Drafting Poems

I wrote a few thoughts on drafting and re-drafting poems last night. I redrafted my thoughts today. This is only a draft.

1.  Does the opening line invite the reader to read the poem? Is it compelling? Is it hard to understand? If so, will it repel the reader? Do you need the first line? The first stanza? Half of the second stanza? Delete until you are left with the poem. Or not, in which case it probably wasn’t meant to be a poem.

2.  Have you read the poem aloud? Does it sound ‘right’? Is it hard to read? Where do the line breaks naturally fall?  Do you want to subvert this, and if so, to what purpose? What’s the white space doing? What shape best serves the poem?

3.  Do you need to put the poem away until you can see it more clearly? Come back tomorrow. Or next year. If you are struggling, go for a walk. Put the washing out. Do something else. Anything. Except maybe Laudanum.

4.  If you are attracted to a word for its ‘cleverness’, it’s probably the wrong word. Is a short, subtle word better than the long, flamboyant, archaic or obscure word? Are there some dull words in your poem? Get the Thesaurus out. Dive into meanings and glorious alternatives.

5.  Keep drafts. After one hundred and thirty three drafts, you might decide that the third is the best.

6.  Like skier on a slalom slope, keep the whole journey in mind. A shift in the balance in the poem will affect something further down. You may need a radical adjustment to your line. You may want to go back to the start.

7.  Do your rhymes and assonance serve or choke the poem? Avoid tongue twisters. Do you really need an ‘angry, addled, straggly, shambles of geese’? Or has the language evolved over time to express a lot in a single word. Will ‘a gaggle of geese’ suffice?

8.  Every word, every line break, every bit of punctuation needs to count. If you are not convinced, remove or change it.

9.  Is the poem “true” in terms of emotional resonance? If you don’t feel that it is, it’s unlikely your reader will.

10.  Is your political poem too literal? Does it lack subtlety? Can you approach the ‘political’ obliquely, emotionally, drawn on your own experience? Does it lack irony? Could you use allegory, imagery, a ballad or translation to approach the political?

11.  Does the world need this poem? Has it been done before? Are there any memorable lines? Is the poem doing enough?

12.  Is the end of your poem the way you want it to be? Is it stating the obvious? Do you have a stronger line to end on, further up the poem? Is it surprising? Does it need to be? Would it be better to ‘step off lightly’ than to end with a statement of what has already been said?

13.  Do your images relate to emotion, or are they there simply to show off? Do they detract from the poem? If you think an image is arresting but doesn’t fit in this poem, could you keep them back for another piece?

14.  Have you ‘stolen’ well enough? If you’ve used a model or started with a found piece, have you made it fully your own?

15.  Does the poem have too many ideas? Is less more?

16. Have you repeated yourself, covered the same ground twice or more?

17. Can you imply rather than state? Have you credited your reader with as much intelligence as feel you yourself have?

18. Are you interested in clarity of communication ? If so, do you need to make your poem clearer?

19.  Do you like your poem? If not, why not?

Siegfried Baber, featured poet

Sieg

Siegfried Baber was born in Barnstaple, Devon in 1989. Since graduating from Bath Spa University with a degree in Creative Writing, he lives and works in the city as a freelance writer, and as a barman in Bath’s finest pub, The Star Inn. His work has featured in various publications including Under the Radar, The Interpreter’s House, Butcher’s Dog Magazine and as part of the Bath Literature Festival.

I was lucky enough to catch Siegfried at a reading in Lewes which featured Martin Malone, Helen Fletcher and Peter Kenny (whose work I was pleased to share in my last post,) where he had stepped in at very short notice to fill in for a poet who had been unable to attend.  You can read more about that evening and the new and the very lovely pamphlets available from Telltale Press here.

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Siegfried read from his new pamphlet, ‘When Love Came To The Cartoon Kid’ , which I can highly recommend, along with Peter Kenny’s ‘The Nightwork’ and Robin Houghton’s ‘The Great Vowel Shift’. All three are available from Telltale Press here.

I was impressed both by the quality of his work and by Siegfried’s assured delivery. After reading the pamphlet, I asked Sieg for the three poems bellow. For those who are a bit slow on the uptake, as I was on first reading, LHO is Lee Harvey Oswald, and there is another poem featuring Oswald entitled ‘Three Shots’ which bookends the pamphlet.  I’d buy the pamphlet on the strength of his poem ‘Rabbit’ alone, which includes detail of skinning the said creature during Siegfried’s childhood on his father’s farm, and features the unforgettable lines ‘ After yanking it free from those overalls of brown fur,/ I was faced, for the first time,/ with that compact machinery of muscle/ spread out cold on yesterday’s paper.’
Between the two Oswald poems you will find a wide variety of subjects are covered in sure-footed and surprising poems from a young poet whose
work  we will surely be seeing much more of in the very near future.

