Friday, 16 October 2020

Introduction for poetry group members

I help run the poetry workshop group of Cambridge Writers. Anybody can attend provided they're a Cambridge Writers member. People can try us free for one session. All sorts of people come along - in Cambridge, people come and go. Occasionally someone turns up with poems and the ambition to publish a book having published nothing before. More often we get serious amateurs. First I mail them this info sheet -

We’re part of Cambridge Writers ( so if you join us you can attend the group’s other meetings too. The poetry group meets monthly. 3-10 people attend. Some of us are unpublished and are happy that way, but I think it’s true to say the tone is “serious amateur” rather than academic or therapeutic. The format is pretty standard. At the start we exchange market information and sometime swap magazines. Then we take turns to read our non-published work. The poet hands the work out. After having given people time to read it, the poet reads it. Then all but the poet discuss it. Finally the poet joins in.

Cambridge has some other poetry groups and several poetry places of interest

  • The Poetry Society organizes some Stanza groups nearby
  • The Central Public Library has events and a good selection of poetry books. Before covid they had poetry meetings on the 3rd Thursday of the month.
  • The University Library has many poetry magazines (it costs outsiders £10 for 6 months of access)
  • Students have their own groups. The University sometimes has a writer-in-residence
  • “CB1 Poetry” holds readings, some open-mike - see their website
  • College literary societies organise readings - see Varsity
  • Cambridge holds 2 literary festivals each year - see (
  • The Poetry School run a few events in Cambridge and many in London-see The Writers’ Centre at Norwich is good too (
  • Heffers and Waterstones bookshops have some current poetry magazines. The Amnesty International bookshop on Mill Road and the Oxfam shops in Burleigh St and Sidney St have some older ones, plus pamphlets.
  • See for a list of Spoken Word events (poetry slams, storytelling, word- shops, open mics etc), many at “The Fountain” on Regent Street.
  • There are some poetry evening-classes.

If your aim is to publish a poetry book, beware. If you’ve not had dozens of poems in magazines, you’ll have to pay for it and there are many people only too happy to take your money. The University Library and poetry library on the South Bank has hundreds of magazines you can browse through. Some of them have been scanned in online (see

Below are the sort of things I sometimes say when new people attend.

Suppose we weren't a poetry group. Suppose we were a music group instead. We might get Jungle House DJs, players of authentic instruments, people from oil-drum groups, buskers, opera singers and brass band fans. They might not have much in common. They might not even consider each other's work music.

Poetry has as much variety, and poets may have as little in common. What makes poetry more confusing is that it's easy for poets to mix and sample styles. You might not even notice when they're doing the verbal equivalent of combining synths, ukeleles and oboes. So don't worry if you can make no sense of someone else's work. When I'm in that situation I often find that by the end of the discussion I know a lot more than I did at the start. So hang on in there!

It works both ways - you may need to develop a thick skin when people comment on your work. Don't be surprised if when you pour your heart into a poem, people comment mostly about the spelling and line-breaks. Just try to extract whatever you find useful from the comments and ignore the rest. If you're writing for a particular audience (kids say) it might be worth telling the group first, but we don't want a poet to preface their poem with an explanation of what the poem's REALLY about. The poem itself should do that, and our format is designed accordingly.

The group discussion may come as a culture shock. A lot of what goes on in the poetry world never reaches the mass media. The members of the group might not be able to claim many Eng-Lit degrees, and they have many blind-spots, but several of them have lurked for years in the hidden underworld of magazines, networks, and small presses where poetry changes fast. We may mention magazines and poets you've never heard of. Don't worry - hardly anyone else has heard of them either.

So whether you're a head-banger or a serialist you should come away with something of use. And don't forget that other poetry groups exist - ask if you want to know more!

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Matthew Stewart and Paul Stephenson

I've not found the poetry world to be the bitchy place that it's sometimes made out to be. It's unfair to pick out just 2 generous poets - for a start poetry journal editors merit a mention - but I've chatted to both of these poets, they've both been published by HappenStance, and they've both had some recent successes.

Matthew Stewart

His blog is Rogue Strands where he often posts supportive reviews. He's published

Recently he's had 2 poems in the Spectator!

