issue 27: November -December   2001 

Story 'Scorin' for Ireland' by Chris Reid  from em three

em three coverem three
new adventures in writing & music

by Michael Garry Smout


Normally a review of an anthology would appear in our Book Review section, so what makes em three, subtitled "new adventures in writing and music", so special to warrant an article? No, those responsible are not family, friends or even friends of friends – in fact TBR had no knowledge of the first two issues and has never received a submission from any of the writers involved. It landed on our doorstep, unsolicited. An unconventional size book (180mm x 145mm), it was an instant attention grabber due to a CD Velcroed to the cover. In these days of CD home recording, one would be afraid that the contents might consist of 70 minutes of mind-numbingly tedious poetry or an artsy-fartsy interactive CD-ROM with lots of moody/naked/flesh and hippy-headed prose/poems – remember: it is stuck to a book of writing. But it turns out to be purely music that cleverly bears no relation, except in spirit, to the text contents.

Interest piqued, I discover that it is issue three of something published by the "emfountation". Issue two came out last century (1997) so this one took a good four years to put together. Editor and designer is Karl Sinfield. It comes from London and although both music and text are international there is a U.K. feel to it. The CD has 18 tracks, the book 260 pages with 41 examples of "…new short fiction, drama, textural fragments, and striking imagery" by 30-odd contributors. There is no mention of price but as my copy came with a bit of promo this turns out to be a mere $10 (approx £7.00 but check website - see below - to confirm prices and p&p). With a giveaway price like that one suspects that the emfoundation might have some connection with the likes of the art terrorists KLF (or Justified Ancients of Mu Mu) - the K of Karl, "m" coming after "l" and so on. Fortunately, that isn’t the case. The promo gives a sort of manifesto on what one can expect:

em writing and music is an independently published book-and-CD compilation of new short fiction and emerging music. The writing we promote is the popular music of the literary world. Litpop, if you will. Writing that’s short, straight to the point, compact, but still manages to tug at your heart strings. The music represents the great diversity of talent emerging from bedrooms around the world.

A brief flick through the book reveals stories with different font treatments, backgrounds and art. This obviously hasn’t just been designed on a one-page QuarkXpress template; thought and attention have been given to each story. So I was quickly drawn in and - with two objects to review plus the baffling who, what and why of the emfoundation project to explore - an article, rather than the usual 400 –500 word review, soon developed.

emfoundationAs we discovered, this strange emfoundation turns out to be nothing more sinister than a publicity and events management consultancy co-founded by Sinfield in 1998. em three is part of em writing and music, emfoundation's "flagship publication showcasing new talent". Seeing that em one came out before 1998, it is safe to say that Sinfield bought the name to the foundation. Why "em"? Sinfield says: "We wanted something short, so that it could be used in a variety of contexts, to build a kind of semiotic language of em. And an em is the broadest typographical mark - a dash the width of an 'm' - and that is a lot of what em is about; breadth. It's also "me" backwards. Errrr....there will be a prize for any better reasons."

As for the text content, Sinfield’s "litpop" delivers exactly what he claims in the manifesto. Some of the material may be from the wrong side of the millennium but it holds up because it is about those important things that concern us all – getting laid, having a good/bad time, getting drunk/stoned, etc. Very human. Timeless.

What makes em three special, however, is the crucial mix. An anthology or collection, though built up from diverse and various talents, must gel. It is amazing how many do not. Disco Biscuits is a classic example of getting it right as is the excellent Gargoyle series. em three also succeeds. Not every piece is a gem; there is strong and weak, but each piece in some way complements another, thus achieving a balance. Clever editorial control is responsible for deliberate quirks such as a story called "Not A Peep", which ends "Not a fucking peep", being followed by a story which starts: "He went to peep over the edge . . ." Then there is a goat on a string that appears in two stories. Obviously not the same goat, but a connection, an echo, is made.

The nicely balanced mix also applies to the CD. There’s a U.K. magazine called Uncut that comes with a CD, the content of which is very much determined by the magazine articles and reviews for that month so it can leap from alt. country to blues to jazz to Portuguese folk music, usually without jarring. It's not an easy juggling act; one "misplaced" track means the listener having to program the CD player to avoid it or, worse, not bothering to listen a second time. The Uncut CD has had some ups and downs but when they get it right – check out issue three – it is extraordinary how different styles and genres can, and do, complement each other. Karl Sinfield had a bit longer than Uncut’s monthly deadline to get his various acts to blend but even then it is a tightrope task. I would bet the content and sequence of the CD gave him more sleepless nights than the book but he has managed to pull it off. There is some weird chemistry in the mix that somehow, magically, comes together to create a unified album.

