The undulations of the poet

A friend recently wrote to compliment me on a poem of mine he’d seen in a magazine. It is always lovely to receive positive responses to work,  either from people I know or from those I have yet to meet.

The rest of my friend’s e-mail explained that, with regard to his own work (he is a fine and highly productive poet)  he was feeling rather low since there was no prospect of publication of his pamphlet on the horizon.  My friend’s predicament is not unusual. There are many poets, some of whom have in fact achieved a great deal of ‘success’  who feel lost and ignored. It is easy to dismiss this as indulgence, but people who make art of any kind are susceptible to dips in self-esteem brought about by perceived invisibility or worse, ‘failure’.

Aspects of what might be termed modern ‘competition culture’ might contribute to feelings of inadequacy.  If a poem entered in a competition did not make the short-list and the poet had high hopes (and who would part with an entrance fee unless they felt their work stood a chance of winning) their internal response might range from thinking the judges were fools to concluding that the poem was rubbish and they should give up.

Alternatively, they might read the judges report and see that of the five hundred and twenty-two entries, over seventy were considered to be excellent. They might read how the adjudicator struggled to long list the poems, never mind picking the winner. They might remind themselves that another judge, on another day, might have awarded their poem the prize. Or they might eschew competitions  entirely, although, as I’ve said elsewhere, some of the same odds and conditions apply when submitting work to the editor of a poetry magazine.

And there is the issue of the relative nature of ‘success’ and the fact that feelings of elation following publication or prize-giving wear off, and probably diminish in proportion to their occurrence. An extreme example might be the case of the accoladed and jaded poet who suggested that where a commendation was once cause for celebration, it now felt like a disappointment.

A publication in a good magazine is a wonderful thing, but hardly a life changing event. Even the summit, the holy grail that is publication of a pamphlet or book ( undoubtedly a culmination of great effort and a defining event for the writer)  may not lead to reviews (favourable or otherwise), readings, applause or sales.

Despite learning and knowing how the odds are stacked when it comes to getting your work noticed, and perhaps even while experiencing the high of writing well, it is almost inevitable that poets will experience dog days.

sad dog
It is difficult to gain a sense of perspective.

Who are you writing for. Yourself (or selves?) Everyone? No-one? All of the above?  And why?

If learning about poetry and what it means has become part of who you are; if you keep getting drawn back to try to find out what it can do; if attention and dedication to poetry has become almost intrusive in your life;  if you are open to possibilities,

Scarlet Macaw and pigeons roosting.


heaven or hell- bent on poetry, then poetry will reward you.

This reward will not come in the form of prizes, publication, ‘likes’ on social media or polite applause, although all of these may help you sustain yourself in your struggle to believe. When the real reward comes there won’t be cherubs bearing laurels or a physical manifestation of the muse; there won’t be an attendant audience of red-cheeked acolytes. They’ll be a poem. A poem and you.

Healthy writing, Uncategorized

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 Globe and some experiments

What have I being doing?

Watching an excellent blood-splattered production of Titus Andronicus. It’s by no means Shakespeare’s best work, but I was lucky enough to have a free ticket and the play was in the wonderful Globe theatre in London.

I had a seat in the lower gallery, but decided to join the groundlings in the second half and was rewarded as the action literally spilt from the stage. We were engulfed by smoke and surrounded by superb actors who sweated, laughed, bled and raved through the crowd. It was an excellent production, though not for the faint hearted. The barbarism in the play had disturbing parallels in current events. Barbarity in the misuse of power, the abduction and rape of a woman and the  idea that her family may be shamed by her continued presence.

Apart from seeing the play, I’ve been writing reviews, editing a short story or two, worrying about writing, worrying about not writing, not worrying about writing, even enjoying writing. And experimenting.

Yesterday evening I found this  cut up machine. I’ve known about this technique, used by William Burroughs and David Bowie, among others, since I was teenager, but had never used it myself. It’s not as if I want to abandon my carefully (you might say painstaking) approach to writing poetry, but experimenting can sometimes feel like letting your hair down, and can help loosen things up and generate new ideas, especially if those concise lyrics are not flowing freely. Have a go if you haven’t tried this before.

