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Inspirational Holiday Reading

17 Sep

Apparently, we’re supposed to read ‘beach novels’ on our holidays. Well, I went swimming in the North Atlantic and read quite a lot over my summer break. But there the comparison  with such expectations ends, I think.

As a writer, there’s nothing more inspiring, I think, than reading a thoroughly researched and well written biography about one of your literary heroes. A few summers ago, I read David Bellos’s excellent biography of George Perec, ‘A Life in Words’. In Bellos’s book, the writer’s life becomes a fitting addition to his canon, a Rabelaisian tale about a unique individual. This summer, it was the turn of ‘Like a Fiery Elephant’, Jonathan Coe’s biography of another experimental writer, B S Johnson. Reading it, I was fired up again about fiction and its possibilities. Uncharacteristically, I even felt moved to thank the author on Twitter for spending eight years researching and writing the book… These days, the general reading public knows Johnson, if at all, as a writer of ‘difficult’ books who killed himself, in apparent despair, at the age of forty. In Coe’s words, Johnson comes across as a complex man, difficult but much loved by his friends. The insights into his creative processes and artistic aesthetic, and the barriers inherent in following such a path, are instructive for any writer seeking to work outside the mainstream. 

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My favourite beach… 

One work mentioned in the biography was a collection of short stories by Johnson and Zulfikar Ghose, ‘Statement Against Corpses’, in which the two writers were supposed to reinvigorate the form. By all accounts, they managed no such thing – not that I can comment as the collection is long out of print and I don’t feel like spending over £100 for an old copy, only to have this view confirmed. Instead, I finished reading ‘Difficult Loves’ and ‘Laughable Loves’, early collections by Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera, respectively, and was reminded of why I love the work of both writers. Calvino was already exploring worlds through minute and apparently mundane details, much as he would in his final, brilliant collection, ‘Mr Palomar’. Kundera’s comic stories expose the absurdities often found at the heart of human relationships. 

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Which half-complete track to follow?

Unfortunately, though, since returning from continental Europe, the demands of my day job and other stresses and strains have sapped my creative energies and progress on my fiction has been slow. I’ve arrived at a time-consuming stage in my vast work-in-progress, tying up all of its loose ends and re-arranging sections within its complex architecture. I’ve also been thinking ahead to my next project, of which I’ll write more in a future post. I have to decide between three options that I’ve had kicking around for some years now: a part-finished novella, a half-completed sequel and an epistolary novel of which I’ve planned much but written  little. Whichever one I choose, though, the work of those who’ve gone before – Perec, Johnson, Calvino, Kundera – remains a guide and inspiration. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

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Ten Sounds You Miss from Your Homeland, Part Three

14 Jun

Today’s auditory recollections come from PK Read, another fellow blogger and novelist. An American, Paula lives on the French-Swiss border these days. Her WordPress blog can be found here. A poetic writer, her ten sounds are deeply lyrical. And the place in which she grew up sounds as though it would inspire such lyricism. I read a recent manuscript of hers and it was beautifully written and gripped me from the start. Expect to see her novels on the shelf of a library or bookstore some time soon. 

What a good exercise this is! It’s been 30 years since I lived in my homeland – the northern coast of California. And even though I’ve lived other places I loved, when I think of ‘home’ my mind goes straight to that place, a small peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and Tomales Bay in West Marin county, just north of San Francisco. Most of the peninsula is national park land, with small inroads of humanity into an otherwise unlogged wilderness surrounded by water on three sides. So here are my sounds:

The rustling and slow song of tall bay trees in an approaching storm, their trunks rubbing against one another in long notes

My father whistling across the forest to get my attention, to call me to dinner

The quiet snick of a breaking twig as an unseen animal notes my presence on a narrow dirt path

The razor call of a red wing hawk from far above

The distant sound of the ocean on low roar on the opposite side of the ridge

 

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The foghorn from the lighthouse 

The crackle and spit of bay logs on a pit fire

The snap and bubble of meat on the grill

The first bars of a song played on my dad’s guitar

The sound of rain percussing on the wood shingles of the cabin roof above my head, late at night, fire out and belly full, the echoes of a song in my mind

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Thanks for inviting me!