Ladies and Gentlemen,  Siegfried Baber.

For LHO

Instead of some rifle, superimposed,
you hold a prism of light in your hands –
this glittering bottle of Coca-Cola,
now obliterated by sunshine, pressed
ice-cold against your forehead.
On the street below, the President’s
motorcade crawls harmlessly out of view.
The Sun is the yawn of a great cat.
Fifty years from now, you doubt
anyone will remember this afternoon
or the rainbows you cast on the wall.


Shit-Street Nativity

Onstage, three chairs –
Mary in a blue shell-suit,
cradling her swollen
stomach, mascara running
down both cheeks;

Gabriel, stuck in the middle,
dressed to the nines
in his white linen suit,
trim, slim, glowing
and showing-off
his angelic smile;

then poor Joseph,
demanding a DNA test,
slouched in shorts
and sandals, fingers
shot through with splinters,
wine-stains on his vest.

And in the audience, everywhere,
is God rolling a fag,
wearing a baseball cap,
head back and laughing.

The tattoo on his neck:
World’s Best Dad.

A Few Phobias

Fear of reading the Post-It note on my desk
and your handwriting, strong, cool and clear.

Fear of this half-empty flat, swallowed by space,
with missing chairs, no television, and the cutlery

left hugging itself in the drawer. Or worse,
months from now, fear of finding your books

lost between mine. That favourite dress
clinging to my clothes like gossamer.

 

Featured Poet, Peter Kenny

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing Peter Kenny read his some of his poems, as well as, in an intriguing and fabulous twist, a recitation from memory of a poem by someone who shares Peter’s name.  The poem, a waking nightmare piece about confronting a doppelganger, was written by a poet Peter described as a ‘younger and better looking’ Peter Kenny.
This reading of another poet’s work struck me as a generous gesture seeing as Peter has enough fine poems of his own to draw upon.

One of many memorable phrases that stayed with me was the ‘Rose-choked’ garden from the poem ‘Minotaur’ which Peter introduced as being about a stepfather. I was struck by the fact that roses are so often used to represent beauty and that the juxtaposition of the assonant ‘choked’ was a concise and extremely powerful way of conveying how beautiful surroundings  do not always reflect the state of mind of the inhabitant.

Peter has kindly agreed to let me feature this poem as well as two others from his recent Telltale Press pamphlet, The Nightwork , a pamphlet  which the poet and reviewer Charlotte Gann suggests ‘ invites the reader into its own world of atmospheres. There is real anguish here, held securely in poems of reflective subtlety.’

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Peter has kindly supplied this biographical note-

Having had my work published in the 80s and early 90s I walked away from the whole scene for about 15 years or so, a change that I see in retrospect was precipitated by the death of Timothy Gallagher, a close friend who I used to do poetry readings and stage plays with. Instead I somehow got a job as an advertising copywriter and sold my soul to the Devil. I still wrote plays, prose and edited a long-defunct e-zine called AnotherSun. In 2010 the wheel turned. Poems about Guernsey (where I lived as a child) were published in a two person collection A Guernsey Double (2010) with Richard Fleming. I also started collaborating with the composer Matthew Pollard resulting in Brighton Festival Fringe performances, and the CD Clameur (2012).  Two plays, Wrong, and Betty the Spacegirl were performed in Brighton’s Marlborough Theatre in 2011.

In 2013 I started turning up at Poetry Stanza meetings in Brighton where I met Robin Houghton, who was forming Telltale Press, which published my pamphlet The Nightwork late in 2014.’

Ladies and gentlemen, Peter Kenny

A sparrow at 30,000 ft.

 Cattle class, in clear air turbulence,
this shuddering is perfectly normal.
Through the window of this bucking jumbo,
I see the horizon thicken into indigo.
There is something horrific about this,
something about death in the way
night accelerates to meet us.

Life, I recall, is a sparrow
that darts through the fire-lit mead hall.
On bending wings we swoop
through the last slanting of the light.

While the steward is dreaming in the galley
I lurch from the musty box
of the toilet at the back,
take my place again
among the ghost-faced sleepers.