I fed my own poems and some newspaper text into the machine and came out with some pleasing results. It seems to me the original text should be full of interesting language if the ‘cut up’ or scrambled version is to have anything going for it.

After the cut-up machine had done its work I’ve spent some time shaping the results. There is also a reverse text function and random sentence generator which gave me ‘mint-cream coloured ice-water’ and ‘rented angles of antique white’ and got me thinking about Manhattan at night.

David Bowie, William S. Burroughs, Photo by Terry O'Neal, tour mThe only problem with this type of creative play is that it can be very addictive. But there are worse addictions. Speaking of which, here is an example of something that emerged from these experiments. It isn’t the type of poem I would normally write, and I’m not sure it is a proper poem. I like to think it’s got something of Dylan Thomas about it, but perhaps not!

I’ve taken a fragment away to keep and will be working on something salvaged from a few of these lines. See what you think!

An excavated song

Step out of skull brogues of British
regret: the needle craters, the spine
soldered, your tin crotch built
like the dogs arches.

By the steel fountain, an arm’s breath
from death, tender faced
in the church of addiction,
thigh pierced to the hilt.

The expectation clock ticks
above the femur-beaten hill of atheists
who roll below the day-stained windows;
this is the jaws

clean innocence, this, the wait to become
your own grindstone god.
It’s a crumpled little death.
But the needled heart, high

on its inner wing
sings through spine chest nipple
and neck, sings of morning
and of vertebrae.

Sleep now under brows
of innocence, only pierced by your beaten love
who slouches off below a clock
of guano-greased stone.



I recently read an on-line piece by an author on how they detested self-promotion. The writer explained how he finds promotion of his writing via social media an embarrassing and awkward grind.

I sympathise, but wonder if this author should perhaps stop doing something they claim to loathe so fervently.  Maybe he could find a way to use his writing skill in such a way that is not only more fulfilling but may also have the desired effect of widening the audience for his ‘main’ creative work. I also wonder if there is any evidence to suggest this kind of promotion translates into sales.

In contrast, I enjoy promoting my work via the internet.  I say ‘promoting my work’ you’ll notice, as I make a distinction between my writing and my ‘self ’. People often use the phrase ‘self- promotion’ or ‘shameless self-promotion’.
But if you are writing and you want to be read, surely there is nothing shameful about telling people about your work?

Of course there is a balance to be struck between sharing of one’s small triumphs and a continual stream of posts or updates which are likely to have the opposite effect to that desired.  I like hearing about other poet’s achievements, projects, readings and successes, even those whom I don’t know, and enjoy sharing my own, to an extent.

The writer of the piece mentioned above also says how uncomfortable he is with Twitter. I don’t use Twitter as I find I already spend too much time not writing due to the distractions, fruitful and otherwise, of electronic mediums. But I know people who do and it seems to me to be an astonishingly effective way to disseminate information and generate interest in one’s own and others writing.

I do post details of some of my publications in magazines on Facebook and on this blog without the slightest embarrassment. After all, it took me long enough to be able to say ‘I write poetry’ aloud; I don’t intend to offer apologies for wanting my work to be read.

I like to think that the quality of what I post here and the fact that I am interested in other poets work makes this blog interesting in its own right, containing as it does, not only my own thoughts on writing and aspects of publishing, but also links, reviews and interviews (see last post announcing an exciting series of interviews with contemporary poets and publishers.)
What I post here also gives me the chance to develop another aspect of my writing skill. The best blogs help writers to connect, to feel less isolated, to learn and to share.

Thankfully I often receive favourable comments and support from readers to suggest that these pieces are appreciated.  What I’m suggesting is that simple ‘buy my book’ promotion is lacking in imagination and usefulness and that other approaches to bringing attention to one’s writing may result in a larger audience.  If not, so be it, but either way I value and enjoy the process of speedily communicating with the unseen world.  Thank you for reading!