A few thoughts on a Thursday evening

I’ve just dispatched some poems for consideration by the editors of a poetry magazine. After six years of doing this, I still find the process of submitting poems exciting.  I’m not a gambling man, but I think the buzz of putting one’s poems ‘out there’ might be similar to the experience of laying down a bet. Unlike gambling, there is really nothing to lose. Indeed, I’m sometimes quite glad when poems are returned- I get another go!

A friend of mine has just had some work accepted by a really good poetry magazine. After an initial (and ridiculous) pang of envy I was able to be genuinely pleased for him. This is because a) he is a lovely bloke and b) because his work is startlingly individualistic and as fresh as wet paint. James Giddings work was featured on this blog a while ago, and I’m pleased that he is sending work out and that editors are beginning to notice his obvious talent.

I’m also delighted to announce a new series of interviews that will be posted on here soon. The last batch was a year or so ago, and included Ian Parks, Matt Merritt,  Jodie Hollander, Maria Taylor and Kim Moore. The new series will begin with Martin Malone, editor of The Interpreter’s House. Martin’s second collection will soon be published by the excellent Shoestring Press.

You may have noticed that Leicester is in the news. Robin Houghton recently featured the city in the first of a series of articles about regional poetry scenes, continuing with Cumbria. Robin’s articles are well researched and definitely worth a look.

Finally, one of my own poems was recently published by The Morning Star. If you go to their webpage you can also read work by Leicester poet and reviewer, Emma Lee.         

Featured Poet, Keith Hutson

I’ve found that in poetry one often meets friends of friends who become friends.

Keith Hutson has recently become the submissions editor for Hinterland which was set up by Rebecca Bird, who I used to meet up with to talk about poetry when she was studying in Leicester a few years ago.

Rebecca  originally set up Hinterland magazine with Ian Parks, who I had the pleasure of interviewing on here in August 2013. I will always be grateful to Ian for kindly offering to read through the manuscript of my book before it was published. He was very encouraging and made several useful suggestions, not least pointing out that the giant in the film ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ was in fact Talos and not Achilles as I had written in my poem.

Back to Keith. His work has recently featured on the blogs (or cobwebs, as John would have it) of my friends John Foggin and Kim Moore, although I didn’t know that Keith knew either when he said hello to me at a reading in Manchester a few weeks ago and asked if I would like to read at a poetry night he hosts in the Square Chapel in Halifax.

Keith has many strings to his bow, having run a landscape garden business for many years as well as writing scripts for Coronation Street and material for several comedians including the late great Les Dawson.

Keith currently delivers poetry and performance workshops to schools in the Calderdale area as part of a Prince’s Trust initiative. He is a keen runner, and as I mentioned in my last post, Keith and his partner Fiona keep a small herd of sheep on the slopes of the valley above Halifax.

I have only recently discovered Keith’s work but have already become an admirer of his skill and economy. The poems of his that I have read combine acute observation with gentle humour and understated elegance. I look forward to seeing a collection from him in the future. Keith has kindly agreed to let me feature the three excellent poems below.

History

That chap in the crowd, about to toss
his top hat rafters-high and shout
as, pristine and colossal
under steam, the locomotive
heaves and billows
from the shed: who was he?

Owner, backer, engineer,
or just a gent who had to let astonishment
escape, straight up, before he blew
– buttons, lungs and limbs –
in utter wonder
at the coming of an age?

Previously published in Prole magazine

Journeyman

Half-hidden in the fog,
grey and trembling
like the shredded remnant
of a sail, he bent
to open up his battered case
on grandma’s step.
I gripped her hand.

Shell-shock, or gas, sweetheart,
she told me afterwards.
I always buy from him –
what’s a duster after all
he did for us?
I nodded solemnly –
grateful he’d gone away.

Previously published in The Rialto

 The Gloves Are Off

 Do not be fooled: they’re looking
like a pair of proper loafers
on the bench, but never
do they fully disengage.
The cheeky left may loll, skew-whiff,
across the napping hammer
of the right, but these are bruisers,
built to stay in shape,
perpetually flexed,
ready to fly, put on a show,
and elevate a scrap
to craft.

No one’s watching: slip
the rascals on, and feel them float
your hands up to your head,
like helium. Now you’ll bend a bit,
perform a fidget-jig, call
it your Ali-shuffle, laugh out loud,
then try a jab accompanied
by the customary hmmnph!
and swagger. That’s the way –
get in! You just can’t help yourself!
Soon you’ll want a skipping rope,
a heavy bag, a chin.

Previously published in Hark.