There is nothing to fear,
for we share the same journey
and the crew seems certain
we’ll get there.

(First published in Rogue Scholars)

Minotaur

Forehead gored by migraine;
pain has sharpened my senses.
I hear mosquitoes in the garden,
there are clouds of them conspiring:
one for every promise.

You promised me this garden
somewhere private; somewhere lovely,
now it’s empty – bar some black dog
whose hairs I find everywhere.
And still I sense it panting
among the sculptures, fin de siècle,
made by someone very clever.

Rose-choked, the garden walls break
over the cracked slabs. I tread petals,
I make the divine slime of rose heads
the ecru of ex-white petal falls.

Or I listen to the radio,
snorting with uncontrollable laughter,
or I read my leisurely books
near the ornamental fishpond,
the copper-coloured fishpond,

the one I can never look in.

(First published in Other Poetry)

Cicada 

Another Greek island,
gravestones
dignified with thyme,
dried flowers, photos.
Cicadas are everywhere.
Plato, I remember,
said they were the souls of poets.
Then I spot one:
its vivid wings retracted
into its cacophonous carapace.
A squat little Cavafy, perhaps,
a drab little Blake,
or someone unknown,
an author in a long-burnt library
shrilling on an island,
from a cypress tree.

(First published in The Frogmore Papers)


 

 

Poets who blog

The Spring edition of Poetry News (the newspaper of the UK Poetry Society) features an article by Robin Houghton about blogging based on interviews with seven poets who also write blogs- Sarah Westcott, Abegail Morley, Josephine Corcoran, John Field, Anthony Wilson, George Szirtes and me.

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Winter 2014 copy of Poetry News

Robin has selected poet bloggers who use their posts for a variety of reasons and she’s done a good job of collating the answers.  Here are a few reasons the interviewees have given to the question ‘why blog?’

George Szirtes says it is a “space to work out some thoughts.. to act as something of a diary…to talk about poets I like.”

John Field writes ‘intelligent, in-depth poetry book reviews’ because he feels poetry is “poorly represented” and that his reviews give exposure that might lead to  book sales.

I’m sure most people reading this will have, at some point, visited Josephine Corcoran’s  marvellous rolling anthology  ‘And Other Poems’. Josephine also has a personal blog which gives some insight into her experiences in the poetry world.

Anthony Wilson uses his highly popular blog to explore his thoughts and describes  the space as – “a chance to see what I actually think about something.”

I particularly like this from Sarah Westcott  (a fine poet I whose work featured on here last year)  – “it gives a sense of permanence… a record of life.”

Abegail Morley (who is kindly featuring two poems from  my 2012 pamphlet ‘Gopagilla’ on her ‘Poetry Shed’  at the moment ) says that she uses it as a means of sharing other’s work and that this ‘feeds’ her own writing.

My own reasons for writing this blog echo, to some extent, all of those given above. I was inspired to start by Matt Merritt’s Polyolbion, which combined interviews with shorter pieces highlighting poetry books and links to poets work. From early on I also wanted it reflect my experience, to provide a resource for other writers (I’ll blow my own trumpet here- Robin describes it as a ‘rich resource’) and I’m glad that the positive feedback I have received indicates that some of the articles  are proving useful in the way I intended.

Tune in for more fascinating interviews with UK poet/ editors in the coming weeks!

Interview with Noel Williams, editor and poet

 

NOEL

Noel Williams first collection ‘Out of Breath ‘(Cinnamon Press) was published in 2014. Noel co-edits Antiphon with Rosemary Badcoe, an online poetry magazine now in its fourth year, and is reviews editor for Orbis. Noel was educated at King’s College, Cambridge and at Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University where he has been a professor for ten years.

Hi Noel, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Antiphon, the magazine you co-edit with Rosemary Badcoe, is very carefully designed and full of excellent work from UK and abroad. I wondered if you are surprised by the growth of the magazine?  

I think we have been a little surprised by the growth of the magazine, though certainly being online means that it’s internationally accessible, and cost-free, so those are obviously factors in success. However, there are a very large number of small magazines online – and some outlets where the designation is unclear – so in that sense it’s quite competitive. At the same time, in the UK at least, the number of quality print magazines for poetry has declined rapidly, and as our pitch includes a strong belief in “quality” work (even though we recognise that is a problematic term) I think much of our success is simply down to the quality of the poems we publish. It would be quite possible to double the size of the magazine, but we feel that would reduce its quality. We limit ourselves to around the best 24 or so poems we receive for each issue.

