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Latest news and features from theguardian.com, the world's leading liberal voice

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    The prolific author on the unreality of romance, the fickle memory of Americans and how tweeting has got her into trouble

    When Joyce Carol Oates, the 77-year-old author of well over 100 books, told the New Yorker last year that she thought of herself as “transparent”, before adding “I’m not sure I really have a personality”, the admission felt scandalous. We live in a time when the concept of personhood has been enshrined, in the monetising parlance of late capitalism, as “my personal brand”. To posit its non-existence is a kind of taboo. Especially if you happen to be someone often described as “America’s foremost woman of letters”.

    Oates, a five-time Pulitzer finalist, might be “very intensely interested in a portrait of America”, but clearly she has no truck with the ego-vaunting, personality driven paradigm of contemporary celebrity. She appears more to belong to some other, long-passed era, with a pronounced gothic streak colouring much of her fiction, which tends to be peopled by powerful men and introverted women who frequently experience sexual shame. In the afterword to her 1994 collection Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, she seems to find a human truth within horror: “We should sense immediately, in the presence of the grotesque, that it is both ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ simultaneously, as states of mind are real enough – emotions, moods, shifting obsessions, beliefs – though immeasurable. The subjectivity that is the essence of the human is also the mystery that divides us irrevocably from one another.”

    Writing fiction is hard to do when real life seems so much more important

    Related: A Widow's Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates – review

    Nobody makes anybody write tweets, so the negative response that one gets is … basically, in a way you deserve it

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    Language’s inability to express the reality of a death, and the human struggle to cope with it, are reflected in Zen-like verse

    Poem With Two Endings

    Say ‘death’ and the whole room freezes –
    even the couches stop moving,
    even the lamps.
    Like a squirrel suddenly aware it is being looked at.

    Related: Sign up to our Bookmarks newsletter

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    Inspiration can come in many different shapes – poet Jay Deshpande shows and tells everything that was behind the writing of his latest book, including René Magritte’s paintings, merciless edits – and a woodchuck

    By Jay Deshpande for Topography of a Novel by Blunderbuss Magazine, part of the Guardian Books Network

    Every book has its own texture, materiality, and topography. This is not only metaphorical; the process of creating literature produces all sorts of flotsam–notes, sketches, research, drafts–and sifting through this detritus can provide insight both into the architecture of a work and into the practice of writing. Blunderbuss is excited to run this series, in which we ask writers to select and assemble the artifacts of a book in a way that they find meaningful and revealing. In this installment, Jay Deshpande discusses how Magritte, a woodchuck (!), and merciless edits contributed to the writing of Love the Stranger, published by YesYes Books.

    The poems in Love the Stranger interrogate love and its elusiveness by invoking the erotic and the mysterious, the banal and the strange; Chet Baker, Jack Palance, Kim Kardashian, a golden beast lying in wait behind you. Out of his “intensifying linguistic gift,” Deshpande has written “a book of great beauty and of terrible suspicion regarding that beauty” (Josh Bell). Perhaps, Deshpande suggests, real intimacy, like a curving line of the Fontana di Trevi, is always moving away from us – but these poems will stay with you.

    ON VOLUPTUOUSNESS AT LA FONTANA DI TREVI

    Some part of everything

    Related: Sign up to our Bookmarks newsletter

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    Inspired by ‘hardcore’ chemistry, the poetry of Met Office scientist Rachel McCarthy has been called mesmerising by British laureate Carol Ann Duffy

    It’s not every poet who manages to work a demanding day job as a Met Office climate scientist. But when Rachel McCarthy isn’t walking the corridors of Whitehall, on secondment to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, she is to be found polishing her poems.

    Despite achieving a double first in physics and chemistry, McCarthy always wanted to write. As the founder of Excite Poetry, the Devon wing of the Poetry Society, and the director of the sell-out Exeter poetry festival, her verse-writing skills are matched only by her ability to draw crowds to big events.

