by Robin Robertson
ISBN: 0007171374

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A Review of: Mortification: WritersÆ Stories of their Public Shame
by Matt Sturrock

"The whole enterprise of writing poetry," says Robin Robertson in his introduction to Mortification, “is a de facto folly. These people devote days to single lines and years to preparing each slim collection, and then publish their work into a yawning maw of indifference.” Yes, Mr. Robertson. An irrefragable truth, to be sure, save that “indifference” is quite often the very best outcome a poet can hope for. In the 70 tales of woe that comprise this book (commissioned from all kinds of writers, though poets make up the bulk of the respondents), poetry is often a prelude to much more malignant phenomena: scorn, hostility, illness, and exile.
Coming in at a surprisingly slim 289 pages, Mortification nonetheless amply expounds on the torments that writers endure. Stories about scathing reviews, literary feuds, silly symposia, and the many indignities of the promotion circuit are all recounted in lurid detail. And while Robertson has teased forth accounts from high-powered luminaries like Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Roddy Doyle, and William Trevor, it is the lesser-known writers who tell the most colourful tales.
Don Paterson, for instance, in Borneo at the invitation of the Penang Poetry Society, remembers giving a performance in the rainforest after which “the whole Earth fell silent.” As he stands stricken before the assembled crowd, wishing for some acknowledgement of his efforts, he hears “only the cry of a rabid monkey fifty miles upstream [and] the dead thump of a falling breadfruit.” Conversely, David Harsent dimly recalls gorging on Indian food and guzzling innumerable drinks in the hours leading up to his bookstore reading. Minutes after his turn at the mic, he enraptures the literati with an encore by very loudly throwing up: not “the cough-and-gob variety, or even the girlish whisper-and-slip,” but “a fully-orchestrated, bass-pedal active, hog-hollerin’, bootsoles-to-bogbowl, ten-gallon tsunami.”
Underwhelming audience reaction and the betrayals of a booze-addled body are common themes in this collection. What astonishes, actually, are the myriad other ways authors expose themselves to ridicule. Matthew Sweeney has a tooth yanked from his gums by a sticky toffee he’s sucking on just prior to a public engagement, and stoically lisps his poem to a room full of snickering schoolchildren. A.L. Kennedy notices en route to a reading that her pants are disintegrating; she’s forced to stand semi-nude in the window of a sewing repair shop as the tailor mends her seams posthaste. And Thom Gunn, undoubtedly the least eligible candidate for sympathy, reads the lyrics for his Jeffrey Dahmer opera [italics mine] as the room empties before him.
In many cases, the degradation continues even after the dreaded public appearance is over. Bernard MacLaverty goes to his host’s apartment after an event, where two large, slavering, incontinent dogs dive at his crotch and piss on his pants all through dinner. Ciaran Carson, in Berlin for a literary conference, gets taken in a street con by two Turkish hustlers. And Niall Griffiths, vying with Thom Gunn for the You Had It Coming award, gets caught masturbating in the bathroom during a post-launch party for his first novel.
Amidst all this ribald fun stand a few authors who fail to get into the spirit of the occasion. Michael Ondaatje, perhaps too dignified to relate a story of his own, tells an admittedly lewd tale about another writer—“a well-known American novelist”—but refuses to name her. Chuck Palahniuk transmutes his confession into a surreally self-congratulatory contemplation of his own celebrity, making ostentatious mention of fans camping outside his reading venue for tickets and adoring mobs chasing his car. Meanwhile, Karl Miller—a very decent and intelligent man, I’m sure—delivers some meandering and truly anguished reminiscences about estranged parents, latent homosexuality, and minor betrayals perpetrated during his service in the military. They left me bewildered.
Generally speaking, however, these pieces are a delight. For anyone who avoids reading personal essays because of the egotism that sometimes taints the form, rest assured that this collection is an orgy of self-denigration. The long-repressed pain of the authors gives their writing real vitality and fluency; their inspired mobilization of the language only enhances the humour for the audience. Wonderful. I only hope that with the passage of a few years Mr. Robertson or a successor will see fit to release a second volume.
In the meantime, what’s a poet to take from all of this? After the crying, the heaving, the sartorial and dental disasters, the poor critical receptions, the almost non-existent remuneration, is there any solace to be had? I direct you to the pithy words of John Hewitt: “If you write poetry, it’s your own fault.” The answer, in other words, would seem to be no.

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