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Clive James ‘Letter to a young poet’

I’ve sung the praises of on-line poetry magazines on here before. Another new publication, The Scores  went live ( think this is the correct term) this morning.  I haven’t had a proper look yet but the first issue contains  work by many well-known (in the poetry world) poets, as well as an introduction by Don Patterson  and an interesting ‘Letter to a young poet’ piece by Clive James.  I read Rilke’s original letters to a young poet some years ago, and am always interested in advice, thoughts  and ‘wisdom’ relating to poetry .

James’ piece begins with an echo of Rilke’s original letter. Basically, James suggests that unless you are dedicated to the point of obsession to writing poetry, you should give up. Unless you find yourself driven to it to the point where you can’t help it, do something else. James’ reasoning for this advice is that – ‘ the chances of failure are too high, and the disappointments are too cruel.’ I’m not sure I agree with the assumption that failure and cruel disappointment are the overriding experiences of the poet. Of course there must be many frustrated writers out there, but I have also met several hundred who’s lives have been enhanced and enriched by their involvement. Perseverance, dedication, and the occasional check on one’s motivations and expectations might be valuable.  I hesitate to suggest that one shouldn’t aim high, but it would be a good idea for a young poet to know the number of poets wishing to be published, for example, by Faber and Faber, as opposed to the number who actually are. If we are talking about ‘failure’ in terms of publishing (and it is not clear what James means by ‘failure’ ,) then I think it reasonable to believe that one can be published, firstly in magazines and later perhaps in pamphlet or book form.   James continues ‘  the average stacked shelf is not only more useful to society than the average poem, it is actually superior as a work of art. ‘  I suppose this statement too,  depends on a definition or definitions of  ‘average’, ‘usefulness’ and ‘art ‘ in relation to poetry and supermarket shelves.

James also writes

‘ Train yourself to care less about the praise. You should work your new poem to perfection not because it will please more people that way – it might please fewer – but because in its finished state it will prove itself an independent artefact invulnerable even to your own doubts. If the poem has its own confidence, the day will come when you can look back on it and wonder how you did it. ‘

This seems like good advice. If only it were  possible to ‘train  yourself ‘ to care less about praise. In my own experience, one becomes less concerned with both praise and negative criticism as time goes by. When starting to share poems with others , it is of course possible to be elated or deflated by their reactions. Only experience and time can develop confidence in the work (I like the idea of the poem having its own confidence.)  Another factor in how someone responds to praise is their temperament.  Some people will always be buoyed or swayed more than others by praise. For my part, although pleased by it, I’ve always found it a little difficult to accept, ( and here I hope I don’t sound ungrateful,)  of little use.

While I find James’ trademark laconic pessimism  (some might say realism)  a little too negative,  I did find aspects of the article enjoyable, and think the idea of inviting people to write such a letter is a good one.

The piece also contains an odd reference to Malcolm Muggeridge’s thoughts on how the contraceptive pill might effect the light in a woman’s eyes.  I found this off-putting and unnecessary reference, betraying, perhaps, some of  James’ generation’s  lack of subtly and sensitivity when approaching gender issues, or maybe illustrating a predilection for deliberately stirring up a little controversy with offhand sexist generalisation. James’ includes some thoughts on notebooks and how to organise work in progress, and some may find this useful.  Whilst a certain amount of organisation is undoubtedly required to keep work in progress accessible and orderly, I found the setting out of one particular approach a little prescriptive when applied to poetry. This may be because I am resistant to being told how to work, preferring to find ways that suit me best (although I am not a ‘young poet,’ and therefore not the addressee of the letter.) However, I believe there are  many ways of working, and individuals will eventually find what works best for them.

On reputation and career, James writes

‘If you start thinking about your reputation, or even about your career as a poet, you are in the wrong frame of mind. What matters most is the poem, not the poet. ‘

I’m fortunate in that the words ‘career’ and ‘poet’ have never appeared in the same sentence in my mind. Of course I understand why people use ‘career’ in relation to their poetry; either because it suggests a developmental path (which can be a comforting conception ) or that it adds credibility to their dedication to poetry, or perhaps they are referring to the fact that their writing is an intrinsic part of an academic or performance based life.  I am fortunate in that my poetry has always been largely separate from such concerns. As for reputation, maybe that, like beauty, is in the eye and ear of the beholder.

My  favourite line from Clive James’ piece is this.

‘If even a few people remember a line or two in a poem you wrote, you’re not just getting there, you’re there. That’s it: and all the greater glory is mere vanity’

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.

abstract-waves
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.

Uncategorized

Where can I send my poems? Part 2

Yes, you are a brilliantly creative person who writes wonderful poetry.
We both know that.

You're Awsome

But if you want anyone to see your work  (and there are many good reasons for having work published, as expertly pointed out by Helena Nelson here,) you must approach the submissions process systematically and methodically.

Here’s a few more words on submitting poems to magazines. It’s fairly basic information but I  hope someone might find useful.

Find out what’s out there.