And thank you for taking part, Paula. There’ll be more auditory memories appearing soon… 

All text © PSR and P.K. Read 2017. Images © PSR 2017. 

Ten Sounds You Miss from Your Homeland, Part Two

10 Jun

In a previous post, I wrote about the exiled narrator of my novel-in-progress and the ten sounds he misses from his homeland, “the chatter of the liitraavn in Rezistanzskvaar, the two-stroke clatter of Noorskii-SEATs…” and so on. My friend and fellow writer, Mari Biella, has very kindly taken the time to share the ten sounds she misses from home. Originally from the UK, Mari lives in Italy. You can find her blog here. Mari is the author of the excellent “Loving Imogen” and “The Quickening” And here are her auditory memories…

Disjointed memories, partial recollections, fragments of stories… when I’m writing I frequently find myself using these things as a starting-point, and then embellishing them until, gradually, they begin to take on shape and substance. Many of those memories, now I come to think about it, are either aural in nature or coupled with sounds, like when you hear a song and are instantly transported back to a particular time or place. For instance, and in no particular chronological order…

One. I once lived in a fleapit in the inner city, in a crumbling old building next to a railway line. The trains rattled past day and night, with surprising punctuality, and the house frequently rattled with them. At first it was annoying. Gradually I got used to it, and over time it became a comforting sound: come what may, the railway timetable remained a constant. On summer nights I used to sit outside in the shoebox-sized garden and watch the lit carriages slip by in the darkness. Who were the people on that train? Where had they been, and where were they going? What were their stories? Did they guess that someone was sitting out there in the shadows watching them?

Two. Trains were just one of the many and varied sounds that accompanied my life in that place. Every quarter of an hour, day and night, a clock in the nearby civic centre chimed. When all was well and life was happy it sounded like the reassuring voice of a friend. On long, restless nights when I couldn’t sleep, however, it seemed to take on a mocking air, contrasting the relentless passage of time with the strange feeling of stasis that accompanies sleeplessness. I sometimes wondered how many other insomniacs were out there listening to it and feeling the same.

Three. It was an eccentric, colourful place, that area, inhabited by a rich blend of people. Waking early in the morning, I frequently heard a woman on the street below calling “Lena! Lena!” Peering out between the curtains, I would see her standing on the pavement, staring up at an upper window of the house next door. Sometimes Lena came to the window and whispered something back; sometimes she didn’t. I’ve always wondered about the purpose of these early morning visits. I’ve also wondered why, since mobile phones were ubiquitous by this time, the visitor in question didn’t just call or message the mysterious Lena.

Four. One of the advantages of the inner city is that everything you reasonably need is close by. I lived within a stone’s throw of a major sporting venue, and on Saturday afternoons when there was a match or game I would frequently lean out of my window and listen to the distant roar of the crowd. It was such a joyous sound, so full of excitement and exuberance, that it made me smile just to hear it.

Five. We were fans of silly accents in my family. We’d frequently put on exaggerated Welsh accents, or – when we contemplated life across the Severn river – lapse into a daft West Country drawl. We tried our hands at most British regional accents, as well as RP. References to romantic love were frequently made in an impassioned French accent. We attempted American, Mexican, German, Russian and Swedish accents, with varying levels of success.

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Six. There have been many times in my life when I haven’t owned a TV. In addition to an endless stream of letters from the TV licensing authority, this entailed relying on the radio for news. I frequently listened to Radio 4, and was enchanted by the Shipping Forecast. The repetition of the sea areas was almost hypnotic, and produced all kinds of images in my mind: fog, fishing vessels, gale force winds, immense waves crashing against rocks. Carol Ann Duffy commemorated the Shipping Forecast in her poem Prayer, and sometimes it really did sound like a strange liturgy.

Seven. I’m an unabashed landlubber, but the sea fascinates me. In Britain, of course, you’re surrounded by the stuff, and – like many British people – I never lived very far away from the coast. I used to go there quite often, sometimes for no other reason than to listen to the wind and the waves. I particularly loved the cry of the seagulls. Sometimes their call seemed to embody the intoxicating freedom of wild, wide open spaces; at other times, it sounded melancholy, almost heartbroken.