In Writing Simply he writes "Helena Nelson suggests that one reason why poets are afraid to write plainly is because they're worried the result wouldn't be a poem at all. I'd agree with her, but argue that writing simply also carries huge risks. There are no accoutrements, no verbal fireworks, no make-up to hide any flaws, and the consequence is that any mistakes become glaring". This is an abiding theme of his. Here are some other quotes -

  • Countless poets, editors and critics appear to equate ’simple’ with ’easy’ or ’facile’. However, the reverse is true, as many readers recognise.
  • Richie McCaffery speaks to us directly, with passion, with sincerity. He moves us in ways that should theoretically lie beyond the capacity of such accessible words.
  • Michael Brown’s poetry might initially seem straightforward. Certain critics might dismiss it as facile or simplistic. In reality, the opposite is true
  • Rory Waterman stands out among the poets of his generation in the U.K. not only for his awareness of form and his technical control but for how lightly he wears them. His use of language is so natural that the reader is carried along by the cadences of his lines without any need for extraneous resource or recourse.
  • There’s a poetry that doesn’t tackle difficult subjects head-on, preferring instead to seek out angles that might lend new perspectives. It’s not cowardly for doing so. In fact, its risk-taking is greater, as it doesn’t pulse out obvious messages. Instead, it prefers a far more subtle, more powerful and longer-lasting approach to its awkward themes (of Charlotte Gann)

He's also interested in metrics - syllabics, etc.

He spends much of his time in Spain where he works.

Paul Stephenson

On his blog are interviews with poets and much else besides. Interviews like the one with Richie McCaffery (yes, the same poet who caught Matthew Stewart's attention) are extensive and well researched. As well as helping fellow poets by writing about them on his blog he co-curated Poetry in Aldeburgh in 2018 and in 2019.

He's published

  • Those people - a winner in the 2014/2015 Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet competition judged by US poet Billy Collins.
  • The Days that Followed Paris - by HappenStance in October 2016 and included as one of the Poetry School’s Books of the Year 2016
  • Selfie with Waterlilies - which won the Paper Swans Press pamphlet competition and appeared in September 2017.

He's recently had poems in PN Review. He writes a wide range of poetry, from identity politics to Oulipo. One never knows what he'll come up with next.

Like Matthew Stewart his interest in Europe isn't token - he's worked in Paris, etc. Perhaps this outsider perspective is what helps fuel both of these poets, letting them observe English language and society from a distance. Both poets deserve the success that's coming their way.

Thursday, 17 September 2020


In Poetry Salzburg Review (No.35), James Russell entitles his reviews section "Aboutness", using the term (which is used in philosophy, apparently) to help classify some types of difficulty -

  • Late modernist - there's no "poet standing 'behind' the text talking about something" - e.g. Prynne's "The Oval Window"
  • "standard-issue difficulty" - "there certainly is a poet writing from a viewpoint behind the refractory surface, a poet who is deliberately withholding the poem's aboutness. (In the worst cases, the poem only attains poetic status because of this withholding)"
  • poetry with aboutness, which however uses a "particular form of diction and lexical range [] withholding closure" - Ashbery, Stevens
  • poetry where the seeming aboutness and the content don't obviously match. High-modernist? - e.g. Geoffrey Hill, Pound

Readers who think they can see what a poem's "about" (who can paraphrase) have a foundation to help appreciate the poem. It probably means that the poem has some cohesion, which also aids conventional understanding. It may only be a prop to be discarded after use, but there's no harm offering a helping hand to readers, is there?

If a collection has aboutness (e.g. a theme or two), the themes can provide the narrative for a review, which helps both poet and reviewer. It makes commercial sense for the back cover to say what the collection is "about" even if a minority of the poems match the description. If the poet's autobiography matches the theme, so much the better.

But "aboutness" isn't univerally popular. I've heard poets say of a poem of theirs that "If I knew what it's about I wouldn't have written it." I rather like trying to discover what a poem is "about", which is perhaps why I'm not so keen on single-theme autobiographical collections. I like trying to work out how a poem achieves its effect, which leads to psychology and market awareness more than soul-baring. Even if a poem doesn't work for me, I'm interested in how might it work for others.

At the end of his review, Russell wonders wonders whether poems can be about themselves. He mentions theories which claim that mental states have to be about something, if only in a "I think therefore I am" way. Poems can perhaps create a sensation of being poetry without paraphrase getting in the way.

I don't write many poems that are clearly about something. Perhaps I should write more of them. I can write them more quickly than my usual ones, and I'd like to increase my output.

Friday, 4 September 2020

What I did during lockdown

Just to make sure I didn't go in, they padlocked my workplace but that didn't stop me working full time, more or less. I've been cycling around to avoid cabin fever. I started taking photos of village signs, ending up doing trips just to take photos. Some of the signs have stories behind them, with Saturn V rockets, radio telescopes and DNA featuring among the more common windmills, ponds, Romans and Vikings.

