when the farmer’s wife brought out the pies, the others all got juicy fruit-filled ones and his was just crust with the inside empty. I guess it’s meant to teach delayed gratification.

I just read Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, which is a tad hard on the undeserving poor of Appalachia, the South and the Rust Belt. He basically blames the lack of hillbilly grandmothers able to pass on these sorts of stories and provide tough love and moral guidance to young people. That’s what enabled him to pull himself up by his bootstraps and go to Yale Law School, so obviously anyone else could do the same if they were given the right support.

I can’t deny there is a problem in these communities with addiction and lack of motivation (as in many communities), but his conclusion that the churches should step in to take a more active part makes me shudder. Churches may teach delayed gratification, but they would have us delay it until we’re underground. He quotes a statistic which I found surprising that church attendance figures are lower in these hillbilly areas than in others, but according to Wikipedia, after Utah the top states are Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and Louisiana, all with well over 50% of Christians attending church at least once a week. Sounds to me like Appalachia and the South go to church plenty, certainly more than places like Sweden where church attendance is closer to 5% but the social problems are fewer. The top 9 countries for church attendance, all with over 80%, are in Africa.

The difference seems obvious to me, that Sweden has less of a disaffected underclass because of less deprivation due to a more generous welfare safety net. Vance does mention income inequality, but to him economic deprivation seems a less significant factor than the predominance of single-parent families. FFS.

We all know that in reality some billy goats get more fruit than the rest of us in their pies, while for some dutiful animals the shell turns out to be empty. Hillbilly America has some serious problems to deal with, but I don’t see them being solved while we have the biggest billy goat of them all in the White House.


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Cultural exchange on swearing

I love what a melting pot Cambridge is. Recently I was impressing a friend that I still remember the entire vocabulary of Hebrew I picked up from my fellow PhD students in 1990. I’ve no idea how to write the originals, but the English translations are toilet, big dick, and poached eggs. Not sure what sort of holiday in Israel that would give me.

A few days ago there was a Chinese girl behind me on the bus explaining there is no exact translation in Chinese for ‘fuck you’, although they do have ‘fuck your mother’.

The guy told her that was more extreme in English – didn’t they have something a bit milder?

“Well….there is also ‘fuck your sister’. Or ‘fuck your grandmother’. Is that any better?”

No, no, not really.

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Sins Against Sincerity

Unpacking boxes from my last move, I came across the play I wrote in a workshop at university. I didn’t reread the play itself (there’s a limit to my masochism), but I did read the final feedback from the prof: “You write cynicism well – but find it hard to show the idealist/romantic/sincere believer in feelings.”

She was probably right about my play, and I’ve received similar feedback on my poetry. But it struck me that this could almost be a general pronouncement by the Baby Boomers on all of Generation X and Y and Millennials. Sincerity was the sacred cow of the 60s revolution, to the extent that if you weren’t a sincere person you had to pretend to be. It was vitally important to be earnest.

One Sunday some years ago, I almost died. As I lay in casualty, bleeding internally, I pushed aside the oxygen mask to joke to my husband about the catastrophe that had landed me there. Such gallows humour probably seems pathological (and maybe it is). Luckily I married a man much like myself, so he took it well. He helped fill the hours while they prepped theatre and called a surgeon in from the golf course by reading to me from the latest published employment law judgment. I don’t think either of us would have preferred a joint exploration of our feelings at that time.

But Hollywood tells me I am wrong. Movies and novels and plays tell me over and over that problems and griefs need to be discussed openly and sincerely. Maybe humour is an unhealthy defensive reaction in a crisis, but what can I say? It comes naturally to me, and it gets me through. If that is a disorder, I’m not sure I want to be cured of it.


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± Politeness

I’m a dual national, born and raised in America but settled in Britain nearly 30 years ago. The little differences in language and culture are endlessly entertaining to me, and I think by now I have a pretty good understanding of both countries, though I’m still learning.

Anyone with an interest should read Kate Fox’s amazing pop sociology book, Watching the English. I read it about 12 years ago, when I had already been here a very long time, but it taught me things I had never fully grasped. For example, she sets out a template for male pub conversation which I swear I have heard repeated practically to the word many times in my life. It’s still irritating, but less so now that I understand the cultural context.

But the thing I think about most often from that book is the different societal concepts of politeness. In England, they mostly practice negative politeness: don’t bother other people, don’t pry, don’t step over invisible boundaries. Of course we have that concept in America too (good fences make good neighbours), but it tends to be outweighed by the imperative for positive politeness: make people feel welcome and included, provide help and support. It’s not that British people are unable or unwilling to provide these things, but they are afraid it would be intrusive to offer. An obvious superficial difference is sales assistants: British people often feel harassed and appalled by the constant “Can I help you?” in American stores, while Americans look around British stores thinking, “Does anyone actually work here?”

So how do people manage to form friendships over here? I must admit I’m still slightly mystified, even though I do have some. Kate Fox recommends joining clubs and interest groups – the guarantee of something in common helps break down the social barriers and allows more substantive conversation. There’s certainly a lot in that; however, I have another option too. I can choose to step over the boundaries, counting on being excused as a foreigner. This worked well for me in the early years: over time I’ve gone native to a distressing extent, so I’m too conscious of the offence I might be giving. But I should practice it more often, because I can probably still get away with it better than I think. Probably most Brits secretly want their space invaded. Or, I might be run out of town on a rail.

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Just when I thought I couldn’t get any more depressed, Donald Trump won the White House.

I’m quite active in politics, running the Cambridge branch of Democrats Abroad, and Tuesday night I was co-hosting a party for hundreds of people. At midnight I did a live video interview with the NY Times, although I don’t know if it ever was shown. More merciful to sweep under the carpet my optimism of that particular hour. Probably the journalist was only even doing the interviews as an excuse to come to the party, which she had adored as a student in 2008.

But these are different times, as it slowly and painfully became clear. For the next 24 hours I dragged myself through work and didn’t even have the energy to watch TV in the evening. I went to bed at 9PM and slept for 10 hours.

Then I got up and started a political movement. The Simpsons foretold a Trump Presidency 16 years ago, in an episode where the grownup Lisa becomes President immediately following Trump, so I registered on Twitter as @Lisa4_President and started her campaign. I posted policy statements as Lisa Simpson and started assembling her cabinet for 2020. The campaign slogan is “Sensible policies for a post-apocalyptic America”. I already have more followers on Twitter as Lisa than as myself.

Obviously this is a joke, but if I had the commitment to follow it through, who knows where it would lead? Who can say that a nation who elected Trump wouldn’t vote for a cartoon character? Who can say that a cartoon character wouldn’t do a better job at the Presidency than The Donald?

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