Investigate

This will take some time but the internet has made research fairly easy. For the UK and Ireland,  The Poetry Library has a good list of both print and online magazines. They also publish a list of magazines they have received in any given month, and I like to have a look and see if there are any titles I don’t know, and to see which poets are being published where. The Poetry Kit also has a good list. Poet bloggers produce lists of current magazines. You can find a really good one  at Abigail Morley’s blog. Poets also post lists of places they have been published on their websites.

Bear in mind that no list can ever be absolutely inclusive or right up to date since editors’ change and small poetry magazines come and go. The good news is that while some magazines disappear, new ones (both print and on-line) appear all the time. Look at the acknowledgements in the books and pamphlets of the poets whose work you admire to see which magazines have taken their work. If you are lucky enough to be able to visit the Poetry Library on the South Bank or the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh you will find a massive range of magazines.

pOETRY lIBARY

University libraries often keep a good selection. You might have friends who subscribe to poetry magazines. If you see something you like, borrow, buy or better still, subscribe. You might also find a good selection in your local independent bookshop (Five Leaves in Nottingham deserves a special mention here.)

If you live in the middle of nowhere, most magazines, even the small ones, have a website where you should find some of the basic stuff you need.  You can also keep an eye out for new magazines on social media.

Where would you really like to be published?

Have a closer look. Identify magazines that look interesting to you.
Are the poems the kind you write or aspire to write? Are the production standards high? Does the whole outfit strike you as well run and serious? Was the website last updated in 1998?  Does the magazine have clear submission guidelines?  Is the information attractively laid out and clearly written? Does the language put you off (eg. too formal/ too informal?)  Are there examples or indications of the type of work the editors prefer to see?

poetry  magazine

Make a list of magazines you are really interested in . It is not always easy to decide if the magazine is right for your work. If it’s not immediately obvious to you what sort of work they prefer
then  don’t spend too long in trying to figure out a particular editor’s preferences; look to see what they generally publish, and if you like the look of at least some of the work in the magazine, have a go, even if it’s a really ‘top flight’ magazine.

Some people advocate a ‘start at the lower end and work on up’ approach. By ‘lower end ‘ I mean the smallest magazines as opposed to the ones most established. Again, established is debatable term, but in this in context I mean those that most poets would like to be featured in.   But it might be an idea to spread your submissions across a range of publications. It seems reasonable that if you only send to the ones that everyone want’s to be in, you will receive more returned poems than if you aim a little lower. With the advent of the internet and the seeming increase in the number of people wanting to publish their poems,  small magazines can become bigger magazines very quickly. But you will never receive an acceptance from a magazine you love and aspire to be in unless you submit to it. And you can sometimes learn from having your poems returned, particularly if the editor takes the time to write something in response to your work (see below.)

Sometimes, it will be obvious that a particular publication is wrong for your poems. There is no point in getting rejections from ‘The Journal of Experimental Boiled Egg Related Verse’ if your poems are neither boiled egg related nor experimental. Editors are allowed to have preferences. Their taste may well differ from yours. That’s OK. They might even like different TV programs and types of sweets to you. Do you like the magazine? If you don’t like what they publish then don’t send them your stuff. Send it somewhere you do like instead. But revisit magazines too. They change and get better.

 Be good at the basics

Check guidelines with care. Find out the editor’s name. If it is available use it in your e-mail or letter. Does the magazine have a submissions window? Do they specify a maximum number of submissions? Any special requirements (font type, SAE only, e-mail subs, poems in the body of the e-mail or attachment?) Is there some indication of how long a response might take (for various reasons, these are not necessarily accurate reflections of the response time, and in some cases are rather optimistic estimates.)

Review your poems and put them into groups for submission.   You might select poems that some your versatility or put sequences together. I can think of one or two magazines that state that they like sequences, but generally this is up to you. Reread to make sure they are as you want them and free of mistakes.

r-SPELLING-ERRORS-large570

 

A covering  letter should be brief. I understand that editors have preferences. Some are interested in and enjoy reading personal information, others do not. I think it best to keep your biographical details short.  Ending the letter with ‘Yo, big up to you bro’ is probably not appropriate (particularly if the editor is female.)  I always end with something like ‘Thank you for your time and consideration.’ If you truly like something in the magazine you’ve seen you might want to mention it briefly. Everyone likes positive feedback.

If you have publication credits, don’t list them all. Maybe two or three of the ones you are proudest of. You want the editor to focus on your poems. A commended poem in the East Flitwick poetry competition matters a great deal to you. It probably doesn’t matter to the editor.

Before you seal the envelope or send the e-mail make sure your records are up to date. I keep a simple list with the title of magazine and poems submitted and date of submission. Other people have more sophisticated systems such as spread sheets,  and you can’t go wrong with a system such as Jo Bell describes here.

Keep your poems out there. They won’t get published if they are not circulating. And don’t give up on getting into the magazine’s you love. If you are happy to keep your poems at home, fine. If not
set aside a little time every so often to concentrate on the business of sharing them.

Never Give up

But try, if you can, to concentrate on reading and writing new poems while your old ones are away. It is hard to be patient while waiting for responses. The best thing to do is not to wait. (I have just broken away from writing this to run to the front door. Junk mail and bills instead of a response from the editor of ‘The Amazing Singing Machine.’ I sent them may best poems seven months ago. Back to the writing..)