    Related: 'Our melting, shifting, liquid world': celebrities read poems on climate change

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    Judges hail daring use of form in a collection that examines poet’s joint British and Chinese heritage

    A new voice, who judges say “will change British poetry”, has won the TS Eliot poetry prize. Sarah Howe, a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute, was awarded the £20,000 prize for Loop of Jade, which explores her dual British and Chinese heritage.

    Howe’s work – the first debut poetry collection to win the British prize since it was inaugurated in 1993 – triumphed over a particularly strong shortlist, which featured some of poetry’s biggest names, including Don Paterson, Claudia Rankine, Sean O’Brien and Les Murray.

    Related: The Saturday poem: Night in Arizona

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    This playful, memorable and affecting poetry collection reconciles the tensions between opposing worlds

    Poetry, as RS Thomas once claimed, is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart. The poet’s task is to find the effective middle ground; to perform that lyric trick whereby thought and emotion seem to effortlessly combine. Seek to provoke only feeling, and crude sentimentality ensues; indulge in the cerebral, and the poem might be interesting enough, but it will remain lifeless – a kind of versified intelligence. In Loop of Jade, Sarah Howe’s debut collection, winner this week of this year’s TS Eliot prize, the poet attempts to merge personal accounts of her dual Anglo-Chinese heritage with her scholar’s penchant for the intellectually abstruse. The result is a book of poems that are as playfully and frustratingly recondite as they are memorable and unusually affecting.

    “The twin lids / of the black lacquer box / open away”, writes Howe in “Mother’s Jewellery Box”: “a moonlit lake / ghostly lotus leaves / unfurl in tiers // silver chains / careful o’s and a’s / in copperplate”. This might seem an unassuming vignette with which to open a collection, but it sets the tone. An evocative box of trinkets is a good metaphor for Howe’s poetry, possessing as it does a well-wrought yet elaborate quality. Depending on a reader’s taste, these poems will seem either elegantly graceful, or decorative and over-designed. “Night in Arizona” is a prime example of the best and worst of this style. On the one hand, Howe’s musical gift for conjuring insistent rhythms evokes the claustrophobic heat of a motel room in the desert: kicking the bed sheet to the floor, the sound is “like the spilling of sand / from shovel and the night air blurs / for a second with its footfall”. But on the other, the preference for elevated diction in what is ultimately an account of mildly irritating sleeplessness comes to mismatch language and event: “the razory arms of a juniper rattling crazily / at the edge of that endless reddening haze”. In these more conventional lyric sections, Howe is at her best when she reins in linguistic excess. “Earthward” is a subtle meditation on watching “the shadowplay / of trees / against the blinds”, disturbing replicas that shake “with a gusting stutter / more restless still / for being not / the thing itself”. The effect is haunting and immediate, precisely because of the sparse diction employed.

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    Hundreds of writers in 44 countries take part in coordinated readings to support Ashraf Fayadh, condemned to death for allegedly promoting atheism

    Hundreds of writers including Irvine Welsh, Ruth Padel and AL Kennedy are taking part in a worldwide reading in support of the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, who has been sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia after being accused of renouncing Islam.

    The readings of Fayadh’s poetry at 122 events in 44 countries on Thursday are part of a campaign organised by the International literature festival Berlin calling on the UK and US governments to halt his beheading and to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record.

    Related: Saudi conviction of poet for renouncing Islam seriously flawed, lawyer argues

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    The poet and novelist talks about his painstaking reimagining of Mitchell’s 1976 album Hejira in Scots, which premieres on Saturday

    Hejira is Joni Mitchell’s brooding chronicle of the road. She wrote the album in 1976 while crossing the US from Maine to Los Angeles, often driving alone and without a licence, or so the story goes, tailing truckers who flashed their lights when police cars were ahead on the freeway. Hejira is also the Arabic term for the Prophet Muhammad’s flight from persecution in the year 622. Mitchell’s songs examine what it is to wander: the fears and thrills of rootlessness, how liberty and loneliness can easily share the passenger seat. The music roams from folk to rock to jazz and blues; of all her great albums, Hejira probably takes the longest to get under your skin, but after a few listens it lodges. That serpentine drawl, those itinerant vocal lines, the odd-time lilt and lush guitars … And then there are the lyrics.