The design philosophy fits this strategy, too. Rosemary does most of the design work. In fact, she’d probably say she does most of the work full stop! (or “Period”, for your readers in the USA.)  One thing we’ve avoided is choosing graphics which overcome the text. Antiphon is most definitely about poetry, and the design is something like creating a pleasant room in which to read and appreciate the poems .

iMAGE FROM aNTHIPHON
Image from Antiphon website.

I’d say you have achieved the ‘pleasant room’ effect admirably. What about the amount of work involved? Has that been something of a surprise too?

I think there is rather more work than people would believe, especially when submitting poets ignore what we’re asking for.  Some poets fail to edit their work properly, and quite a few submissions are, in some sense, “faulty”.  There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of faults in the work we receive: technical flaws and creative flaws. Technical flaws include misspellings, grammatical errors, use of clearly incorrect words and so on. We have a policy of not interfering with the poet’s original work, so any error at all of this kind will almost inevitably lead to rejection.

The “creative flaw” is more difficult to handle because, quite obviously, such things may well be a matter of opinion, taste or style. We have found, however, after four years of reading thousands of poems, that certain kinds of weakness recur, and these tend to be very noticeable to us now. We only publish poems with the agreement of both of us – and our tastes differ – so this takes time to reconcile.

Could you say something about being the positive and negative aspects of being an editor?

I could trot out some clichés, and probably believe them: “editing is fun, exciting, enlightening,  a service to the poetic community, a duty for those who possess the skills, a necessary evil” etc. Occasionally, I find editing tedious, especially if I spend a few hours trawling through poems where the poet clearly either does not know what they’re doing or is submitting to completely the wrong magazine.

We began Antiphon because we felt there were good poets who weren’t getting enough, or in some cases, any, exposure. We felt we would learn something from the experience, and we have. We also thought that editorial experience would be good for our poetic CVs – in other words, there was some self-interest in setting up the magazine; and I think both of us have had a few opportunities that we otherwise wouldn’t have had because of it.

We hadn’t realised what a slog it could be.  But I want to find work that I could not possibly conceive of writing myself, imagery that is so radical and true that you feel you could live by it, poetry which is art, a thing in itself with its own life and beauty. I want to be amazed.  And occasionally, I open a file and there’s something there which, quite literally, I find unimaginable – a piece of creation that you simply could not anticipate. It’s rare, but it happens.

The other reward I’ve had – and I hesitate to report this, because of what it implies – is being able to help the occasional poet. As with most journals, we do not give feedback.  It would be far too time-consuming. Poets can be very defensive when their work is critiqued, even if the critique has the best of intentions. I know, because I can be like that myself.

However, on very rare occasions I’ve taken a little time to give specific feedback to a poet we’re rejecting because we feel there’s something in the work that deserves recognition or encouragement. I will sometimes explain the one or two weaknesses we think we’ve seen, and suggest how, in general, the poet might avoid them in future.  I always try to offer a reason, an explanation, rather than simply saying “I don’t like this.” On every occasion that I’ve done this, the poet has come back to me with gratitude, and that feels good. When I feel I’ve helped a developing poet, I get a huge buzz. It’s perhaps not really a central editorial role, but it is one that makes me feel good about myself and, indeed, helps me be a better editor, I think, as it validates at least some of my perspectives. I don’t believe that “good poetry” is just a matter of taste, although taste is an important factor. I believe there are certain principles and practices one can aspire to which are more likely to yield better work, and probably do, and that one can identify.

Do you feel that being an editor has effected your own work and if so how?

The only impact I think editing has had on my poetry is to distract me from it. Editorial work is just one of reasons where I can pretend I’ve a good reason for not actually sitting down, pen in hand, and struggling with the language.

Have you any advice for would be poetry magazine editors? 

Try to keep coming at the task afresh, to do new things, to evolve and develop. We’ve tried several things with Antiphon, such as supporting poetry festivals, trying themed issues. Most recently, we’ve shifted to pdf format and, with the last issue, started posting audio files of readings, which so far seems to have been a very positive change.

I’d say that anyone contemplating a new magazine should do it, for the sake of the poets who might get an airing as a result. Editors should try to be as clear as possible about what they want to accept and why. It’s quite difficult to formulate an editorial policy for poetry, but if you can find some ways to characterise it, you should find things a little easier.