When you have an offer of publication you should be in a position to immediately respond with something like this;

‘Thank you for your letter.  I’m delighted to be able to accept your kind offer to publish my poems in Bottoms up Review.”

Simultaneous submissions can make things complicated. If a magazine doesn’t specifically state that they take them I think it’s best to comply in order to avoid the awkward possibility of telling the editor that your poem has already been accepted elsewhere and that you have wasted their time. It’s a personal choice, but even if a magazine states that they take simultaneous submissions, I tend to avoid them.

Acceptance and publication

Not all magazines send proofs. It’s great if they do. It is probably inevitable that one or two of your poems will not appear as you intended. The editor didn’t leave out the space between your first two stanzas to cause you pain. Mistakes do occur. Humans make them.

Publication

Enjoy the moment.  Support the magazine if you can afford to subscribe. Share the news on social media if you feel inclined. If you do share your news, you will find that there are plenty of people who will enjoy and celebrate your success with you.

And success leads to success. Editors read magazines and notice poems and names. Meeting editors at readings may also lead to requests to submit poems (but don’t expect publication to result).

Dealing with rejection (or the ‘returned poem’)

Sensitive

If your poem comes back send it out again. Burn the rejection slip or use it as wallpaper. I’ve thrown all mine away, but I know some people like to keep them. I remember the encouraging ones. I wish I could advise you on how to be good at accepting rejection. I’ve said something about this subject on the Poetry Submissions page of this blog.  There’s probably quite a few books on the subject. I think a little (or a lot) of disappointment is inevitable. Send the poems out again.

 

PlathRejection

Suggested changes and rewrites

There is no obligation for editors to comment on your work. They might have taken a little time to write to you and they see promise in your submission. If your poem is returned with something encouraging like ‘Enjoyed these, please do try us again’ —then don’t ignore this. Try there again. Not everyone receives these comments and they suggest that your work was near to being accepted. If you don’t have other poems ready, wait until you do and then send again, perhaps starting your cover letter with a little reminder such as; ‘thank you for your encouraging response to my last submission. I have enclosed further poems as per your suggestion.’

Different versions

I have, a few times, re-drafted a poem between submission and acceptance. I might then write in my acceptance reply to say I’ve made another version in case the editor would like to consider it.  If they prefer the original, fair enough, that is the poem they accepted.

One of the first poems I submitted was accepted on the proviso that the first two lines were deleted. I agonized over the proposed change and decided I couldn’t do it so politely declined. A year or so later I realised that the editors suggestion had been a good one.

This has to do with how quickly you send your work out after ‘finishing’ it. I have got a little better at putting a poem away and waiting before sending it out.  When you are certain that a poem is as good as it can be, it often pays to wait and come back to it. You will nearly always discover things that can be cut or changed to improve the poem. There are no rules for this. How long this takes depends on the kind of writer you are.

Hare and Tortoise

Some poems will never be exactly as you want them to be. But an editor might like or even love them just the way they are. You won’t know unless you send them off.

Whatever the merits of your work, the chances of it being published in the manner in which you would like it published are improved by organisation and research. Presentation and persistence are vitally important. The choices you make in submitting your work and your responses to the highs and lows of the process, will be, like your poems, unique. But remember, in facing the frustrations, uncertainties, pleasant surprises and triumphs you will encounter,
you will not be alone. It’s all part of the job.

Uncategorized

Submission, rejection, acceptence, reward.

I actually enjoy the process of submitting poems to magazines, the to-ing and fro-ing of mail and e-mail, the potential for something to happen.

I sometimes feel impatient with the slowness of poetry communication, but as I write this I realise slowness can be a good thing in a world where almost everything is moving too fast.

I’m lucky in that I’ve had a good ‘hit’ rate, a high percentage of acceptances.
No doubt this affects my perspective on submission, acceptance and rejection.

Occasionally the poem I sent seemed marvellous when I sent it, but rejection has been positive in that it has made me look at the poem again and realize that it my work of inspired genius may require some further work.

I write letters of submission which generally end with a phrase like “Thank you for your time and for your fine magazine.” And I mean it; I really do appreciate the editor’s work. I take care with submissions so I don’t like unprofessional responses; jokey or scrappy correspondence or no response at all will mean I won’t submit again. And I prefer acceptances to be personal. Once or twice I’ve felt less pleased by an offhand acceptance than by polite and careful rejection.

I suspect there may be may be many reasons for rejection of a good poem. Volume of submissions is one (see Poetry Submissions page of this blog for a quote from a poetry magazine editor on this.)

I wonder if the recognition by the editor of poets name will affect their choices, either consciously or subconsciously. I imagine that as a magazine takes shape the editor will be looking for poems that reflect certain themes, or for work that reflects or compliments poems she/he has decided upon.

Once I have felt despondent over a rejection or elated over an acceptance I remind myself as soon as possible that publication has nothing to do with writing. It is the making of the poem, the attempt to do this as well as possible that is most important. Although publication is of course gratifying, it is in the mysterious arrival of phrases or ideas combined with time and effort involved in shaping the poem that the real reward is to be found.