Of the Litpop . . .

Because the book works as a whole it is a little difficult, and slightly unfair, to zoom in on individual authors or stories, which collectively blend to build up a rhythmic flow and pattern that gives the book its solid sense of structure. There are certainly stories that for me don’t work on their own, and there are stories/pieces that are derivative - good but not very original – though most are self-contained and have an edge of some sort. American Laureen Vonnegut’s "Out of the Crotch Pit" is a neat, funny/sad short drama set in a Bulgarian strip/lap dancing club. The conventional script layout, however, is sometimes broken by extra long indents which strangely change the drama into a poem. "Circle" by Lee Robson is OK in its own right but has a bit of a fight with Karl Sinfield’s layout. Before print the authors do see his designs, which mostly follow the black on white, or vice versa - conventions, but Lee’s is a bold, white, condensed font with drop shadow on a distorted image. It is legible but, with my eyesight, a bit on the painful side. Chris Reid’s "Scorin’ for Ireland", complete with PhotoShop "graphic pen" footy pics had a very TBR feel to it and that is the reason we picked it as a good, stand-alone example of em three’s "litpop" agenda – sharp, short and to the point, no messing about. Next up is J.D. Lennon, who has five mini-pieces - thoughts? ditties? poems? - spread throughout the book and all are Slittle gems.

"About Last Night" by U.K. writer/journalist Theodora Sutcliffe is basically about the morning after getting drunk, stoned and shagged. It is told in "hangover" speak – short and sharp with "fuck" practically every other word – by three, I think, unidentified narrators. Sutcliffe, frustrated with the linear way a viewpoint must be presented in a story, played around with Microsoft Word’s column icon and then edited the story into broken "chunks". The problem is that one reads one column, i.e. one character, first to the bottom of the page then the next column, or the 2nd character, etc, which is also a linear viewpoint. There is no indication that the story could, maybe even should, be read from left to right and can even be read right to left. A way around this "viewpoint" problem would be to then mix up the columns (characters) but that would really make the reader work. Either way, the content and the delivery do indeed evoke the mother of all hangovers – have aspirin handy – due to it being a bit too long… my only quibble. Another piece that fiddles with columns is the odd split-personality tale "Split" by Geoff Jackson.

Charlie Consite’s "Not A Peep" is a thug’s version of a Derek and Clive sketch. "The Panic Button" by Nick Rogers is another drama layout that could only be performed as a dramatic reading. One act is surely the reworking of that U.K. "Nah… Luton Airport" advert from eons ago. "Life In The Bubble World" by G.P. Davis - a sort of Steve Aylett type thang - is continued from em two, so I hope readers didn’t hold their breath. Jay Merill’s "The Transubstantiation of Melanie Klien", with its use of cinematic terms to set a scene, echoes a previous story "Cinemad" by Andrew Hook. I am not too sure that this device works. With paragraphs starting "Exterior. Day", or ending "Final slow zoom into smoke", one is surely doomed to end the story "Fade to black. Roll credits". Merill doesn’t, however, so one presumes the movie is still going. Charlie Consite reappears with "The Shortest Story Ever Told", which, being only four words long, is pretty short: "Uberto Ludwig killed himself". Huh? Well, there is a footnote that explains the story.

That’s just ten authors out of thirty-five. Of the rest, a few should certainly benefit from being showcased in this excellent collection; some may feel they have achieved all they ever hoped and can get on with their day jobs; and others may be inspired to continue and grow. It may sound like an ego boost for young writers, so how does the all important reader/buyer benefit? On price alone em three is a no-fail proposition. As a resource, an indicator, a recorder of an era, it has its place - its say - and this is important. As an inspiration to others? Well, for those who are inspired to publish something along similar lines - an alternative to writing-school prescription - it gives an impressive yardstick on where and at what point to start. In short, if you are interested in fresh voices from the marginal areas of the independent publishing industry at the turn of the 21st century, em three is essential.

Then there’s the CD. . .

"…recently I'm thinking that em three is more of a CD with a 260-page insert", says Sinfield.

He may be joking, but many might find the CD a lot more accessible than the book. Don’t be put off by that "Music… from bedrooms around the world" tag earlier; you can get some mighty powerful equipment into a bedroom, and the bed acts as a natural damper. Bedrooms generally mean electronica, and wibling, warbling, burbling /hip/trip-hop/drum and bass/ type tracks appear from artists like Sewerside, Boy Cox, Planet Pharmacy Project and Lazlo Legezer. These tracks are the mortar that holds the CD together while other artists stretch it in different directions.