It’s also a good idea to have a team. Antiphon has only Rosemary and me, plus a handful of occasional reviewers. The magazine needs a design, a look; it needs a structure; it needs an editorial; it needs proofreading; it needs technical skills; it needs promotion and perhaps marketing; you need to attract readers and attract contributors; it needs management of reviewers, perhaps, and the writing and editing of reviews. All of these are best spread across two or more people. But that in turn leads to other issues – managing the team, organising and communicating effectively, getting agreement about design decisions or editorial choices, and so on. Rosemary and I argue about some issues but we make sure that every decision is approved by both of us, and if one of us has misgivings, then that poem is rejected or that design element isn’t used. Because we both have different skills and motivations, the upshot is a magazine which I think, is generally very well received. We’re really pleased, for example, when one of our poets publishes a collection and there is Antiphon nestling among the Acknowledgements.

What type of work you would be interested in seeing?

We are open to any kind of work on any subject. We do like to find musicality in poems. That’s not an appeal for more formal pieces, although we do enjoy them. If a poem lacks all musicality, we’re unlikely to publish it. One of our most common comments on a submission is that it’s “cut-up prose” – pieces whose only concession to the poetic mode is the line ending.

We like poems that have a movement, a development, that “go somewhere”. This doesn’t necessarily mean narrative, though it might do. It means poetry which starts in one place and ends somewhere else. The short lyric piece is therefore less likely to find a home in Antiphon than in some other magazines. Although, being aware of this, we do occasionally take such pieces as a counter to this. Personally, I’m particularly fond of the short lyric and of nature poetry, too. But for such work to get into Antiphon it needs to do more than simply note the curve of the swallows across the pond. Unless it does it with exquisite originality. Exquisite originality will always get into Antiphon! We like work which has thought as well as heart. Either might be enough on its own, but the two combined gives a much better chance of publication. Some poetry is too intellectualised for us, and some seems gushingly sentimental.

We like to have variety across the magazine, so oddities and unusual kinds of work will appear by virtue of contrast. The aim is to offer something rich and strange, not something predictable and ordinary.

Your first collection, Out of Breath, was published last year.

Out-of-Breath-web

What’s next?

Unfortunately, I’m quite prolific.  I say “unfortunately” because the upshot of producing lots of work is producing quite a variation in quality. Some of my poems I know are good. Some I know are not. And the bulk, somewhere in the middle, may or may not be, but I’m rarely a good judge of them.

So, since publication of the collection, I’ve been working on three sets of poems, plus a plethora of odd pieces. One is a narrative sequence about aspiration and despair. This was a deliberate attempt to structure a set of poems in the light of each other. I want to create a sort of parable, which also explicitly aims to use repeated motifs, analogical with Wagner’s Ring (where the same musical ideas are repeated in different guises). I like this idea, but I don’t think I’ve really pulled it off here, so I’m also thinking what else might be developed in a similar way. Then there’s A Walk Underwater: probably 35 or so poems, prompted by the death of my youngest brother eighteen months ago. The problem with these is that they are perhaps too personal in their content, making them either too obscure  or perhaps too trivial for most people.  They don’t make a sequence, or even a set, as such, so I suspect that no press would be interested in them as a whole. But this isn’t really a project, more a compulsion, so it will continue.
And Love Lines: I noticed in OOB that I’d essentially no love poems (there are two which might be called such, but they aren’t really). This depressed me, because I’ve written love poetry throughout my life, reams of the stuff, but clearly none of it felt good enough to appear in my first collection. So my key project at the moment is to put that right. I’ve a working manuscript of 50 poems, written largely over the last year, attempting different angles on the love poem, and trying to represent as well as I can the ins and outs of being in love with the same woman for 45 years.

My main problem with all of these is knowing what to do with them. Should they each be pamphlets? In which case, would any press really be interested, given the personal origins? Or should I gather either the sets/sequences together, or extract the best of the poems that have resulted, and call that a second collection?  Individual poems seem relatively easy to place, but I’ve no clear sense of where I’m going, in practical terms, with any of these sets of work.

There’s also a set, consisting of poems I wrote on women and warfare as Resident Artist at Bank Street Arts. We’re considering a handmade edition of these (and so, probably extremely limited). I’d quite like to collect them together both for their subject matter and as a record of the residency.

Would you be able to mention some influences on your own poetry, whether that would be other poets or music or anything else?

The question of influences is a difficult one, insofar as those I might claim as influences may, in reality, have little impact on the actual work, and influence may be as much to its detriment as its benefit.  I’m predominantly a romantic, and most readily identify with Keats and Wordsworth, with Hopkins and Dylan Thomas trailing behind for their musical impacts.