 

In the middle

Living, as I do, near the centre of England (draw two axis lines through a map of the country and I’ll be sitting writing this where the two lines intersect) allows me to roam to the north, east, south and west, work and life commitments permitting, with relative ease.  Our house is a hundred miles from London and a hundred miles from Leeds.

It has occurred to me that I should try and get myself booked for more readings.  In an effort to get out more (I really should) I’ve approached one or two people who run spoken word events, including Staffordshire poet laureate Gary Longden, who runs Poetry Alight in Lichfield where I’m pleased to say I’ll be next Tuesday evening.

I decided to be more proactive in asking to read, since,  although I’m fortunate enough to have received requests for poems from magazine editors recently, I have seldom been invited and could probably sit here in the middle of England waiting forever to be asked.

Notable exceptions have included invitations to support Pete and Ann Sansom at Word! In Leicester in 2014, and to read at the Midsummer poetry festival in Sheffield with A.B Jackson and Nia Davies last year.

My two favourite invitations have come from Poets and Players at the fabulous John Ryland’s Library in Manchester, where I read a few weeks ago, and from Keith Hutson, editor, with Rebecca Bird, of online magazine Hinterland.

Keith, who runs Wordplay at the Square Chapel in Halifax, is a modest and kind man as well as a superb poet (I’ll be featuring three of his poems here next week, one of which is in the current issue of The Rialto) and his invitation included the option of staying at his smallholding near Halifax, which I gladly accepted.

Keith’s cottage nestles near the top of the valley, the fields on both sides and above and below slanting at forty degree angles. Keith and his partner Fiona keep a flock of sheep whose sole purpose is to keep the grass short on the steep slopes. Behind the cottage, past the odd Millstone grit boulder, Keith has planted fruit trees, whose fruit, when in season, the lucky sheep pluck and munch straight from the branch.

I took the opportunity of stopping at Yorkshire Sculpture Park on the way up to Halifax. There is too much to say about this wonderful (free to visit) park here, but if you haven’t been, do go. The highlight for me was this Henry Moore. Here is one of a series of photographs I took, but I think that the emotional and/or spiritual impact of this sculpture set in the landscape can only be experienced by visiting.

P1020185

The Square Chapel is a beautiful Grade II listed Georgian Chapel, the oldest of its kind in the country having been built in 1772. It was saved from demolition in 1918 by a small group of volunteers (I can only imagine some planners where intent on sweeping away the old in order to build something more ‘modern’ at the time) and is in the process of renovation and development which will include an extension linking it to the magnificent Piece Hall.

square-chapel

Keith’s other guest poets included James Caruth, winner of the Poetry Business completion, and Lucy Burnett who’s Leaf Graffiti was published by Carcanet in 2013 who both read brilliantly.

The audience was friendly and attentive, the open mike included a cracking Yorkshire dialect poem from Andy Smith, and it was good to have a chat with everyone and to be given a short tour of the chapel. I also received a pint of locally brewed stout on the house! It was a great pleasure to see John Foggin, wearer of fine waistcoats and leather jackets, who I met some years ago in Sheffield, and to hear him read a very moving and beautifully made poem about cutting his father in law’s hair.

P1020231
I awoke the next morning to the falling snow, (not an unusual site in this part of the world in March but a treat for me,) and after borrowing a pair of wellies and going out with Keith to feed the flock, headed back, sad to be leaving the north, but pleased, once more, to be close enough to spend time with some warm, generous and welcoming people and to briefly experience some of its geographical, historical and cultural riches.

‘How’s the poetry?’

How is the poetry going?’ my colleague asks.
‘Good, thanks.’

I hope that will always be my answer. Because poetry is in my life for good; we’ve been together for years.  Poetry brings me presents when I’m not expecting them. It’s brought me images in bed. We play together. We sit quietly doing nothing. We work out. Sometimes, it sulks and won’t talk to me for days. Weeks even.  It becomes preoccupied. We obsess over detail and argue until we have to walk away for a while. Sometimes we are passionate about each-other to the exclusion of all else.  I confide in poetry and it confides in me. We go for walks and drives. We get too busy to see each other. We are ships in the night. We delight each other. We share secrets and jokes. We have a thing for mountains. We share memories we haven’t shared with anyone else yet. We have big ideas and plans.  We show off to each-other and reign in each other’s excesses. We have a laugh. We travel. We argue over the best way to proceed.  We research together and develop new enthusiasms.   We learn together. We talk about life and death and things we wouldn’t tell anyone else.  In its absence, I’ve wondered, in those lonely, self-pitying, neglected times, if poetry is having an affair. Equally, I’ve been cool and calm and got on with my life. The reunions have been marvellous. And after arguments, the getting back together is, well….

