Getting things together and leaving things out

I’m assembling a manuscript for a new book of poems. This ongoing process began almost unconsciously when I sent off the final manuscript of ‘The Sun Bathers’ in 2013. That’s when I started to put poems, or drafts of poems, together into a document entitled 1 Book.

Every piece I’m looking at has been revised: some many times, others not so much. One was left over from the last book. Some are two years old and one is two months old – a mere babe, but included at the moment because it fits, and I hope, strengthens a sequence.

There are several published poems that I’ve left out because I’m not really fond of them. And I think I should be very fond of all these poems if I’m expecting them to make a good book that a reader can also be fond of, although I’m aware one can never be sure which pieces will strike a chord with whom.

There’s a poem that isn’t in the current version of the book due to the fact that, although it’s had the endorsement of being published by the editor of a good magazine and memorably (as these things are) complemented by a member of the audience at the magazine’s launch, for some reason I just don’t love it. Better to delay submission of a manuscript than include work you don’t love.

I’ve also left out poems I’m fond of because they are probably not good enough. The poem has to please me first, but that can’t be enough. It must also have other qualities which I won’t try to put my finger on tonight.

There is usually at least one poem that you know is weaker than the rest. I suppose a good test to see if you want to include this poem might be to ask ‘ If this was my only poem, would I be happy for it to represent me?’ Another question might be ‘would it embarrass me to read it to an audience’. I’d try to answer the second question on the basis of quality, not content, since I imagine we all have poems that are too personal to speak to strangers, although I might be wrong.

Poems have come and gone from the file. Several pieces I thought were finished have recently been re-written, a few on the basis of feedback I received a while ago, some of which I refuted at the time. Time. That’s what this process takes. Lots of it.

I’ve been told, more that once, that I’m a  prolific writer and I feel fortunate to have enough work to consider getting a book into shape just two years after the last collection. Having said that, two years might be considered to be quite a long relationship, and it’s certainly been an intimate, joyful, intense, and frustrating one.  I’ve been besotted, fallen out with, struggled to like, taken for granted and come to accept the foibles of this body of work during that period.

I’m happy with my last book and today, at least, I’m quietly confident that this will be a book I will also be pleased to live with for the rest of my life. When I’ve done all I feel I can, I’ll send the manuscript off. If it is accepted for publication then other parties – editor, publisher – will enter the relationship and I guess my book and I will have to consider someone else’s opinion and adjust. It won’t be just us any more, together, alone, day after day, night after night.

Poetry, ego, success and rejection. A few thoughts and reminders to self.

We teach best what we most need to learn.
Richard Bach.

I have a freshly printed poem. No-one, to my knowledge, has ever set down these particular words in this particular order. I feel rather pleased with myself and that’s ok. But it might be worth reminding myself later that any poem I write is only partly mine. I don’t mean that I have deliberately lifted or re-written bits of other people’s poems. Rather, I am aware that this poem and all others I have written or might write are descendants of all the poems I have read or listened to. I stand on the shoulders of giants. Or, if you prefer a more fluid and less clichéd metaphor, my poems are merely waves on the surface of a deep body of poetry.

I want to talk about ego and poetry and success. That’s a lot of ground to cover and there are some complex relationships here but I need to start somewhere.  What I’m trying to establish is the idea that although our poems are unique creations, we need to be mindful of their place in the wider scheme of things. Yes, our poems can be important expressions of who we are. They may even be read by someone who miraculously will find some aspect of their own experience reflected there. And here, maybe I’ve stumbled upon what would constitute true success.

My new poem also owes a debt to those who have helped me develop my craft.  In a list that might read a little like an Oscar acceptance speech, I can think of writing workshop facilitators, writing partners, friends, mentors, editors. All have added something to my understanding, or helped me look at what I have written and see it in a different way.  Disagreeing with feedback and learning to stick to your guns can make you more sure of your work, and being able to explain why you don’t want to change a poem, at least to yourself, is as useful as realizing that maybe you could make suggested changes.

I haven’t had any formal feedback for some time, and am not part of any writing group, but I have recently benefited from the suggestions of friends. One might only suggest the possibility of changing a word. Another might offer generous but heartfelt (and very important) support and encouragement, which can never be underestimated.

So for these reasons, I could remind myself that my poem is not entirely mine. I am responsible for it, and it is ultimately me who decides if it is finished.By ‘finished’ I mean a poem which I feel fairly certain I can’t improve upon, a poem to which it seems no more can be usefully added or subtracted.