I keep a small shelf of poetry books across my eye-line in front of my desk. These are the works I’m attached to, emotionally and creatively, but whether I could claim any sort of influence, I don’t know. They include Crow, Four Quartets, Penguin Modern Poets 10 “The Mersey Sound” (probably the first poetry book I bought, originally in 1968), “The Hunting of the Snark”, a collected Frost, a collected Keats and, of more contemporary poets, Maitreyabandhu’s “The Crumb Road”, Selima Hill’s “People Who Like Meatballs”, Frances Leviston’s “Public Dream”, Helen Farish’s “Intimates” (I was taught by her, and much impressed by her views and her lyric work), Allison McVety’s “Lighthouses” and Helen Mort’s “Division Street” (Helen’s volume impressed me, but also I find several parallels between her reported experiences and my own, in our heritage and education). You can see that many of the connections here are as much personal as poetic. Other poets I’ve admired recently are Robin Robertson and Mimi Khalvati. Equally significant influences however, have been A. A. Milne, Spike Milligan and Lewis Carroll whilst amongst novelists I favour Kate Atkinson, Kazuo Ishiguro and the late Terry Pratchett. I’m glad you’ve mentioned music. I’m really interested in the potential connections between written forms and other arts. My exhibition “Exploding Poetry” in 2010 explored several of these, including one piece in which I used the form of Vaughan Williams “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” , (the most profound piece of music ever written, in its exploration of the spiritual hope of the atheist) . My PhD focused on Blake, whose integration of image and text inspired me.

I have a fondness for opera (Wagner’s Ring Cycle) and the more massive symphonies, such as Mahler, and in the progressive and psychedelic music established in my formative years (Yes, Pink Floyd), together with much of the guitar driven heavy metal that has developed alongside it. Earlier bands which were formative for me were Cream, the Hendrix Experience, Coliseum. I’m also very keen on classical minimalism such as John Adams, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass.

Within the visual arts, I like the Pre-Raphaelites and Art Deco, together with the Impressionists and post-Impressionist – pretty popular choices. My model would be da Vinci, not merely for the work, but for his approach, a man interested in everything, rarely completing anything, allowing all his interests to inform each other and inter-penetrate, obsessive about some matters, especially about getting the detail right, but able to throw away in a few pen strokes brilliant insights or observations. Although the Renaissance man (person) is impossible I think that represents an ideal artists should aspire to – neglecting nothing, and being prepared to let attention and interest wander wherever feels natural, questioning everything, and learning continually, seeing walls as doors and doors as windows.

Has writing poems had always been part of your life? Could you say a little about your motivation to write poems?

I started writing poetry at the age of six, and have never stopped, though I’ve neglected it at times.  I’ve always written stories, then novels. I wrote my first novel around age of 14, and about a dozen since. I’m working on a novel at the moment which may properly be completed.

I went through two life-threatening illnesses that told me if I wasn’t going to do what I really wanted to do, I might never have another chance. Until then I’d not given much serious attention to poetry. I certainly want to be admired for my work, to be published and recognised, but I’ve already achieved that as an academic, so the gratifications of ego aren’t sufficient to explain it.

Beauty, I think, is the driver, or at least the desire for it, and to achieve that beauty through something which is truthful, but truthful in the way it is perceived, or inherently in itself, rather than because it accords with nodding wisdom. Keats felt that suffering was inherently necessary in order to build art – not that the “artist must suffer”, but that only through suffering could one apprehend the truths that art conveyed. The nature of the world is suffering, so beauty is an apprehension of suffering. That’s a good word, “apprehension”, because it conveys both the noticing of the poet, the perceiving, and the fear that goes with noticing the truth.   A poem will never get to the heart of the matter, because language is incapable of getting to the heart of the matter. What it can do, though, is enable someone, a reader, a hearer, to get to the heart of a matter for themselves – to experience something which is theirs, and private, and otherwise inexpressible, yet as real and as different as any other experience. Whether that is called “truth”, “feeling”, “understanding”, “resonance”, “beauty”, “spirituality” or “absurdity”. The motivation is to set up some sort of echo. Like stamping your foot and wondering whether anyone in the next room hears a sound, or feels a floorboard vibrate, or merely senses some shift in the air.

Thank you Noel. 

Interview with Martin Malone, poet and editor.