To return to the question:  I wonder if the person meant ‘How is the writing going?’  The answer could change on a daily, or hourly, or minute by minute basis. Anything could happen.  But basically, I know the writing is going to be OK. Poetry and I have been together too long to worry about our highs and lows too much. Even when we are not communicating, we feel each other’s presence. We’ve been through so much. We’ll always have Paris, even though we made that particular Paris up.

If looked at in another way, the question might refer to publications, readings, book sales, the stuff that comes with sharing, or trying to share ones poetry. And my answer might be ‘Hmm, not much happening at the moment ‘ or  ‘Good thanks, I had a reading last week.  The venue was great. The people were great. If I never read again I’ll be happy. I didn’t fall over on my way to the microphone.’  But I know that in a month, or four or five, I’ll be fretting about not having any readings. Not that I’ve tried very hard to get any (I’m working on this.)

Publications come and go. But the latest ‘Success’ or ‘failure’ wears off soon enough. This week’s publication or returned poem will soon be last month’s
publication or returned poem. I’ll either be flushed with ‘success’, quietly getting on with things or hankering to be noticed again.

Poetry knows all about my insecurities, vanities, ego driven actions. It nods sagely. It looks out of the window, not knowing what to say.  Sometimes it feels embarrassed. But it knows I need to seek approval. It knows about my jealousy and generosity. It doesn’t get involved in that stuff. Poetry knows I’ll be driven back to it by no other motive than the fact I can’t help myself.

Poetry knows that all I really need is for the two of us to be alone, with no distractions. It knows it all comes down to us.

Reading at the John Rylands Library

A few months ago I was delighted to be invited to read at John Rylands Library in Manchester by Janet Rogerson of Poets and Players.

Manchester

Piccadilly Square, Manchester

I was doubly pleased when I learnt that I would be reading with Liz Berry, who’s book ‘Black Country’ I recently reviewed on here (see Poetry Reviews page above) . If you’ve read the review you will know I am a great admirer of Liz’s work. I was also looking forward to meeting fellow readers Geraldine Monk, and the unique musical/spoken word performers, Les Malheuraux.

John Rylands
John Rylands Library

The library reading room was even more beautiful and impressive than it
had appeared in the pictures I’d seen, and for a big space it felt warm and intimate, possibly because, although cathedral-like in structure, it was, as Liz Berry said, a cathedral to books.  All the performances were highly enjoyable.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading (I’ve noticed from the video that  I’m a bit of a fidget, but my family will tell you I never could keep still)  met some lovely people and had a great time.
I’ve added a link to my reading at the end of this post, and you can find Liz Berry’s magical reading, Geraldine Monk’s intriguing piece, and the singular distraction that is Les Malheurax on the same page. Performances at Poet’s and Players. youtube page
  

How does it feel?

A friend asked me where my poems come from. It was easy make a list for her. They come from memories, from past or recent experience, from reading, from news stories, radio, media, real life (whatever that is,) dreams etc. They come from the walking into the shallows that before you know it become depths. I’ve got a feeling there are going to be lots of metaphors in this piece..

I thought about what it feels like to be writing a poem. Some poems come about very deliberately. There is planning involved. There is research. An idea or image appeals, and like the director of a film, I’ll steer the poem forwards, shaping it so that it resembles the idea or vision. There are often many lines edited out of the final version.

The poems that I have most enjoyed writing, (and perhaps these are also my best poems) have been written on what felt like the very edge of control; like riding rapids in a canoe, or leaning a bike into a fast downhill turn. I’m talking about the first few drafts here, not the meticulous process of polishing that happens later. It is an exhilarating place (if you can call a state of mind ‘a place’) to be passing through, a place between knowing and unknowing, or rather knowing in the moment it is happening  that the poem is happening, but not knowing  where it will turn next.

There is more going on here than a balancing act, although this is part of it.  It is also a state at the intersection of conscious and unconscious, of written language and mental image, of the sound and the appearance of words, between literal and associated meaning. Once in a while a poem will feel like it being discovered and that I am the one lucky enough to be uncovering it, blowing a layer of dust off words that were already there.

And this is what I sometimes forget; I can’t make discoveries without exploring. And exploring is reading and writing and sometimes just looking out of the window. I can’t discover anything unless I literally and metaphorically let myself explore;  wandering into a derelict house, time traveling to be with Elvis or Leonardo or Amy Winehouse (or becoming them,) looking under stones, finding a truth and not letting it go, climbing down fire-escapes, rummaging in the dressing up box and swimming to the bottom of the river, going to the dodgy nightclub with the sticky floor and dining in an expensive restaurant (that one is definitely imaginary) listening to the wind rolling cans in the alley and bending the trees in the wood; becoming a child who is brought gifts by crows, smelling the diesel and candyfloss blowing through the screams and generators of the fairground and also the perfume of the pines; feeling breeze on my skin, borrowing telescope and microscope and taking turns to look though each.