In order to have a chance of the kind of success I mentioned above, namely that of the poem resonating with another reader, it is necessary (unless you are happy to read your poem to an audience and leave it at that, which is also fine) to get it into print.
If I like my poem and believe (at least at the time of sending) that what I have written has captured something interesting and in such a way that it is worthy of sharing, I’ll send it out . Some of the poems I send out are returned. Others are published. So it goes.

If I sound blasé about this process I don’t mean to. Publication is important to me and I generally look forward to having a publication on the horizon. By circulating returned work and sending out new poems at regular intervals I do my best to maintain the prospect of publication as a constant backdrop to my writing.

Of course I will be pleased, (in some cases very pleased) if a poem is accepted by a magazine. If I have tried that particular magazine few times it’ll feel like I have got over some kind of hurdle. Which seems a bit ridiculous, but is understandable perhaps.

Obtaining publication is also part of the business of building a track record on your way to convincing someone to publish a pamphlet or book.  It is possible to view publication in itself, or winning a prize or being short-listed for an award, very simplistically, as ‘success’, and therefore, to view non-publication as its opposite.

By using the words non-publication I am skirting around the commonly used word ‘rejection’. I’ve written here before about rejection, and I’ve often thought the term ‘rejected poems’ could be replaced with ‘returned poems’. Most, if not everyone, to varying degrees, finds having poems returned difficult. And all published poets have at some time experienced it.

It might be helpful to look at the returned poem in the following way . If the objective of sending the poem off is to get the poem accepted and the poem has been returned, then all that has happened is that the objective has been delayed. It might help to view our ‘rejections’ or returns as delays on the way to the next temporary feeling of success. Unless of course the writer’s publishing success has been delayed for a number of years, in which case this might be a realistic indication that assistance is required to move the work forward.

I appreciate that it is difficult to think of the returning of a poem or poems as a delay.  But it is good, if you can, to develop a kind of resilience to the return of your work if you wish to continue to attempt to be published. There’s only one way to proceed and that’s to keep trying. The difficulty is not only in the fact that the returned poem frustrates the poet’s desire for the poem to be read, but in that it may be viewed (or rather felt) as the opposite of affirmation.

Affirmation (noun)

The act of affirming; state of being affirmed.
The assertion that something exists or is true.

I have a feeling that most poets suffer from a deficit of affirmation. Sometimes insecure or egotistical creatures, often an odd cocktail of both, many poets will equate the acceptance or return of their work to the value of their art or worse still, of themselves.  In the most extreme case a lack of affirmation may feed feelings of worthlessness. The need for affirmation might be one reason why some people write poetry in the first place. I’m sure there’s a research project or two in all this for those with the inclination, energy and resources.

To summarise, acceptance for publication can be seen to equal success in two ways. It is a positive, affirming and encouraging event, and it enables your poem to be seen and potentially achieve the (perhaps more meaningful) success of connecting with readers. For these reasons, acceptance for publication should be enjoyed and celebrated.

But the joy of acceptance and the accompanying affirmation are fleeting. They wear off. And it is possible, if we are over-reliant on this affirmation or in a rush for recognition, for us to hunger for the next confirmation of the worth of our work the day after the last acceptance. In an extreme scenario we might even forget to write as we perpetually wait for the next publication fix, or dwell bitterly on the latest delay in obtaining it.

There is probably no purer feeling of ‘success’ than the very first acceptance of a poem by a good magazine (quality of publication is of course important). But in my experience the intensity of this kind of feeling diminishes the more one obtains it.

How we understand and relate to publication success and rejection (or delayed success) can be healthy or unhealthy. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotions associated with publication or lack of it. But if success is measured solely in terms of publication, most, if not all writers will never be able to get enough.

So how do we keep a sense of perspective and remember what is important? And what is important? Here are some thoughts I’ve jotted down to finish. I hope some of this makes sense and that this list doesn’t read too much like a boy scout’s pledge

It is important

To be kind and helpful and fair to others.
To be generous with what we have learned.
To absorb to watch, read and listen.
To notice what’s within us and without us.
To remember our lives and the lives of others, to honour and explore memory.
To be mindful of how we deal with ‘success’, ‘rejection’ and other temporary distractions.
To diligently purse new ideas.
To translate our learning into other words.
To use what we know, what we think we know
and what we know that we don’t know.
To accept praise and criticism with humility.
To engage with and utilize our imaginations and passions when we can.
To take our writing seriously, but remember to laugh at ourselves.
To forgive and be generous to ourselves. To rest.