Eight. I miss the sound of the rain and wind lashing against the windowpane on stormy nights. I always thought it was very romantic, very Wuthering Heights-esque. Italian weather has a varied repertoire of its own, of course, but it doesn’t seem to extend to that particular combination of wind and rain – “horizontal rain”, as we used to call it.

Nine. I miss the sound of the English language in general; I particularly miss it as spoken by the natives of the city where I lived. “Dark” was pronounced as “dairk”, “park” as “pairk”. “I live in Cardiff” became “I lives in Cardiff”. Expressions of opinion were often prefaced with “not gonna lie to you” (“Not gonna lie to you, but I don’t like coffee that much”) or softened with “not being funny” (“Not being funny, but you’ve put on some timber since I saw you last.”) It was customary, when getting off a bus, to take your leave with a cheery “Thanks, drive!”

Ten. The last, much-missed sound is not peculiar to Britain, still less South Wales. It is, simply, the sound of a city. I live on the edge of the countryside now and, though I like it here, I do sometimes miss the clamour of the urban environment. I began this post by writing about how many of my stories are born of other, incomplete stories. In a city, surrounded by humanity, you are surrounded by many such fragments, and I sometimes feel the lack of them.

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Thanks to Mari for sharing these with me. The first of her auditory memories turns out to be similar to one of my narrator’s.

My bedsitter is right at the top of the building on the third floor, where the rooms are smallest and the rents the lowest.  It’s accessed via a side door, leading to the servant’s staircase…  At night, I’m lulled to sleep by the sound of trains pulling into the central station about a kilometre away from here, their diesels thrumming and brakes screeching.  The din might keep another person awake.  I can’t sleep without it.  I often wonder if one of them might be mine.  And when I’m missing my home country, I burn the pine-scented incense cones to remind me…

There’ll be more from the sound archives of remembrance in a future post… 

Text © PSR and Mari Biella 2017, images © PSR 2017

Ten Sounds You Miss from Your Hometown, Part One

23 May

My vast work-in-progress moves ever nearer to completion. The narrator is living in exile. He has been thinking about the sounds he misses from his home country.

Here are the sounds I miss the most: the chatter of the liitraavn in Rezistanzskvaar, the two-stroke clatter of Noorskii-SEATs, the jingling of the signals at pedestrian crossings, the chiming of the bells in Klokksskvaar, the breaking of waves on the Valtikkzii shore, the clunking of the otiis-mekanismis in the Berkmanis department store, the whine of the locomotives’ electromechanical motors, the four-note fugue of the train’s public address system, Tiia’s voice and those of my family, Jovaa and Valeriia, the sound of my own language, its cadence and intonations… 

It got me thinking about the exiles I know – and there are quite a few of them – and which sounds they miss the most, or vice-versa, those they don’t. 

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So I asked my wife, the Colombian illustrator, Catalina Carvajal. It seemed the obvious place to start. And this is what she told me. 

Her grandmother’s voice

Aeroplanes flying low overhead on approach to the airport

The prerecorded voice of the tamales-vendor, advertising his wares

The whistle of a mobile sweet-potato oven

Comforting conversation coming from the TV downstairs at her mother’s house in Bogota

The marimbas of street musicians

The sound of departing underground trains on the Mexico City metro

Her friends babbling in the background at a dinner party

The noise of the crowds in downtown Mexico City

The clattering plates and chattering clientele of the cantinas 

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In the coming weeks, we’ll be hearing from other exiles about the sounds they miss.

All text and images © PSR 2017

Interviews with Experimental Writers: No. 1, M.J. Nicholls

25 Mar

Here we introduce an occasional series of posts to this blog, interviewing fellow experimental writers. First up is M.J. Nicholls, author of The House of Writers and Postmodern Belch. As we shall see, M.J. modestly states that he is not a writer of experimental fiction but merely following in the footsteps of the craft’s great exponents. You can find him on his blog and on Twitter (just click the links). He also works as an an editor at the innovative Verbivoracious Press. 