 

Some thoughts on not writing

This piece is for writers who are not writing as much as they would like and are worried about it.   

I don’t like the term ‘writer’s block’. I don’t think it is helpful. That doesn’t mean I don’t have periods when I start to wonder if I will write anything ever again. I do. And whether you use the term ‘block’ or not, I do empathize with those who find it difficult to get through periods of not writing very much or not at all.   People use the term ‘block’ when they feel incapable of producing anything of worth. But to label a phase of relative or complete inactivity as ‘block’ seems to imbue it with a tangible quality and thus give it a great and sinister power.         

Block   

The word ‘block’ makes me think of an obstruction. This implies that the normal state of the writer is to be a freely flowing conduit of words that has somehow been occluded.
Gushing stream

And I don’t believe this to be a normal state for any writer. Sometimes writing comes easily and sometimes…

Writing is hard

Assuming you do not make your living as a writer and thus have strict deadlines and output targets to meet,  the only person putting pressure on you to produce work is yourself. You are the boss. So take the pressure off. Be a kind and understanding boss. If you are worried about your ‘not writing’ try to find out what seems to be the matter. Sit yourself down and ask yourself how you are feeling.

Be good to yourself

If you are worried about not writing, it is important to try to figure out why you aren’t writing so that you can do something about it. I suspect that only you will be able to figure this out. There may be several reasons. Perhaps life is exhausting at the moment and there is little emotional and intellectual energy left to devote to writing. If you need a break, take one.

Sometimes not writing is normal.

Normal

It is possible that you have become cynical or, more seriously, depressed. This means you won’t be able to access your emotional or intellectual resources. You may find it is hard to notice the fine detail of both your internal and external material. If you think you are depressed, you might consider getting help.

Not writing can be linked to inertia or staleness brought on by lack of change. It may be that you have not been stimulated by new experiences, environments, challenges or relationships for a while. Your routine, if you have one, may need shaking up.

Routine

It could be that you have simply not been reading, listening or taking in any
sort of art and so have not been providing your imagination with inspiration.

Or it could be that you are suffering from self-doubt a common state of mind among even the most successful writers.
ART

There’s no easy way around this, but try to think of what you have achieved so far. This may be a piece of work (published or unpublished) that you are pleased with. You may remember compliments about your work from friends or strangers. Try to see yourself as those who have praised and encouraged your work have seen you. It might not help. But it’s worth a try.

Every writer is different in terms of how frequently they produce work and in what quantity. Poets I’ve spoken to have told me they haven’t written a thing in months or even years, and in one case, decades.

Similarly, reactions to this phase of ‘not writing’ will range from relaxed to mild anxiety to terror.    I’m lucky in that I think I’m probably at the more prolific end of the scale. I go through periods of high productivity (I’m not sure how productive as I haven’t stopped to count but certainly more than one poem in a week) to periods of low productivity (a poem every month or two, although again I’m not sure I want to spend time counting.) There is no ‘normal’ output for a writer and certainly not for a poet. And for poets the ratio of ‘keepers’ to ‘unsuccessful’ poems also varies greatly; some poets write tens of ‘almost’ poems for every one that ‘works’ and others write a high percentage of poems they consider worth sharing.

Personally , I notice I’ve been writing less poetry these last few weeks and more pieces for this blog. That could change tomorrow. I haven’t been planning to write these articles more frequently. I seem to be in a state of mind where subjects occur to me spontaneously and I begin to write about them. Of course I do a little research and thinking about the subjects, but generally the last few posts were conceived, written, re-written and posted within a period of a few hours(OK, sometimes more than a few hours) . But if I can’t think of anything to write about here next week I won’t be surprised as I suspect my brain will be working on something else.  As long as I’m writing something, anything – I know I’ll be happier about my writing than if I’m not writing at all.

There are a whole set of strategies for dealing with what is generally described as writers block.  There are numerous books and websites offering advice on how to get going again.  I hope I have made it clear that not writing is only a problem if you are distressed by it.  I’ve briefly touched on a few aspects which most writers will recognise as possible barriers to writing.
Here are a few more ideas to finish with.

You should get out more.
You should get out more

If you are stuck in some way- whether you are staring at the blank page or screen, endlessly redrafting or spending unproductive hours browsing the web.- you should think about getting up and doing something else. You might need a break from serious thought, or you might need an environment to do some serious thinking. I find walking is essential for mental and physical wellbeing and there are well documented research findings which illustrate how walking and creativity are related.