The Compass

If you haven’t seen the wonderful new on-line magazine The Compass yet, I do hope you can find time to check it out. There’s work by brilliant poets such as Liz Berry, Helen Mort and Julia Copus as well as poems by newer poets such as Siegfried Baber, who was a featured poet on this blog a while ago, and a whole range of intriguing and engrossing pieces by poets I haven’t heard of before. There’s also a selection of reviews, two by friends of mine, Maria Taylor and John Foggin, and one from me of  Jane Clarke’s ‘The River’ (Bloodaxe), ‘Loop of Jade’ (Chatto and Windus) by Sarah Howe, and ‘The Art of Scratching’ (Bloodaxe) by Shazea Quaraishi.  It’s great to be involved with such a finely produced and carefully edited magazine.
If  you’d like to read a longer version of my review of Jane Clarke’s wonderful collection ‘The River’ I’ve posted it on the ‘Poetry Reviews’ page of this site.

Walking through the winter blues

For some time I’ve been aware that I’m not at my best during the winter months. I love the mists and colours of autumn, and later, the magic of a good snowfall. But the days of little light and long dark don’t suit me well. I’ll get by with my light-box and books, keep myself busy with work and family, try to see friends and get some exercise to lift my mood.

Two separate winter walks brought me a poem a few years ago. I’d been up to Croft Hill, the highest point in my rather non-undulating part of Leicestershire.  It’s above a quarry where stone has been taken since the Romans used it for the nearby Fosse way, the road that linked Exeter to Lincoln. I’ve read that Croft is derived from the old English  ‘Craeft’ meaning ‘craft’ , and that the craft in question might be that of quarrying.


There are peregrines nesting up there, and the odd finch flitting about. In most seasons there are runners and dog walkers. Once I saw an impressively patient and authoritative young woman up there, shepherding a group of wildly energetic and talkative kids who I imagine had been excluded from school.

The hill is an isolated landmark rising above the flood plain of the river Soar, and at 128 meters it’s not exactly a mountain.

Crof quarry in summer

But the shelves of the quarry with its toy trucks and conveyers are an impressive sight from the path that skirts its lip, and the walk takes you up through patches of broad-leaved woodland, across scrub and grassland and clots of gorse to the white trig point on a granite outcrop that is almost at the physical centre of England.

I’ve been up there to practice for poetry readings, standing in the crown of stones, reading my poems into the wind. A dog walking local told me that the next highest point was the Ural mountains in Russia.

Croft trig point

A few days after my walk on Croft Hill, I went around the block where I live to stretch my legs. As I passed a tree in the failing light I noticed a blackbird in the lowest branch and the first lines of a poem came to me. I didn’t have any writing materials, so I spoke the beginning of the poem into my phone and wrote it down when I got home. I like to think the rhythm and cadence of the poem comes from the rhythm of walking, and I hope the poem says something about the possibility of finding solace in solitary song,   even in dark time.

Blackbird in Winter

He’s on a branch above my head
velvet feathers at touching distance
yellow ringed eye locked to mine.

Is an alarm call frozen in his breast,
the urge to fly curtailed by heavy air,
or is it to preserve energy and heat

that he keeps still? Can he sense in me
a lack of threat, recognise the need
to move slowly through slow air,

to sing a sub-song, out-live
short days by swallowing dark,
holding on to what light there is,

braced against the grip of a wind
unchallenged and un-breathed
since it skimmed down from the Urals?

From The Sun Bathers, Shoestring Press, 2013. 

Reasons for entering a poetry competition

In 2009, the year in which I discovered there were magazines in the UK and Ireland specifically publishing poetry, I also stumbled upon the wide world of UK-based poetry competitions.

I found the website the Poetry Kit   and entered one or two. I had beginners luck that year, having a poem come third in the Ledbury poetry competition, as well as poems placed in a couple of smaller comps. I was simultaneously making my first exciting forays into submitting to poetry magazines. I’ve always done both- that is submitted to a few competitions and quite a few magazines.

I didn’t (and still don’t) have any strategy for which poems I send where. People talk about the ‘competition poem’ but I’m still not sure what this is, and though I will sometimes read the winners, I don’t study the results to try to assess what type of work is being given prizes. As with the editorial  taste, everything will depend on the taste of the judge or judges, and, in-case you think you have hit on a plan, this may vary considerably from the work they themselves produce.