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The House of Children’s Book Illustrators

What first got you interested in experimental writing?

Reading Flann O’Brien and Georges Perec as an impressionable man-child. A prominent Scottish man then introduced me to Gilbert Sorrentino and the saloon doors were blown open.

Who are your major influences? Why?

Any author with a penchant for wordplay, fiddling with form, and a strong humorous voice. Gilbert Sorrentino showed me the pleasures of play, and the tantalising possibilities of the novel outside the world of conventional fiction. Other authors I worship include Flann O’Brien, B.S. Johnson, Raymond Federman, Christine Brooke-Rose, and the Oulipo writers. The filmmaker Armando Iannucci sparked my passion for humour with his talent for surreal, satirical writing and inventive language.

Are you interested in experimentation in other fields of the arts?

Not with the same fervour as in fiction. I’m an avid viewer of European cinema and its charming curiosities and innovations: most recently, the work of Dutch auteur Alex Van Warmerdam whose warped tragicomedies like The Dress and Waiter exhilarated me with their unhinged imaginative visions.

What would you say is experimental about your writing? What is your writing process?

I wouldn’t use ‘experimental’. I pin that term on proper innovators (see list above), whereas I tend to frolic in their wake. I write with a blurb-outline of the novel and wing the rest. Detailed plans and intentions are too tempting to mash. Usually, I prefer writing in short-burst chapters and use lists, dialogue-only sections, repeated phrases, and semi-confessional shticks, to break up the standard narration.

How long did it take you to write The House of Writers? Where did the idea come from?

About two years. I was worried about the surfeit of writers out there and the dwindling number of readers in here. At some point in the future, when faced with the public’s apathy towards reading, I wondered what might happen to the last cluster of writers who refuse to surrender their pens. So I invented a place for them to practise their professions, albeit in a passionless and programmatic capacity.

What were the particular problems you faced in writing it? How pleased are you with the end results?

At first I wanted the novel to focus on one character and his madcap adventures up and down the floors. I became bored with this narrative, so started a sequence of splintered stories from inside the building. This splintering became more appropriate for the novel, and made the thing more pleasurable to write. I ended up with a more coherent structure than I had imagined. The end result was published, which convinces me it has some worth.

What are you working on at the moment?

The last in a trilogy of novels on writers, readers, and publishers. The House of Writers is the first, and the second (not published yet), The 1002nd Book to Read Before You Die, I completed last year. The last novel, The Consultation Room, is ‘about’ the manipulation of readers and writers by middlemen, and the impact this has on the calibre of the literature we’re made to confront in bookshops. 

What are you reading at the moment?

Beckett’s How It Is (an unpunctuated monologue of a man crawling through the mud), J.G. Ballard’s Complete Short Stories Volume Two (breathtaking apocalyptic and dystopian parables), and Carlos Fuentes’s Adam in Eden (alongside G. Cabrera Infante, my favourite Latin American writer).

Which one book would you recommend to someone wishing to investigate experimental fiction?

I would invite readers to peruse the catalogues of Dalkey Archive Press, FC2, New Directions, Verbivoracious Press, et al. 

If the Oulipo invited you to join would you do so? What about the Illuminati?

If the Oulipo invited me, I would know they had been seized by the Illuminati. I would perform an intervention at once with a copy of the Oulipo Compendium and a spatula.

There you have it, then.

I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to Mark for taking the time to talk to me about his writing. Below is an extract, Writer Portraits, from The House of Writers (Sagging Meniscus Press), available to buy on Mammon-Goliath-Mammoth (otherwise known as Amazon) and elsewhere. 