    Poet and novelist James Robertson was 18 when Hejira came out. As he described in a recent interview, it was “the year I bought a motorbike, left home, went to university, had sex”. He had grown up in a middle-class home in Bridge of Allan near Stirling and had never travelled outside of Britain, but in 1978 spent an exchange year in Philadelphia. “Total culture shock!” he laughs. “Game changer. I stepped outside of one life and was able to look back into it.” That summer, he hitchhiked around North America, and Mitchell’s songs have resonated ever since.

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    Wild Swans author honours work by Eritrea’s Amanuel Asrat, Turkey’s Can Dündar, and Egypt’s Omar Hazek

    Jung Chang, famous to millions of readers for Wild Swans, the harrowing account of her family’s experience of China’s 20th century, presented three PEN awards on Thursday night in The Hague. None of the winners could attend – two are in prison, the other is theoretically at liberty but practically unable to leave Egypt. Chang said that although her writing life – beginning while Mao’s Cultural Revolution made persecution of writers a policy – had had its “misfortunes”, she felt very lucky in comparison to the circumstances of the three winners.

    Two of the writers who were awarded the Oxfam Novib/PEN award for freedom of expression were unable to be at the event because they are currently imprisoned: Eritrean poet and journalist Amanuel Asrat, and Turkish writer and journalist Can Dündar.

    Related: 'If we don’t give them a voice, no one will': Eritrea's forgotten journalists, still jailed after 14 years

    Related: I revealed the truth about President Erdogan and Syria. For that, he had me jailed | Can Dündar

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    The winners of the TS Eliot prize and the National poetry slam explore the territory between lyric and music with singer-songwriter Emmy the Great

    In this week’s podcast we investigate how words can be pitched between the page and the ear with three rising stars.

    Sarah Howe, who won the TS Eliot prize earlier this week with her debut collection, explains how Loop of Jade was inspired by her search for identity as the daughter of a Chinese mother and English father. Singer-songwriter Emmy the Great explores her sudden rediscovery of her own Chinese heritage, and gives us an exclusive preview of her latest song, Yi-Fen Chou, which examines the controversy over the inclusion of a poem by Michael Derrick-Hudson in the 2015 Best American Poetry anthology after he adopted a Chinese pen name. And Solomon OB, winner of the National poetry slam, explains how slamming occupies the space between music and poetry.

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    En route, our writer stumbles across four wandering Moldavian jazz musicians

    Trigger warning: this column may contain material offensive on grounds of racism, sizeism and elitism. In the universities of today, wise academics preface every lecture with trigger warnings, in case something they say should cause offence to the kind of student whose quickness to take offence is the only quick thing about him. Or should I say “about him or her”, so as not to privilege the male gender?

    This column is keen not to offend, so I am treading carefully when I say that the December issue of Poetry, the famous magazine edited in Chicago, features two poems by Jaap Blonk. At first I thought that Spike Milligan might still be alive, but on second thoughts I realised that, in Blonk’s language, my own name might mean No Parking and that he might be in possession of an immense talent. What would count would be his poems, to which I turned with my non-judgmental receptivity set to the maximum.

    Related: Clive James: ‘Steven Seagal restores himself through aikido training. I have tried it and it works’

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    by Sarah Howe

    Across the road, the girls quit school in threes
    and fours, tripping off at speed to stations

    or familiar cars, their silhouettes, slung
    with shoulder bags and hockey sticks, like mules.

