Assembling a poetry collection., Uncategorized

The private and public art

I’ve been putting my new book together. This provides the best distraction from world events and involves opening a word document and pasting poems in the order I wish them to appear. I’ve had an idea of running order for a while. Yesterday I was tempted to radically revise this order, to put one ‘successful’ poem after another- poems I like that have attracted favourable comment, won or been placed in competitions or been placed in good magazines. I don’t want to give the impression that I am not happy with all the work- I am. It was just a question of ‘front loading’ the collection with the most striking pieces (although the idea of ‘most striking’ is of course in itself subjective.)
When I mentioned this idea to my twelve-year-old son he said that that would be like making cookies in which some had all the chocolate chips and some had none. He suggested that the chocolate chips should be distributed throughout the cookie mixture, not concentrated in a few. With this metaphor in mind, I reverted to my previous sequence with the intension of making the book read evenly, hopefully providing an equal sprinkling of the poetic equivalent of chocolate chips throughout.

The oldest poem in this collection was written before the last book came out, the most recent perhaps found its current shape this afternoon.
I have a publication date. March 2017. This has made the business of finding a title and cover image more pressing. I’m fortunate that, after a week of thinking I had nothing that would fit,  a title seems to have arrived and with it an idea of an image for the cover. Below are three covers I’ve mocked up from on-line design websites. The actual cover  will feature original artwork, but these images are intended to give an artist designing the cover an idea as to what I would like.
One of the working titles for the collection was ‘Trace’ and was accompanied by an image of a fossil.


My next title idea was ‘Arterial’ since there is a sequence of poems about my time as a coronary care nurse in the collection.


When the title changed from ‘Arterial’ (above) to ‘The Great Animator’ (below) I realised I needed a more animated image than the static tree. I do love the image above, so have asked an artist friend to try to create a hybrid incorporating, if they can,
the style of the first and the sense of movement from the second image.


As far as the poems themselves are concerned I’m fortunate that my editor John Lucas has provided some light notes, suggested amendments and points to consider. However, this guidance aside, putting a book of poems together, in my experience, is a strange solitary business involving selecting and ordering poems, making amendments, going back and forth across revisions and rewriting or reinstating previous versions of poems.

With this in mind it was very important for me to get out of the office and hear poetry spoken to an audience. In a time of rapid political change it seems coming together with ‘like’ minds is in itself a political act. It is great to connect with others and to see how poetry responds and reflects social change.

Sarah Howe and Tom Pickard were reading at the launch of the latest New Walk magazine in Leicester this week. I am familiar with Sarah’s work having reviewed her incredible collection ‘Loop of Jade ‘ for The Compass magazine.  Ezra Pound said that poetry is news that stays news, and Sarah Howe’s subtle and intelligent take on power and its misuse certainly has a timeless quality. She also read some more recent work, written during her recent spell as a lecturer in the United States.

I had only read one poem by Tom Pickard before meeting him and hearing him read. Tom’s easy and unaffected way with a listening audience was a joy to experience. Tom writes the sort of poetry that can appeal to any kind of audience, from the academic to the casual listener. I know he has been invited to read in many universities in Europe, the USA and UK. I imagine he could walk into a pub anywhere and read his poems without seeming out-of-place. His work, which incorporates ballads, short, punchy pieces and longer sequences, traverses forms and genres whilst remaining resolutely his own. Tom read a selection of poems that were by turns funny, erotic, political and deeply concerned with landscape in the most vivid experiential sense.  Tom’s poems are certainly accomplished and affecting on the page. However. it is hard to convey how much his reading brought to the work, and it was a timely reminder of the power of poetry as a collective public experience.


Social media animal

In 2009, I attended one of the first spoken word events I’d ever been to. It was in the basement of a bar that had a rather loud air-conditioning system. I’m pretty sure the poems I read that evening were not very good, but I believed in them at the time and it was a start. I remember mentioning to one of the other readers I met that evening that a poem of mine had been awarded third place in the Ledbury poetry competition. He looked as if I had announced that I was Lord Lucan. And he looked even more surprised when, having suggested we link up on Facebook, I told him I wasn’t on Facebook.

Seven years later I have Facebook and Twitter accounts and hundreds of contacts on each. I also have a website (a grand name for this blog!) but I believe this is a productive use of my time. As I mentioned in a recent interview with Rachel Carney, this site isn’t really about promotion – I doubt very much if it has helped me sell a single poetry book. It’s about sharing and exploring.

The Twitter and Facebook accounts are not necessarily negative additions to my life- it depends on how I use them. Both have provided me with access to lots of interesting information and been used for meaningful communication as well-being a means to view videos of cats doing interesting things. As my Italian grandma used to say about her daily glass of wine, it’s all a question of moderation.


There have undoubtedly been times when I’ve spent too much time on social media.

"In case I actually do something."

I am aware of research into how endorphins are released by ‘Likes’ and how browsing can become addiction. I’ve also seen the ugly way in which conversations between poets with opposing views can quickly spiral into unpleasant exchanges, and have learnt to stay well clear of commenting on unproductive arguments which will lead me to be updated on how the subsequent unpleasantness unfolds.

I’ve noticed that some people connected to poetry seem to be on networks constantly. I can’t help but wonder how they have time for anything else, never mind writing. Of course I probably wouldn’t know this if I hadn’t spent too much time there myself and I don’t wish to condemn anyone.

An example of a positive aspect of being on Twitter is that I came across the website Practical Criticism , whose editors include the poet Sarah Howe.  In a recent visit I read an interview with the Canadian poet Karen Solie which prompted me to start writing this post.  Here is Solie talking in a very balanced way about the choice to utilise social media.

‘I don’t have any social media accounts, or a website. Though someone is threatening to make me one. We’ll see. But it isn’t that I think disparagingly about these things. I recognize their value to conversation, their potential for social justice initiatives, and there are people using these platforms for good. I’m not personally inclined to engage with their promotional or publicity aspects – though again, I don’t think doing so is a bad thing, it’s a valuable tool – and I haven’t really encountered any pressure from my publishers to join. It’s more expected of novelists, I gather, because the financial stakes are higher.’

I’ll leave you with another quote from the interview. It’s well worth taking time to dip into the website, if you have time.

‘It’s okay to be a private person if you need to be one. There isn’t any one proper or preferred way to be a poet, to engage with your communities. We do need to consider where best to devote our energies toward positive, helpful work that contributes to the health of our communities, but there are a number of avenues.’


The Compass and the tune

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

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

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

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

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

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