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Mr Nicholls

Movements

Freed-in-Fiction

The Freed-in-Fiction movement was the hippest club for intellectual dropouts, child/wifeless male academics, and assorted creatives unwilling to face up to their personal problems. A coterie of exhausted English Lit & Creative Writing students, failing upon graduation to rise to the challenge of carving careers for themselves in teaching or editing or corporate proofreading, decided that their fictional creations were far more alive and interesting than their real lives, and elected to neglect the quotidian in favour of vicarious living through their novels. One of the founders, Dan Inch, laid down various rules to help direct the group, the first being a complete shunning of publication of any kind—to publish was to acknowledge that books (and themselves) existed in the real world, whereas they were looking for an ontological loophole that excused them from the business of living (choosing to dismiss their actual corporeal presences on the planet as irrelevant). The second was that their physical presences on the planet were to be treated as part of their ongoing oeuvre—an unwritten extension of their books through the medium of movement and speech. This unhinging of reality, naturally, led to deviant behaviour. One writer in his novels had written an antihero who went around shooting corporate criminals and having sex with random beauties whenever one wandered into the narrative. This behaviour, replicated in real life, was not repeated, although the author beat up random bankers, shop managers, or anyone who appeared to be indulging in capitalist excess, and conducted himself in improper ways around women with pinching and unsolicited touching. These writers were commonly regarded as laughable and clueless until a harsh winter finished them off.

The New Established Writer Movement

New writers, i.e. those who had been passed over by agents and publishers for decades, chose to establish themselves as established writers. To achieve this, a list of books published overseas was invented, alongside false overseas agent and publisher contact info (including false agent and publisher websites), and new (i.e. old) manuscripts were sent to UK publishers with the salvo of a respected publishing history (in Australia or New Zealand) to help pique the interest of agents and publishers. If successful, The New Established Writers would find their latest (or earliest) novel published and, depending on sales, find their non-existent backlog sped into print to meet the demands of a burgeoning audience. Most of the writers had ten or so complete novels in their drawers, and in some cases a whole catalogue was “re-issued” simultaneously (with the author having to typeset and print fake copies privately to send to their real publishers so facsimiles could be made). This movement was exposed in a similar manner to the The New Writer movement some years earlier, and a harsh winter finished them off.

The Serial Listing Movement

These writers believed that the furniture of conventional novels was superfluous; that the ordered line-by-line dialogue of characters was superfluous; that the linear page-turning plot was superfluous; that deep insight into the human condition was superfluous; that the finger-tingling all-over assault on the brain and body produced by the most masterly of stylists was superfluous; that the words on the page themselves attempting to communicate something or nothing at all were superfluous; that double or triple meanings were so many layers of mouldy custard within a smelly trifle; that the spooky transference of art from brain to page was mystical bunkum; that the physical rigor required to bring books to fruition was a lazy dreamer’s hyperbole; that the bitter sacrifice of sanity, soul, and sexual needs was the pitiful cry of a loner; that all the precious components of timeless literature could be reduced to a series of blank lists with no substance or heart. The movement was criticised as a direct nouveau roman rip-off, and a harsh winter finished them off.

The Anti-cis-heteronormativist Movement

This movement set about rewriting literature with the assumption that all characters were trapped in false gender identities, and by allowing characters to realise their true gender roles, free literature from the oppression of the cis-heteronormativists who had been imposing heterosexist ideals on readers since time immemorial. The first rewrite was Jane Eyre, with the famous heroine recast as a pangender transitioning towards a more male-centred outlook. The plot was tweaked to castigate Rochester for his persistence, where he learned to respect Jane’s complex gender position and stronger romantic pulls towards female sexual partners. Further rewrites included David Copperfield realising himself as a queer heterosexual, which better explained his attraction to Dora Spenlow; Molly Bloom identifying herself as a “fifth sex”, outside both genders, outside all non-gender classifications, a separate class known as Bloomism—sort of a magnet for all sexualities, genders and non-genders; and Raskolnikov as a transsexual in process of becoming a woman so he could be kept by a husband and write without having to concern himself with making a living. This movement, while an amusing contemporaneous reimagining of the patriarchal canon and a necessary riposte to the tyrannous influence of university syllabi, suffered due to the lack of talent involved in pastiching the originals. A harsh winter finished them off.