I’m pleased to be able to publish the first in a series of interviews with poets who are also editors. I thought it would be doubly interesting to ask people who wear two hats about their experience of editing and how it might impact upon their writing.

martin_malone

Martin Malone is a UK based poet whose work has won prizes including the Wivenhoe  Prize, the Straid Poetry Award and the Mirehouse Poetry Prize. His second collection, Cur, is due from Shoestring Press in October. Martin is currently undertaking practice-led research for a Ph.D in Poetry at Sheffield University and is editor of The Interpreter’s House poetry journal.

Hi Martin. thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions. I’d like to ask you about your editorship of the Interpreter’s House. You’ve done a great job of modernising the magazine in terms of its appearance and the giving it a stronger internet presence. Your acceptance and even rejection letters are mentioned in glowing terms on social media due to their often encouraging nature.   Of course the old Interpreter’s House had an established reputation for quality of design and content, but I’d like to congratulate you on keeping these qualities while moving things forward.

Ta very much Roy. Truthfully, we were passed on a fine magazine with a sound infrastructure but no digital footprint. Much of the headway we’ve made, then, was merely capitalising upon a bit of an open goal in this respect.  I can’t praise enough the founding editor, Merryn Williams, and my predecessor, Simon Curtis, for handing on to us such a lovely magazine in the first place. Maybe we’ve just reaped a generational benefit somewhat. However, I’m delighted to hear that people have ‘got’ where it is we’re coming from with regard to the way we hope to conduct ourselves. You can’t always get it right and mistakes are made but, overall, we simply try to treat people with respect and sensitivity. It’s not complicated. And we’re only temporary custodians of the magazine, after all. We ignore the fact, but humanity is a commonwealth and we do well to remember that.

I wonder if you’ve found the editorship to be beneficial to your own poetry and if so in what way.

Hm. I’m struggling to think of many tangible benefits to my own writing, if I’m honest. That’s not being grumpy it’s just the way it is. The editorship benefits me indirectly in other ways, I suppose. With over a thousand poems per issue to read, editing benefits your reading whilst stealing time from your writing. No complaints: the gig was a genuine attempt to give something back to the poetry community. I cite the great poet Jazzy B at this point: “Be objective, be selective, be an asset to the collective”: a perfect mantra for editors everywhere. Ultimately, I try to keep my editorship of TIH and my poetorship of Martin Malone as separate as possible, for ethical reasons more than anything else.

I know that you are studying for a PHD and have other commitments. How do you manage to keep all these balls in the air?

I’m not sure I do. Not sure at all, Roy. For much of the time I wander round in a state of mild to extreme panic  that I’ve set myself an impossible equation of time and space. However, I am someone who may function more productively as a busy man.  I guess there’ll be a reckoning when I graduate on time or not. I do know that putting together and locking down a new issue is absolutely compulsive and has taken precious time away from my Ph.D. But there are always subsidiary benefits to these things and nothing is wasted in the grand scheme of things. I know I am grateful to my Deputy Editor, Charles Lauder, for taking some of the weight from my shoulders; particularly of late, when we’ve become victims of our own success to some extent. The thought of doing everything on my own these days is inconceivable and, anyway, I like working as part of a team.

Do you time aside for the different tasks?

I guess I do, though I’m not particularly methodical on a day-to-day basis. Because of wee Fionn, I‘ve re-orientated my working week to mean Thursday through Sunday, with other days being the hold-steady ones. If I can attend to stuff whilst being mauled and snottered on, I do it: things like magazine record-keeping and admin (which is surprisingly time-consuming), online MOOCs that are relevant to my research, snatches of reading and editing etc. You’ll notice I’ve not put ‘writing’ there. I do have my very first Arvon week coming up, however. There I shall sup the tears of angels and glut my heart on ichor.

Any advice for would be editors?

Advice for would-be editors would be to not do it. And, if after deciding that, you still do it then you’ve got yourself an editorship. I took on the gig for 5 years – sometimes wish I’d said three – and I think that’s about right at one journal. Otherwise, it becomes too much a part of you, as an individual, and the publication struggles to grow as a result. I’m actually looking forward to handing TIH on to the next custodian(s) to see where they’ll take it (NOTE: the privately-educated and Oxbridge graduates need not apply, UK culture suffers from an overabundance of you already). Also I’m looking forward to having the chance to simply look back over my 15 issues, as a punter rather than someone fretting over it all.

My niece is studying at Oxford but she wasn’t privately educated so maybe you could make an exception if she was interested.  Where do you find the beautiful covers?

