LITERARY INFLUENCES: Bob Beagrie | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Bob Beagrie is an award winning poet from Middlesbrough, a senior lecturer at Teesside University, a freelance writer, co-director of Ek Zuban Press and Literature Development and one half of the experimental music and poetry duo Project Lono. He has published five collection and several pamphlets of poetry and has had work translated into Urdu, Spanish, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, Estonian, Finnish and Karelian. His poems have appeared in many journals, periodicals, magazines and anthologies. Red Squirrel Press recently released a co-authored collection, SAMPO: Heading Further North, written in collaboration with Andy Willoughby, a sequence of poems inspired by The Finnish myth cycle Kalevela and the post-industrial realities of the North East of England.

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

slaughterhouseReading this book for the first time over twenty years ago was one of the most inspiring and mind blowing experiences I had had as a reader and aspiring writer. A novel that tore up the rules and conventions of all of the literature I’d so far encountered to create a uniquely hilarious, tragic and philosophical account of Vonnegut’s first hand experience of the bombing of Dresden during World War 2. Told in a straight conversational, direct tone it blurs fact, fiction, history, sci fi, high literature and pulp popular fiction in an attempt to come to terms with post traumatic stress and the dislocation it brings from conventional reality.

The first chapter is essentially Vonnegut’s apology, reason d’être, excuses and troubled account of attempting to write a book about war, the danger of it being used as part of pro-war propaganda and the futility of it as an anti-war book, and there is a great ( if throw away) honesty to it. Following the first chapter we meet the protagonist Billy Pilgrim who has become unstuck in time and exists in a state of temporal flux, moving randomly back and forth between the different incidents of his life in a constant state of stage fright, not knowing which of his selves he will be expected to play next. And we move with him across the years in a dizzy non-linear voyage that includes sheltering in an underground meat locker in Dresden as a prisoner of war while the allies dropped their bombs, killing one hundred and thirty thousand people. It also includes his experiences of alien abduction by Tralfamadorians who put him in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore, where he discovers their alien perception of time as “all at once” so that stars are not pin points of light but “luminous spaghetti,” where human beings are seen as great millipedes “with babies legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other.”

The whole of this wonderful ante-narrative novel is largely structured on the Tralfamadorian concept of a book, which Billy interprets as clumps of telegrams, and which is explained to him as follows; “…each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message – describing a situation, a scene…. Tralfamadorians read them all at once not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvellous moments seen all at one time.”

“There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects”

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

handmaids taleThis incredible dystopian novel inspired me in many ways, and taught me some of the finer subtleties of writing: of what to say and of what to leave out, about generating tension and a sense of oppression through suggestion, about focussing upon small vivid detail and how to restrict the reader’s viewpoint through the perspective of a narrator whose understanding of the situation is limited and possibly unreliable.

Atwood’s prose is beautiful and finely honed, shifting between the perceived details of the external world, it’s military regime, household rules, regulations, rituals and duties, and the haunting lack of an adequate overview from which to understand the new political situation to the recurring retreats into the sensible world of the body, a contemplation of the feminine and a quiet resistance to the cultural (patriarchal) codes that define it. There are disconcerting shifts in time and space so that it becomes increasingly difficult to identify the point from which the story is being told, which allows the novel to resist conventional, tidy closure and makes it and its underlying messages resonate more in the readers’ minds long after you have finished it.

To illustrate the power of Atwood’s descriptive prowess, and how to pose questions in the reader’s mind through the deceptively simple use of stark omissions, here is the opening sentence which is loaded with change, implied trauma and dispossession. “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

FoucaultsPendulumI read this brain melting masterpiece while quarantined, recovering from a severe bout of food poisoning many years ago, one which included hallucinations, paranoia and an acceptance that I might actually die, and I still don’t know whether the sickness or the novel had the biggest impact upon me. It is the ultimate parody and assertion of all conspiracy theories making The Da Vinci Code look like an early years Peter & Jane book.

While multi-layered, highly learned and literary, to the point where the reader suffers from ontological vertigo, it is also firmly grounded in the genre of the thriller making it a page turner and one which revels in references to global popular culture from Tom & Jerry, Buster Keaton, Flash Gordon, to Woody Allen, Superman and Fu Manchu. And of course, woven through are the conspiracies of Nazi Occultism, the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati, The Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, and many more. A true philosophical roller coaster of a novel that will change your outlook on yourself and the world forever.