You should stay in more

Disipline

Alternatively, depending on your honest self diagnosis, you may need to set yourself some writing targets and stick to them. You might need structures such as prompts, or to sign up for a course such as these helpfully highlighted by Josephine Corcoran, or one run by the Poetry School.   It may be that you need to write more in order to write.

You might need other people
Other People

so join a writers group or workshop or find a mentor.

You may have become incredibly critical of your work. You might be nipping your buds before they flower. It’s good to be aware of this and allow yourself the freedom to write what comes into your head. Loosen up.  Forget you are a perfectionist for a while. Let yourself enjoy writing again.

It’s possible that you are not writing about what you need to write about. Reading can help you discover different approaches. For example, writing
in the third person may allow you to approach difficult or painful subjects.

Ultimately, the hardest task for the non-writing writer
is to understand and accept themselves as they are right now. Once this is done, and if not writing is considered a problem rather than a normal phase for that individual, it might be possible to find strategies that help to address the cause or causes.

Giving a reading

rEADING

This piece is for poets who are going to be reading a set of 10, 15 or 20 minutes, or perhaps longer – the sort of length you might read as a guest poet or at the launch of your pamphlet or book.

I’ve been lucky enough to have given a few of these readings  (although they have been rather sparse lately so if anyone reading this would like me to read, please do get in touch! ) and I’d like to share some of my thoughts.

Of course you will bring your own approach and style to your reading depending on the type of work you write and the type of person you are. Here are some general points and ideas which might be worth considering. I’ve titled this piece ‘Giving a reading’ because you might like to view your reading as a gift to your listeners. Whether they have paid to see you or not, people have come to listen and deserve the best reading you can give them. And you will want your poems to be properly presented.

sundial

Stay within the allocated time

Find out how long you are going to be reading. You should contact the organiser if they haven’t been specific.   I don’t really like to read for much more than 20-25 minutes without a break, as I think that a 20 minute slot is often enough to give a good taste of a reader’s work.

When you know the time frame you are working within you can choose some poems you would like to read.  In the past I’ve changed poems as the mood took me, but recently I’ve found I’m happier to work out a set and stick to it.

Practice as if reading on the night; I like to break the ice by greeting the audience and perhaps saying something about the venue, for example ‘Thank you for inviting me to read. It’s wonderful to be in Slough, the inspiration for Betjemen’s great poem.’

Ice Breaker

When practicing, I work out and include any intros and links between poems.  I always plan to read for at least half a minute less than my allocated time. I’ve learnt that trying to cram in as many poems as possible and reading up to the final second makes for a less comfortable and more pressured reading.

If you read to your allocated time you’ll be able to relax, slow down a little, and enjoy yourself more. If you read longer than your allotted time people will notice, not least those others who are patiently waiting to read. Keeping to time is less essential if it is your book or pamphlet launch, but generally most hosts are acutely aware of what they have to fit in and will probably think it rude if you overrun. Finishing slightly early and perhaps leaving your audience wanting more is better than reading for too long. If people would like to hear more from you, they can always ask you. Think of that 30 seconds you are giving up as a little sacrifice to the poetry gods.

Appollo

Choosing poems

This may seem obvious, but the poem you open with should hold the listener’s attention. Choose poems which that you find easy to read;  poems that sing, that follow the rhythms of your heart and the ebb and flow of your breath. Poems that work well on the page may be too dense to work well when read.  I tend to choose work that I can read fluently and avoid the trickier ones.

Comprehension

I think it’s a good idea to choose work that is reasonably accessible to the first time listener. Of course this depends on the sort of poems you write, and I don’t think I write many poems whose meaning is obscure, but I might avoid something that would perhaps require careful reading once or twice to fully grasp. I have seen an audience’s attention drift when faced with impenetrable work.

Variety

You might want to change pace and the tone of your set in a similar way to the variations one gets at a rock concert (unless it’s a Status Quo concert). Decide if you want to follow an elegy with the brasher, flashier poem, or go for more gradual changes pace and tone. You might like contrast, so follow a quiet downbeat poem with the equivalent of the full tilt high energy rocker to wake everyone up again.

Have you got a ‘funny’ poem?  If you haven’t, a good anecdote can get a laugh and be a mood changer.

Introductions

People like to know where poems have come from, so you could mention your inspiration for a piece.  But keep introductions and stories brief. You can say a lot in a few words. You are a poet and brevity is the name of your game. If you do explain where your poem comes from, or need to explain a word, phrase or historical reference, do so as succinctly as you can. Nobody likes an intro that is longer than the  poem it is introducing.

As you do in your writing, try to avoid repetitive or unnecessary phrases. I’ve seen poets introduce each poem with ‘This next poem is…err.. one I wrote a while ago’..  You can lose the word ‘next’ for a start  – we already know it’s the next poem- and we probably don’t need to know when you wrote it.