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    The new Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry winner on learning how to be a Scottish writer and why becoming the national poet saved her life

    Liz Lochhead is one of nature’s talkers, asking as many questions as she answers, and her anecdotes are thick with mentions of friends: good friends; dear friends; oldest, closest, best. It’s impossible not to experience her conversation as an extension of her poetry; a looser, less structured version of what Carol Ann Duffy, in her foreword to Lochhead’s 2011 A Choosing: Selected Poems, called her “warm broth of quirky rhythms, streetwise speech patterns, showbiz pizzazz, tender lyricism and Scots”. Lochhead’s voice, as in her verse, is rich and sensitive, frank and cheerfully vernacular. And the themes are there, too: nationality; female experience; a profound awareness of time, how we move through it, and how it moves through us. Dates matter to her: she sprinkles them in the titles of her poems (“1953”, “5th April 1990”), and in conversation is careful to get them right, pinning her past down precisely, day by day, year by year. And it becomes clear that 31 December – the day on which we talk – is a date that matters more than most. Alongside its keenly felt symbolism, which this year is underscored by the fact that 2016 will usher in the final month of her five-year tenure as Makar, Scotland’s national poet, New Year’s Eve also marks the anniversary of her relationship with her husband, who died suddenly half a decade ago, and whose absence opened a hole at the heart of her life around which she’s been edging ever since.

    The catalyst for our interview was the announcement, on 21st December, that Lochhead had been chosen to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry by a panel headed by Duffy, in her role as poet laureate. Lochhead is only the 11th woman to have been awarded the prize since its inception in 1933, and the eighth Scot, and she’s elated. “When Carol Ann phoned me, I was desperately stuck on a poem about the Scottish parliament, which I’d been working on for ages,” she says. “So for a couple of weeks I felt mocked by it: this great award and I couldn’t finish a bloody poem! But after I finally got it handed in, I was purely thrilled. When you look at the list of who’s had it – Michael Longley, Don Paterson, all the way back to WH Auden and Charles Causley, who’s one of my absolute favourites – it’s a huge honour. Of course, there’s those on the list you’ve never heard of, so it’s not necessarily a step towards posterity. But there you go. I’m delighted to be in such company. And I’m looking forward to having tea with the Queen.” She’s bought a dress.

    Related: Makar's a muckle of an honour | Liz Lochhead

    We knew Philip Hobsbaum separately. It doesn’t matter how often you tell people – they always want to call us a group

    Becoming Makar forced me to get out and work. I counted up every day I performed over the last year, and it came to 102

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    The actor on Oldham Street, Manchester, the magic of Slow Club, a friend’s brilliant memoir, British feature film Radiator and Lemn Sissay’s poetry

    Julie Hesmondhalgh is best known for her award-winning performance as Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street– the first transgender character in a television serial. She played her with her trademark warmth, intelligence and sensitivity right up until the end when her character killed herself (Jan 2014) after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Hesmondhalgh is now starring in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer prize-winning Wit at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, a play about a tough academic, also dying of cancer, who takes a more upbeat approach and learns how to live before it is too late. She also appears as Amanda Wadsworth in the latest series of the BBC’s Happy Valley, which starts next month.

    Slow Club should be bigger than they are. They have such life-affirming songs

    The Bogus Woman changes you: it makes something abstract become personal so that you can't ignore it

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    Originally written as a folk song, with Herbert Hughes, figures from Irish mythology are used here to weave a fresh, beguiling spell

    The Gartan Mother’s Lullaby

    Sleep, O babe, for the red bee hums
    The silent twilight’s fall:
    Áibheall from the Grey Rock comes
    To wrap the world in thrall.
    A leanbhan O, my child, my joy,
    My love and heart’s desire,
    The crickets sing you lullaby
    Beside the dying fire.

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    British director’s biopic of American poet, A Quiet Passion, starring Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon, will receive its world premiere in Berlin in February

    The Berlin film festival has announced that A Quiet Passion, the much-anticipated biopic of American poet Emily Dickinson, directed by Terence Davies and starring Cynthia Nixon, is to receive its world premiere at the festival.

    Davies had already finished shooting A Quiet Passion before the release of Sunset Song, the Lewis Grassic Gibbon adaptation that re-established the British auteur as a major creative force.

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    More than 250 writers have written to the Welsh government, warning of the severe impact of planned reductions to support for literary culture

    Slashes to the Welsh Books Council budget will have a “significant and deleterious impact” on literature from Wales, according to a campaign mounted by some of the country’s highest-profile authors protesting the Welsh government’s plans.

