Monday, 9 December 2019

Curate's egg poetry

A poem's rarely full of "good" lines. For a start, few lines are good or bad in isolation - their value is affected by context, and their purpose may be to increase the value of other lines rather than be important in themselves. They may provide continuity or background information. A poem needs pacing. It needs lines that act as sounding boards (material for the effect of the good lines to permeate into, in preference to white space).

However, while developing or critiquing a poem we often underscore "bad" lines. If these lines form most or all of a stanza, the stanza's vulnerable. A recognisable unit is easier to delete than part of a whole. This is why short-stanza'd poems are risky - they offer easy targets. Even more so list poems - each item can be individually ticked or crossed.

Readers might gloss over lines they don't like/understand, especially if they adopt a holistic top-down approach. Alternatively, bottom-up readers might assign penalty points or be distracted by lines they perceive as weak. Authors vary too in their attitude to their less good lines. Sometimes their policy is "if in doubt leave it out", taking no risks. Others assume the reader (each according to their own tastes) will do the editing. Avoiding the use of stanzas (or writing a long poem) is a way to stop the weak lines being isolated and picked on.

"Safety first", reader-centric poetry doesn't suit all readers. Nor does daring (aka hit-and-miss?) poetry. I vary in my preferences when reading - though I don't ignore duff lines, I'm prepared to turn a blind eye if there are adequate compensations elsewhere. When writing I'm more of an "if in doubt" person.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Keeping books and magazines

As regards writing, it's been a quiet autumn. Instead, we've been refitting the bedroom with a floor-to-ceiling wardrobe that has lots of book space. I look up old collections quite often (most recently I looked for Chrissie Williams' "Flying into the bear" pamphlet having bought her "Bear" book) so it's useful not to have my books and magazines boxed away. The photo shows about half of what I have.

The classifications are "publications I'm in", "magazines" (my most recent issue of each. I added "n+1" to the collection recently), "poetry monographs", "HappenStance", "prose monographs", "poetry anthologies","prose anthologies", "other". I'm beginning a "flash" section. Strangely sized magazines have a section too. I've hardly any novels.

I use the "magazines" most often, to show fellow writers places they might want to send their work to. It's the anthologies that I most often re-read. Since most of the books are small-press they contain material that's not on-line, and is probably out of print. I find them a useful resource. For example, when checking on the modern use of sestinas I found many examples I wouldn't have found elsewhere.

I don't think I'm hoarding. I've kept only one complete set of magazines, namely "Panurge".

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Going fast

Pop into the HappenStance shop while stocks last.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Notes for a style vs content workshop

The notes I used to run a workshop on style versus content in prose are online now - see Style and substance

Wednesday, 25 September 2019


We had 4 days in Krakow, staying in a place whose staircase reminded me of Edinburgh tenements. We saw the Salt mines, the lively Jewish Quarter, and a few Museums. Being with the younger generation opened my eyes to how things are nowadays - useful for updating my story-writing. I took my first Uber, stayed at my first airbnb, learnt about reviewing, and watched while the rest of the family hired scooters for little trips.

From the tower in the square we got a good view. We've been to Prague, and noted a few similarities. Wedded couples were being photographed around the town. Drivers were good about stopping at zebra crossings. I saw no betting shops. There were a few (sometimes chic) second hand shops, lots of "Alcohole" shops but no public drinking.

At the foot of the tower is a popular photo-opportunity - people poke their head through the eye hole.

I realised that my knowledge of Polish culture is close to zero, I've read MiƂosz, Szymborska and Herbert a little, and Conrad. A visit to the national museum helped me catch up with 20th century art. I also visited the modern art gallery by Schindler's factory.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Dark Horse issue 41 and reputations

"Dark Horse issue 41" has 96 pages, nearly half of them devoted to the editorial, essays, an interview and bios (just one page of them). There are essays about the role of the internet in damaging the reputation of living poets, and articles examining the reputation of dead poets. Was Anthony Hecht a misogynist? Was Whitman?

I've wondered before about how writers' reputation are affected by their deaths. For some, it's as if the literary world is waiting for them to die so they can be written out of the records. A poet can write good poems, they can help keep a poetry institution or magazine going, but if others write better in a similar style, if someone can step into their vacated role, they'll soon be forgotten.

Then there are the larger-than-life writers, those who are for some reason memorable. There's a risk that when they die, their poetry will go down with them, sometimes undeservedly.

Karl Knights' essay "Three Palsied Poetry: Poetry and Disability" looks at the reputation of 3 poets who had cerebral palsy. Because of their disability they were all physically memorable. I suspect people found it hard not to think of the poet when they read the poetry. This can work both ways.

  • Larry Eigner (I've never heard of him) struggled to type with 2 fingers. He wrote little about his disability. He was in seminal Black Mountain and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E publications. Though championed by William Carlos Williams, Bukowski, etc, he received little recognition in his lifetime. He's beginning to receive acclaim. Knights thinks that "By focussing on form and experimentation, he made a posterity for his work likelier."
  • Vassar Millar (I've never heard of her) wrote much more often about her disability. She wrote religious poetry too and was rigorously formal. James Wright admired her work. She was nominated for a Pulitzer in 1961. Knights thinks that "Since her death, her work has been almost entirely forgotten."
  • Christy Brown's "My Left Foot" was published when he was 22. I've read it and I've seen the film. Brown later thought the book was 'immature juvenilia'. He spent 17 years writing "Down All the Days", a novel which received much acclaim - "the most important novel since Ulysses" said an Irish Times reviewer. Knights thinks that "Brown's novels have come to be seen as frivolous novelties". They're now out of print, though "My Left Foot" is still around.

Later Knights writes that "The only instance I can think of where a disabled person attained an editing post is Judy-Lynn del Ray". As he points out, this infiltration into the institutions is important. I think it's why cultural changes can take years - first there were more woman writers, then more women editors, then there were women writers who grew up in a world where there were more women editors.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

What non-poets need to know about poetry

  • There are no poets - Nobody earns their keep merely by writing poetry.
  • Poetry's not often a special language - Read it first as if it were prose, ignoring the line-breaks.
  • There are many types of poetry - True, there are many types of music too but you don't often have Abba and Beethoven on the same CD. A poetry anthology can have a crazy mix. Don't expect to like it all.
  • Not all poetry was written for you - Some poets perform only for poets, writing books only for poets. They don't feel the need to justify their poems word by word to unbelievers.
  • Books aren't everything - Book runs don't often exceed 300. Running a workshop for a day will earn a poet more than years of royalties. Most poems appear in magazines you'll probably never see.