Reading new poems

There are places to try brand new poems and places to stay with your familiar ‘greatest hits’. Again, it’s up to you but a new poem may not be finished. Do you want it to make its debut yet? You could save your latest for your next local open mike and go with poems you know from experience that people like.

Practice

When you have chosen your poems, read them aloud and time yourself (with introductions.) If the poems don’t fit into the time frame, drop one or substitute a shorter piece. Do you enjoy reading them? Do they fit together? If you don’t think your selection is working, choose different poems and/or re-jig your set.

Reading poems from a sequence

This can help create an atmosphere. Sequence poems can build on one another to make a narrative, much as they do in a book or pamphlet.  If you are reading from a sequence it might be best to select a couple to give people a taste rather than taking up the whole space with one aspect of your writing.

Practice

Transporting your poems  

columbia-university-woman-carrying-a-large-stack-of-books
I use a faux leather-bound black book with plastic pockets to carry and protect my poems. The pockets allow me to keep the poems in the order I am reading and prevent loose leaves becoming drenched in wine or coffee or cascading around my feet when I’m reading.
People will tell you to read from your book or pamphlet to promote it, holding the cover so that listeners can see it.  I have done this but never liked having to switch back and forth to marked pages.  I might mention that a poem is from a collection and that I have copies available. People will buy your work if they like it, regardless of whether you are holding a copy of your book to read from or not.

Practice. Again

On the night (or afternoon) of the reading

the british are comming

Get there early. Find the venue. Have a wee. Check your flies are done up, your skirt isn’t tucked in to your knickers. Say hello to the people running the event and to any other poets who might be about. Check out the space. Make sure you can see. I once had to borrow a torch in order to read.

Have a bottle of water to hand.

Drunken poet

When it comes to alcohol, plenty of poets like a ‘loosener’ before reading. Plenty of others won’t drink any alcohol until after they have read. The days of the drunken poetry reading are best left behind. Slurring, rambling, swaying and falling into the audience do little to enhance a reading.

Can people hear you? If you are worried that they can’t, ask the audience.  Remember to thank the person who introduced you and/or invited you. If you are reading after an open mike and you are good at thinking on your toes you might want to comment on a theme that came up in another reader’s poem. This will help to show that you are a good listener and appreciate others work as well as being there to read your own.

Hopefully, if you have been given your own reading slot you will have read enough times to be able to relax a little. Your pulse my still be fast, your mouth a little dry, but you won’t be terrified or shaking like you were when you first read to an audience.

the-poetry-reading

My reading has improved a lot over the years and whereas before I used to rush and fidget I now try to keep fairly still, make some eye contact and read at an even pace. I’ve slowed down since I started.  In general I’ve noticed that poets who haven’t read much to audiences are in a hurry. I give myself little reminders to take a little breath between title and poem.

Stick around at the end

If you don’t have to rush off to catch  train  you may be surprised to find people complementing your work or your reading or both. If you have travelled some distance, a compliment or two can make the whole trip feel really worthwhile.

hAPPY

 

 

Putting a poetry pamphlet together.

This piece is addressed to those poets who haven’t had a collection published before, so I’ll be covering what I consider to be the basics of putting a pamphlet together based on my own experience and including ideas and advice I’ve picked up from my reading and listening to others.

The majority of poetry pamphlets contain twenty to twenty-five poems. The first thing you will need (apart from enough poems of course) is to set aside some

Time

clockface

Selecting and ordering poems is a creative exercise that requires attention and care.  If you are hurried or under pressure to meet a deadline you probably won’t be able make the best judgements and as a result you are unlikely to enjoy the process or have the satisfaction of knowing you have put in your best effort.
It’s best to start the process and return to it over a period of days, weeks or months.

You will need print copies of all the poems you are going to consider. It is much easier to take an overview of your work and consider the ordering of your pamphlet if you have sheets of paper to handle rather than word documents to move about on screen.

If you have exactly twenty-two poems I would suggest that you should wait until you have a broader range to choose from.  Ideally, a number  of these poems will have been previously published in magazines or placed in competitions. I wouldn’t want to encourage anyone to send off for a pamphlet competition (most involve you parting with cash) without having had affirmation from a couple of magazine editors that some of the work is of a publishable standard.

If you have more than enough you are in a very good position.  It can be difficult  to select the poems you are going to submit. You could begin by asking yourself

Which of these poems do I love?

Thinking Poet

If you can also explain to yourself why you love those poems then that’s great. It indicates a knowledge and understanding of your work and of its qualities.  You may be reading this and thinking ‘of course I know what I like about my work’. But if you don’t then it’s worth thinking about this.