    More than 250 British and Wales-based writers have put their names to a letter to Welsh deputy culture minister Ken Skates attacking the proposed cut of 10.6% to the Welsh Books Council, which they say “undermine[s]” and “undervalue[s]” writing from Wales. The signatories include Philip Pullman, Sarah Waters, the national poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, the TS Eliot prize-winning poet Philip Gross, the Dylan Thomas prize winner Rachel Trezise and the Man Booker-longlisted Patrick McGuinness.

    There is a particular boldness of imagination that is alive in the Welsh culture that needs supporting

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    ‘Even in the grave, all is not lost.’ Today is the birthday of gothic author Edgar Allan Poe. How well do you know the man behind all that is macabre and mysterious? Take our quiz

    1In the year of Poe’s birth (1809), his parents were performing in which play that inspired the choosing of the name ‘Edgar’?King Lear, William ShakespeareThe Indian Princess, James N BarkerUncle Tom’s Cabin, adaptation by George Aiken2In 1827, aged 18, Poe enlisted in the United States Army as a private. What pseudonym and age did he use?Edgar A. Poet, 21 years oldEdgar A. Perry, 22 years oldAllen E. Perry, 22 years oldEdgar A. Poe, 18 years old3Why did Poe leave The University of Virginia after only one term?His stepfather cut him off from fundsHe had a brawl with his roommateHis gambling addiction put himself in debtBoth A and C4Biographers often stipulate that Poe’s frequent return to the theme of ‘death of a beautiful woman’ reflects his mourning for:His late motherHis late wifeHis late sisterBoth A and B5What is the name of Poe’s first published collection of poetry, from 1827?The RavenThe Angel of the OddTamerlane and Other PoemsTales of the Folio Club6What is the name of the only play known to have been written by Poe in 1835, never to be completed?UlalumePoliticianThe Valley of UnrestBright Star7Poe is a master of several different genres, but which is he is best known for?Love storyMacabreHistorical fictionComedy8Poe coined the word ‘tintinnabulation’ to describe what?The sound of ringing bellsA sense of dread so intense it could be felt physicallyThe resonance of a shrill voiceExtremely mournful, sad or gloomy9How did H. P. Lovecraft pay homage to Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, when writing his own version of a strange expedition to Antarctica?He named the protagonist AllanHe quoted the strange cry, “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” throughoutPoe never wrote a novel10What characteristic or fact does Poe’s character, Hop-Frog share with his creator?They both had problems with alcoholThey were both adoptedThey were both vegetariansThey were born near lily ponds11Finish this Poe quote: “I wish I could write as mysterious as a ___.”OwlJellyfishCatMystery writer12What’s the last line of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven?Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?Shall be lifted—nevermore!And there the Raven lay.–– O joy, and I.

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    Poetry is an emergency room and ‘avantgardists’ are butterflies in these powerful poems by South Korean author Kim Seung Hee

    By Kim Seung Hee and Brother Anthony of Taizé for Translation Tuesdays by Asymptote, part of the Guardian Books Network

    Poetry is emergency room, poetry is oxygen tent, poetry is red blood inside a cold apple,

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    Following a concerted outcry by hundreds of authors, the government has dropped plans for a 10.6% reduction in support for literature in Wales

    The Welsh books world has issued a “huge diolch” to the hundreds of authors, from Philip Pullman to Sarah Waters, whose support pressured the Welsh government into a dramatic change of heart over its plans to cut funding to the Welsh Books Council.

    This week saw writers and publishers come together to protest the Welsh government’s proposed cut of 10.6% to the Welsh Books Council, which they said would have “a significant and deleterious impact” on literature from Wales. A letter to Welsh deputy culture minister Ken Skates calling for the plans to be halted was signed by names including the national poet of Wales Gillian Clarke and the TS Eliot prize-winning poet Philip Gross, while a petition garnered more than 2,000 signatures, including those of Pullman and Waters.

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