Literary Influences – John Challis | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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John Challis is a poet, producer and editor and has had his work published in The Rialto, Clinic II and Iota. He is also the co-director and founder of Trashed Organ, a Newcastle-based poetry, theatre, music and live literature company, which holds its Christmas edition at the Live Theatre on 17th December. Currently, he has poems forthcoming on Radio 4’s The Echo Chamber and is writer-in-residence at the Mining Institute as part of Write Around the Toon.

Lanark by Alasdair Gray

lanarkA friend lent me Lanark in the first year of University. It took me almost three years to finish. Complex? Yes. But it wasn’t the reason it took so long to read. Spilt into four books (although published as one volume), Lanark tells the stories of Lanark and Duncan Thaw, two disconnected men living in vastly different cities, connected by a hellish undercurrent. It opens with Book Three in which Lanark arrives in an unnamed city that never sees daylight, with no memory of his life. At once Kafkaesque in its portrayal of a man seeking answers, which leads only to more questions, it offered a vision of a modern hell; the city’s inhabitants grow “dragonhide,” a physical manifestation of their own repression.

Then in the following Book One, the focus turns to the life of Duncan Thaw growing up in pre-war and wartime Glasgow, and is unflinchingly realist which makes it seem hellish.

Now let’s not get heavy on the academics. It’d take hours to deconstruct the postmodern mechanics the book employs (in Book Four Lanark meets the author) but rather, I’ll say what it did for me: it opened up a world of possible illusion. Gray’s unnamed, hellish city is his metaphoric Glasgow. This really got me thinking how I too could re-imagine the city, and sent me on a late teenage binge of dystopian novel hunting that took in the equally detached and pessimistic 1984, The Trial and just about everything by J.G. Ballard. Re-reading the first part eleven years later is worryingly telling.

How much have I stolen from this masterpiece? Looking at some old computer files, I have a folder that my younger self titled “Post Lanark.” I dread to double click.

Gray’s unnamed, hellish city is his metaphoric Glasgow

A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami

a wild sheep chaseI’m on a fancy ICE train between Hamburg and Berlin. It’s August, hot, and I’m nineteen, having the romantic notion that’ll keep going East. I’m reading A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami and the main character, who’s conventionally blank by Murakami standards (a technique, I assume, employed to offer the reader a greater chance to relate to the character) is on a train heading into the snowy mountains of Hokkaido on the payroll of a mysterious and malevolent businessman, to find a rare sheep.

What I loved about Murakami was his reimagining of the detective genre. Almost every book begins with the same blank state of a man unexpectedly approached by news that sends him on a surreal adventure, filled with strange digressions from men dressed as sheep, to an underground skull professor. The fact that Murakami translates Raymond Chandler’s, amongst other detective novels, makes me wonder how coincidental Murakami’s ‘sheep’ is to Chandler’s ‘sleep’ (from Chandler’s first Philip Marlowe novel The Big Sleep). A loving comparison though, as although both share similarities in structure, with each clue following one after the other, seemingly out-of-the-blue, they couldn’t be more different.

Back in Germany I think to myself, what would I do if someone offered me a case of money to go on an adventure? Every time I cook spaghetti, listening to John Coltrane, I expect the phone to the ring.

What I loved about Murakami was his reimagining of the detective genre

Conjure, by Michael Donaghy

conjurePoems by Michael Donaghy, such as Smith and Liverpool, which feature what seem to be autobiographical events (to the poem’s “speaker” at least) rubbing shoulders with knowledge of historical or religious events, have been hugely influential to me. His poem Black Ice and Rain, which features several flashbacks that step out of each other like a series of Russian dolls, in a similar way to how the flashbacks function in many films noir, is perhaps my favourite. It’s so tightly composed, yet fat with detail that makes it almost novelistic. In it the host of a house party reminds the speaker of a girl he once met at another party, which initiates a retelling of that meeting and of subsequent events as well as a shift into the past tense. This then leads to a childhood memory, then back to the fate of the girl, before finally shifting back to the present tense, with a return to the host at the present house party, to whom the reader is led to believe the speaker has been addressing.

But it’s not just the poem’s mechanics that do it for me, it’s the emotional scope, the imagery, the mediations on time, as Donaghy concisely puts, “The past falls open anywhere.” When, halfway through the poem, its title is spoken, referencing the weather that caused the crash that almost killed the speaker’s crush, it’s as though Donaghy’s the magician who’s pulled your card from the deck. Donaghy tragically died in 2004 at the age of 50, which makes his three collections, plus the posthumous, Safest, all the more valuable. New readers should start with Conjure: romantic, intelligent, and inventive.

It’s as though Donaghy’s the magician who’s pulled your card from the deck

The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri

perf5.250x8.000.inddAnyone who knows me knows I’m big on Film Noir. This is, in part, due to three obsessive years writing a PhD on the similarities between film noir and some contemporary poems in order to identify and define a noirish mode, the poem noir, within contemporary poetry. Without boring the pants off the reader, this is, I argue, a poem that seeks to excavate the self or a situation, by using literary correlatives for cinematic techniques, and anxious, pessimistic and obsessive themes, like in the films.

Again, as an impressionable undergraduate in the early 2000s, I was drawn to reading the Divine Comedy, and now I come to think of it, it may be the first poem noir. Really, it’s the ultimate descent, the ultimate excavation of morality. Not only does Dante provide a terrifying punishment for every sin with an almost boyish glee at revealing in the gory details (suicide cases are turned into trees, continuously pecked by crows; the adulterous are chained together, forever blown about a vortex; and those who followed no one, no religion or leader, are made to chase a flag forever while hornets sting their naked skin), but he offers a historical palimpsest of Florence’s literary and political history, following the tradition of the Aeneid.

It is the ultimate excavation, to look behind the scenes, which is the primarily occupation of protagonists in film noir, mainly the detective.

He offers a historical palimpsest of Florence’s literary and political history

Mojo Magazine

mojoMy wildcard. I used to telephone the local newsagents every month to ask if the new Mojo had arrived. Then I’d bust open my change pot, an old whisky cylinder. I enjoyed its mix of biography, story telling and most of all, a skill to convey through words, what the music actually sounded like.

When I think back to reading the magazine as an impressionable teenager, more concerned with pentatonic than pentameter, it’s that sensual detail I recall most, and is where I learned the importance of writing the sonics of the imagination whatever the form you’re writing in. Surely most of what they printed was made up anyway? Could there really be another exposé on the glory days of Zeppelin? Creative writing at its most musical.

It’s that sensual detail I recall most, and is where I learned the importance of writing the sonics of the imagination

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