TIH cover

The beautiful covers are entirely the work of Jenn Shaw who has a great eye and knows where to look for good artists. It is she who should get the credit for this. We started off with the punchy print graphic approach and after a few issues decided that this would be the overall design aesthetic.

TIH cover 2

I’ve always wanted to produce something that is beautiful and objectively desirable in itself; something collectible and an artwork when assembled together. We’re hoping to hold an exhibition of all the cover artists at the end of my tenure: find a gallery somewhere and celebrate their very great contribution to the project. I confess, after reading my way through everything and assembling each issue’s writing, my big thrill is when the printer proof arrives and I get to see the artwork.

Could you tell me a little about your new collection?

‘Cur’ is what American college bands would call my ‘sophomore’ effort. In some ways, it is Part 2 of ‘The Waiting Hillside’ but hopefully more sharply-written. I’m a great believer in being true to the arc of time which produced a particular phase of writing, and not being afraid to stand by that. I like to encounter artists who are uneven and follow their own blues; rather than sitting and sitting on stuff with one eye on the career-defining statement or prize-winning tome. I’ve nothing against folks who do, mind. Good luck to them. But there’s something a bit sterile about the exercise. As the long-forgotten post-Augustan satirist Charles Churchill said of Pope: “E’en excellence unvaried, tedious grows.” It’s why my brain acknowledges the superiority of Echo & The Bunnymen’s recorded output but my heart loves Pete Wylie’s flawed genius more. I’ve gotten off the point haven’t I?

I think you may have honed it a little. The point that is.  Where was I-  oh yes, what are the main themes of your collection ? Sex and death?  

Love and loss, love and loss, love and loss. With lots of sex, art and landscapes, then an unexpected child to close. Fairly standard stuff.

How does it differ from your first book?

Better sex, bigger losses, bigger gains. I guess it’s more out in the world than the first book. I’d not been writing poetry for long when ‘The Waiting Hillside’ came out, so whatever good energies flow through that book are less tutored than those I hope are being channelled through ‘Cur’. As I say, it’s a sort of Part 2 in that there’s still a lot of ‘I’ in it. The wonderful thing about my current work-in-progress, however, is that there is very little me in it, which is very liberating. But ‘Cur’ is a point on a growth curve that I stand by and know will remain a personal favourite.

It’s good to hear that you are moving on but seem happy with what you have captured. It seems to me that might possibly the best way for any artist to feel.

What attracted you to Shoestring Press as a publisher?

I trust John Lucas implicitly. He is one of the genuine forces of light and a deep but un-showy intellect on a British poetry scene which surprises me, at times, with its lack of those qualities. John’s sort of what I hope to represent in the long-term. It helps that Shoestring is a rightfully respected imprint and does its business on the shake of a hand. I like that a lot. Also, Roy, when I saw the lovely artefact that is your own first collection, I knew that I’d have another beautifully-produced book. That too, is important.

I think you’ve just articulated exactly how I feel about John Lucas and Shoestring.  How have you found the editorial process?

Good moment to ask, since I got home from a hard week yesterday to find John’s unflinching (and, frankly, illegible) pencilization* of my manuscript. From what I’ve so far managed to decipher, I’ve been utterly shocked by just how random and sloppy one can be over a body of work with which one has become, perhaps, over-familiar. John suggestions are sharp-eyed, shrewd and carry the heft of his knowledge and experience. This is no place for an over-abundance of personal ego at this stage, not if you’re serious about your writing. Every writer should love being edited and I’m no exception.

In general, the editorial stage is one of my favourite moments; since a new pair of eyes can utterly revivify your own take on a manuscript: poems you’d thought grown cold can be suddenly brought back to life in strange and fascinating ways by the lightest of editorial touches. A single new, dropped or changed word can virtually create a whole new poem. As a rule I’ve always cut it 80:20 in favour of adopting whatever changes a good editor suggests. And it never results in anything less than a better poem or manuscript. I was lucky enough to have Paul Batchelor edit my first collection and I saw then how important the process is. So, I’m already enjoying working my way through John’s suggested ch-ch-ch-changes as I turn and face the strain.

*A sort of constructive assassination by fault-finding and suggestion.

I’m a big fan of Paul Batchelor’s work. I have to agree with your comments on John’s style and your attitude to the process is close to my own.  It’s good to hear such a  positive take on being edited. When is the collection due?   

I learn that it’s to come out in October. Get in!

Thank you Martin. May your time run wild in a million streets and may none of them be dead ends.

 

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.