The first major shift comes on track 5 with a plaintive rock ‘n’ roll song from ex-miner J.A. Davies. What can only be the man doing it live, direct to analogue tape, gives the sound an authentic feel offset by a Casio-type organ. The end result is both catchy and sad. London-based The Archie Bronson Outfit’s "Desert" is oddly beautiful. Nasty, annoying crackles and a megaphone voice develop into an almost early Bowie song complete with stylophone-like sound and falsetto London-accented backing vocals, my personal fave. W.M.D.J and Duggie Fields (microphone pops for that authentic, menacing, live feel) each offer a sort of art/poetry/music mix that actually works. Fields is followed by total tinkling insanity from Peter Mackie, which neatly breaks the doomy atmosphere but is possibly the CD’s most annoying track. Stoneblower supply two wannabe/should-be film soundtracks and seem to be in love with timpani; the high point is the sampled voice during a pause on "Cornock", saying "What the fuck are we stopping here for?". Bandwagon Records, a sort of collective, had a dub-meets-breakbeat with Russian melody/riff track earlier, and in a second track offer a very folksy tune – you can smell the incense - which has a happy-happy flute darkened by some (too) occasional, menacing cello-ish rumblings. New Zealand art trio Wendyhouse come up with a sort of nu-punk thing that is Jesus and Mary Chain meets "Warm Jets" era Eno, and Portishead’s lawyers are possibly right this moment tracking down Wompa. Then from Seattle there is David’s Address with "Monkey Mike". Luckily it is the last track as its recording level is way out of whack with the rest of the CD. It is a typical microphone-in-rehearsal-room recording from hell. Starting with a bad lead connection crackle and appalling cardboard box drum sound with an almost competent drummer trying to do a drum-roll and a committed singer who is obviously in love with himself – he is actually rather good – you just know you are listening to one of those "it's so bad it's bloody magic" type of songs. It is classic enthusiasm over talent, amateur garage band stuff, and just so you don’t forget it, it has the cliché, chaotic feed-back ending that doesn’t know when to. The chorus is horribly catchy and the song an ideal ending to a very impressive collection of emerging talent.

Apart from balance in em three, the CD and book, you’ll also find honesty and reality. As Sinfield says on his website, this is not academic. There is little pretension and no thesaurus-spouting nonsense; contributors come from all walks of life and age groups - the CD having one artist born in 1945 and another in early retirement thanks to the physical damage brought on by a mining job. Because many of the contributors are first-timers, one can sense the optimism. This is more than just product; it's the real thing.

Karl Sinfield has done an incredible job that should be applauded. It is an insane amount of work to do on top of a day job, which explains the four-year gap, but I had to know what drove him, so I asked, "…A labour of love, obviously, so apart from a hole in your bank balance what, if anything, do you get out of it? Wall-to-wall babes? Satisfaction of helping people? Etc, etc…" He replied: "For me personally, there are three motivations: Firstly I get the thrill of making something tangible. Books pretty much last forever; they may change homes, they may rot in someone's attic, but in a hundred years there'll still be a few kicking about. Secondly I like to help talented people (many of the copies are given to industry types) and make friends in the creative world, and hang out with people who probably wouldn't give me the time of day otherwise. Finally, it's a good portfolio piece for my design business; something nice to give to clients to make them remember you. And yes, the babes do love a guy with a publishing company..." The man is human and possibly sane after all.

This is the em . . .

em three officially came out November 1, 2001 but has been around the U.K. since before the summer. For ordering (credit cards only) and more information www.emwritingandmusic.com. Karl Sinfield, the brains behind it all can be contacted at karl@emwritingandmusic.com. If you need your film promoting or would like to see who Karl mingles with during the day check out www.emfoundation.co.uk . For an example short story check out 'Scorin' for Ireland' by Chris Reid in this issue of TBR

© 2001 The Barcelona Review

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tbr 27               november/december  2001


Suhayl Saadi - Bandanna
James Carlos Blake - La Vida Loca
Patricia Duncker - Death Before Dishonour
Chris Reid - Scorin' for Ireland
Karen Seashore - Harvest
       picks from back issues:
Dorothy Speak - The View from Here
Javier Marías - Fewer Scruples

-Articles Review of em three
Film Festival of Catalunya:
Japanese anime
-Quiz Joyce Carol Oates
Answers to Virginia Woolf Quiz
-Book Reviews Doris Lessing, Steve Aylett, James Kelman...
-Regular Features Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives
(authors listed alphabetically)

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