I felt largely clueless when putting my first pamphlet together.
I struggled with just about every aspect from selecting poems to
putting them in order and choosing the title. Everything turned out well in the end, and I am still very pleased with the finished product.

gopagilla_cover

But I realise that I didn’t have much distance from my work and wasn’t able to see it’s qualities and flaws as clearly as I think I can now.
Another pair of eyes can help, particularly if those eyes are experienced at reading poetry. I was lucky enough to receive some advice from a poet/editor friend.   If you are lucky enough to have one (or preferably more) trusted poetry friends, get them to take a look at some stage in this process and tell you what they think.

Eliot

Although other people’s opinions can be very valuable and useful, there is no shortcut to gaining a better understanding of your work. Only reading and writing and re-writing can help you develop this.
But feedback can be invaluable, and even those comments or suggestions you don’t agree with can be as useful as those you do in helping you understand your work (I hope to say more on this in another article.)

Back to the pamphlet; if there are no poems you love or even like, either you are having a confidence crisis day/week/ month/ year (poets regularly do this) or perhaps you really haven’t got to where you need to be in terms of writing what you would like to write. In which case it’s best to have a re think and don’t enter any competitions because you probably aren’t ready yet.

You need to be sure (at least some of the time) that you have work of sufficient quality and quantity to be in with a chance of getting published before you start splashing the cash. Your poems present a part of you to the world, so you want them to be as good as you want them to be (if you see what I mean.)

Along with the poems you love there will be the poems you like. And there will probably be the poems that were hard-won; tricky to pin down, endlessly revised and perhaps in your eyes not quite satisfactory.  Some might be ‘alright’. You need to put all these poems in a pile.  The poems you leave out can always be included in a full collection or in another pamphlet at a later date. You might want a ‘definitely’ pile, a ‘maybe’ pile and a ‘not for this collection’ pile.

Trust yourself. There is a reason you are doubtful about a particular piece. It may be that it needs more work or that it doesn’t seem to fit with the rest, in which case you could hold on to it until you are able to write other poems that are similar in tone.  What you are looking to do right now is to present your best work in the best order.

Your choices will no doubt be influenced by any or all of the following. The poem has been

a) published in a magazine
b) placed in a competition
c) praised by people when you have read it aloud. (In my case there was the time the slightly drunk chap in the cap and purple flares said
‘I bloody loved the one about the bird’. )
d) given positive feedback from any other source other than grandma, such as teachers, lecturers, poet friends, writing groups etc.

A poem that’s been published in a good magazine may well have added kudos in your eyes. But this does not necessarily mean you should include it. It might be years old and you may have moved on and feel you can write much better work now than when the editor of Paper Sandwich Tower published it two years ago.

None of the reasons on the list above should count if you don’t like the poem. Sometimes, when making decisions about what should be left in or out, we need to make what can only be described as ‘little leaps of faith’.

leap of faith

 

You have a pile of definitely and maybe poems. Now you can look at

Order

 

Order

You are going to take your reader on a journey. It is generally thought to be good practice to place one of your strongest (or the strongest) poem at the start of the collection. You will need to capture the reader’s attention, and obviously you want the next two or three poems to be among your best too in order to sustain that good start.

Themes, narratives, dialogues, connections

There are several approaches to ordering poetry collections. Single themed pamphlets can be extremely effective, with poems linking and building on each other to explore a subject or subjects.  If you have a set of poems like this that works well together than I’m sure you don’t need to read on.

If you don’t have a single unifying theme there are still likely to be themes running through your poems. You can think about how these might work together to create narratives that help you decide how you would like your pamphlet to unfold. You may be able to set up dialogue between poems by placing them in succession. Poems can enhance one another by echoing or expanding on an idea, emotion or image. You could group similar poems in section or sequence or space them throughout the pamphlet as a kind of recurring thread that ties the pamphlet together.

 

Poems on the floor

If you lay all your poems on the floor you can have an overview of how they may fit together. You can do this as many times as it takes, perhaps putting the poems away and spreading them out again at a later date to see how you feel about the choices you made last time.  You can experiment with different orderings and may even begin to enjoy yourself.

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It’s a good idea to check that you are not covering the same ground with different poems. Repetition of images and use of the similar language can sometimes be OK in a larger collection, but should be avoided in a slim pamphlet where such these things are more likely to stand out.

You might want to show your versatility by including poems that vary in tone, rhythm and texture. This is probably an obvious suggestion, but it may be good to graduate and shade these changes so that a humorous piece is not placed next to one about a fatal industrial accident. It is also worth thinking about interspersing longer poems with shorter ones to vary the rhythm of the pamphlet and make varied requests of the reader’s attention to sustain their interest.