It is the ultimate parody and assertion of all conspiracy theories making The Da Vinci Code look like an early years Peter & Jane book

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

the_satanic_versesIt’s hard to disassociate the actual novel from the uproar, the fatwa, the riots and book burnings and the killings that it’s publication sparked. But anyone who thinks that literature is merely for entertainment, that it exists outside of politics and cannot change the world needs to read this novel and consider the many writers throughout history who have been persecuted, imprisoned and executed for their writings.

Whether or not the offending chapters of the novel are blasphemous for representing The Prophet Muhammed, and for questioning the direct transmission of the written document known as The Quran as the untranslated word of Allah, and it’s interpretation as a basis for governance, this is but one of the rich threads of narrative that weave through this novel of fabulous and fantastic magical realism. In the tradition of the Sufi Mystics it poses difficult and uncomfortable questions about belief and faith and doubt, about narrative and it’s role in collective and individual identity, about home and exile, native and foreigner. It collapses these neat distinctions and forces you to reconstruct them in new ways.

Like Scheherazade’s intertwining tales in 1001 Nights the stories within Rushdie’s infamous novel exist in a world once removed from the world we recognise, played out in a nearby once upon a time, where two Indian men survive a fall from a hijacked plane’s explosion and land on Hastings beach, where one character grows horns and cloven hooves (his own or others’ projections of demonization?) and is forced to hide out in his neighbour’s basement, while the other becomes the troubled manifestation of the angel Gabriel, where London is “Elowen Deowen.” Like it, love it or despise it this is undoubtedly one of the most important novels of our time.

Star Apple Kingdom by Derek Walcott

star apple kingdomAs a poet it seems only right to include at least one collection of poetry in my list, though this is more difficult than it would appear. Too many inspiring collections to really consider. However, I do especially admire and like to write The Long Poem (or sequence), and one of the first I fell in love with was The Schooner Flight from The Star Apple Kingdom by Derek Walcott. Drawing on the complexity of his Colonial roots and identification with and resistance to Empire this richly layered poem mixes classical, gritty realist, vulgar and romantic discourses in its weft that tells the tale of Shabine, a mixed race peasant, adulterer, smuggler, poet and seafarer of the Caribbean, facing his personal demons, his past, the heritage of slavery and oppression, and a future wide and vast as the sea and the sky. As you can see from here its music and imagery are breath taking, “As I worked, watching the rotting waves come Past the bow that scissor the sea like silk I swear to you all, by my mother’s milk, By the stars that shall fly from tonight’s furnace That I loved them, my children, my wife, my home; I loved them as poets love the poetry That kills them, as drowned sailors the sea.”

But it is not simply the flights of lyrical description and control of meter that mark it as a modern classic, it is a revisioning of a wide range of intertextual tropes and motifs, from The Odyssey, The Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner through Robinson Crusoe (Shabine speaking as Friday) through The Tempest (Shabine speaking as Caliban) and Moby Dick, and is underscored by an exploration of the politics of disassociation, diaspora and exile. Walcott, by singing his song through the character of Shabine is able to reclaim, reappropriate and redirect the language of oppression, to chart a new course of self-awareness toward a sense of self governance.

“I’m just a red nigger who loves the sea, I have a sound colonial education, I have Dutch, nigger, English in me, And either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.”

It’s only writing this now that I realise just how much of an influence this poem has had on my own use of character narrators within my own poems, and how I have repeatedly attempted to give voice to historically marginalised individuals, whose accounts act as a counterweight to the pre-packaged historical narratives we are fed through the homogenising discourses of tourism, promotion and marketing. Literature and creative writing, as these five titles show each in their individual way, pick away at the easy definitions and the ready-made distinctions of our day to day lives. It brings us face to face with deeply rooted psychological ambiguities and challenges us to reconsider our own ingrained alignments of individual values and communal identities, and make us fuller human beings in the process.

Bob Beagrie’s latest co-authored collection with Andy Willoughby, SAMPO: Heading Further North, is now available through Red Squirrel Press.

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