The _______ Movement

Four men who did no writing whatsoever and bragged about their lack of achievements at writing groups, readings, and events. Their belief that more than enough fiction had been penned over the last three centuries was illustrated with the blank notebooks they carried around and the no pens in their pockets (if approached for a pen, they made a show of patting their pockets and declaring: “Sorry, we never need one!”), and if presented with a book published after their inception, they refused with the refrain: “Sorry, for us the buck stopped a while ago!” (the buck meaning new books). In writing classes, the men would sit in silence, staring into space during the live writing portion, infuriating the teachers by insisting on a four-minute silence during their allotted reading aloud time. At author readings, the men would turn their backs on the authors during the readings from their new books and listen to loud punk on headphones, resuming their attention after the applause. If the author’s first book had been published after the group’s inception, the men would book seats and not turn up to the events, leaving the chairs blank as a protest (despite the fact the rooms were usually empty anyway). On online workshops, the men would embed pictures of blank pages, or include a sequence of blank ____ lines, and delete the abusive feedback. One time, an ex-vintner with a first novel out castigated them for wasting his time by standing up to ask a question and singing the chorus to ‘Fernando’ by Abba, humiliating them after the show by exposing their movement as a testament to their own failure as writers, and their pathetic need to flaunt their failure by spoiling the success of others. The harsh vintner finished them off.

Interview text ©PSR and M.J.Nicholls 2017. Novel extract and author photo © M.J. Nicholls 2016. Graffiti image © PSR 2017. 

 

Where Armorica Ends

24 Feb

Finisterre. In some ways, the name tells you all you need to know. Land’s End, the Celtic Fringe, where Europe ends and the Atlantic Ocean begins…

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Travel around the small towns and villages of rural Armorica and you’ll find a society at the edge of the world. The young people, those with professional ambitions, the holidaymakers – they’ve all left. One by one, the amenities are disappearing too. It’s obvious that some of the former café-bars there have closed. The buildings are falling into disrepair. The drapes drawn across the windows of others inform you that they’ve served for the last time. Long ago, Christopher Hutt wrote an insightful and prophetic book about public house closures in England called The Death of the English Pub. I don’t know if a similar work has been written about this phenomenon in northern France, but the pattern is being replicated here, some thirty years later. 

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And those same processes are taking place across Europe. The internet, retail parks, supermarkets, the privatisation of social life, the agglomeration of industry and jobs into the European core… the causes are multi-fold. Smaller communities Europe-wide have had the heart torn out of them. The spaces where village life would have taken place – the chapel, the bar, the games pitch – are public no longer. 

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Sail west from Armorica, then, and you reach America. The pun isn’t mine. It belongs to the master of wordplay and encryption, James Joyce. “Sir Tristram, violer d’amores,” he wrote in the second sentence of Finnegans Wake, that great and impenetrable meditative word-game, “had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor…” As an Irishman, Joyce knew well the “scraggy isthmus” of Europe’s Celtic Fringe. He chose to live in Paris – arguably, as a great artist, it was essential that he worked out of one of the continent’s great cities – but he never stopped writing about Ireland. Those remote and rugged places lay claim to you and won’t let go. 

I’ve seen it happening from my own provincial patch of the writing universe. The Writing Den lies some fifteen minutes walk from the nearest village. When I first started spending time out there, it had four bars. The Bar des Sports with its boules pitch is long gone, as is the crêperie and bar with its cast of reprobates. Last year, after several changes of ownership, the bar-restaurant that served as the local truck stop closed its doors.  Now only the Bar Tabac remains open. The post office, grocery, butcher’s, newsagent, hairdresser’s, children’s clothes shop and stores selling electrical appliances and gardening supplies have gone too. The depopulation adds to the quiet and charm. The ruins are charismatic. They increase the region’s hold over me. But I worry where this decline will lead, when it will end. It may not be the end of the world but it sometimes feels as though you arrived there. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

Alas, Harry Math’ws

26 Jan

Alas, Harry Math’ws hath pass’d away

Avant art, anagrams, grammar-play

Abstract, Dada, Yank astray

Harry Math’ws hath pass’d away

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All text © PSR 2017, with apologies to E.J. Thribb.

Image of HM © Ingrid Estrada