Additions

If you feel that there might be a poem missing that will provide the necessary cohesion you need for the pamphlet to feel more complete, you might try to write that poem. It’s not something I’ve felt the need to do yet, but I can understand how this situation might arise and how the poems might cohere around a particular piece, perhaps one that could draw together some of the main themes of the collection.

Just as the first poem needs to one of your best, the last should also be among your strongest. If it is memorable it will leave your reader with a sense of your work, and like any good finale, will leave your audience wanting more.

Applause

Title

I think most people find choosing a title for a book or pamphlet of poems difficult, and I’ve written about this subject on here before. If you’ve kept a list of possible titles you might have one or two to try out on other people. If you haven’t got one you might try looking for significant words of lines or themes that occur in the collection.

NotTheEnd

You might feel that after all this careful consideration your choices have been set in stone. But if your pamphlet is accepted for publication, a good publisher should always be able to discuss the work and make suggestions for improvement. You may end up doing some revising  or being asked to consider substituting a poem or two or five.  My first pamphlet was changed a few times with poems dropping in and out of the line-up.

If your pamphlet does not win a competition or receive an acceptance from a publisher you sent it to, you will have to deal with the initial disappointment (along with the four hundred other people who also sent in work.) But your time will not have been wasted. You will have gained experience in selecting work and looked closely at it to gain an idea of its merits and deficits. You will have identified themes and narrative threads and tried different ordering of poems to see how they fit together, as well as perhaps receiving advice and suggestions on how you might improve your work. You may even have found a title that you like.

 

 

 

 

It’s been a while

Copies of the new print run of my book arrived on my doorstep today. If you would like to buy a copy please click the link on ‘The Sun Bathers’ page above.

In other news, I’m pleased to have been invited to read with Liz Berry, Geraldine Monk and Les Malheureux at the John Rylands Library in Manchester next month. If you read my review of Liz’s ‘Black Country ‘ on here a while back you’ll know high highly I rate her work and the venue  is lovely so I’m looking forward to it. You can find details on the Poets and Players website.

Like a lot of people, I’m not at my best at this time of year, so it was  good to hear that my short story ‘Late’ has been highly commended in the Bare Fiction  short story competition.  Bare Fiction is a relatively new and very well produced print magazine that has already established itself with its good looks and excellent production values, website and launches. I understand that the short story competition  attracted 571 entries, with similar numbers entering poetry and flash  fiction categories.

I’m rather pleased about the commendation for my story. Its been a while since I wrote my last one. In fact I think I was eleven years old. It received an A plus from Mrs Taylor. I couldn’t spell very well and my presentation wasn’t great, but the enlightened Mrs Taylor looked beyond these details. My next English teacher (Mr Big) also liked my writing. He liked one story so much he asked me to copy it out so he could print it in the school magazine. I didn’t copy out the story. I don’t think I could be bothered.  I missed the deadline.

aRTFUL dODGER

Decades passed.  I wrote one or two poems that I never showed to anyone. I wrote some songs. A very talented musician friend, Pete Aves recorded one of my songs on an album. I also wrote some sleeve notes for Pete’s albums. But no short stories.

I studied nursing at university and for I while the only writing I did was essays. In the mid noughties I started writing poems again, many of which went into my pamphlet and full collection. I wrote a couple of poetry reviews for magazines, and a few articles on subjects that interest me for the blog you are reading now.

In 2012 I won an award which enabled me to start a part-time MA in writing.  But it was now 2014 and I had not written one single word of a short story for about thirty years.

I signed up for the short story module on the MA thinking it would be the nearest thing to poetry. I was fortunate in that the lecturer, Felicity Skelton, was funny, brilliant, organized, knowledgeable and absolutely passionate about the form. In my experience of education people like this are rare and can rescue you from the despair, disaffection and confusion that educational establishments can sometimes foster.

sCHOOL

I didn’t read everything Felicity asked us to read, or complete every exercise; but I did read things I wouldn’t have normally read. I’d read almost nothing but poetry and autobiography for years. And I had to produce some work and so I wrote. I wrote before and after going to work, I wrote between poems, before and after the school run, before cooking, after eating, late into the night and very early in the morning. I wrote whenever I could.

Frantic writer

To my amazement, I wrote three stories in quick succession.  I followed ideas not knowing where they  would go.

Jack K

I avoided distraction. I researched where I needed to add detail. I finished the things I started to write.  I felt liberated by the form, not having to re-consider and weigh every word in quite the same obsessive way that I do when writing poetry whilst still enjoying the constraints that short story imposes.  I was disciplined enough to write when I didn’t feel like writing, and this loosened me up. I was pleased when my work received good feedback. And this time, I even wrote my stories up in neat.