When I do look at competitions I can’t tell a ‘competition poem’ from one I might see in a poetry magazine. Then there are the variations in my perception of the quality of the work.  There are competitions where the work chosen has seemed to me to be exceptionally good, and others where I am surprised, bemused or, on one notable  occasion (when a very big prize was being offered) completely confused by the choices of the judges.

When considering whether to enter a competition I’ll see what unpublished and un-submitted poems I have available, who is judging, and if I think the entrance fee is reasonable. Other factors might be where the entrance fee goes- I understand that magazines like The Interpreter’s House run a competition to enable them to keep the cover price down- and that others, like The Ver (St Albans) and the Lumen support charities.  I’ve written a bit about these and other aspects of poetry competitions before, on the Poetry Submissions page of this site.

Some poets I know don’t enter competitions for various reasons. Others enter lots. I enter one or two a year, and have yet to enter any of the really ‘big’ competitions as I don’t like paying more than £6 to enter for some reason – perhaps that’s the cut off point because it’s the price of a drinkable bottle of wine – so that rules out the National Poetry competition and a few others.

Should you submit your poem to a competition or a magazine? Well, to help you decide you might consider how long it will take to get a response. In many cases the results may come back faster than a response from a good magazine. And if it’s a ‘smaller’ competition, there may even be less entries for a competition than there are submissions to a popular (in poetry terms) magazine. I suppose submitting to magazines could be viewed as a kind of competition, albeit one that is free to enter. It is possible that the competitions run by smaller magazines offer better odds, to use gambling terminology – after all, in entering a poem for a comp you are effectively placing a bet on your own poem.

I started writing this post because I wanted to flag up this year’s Prole Laureate Competition.  Prole is a small high quality print magazine based in Wales, and their annual competition is relatively inexpensive to enter (I don’t fancy drinking wine at that price, unless it’s by the glass) and affords better odds, I imagine, than some of the larger comps. Prole is a self funded project and has survived and flourished due to the hard work and dedication of its founders. So if you are in the mood to enter a competition and have a poem free, why not have a go. If you want to consider entering after reading an interesting and informative interview with one of the hard-working editors Brett Evans,  here it is. Goodnight and good luck.

The Compass and the tune

There are some brilliant poems, interviews and concise and astute reviews over on The Compass magazine. I can highly recommend it, and am pleased that my review of three marvellous début collections will be published there in the next week or so.

Last night I found myself putting together a list of ‘qualities’ a good poem might have. It is not of course, an exhaustive list. Here it is.

Immediacy, surprise, power, urgency, longevity, violence, beauty, tranquility, humour, clarity, ambiguity, transcendence, disturbance, delight.

Then I was thinking about how to articulate the idea of a poems ‘music’- the rhythm that we can hear when a poem is read aloud- the rhythm and sounds that drive it,  the rhythm that is sometimes just ‘right’ and to which we connect, perhaps because the heart is the first sound we hear, perhaps because the rhythm of the poem echoes and connects us to the rhythm of our bodies, perhaps because lullabies sooth our earliest days, (although maybe now many infants have the rhythms of the virtual world to entertain and lull them). Anyway, I was thinking about the quality of sound in poetry when I broke off to read John Foggin’s latest review for The Compass and found this.

‘For the record, at poetry readings it’s the tune I hear first. The words come after. It’s the rhythm, the space of vowels, the textures of consonants. It’s the authentic accent, the distinctive voice.’ 

So here, in John’s inimitable and inherently musical style, is a statement of how for him the ‘tune’ comes first. And perhaps in order to shut out the noise of the world, to compell and to inhabit us, at least for the duration of our listening or reading (if the poem manages the miraculous feat of conveying its tune silently from the page) it is the music of the poem which must carry everything else.


Eclipse X-ray



Outside ward four, nurses and doctors
hold X-rays to the sky. The day turns

cold and blue. Bones rise to the surface of film
the colour of canal water. A crescent sun

lights up fractures: compact, spiral, greenstick,
simple and oblique. The moon is a coin in the neck

of a femur, a shadow on the skull of a window cleaner
who missed a rung. The black ball slips

from arthritic fingers
and through a doorman’s jaw.

First published in Ambit, summer 2015.
Art work by Stane Jagodic. Solar Eclipse, 1972