Saturday, 16 April 2011

The naming of poets is a serious matter

'So why is it called Johns Hopkins?' I asked the poet who was hosting me on a trip to Baltimore as we drove past the town's famed university. 'Was it some kind of historical spelling error?'

My associate then explained that it wasn't: Johns with an s really was the name of the historical figure the university was named after. It's an incident that's always stuck in my mind, because something about Johns rather than John as a name makes it much more memorable. Names have always fascinated me: when your surname is Fish you don't have much choice about that. The inevitable ribbing on the playground will see to that.

When I started writing my concerns about the name became even more acute. It just never looked right at the top of a manuscript or the bottom of a poem. The trouble with Fish as a writer's surname is that it's a bit, well, unintentionally comic. Think of the baggage, the antecedents: Michael, the weatherman who failed to predict the 1987 hurricane? The lead singer of Marillion? These are not figures who are redolent of literary tradition. And the only other famous historical Fish I can think of is the child rapist and cannibal Albert Fish, and the less said about him the better.

So when I began writing I was always somewhat sensitive about this whole name business, what with being surrounded by people with good, strong proper writer's surnames like Cadwallender, Readman and Matthews.  But worse was to come, on one of my first forays on the road as a poet, when I went to the Hastings Poetry Festival. I arrived at the venue a little before the event started and was introduced to one of the other readers, a homeless guy who wrote poems for The Big Issue. When I said my name he reacted...unexpectedly, let's say.

'You're not Adam Fish!' he shouted. It took me some time to convince him that, in fact, I was entitled to that name, as he had apparently heard of another poet with exactly the same name working the circuit. We eventually compromised on the idea that there might well be another poet of that name, but there was also me, and the fact that two poets of the same name existed was clearly just one of those coinkydinks.

I never found out who the other poetic Adam Fish was, but a spot of googling led me to discover that there is, in fact, another Adam Fish who's more famous than me and is some kind of film-maker and anthropologist who, as far as I can ascertain, travels the world taking exotic drugs and doing funky yoga maneuvers. Jammy git. Clearly, when there is someone like that wandering about with your name, introducing yourself at parties is going ro be fraught with peril. I could just hear people saying 'Oh wow, that film you made about the tribe in Borneo whose culture is entirely based on eating the pituitary glands of monkeys who themselves eat hallucinogenic centipedes was amazing! Tell, me what insights did tripping for 17-hours on dried monkey-brain give you?' and imagine their crushing disappointment as I sheepishly explained that haha, no, funny story actually, I'm the poetry Adam Fish, not the one with the interesting life, sorry.

Still, it's not all bad. If there's any karmic justice then perhaps one day that guy will find himself in a beautiful house, in another part of the world, at a party with someone telling him he looks much butcher than they imagined, and asking him to 'do 'Eggshells', no, go on, do Eggshells dammit, what the fuck are you talking about that poem meant so much to me, you've changed!' One can but hope.

And none of this, by the way, was helped by the guy who spelled my name 'Adam Fisch' on an early poster for one of my gigs, apparently under the impression that my accent indicated I was some kind of North European dude. Though I have to say I quite liked 'Fisch', it had a sort of Rammstein-y quality to it.

It was pretty clear, then, that when I started writing seriously I was going to have to do something about this name business. But of course, I figured it could wait for a few years because I hadn't started writing seriously yet. Mindful of David Bowie's example, I took the view that switching monikers too early in one's career could be a problem, as it would make it easier for people to trace my embarrassing early output, and so, just as the Ziggy-to-be had stayed plain old David Jones during his time in various terrible mod bands, I decided that I would learn my craft as Mr AF, and swap to a more writerly pen-name when I felt I was good enough. (And I wasn't going to jump the gun like Bowie - if I was going to make the poetic equivalent of an Anthony Newley album, I would make damn sure to release it before I changed my name).

Well, after the past couple of years in which my writing has improved a great deal, both in creation and performance, and with the likelihood of actual book publication drawing ever closer, I decided this week that if I was going to switch to a more writerly name, then now would be the time. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that the author bio on this blog now contains the moniker AJ McKenna, and it's this name under which I intend to write from now on. When the book is published, that's the name it'll be under; any future pieces in mags or anthologies will be signed thus as well. It's not a massive name-shift - McKenna's my mum's maiden name, and A and J are my initials - but I like the heft of the name, the rhythm, the Celtic resonance, the sense of connection to the lyrical wealth of Irish letters; the paradoxical solidity of the initialised name (think CS Lewis, PD James, H.D., AA Milne, WN Herbert, JRR Tolkien, CJ Cherryh, AJP Taylor, TS's a long and honourable tradition) which is also, of course, gender-neutral and so more in keeping with the spirit of my writing too. It just feels, in an indescribable way, more me, certainly more like the writer me, and if I'm going to get serious about my writing then I think now is the time to adopt it. And so I have.

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