I've seen parts of the area I should have visited long ago. Girton used to supply goose quills for Cambridge University. This sculpture goes rather beyond celebrating that though. It's lit at night.

We've driven places too. This area is 2m below sea level, allegedly. Before the fen was drained, these green posts were mostly underground.

And at last I've visited Aldeburgh. I found the shell sculpture that I've seen many photos of. I've still not attended the poetry festival. My writing hasn't suffered as a consequence of lockdown though the mood has narrowed. When I've had little bursts of creativity I've been free to take immediate advantage of them. I've radically rewritten some old pieces, merging them when I can. I thought I'd get more acceptances than I've actually received. I expected to do more reading. I'm still working through my book list. I've belatedly discovered audio books.

The allotment has of course been receiving more care than usual. Our sweetcorn's been ravaged by badgers in recent years so this time we built some protection.

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Paying for literary success

An enhanced version of this article is on my articles blog at Paying for literary success

Friday, 14 August 2020

Writing and evaluation

Some people write for the sheer joy of it. Putting things into words helps other writers understand themselves better, maybe. Or they find it therapeutic. They don't need the ego-trip of publication. After all, look at Emily Dickinson - only 10 poems published in her lifetime.

Other people tot up their publication successes, happy to change what they write to fit the required themes and guidelines. To them, writing for yourself is like talking to yourself - a dead-end.

Such a variety of motive makes it difficult to offer suggestions at workshops. A comment that one type of writer may find useful (e.g. "your main character's too naive") might be heartbreaking for another.

Offering assessments is even more fraught. Evaluation can put a damper on creativity but it's what some people want. It's not uncommon for new members to come along with a piece that's been in their drawer for years wanting to know whether it's any good. Alas, however much the group prefaces their opinions with provisos, it's easy for the author to take opinions too seriously. Problems arise especially when the harsh realities of the publishing world begin to impinge on our little meetings. When considering the chances of getting accepted by Picador, say, our assessment-meters need drastic recalibration. A story that goes down well in the sheltered surroundings of a writers group may be rejected in seconds by a busy publisher’s intern.

People are often advised when commenting on a piece to say two positive things for each negative one. That approach has risks too - a newcomer with a poor piece might think that it’s mostly ok (apparently better than pieces read by experienced writers at the very same meeting, which can get criticised a lot!). Consequently they might waste much time and money. There are people out there all too ready to take hundreds of pounds from budding authors.

Also if a writer knows that their piece is bad but the group says it's good, the group may lose credibility in the eyes of the writer.

Adding numbers doesn't help. An Italian paper I read had these evaluation categories. Places like Goodreads and Amazon have a simpler system, though the details are worth checking - stars don't always mean the same thing.

*did not like ithate it
**it was okdon't like it
***liked itit's ok
****really liked itlike it
*****it was amazinglove it

The overall rating's not a simple average - age of vote etc matters

It's worth asking authors what they want out of the meeting, though replies needn't be completely believed. One option is to offer information rather than overt opinion - suggesting some relevant books to read, etc.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

2 manifestos

Two books I recently bought in a charity shop feature manifestos.

"The vision of culture and other poems" by Mark Howard Davis (Minerva Press, 1998) begins with a 10-page preface. Here are some extracts -

  • In an age where individualism is haloed with spotlights, where relativism runs amok, there are many clever and sophisticated people but few with real, intense, aesthetic depth of wisdom
  • Everything is based on good contacts in the right places at the right time, rather than on serious evaluative criticism
  • when I read any of the current poetry on offer (whether written by supposed first league or lesser poets) I am aware of a lack of structure, lack of form, content and style
  • Once you slide into cultural relativism and it is deemed fine for everyone to pursue 'their own thing', all the critical apparatus and accumulated wisdom of tested craft and innovation become as nothing
  • Relativism has enslaved our culture and nowhere more so do we experience this bitter truth than in the meagre, half-cooked microwave poetry of postmodernism
  • today's postmodern conformism is due to the absense of any sort of intelligible poetics
  • The world of the true poet is, in the last result, a unique world of personal joy and suffering. The sheer intensity of such inwardness seals this world off from any mere facile cleverness
  • Poetry must regain its basis of meaningful patterning

"All hail the new puritans" by Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thome (eds) (Fourth Estate, 2000) begins with a single page manifesto, explained in a 10-page introduction. Here are some extracts -

  • In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing ... Flashbacks are a cheap trick ... I have no problem with dual narratives generally, especially in longer fiction. But for this project we wanted to force the included writers into putting everything into a single narrative strand.
  • All our texts are dated and set in the present day. All products, places, artists and objects named are real ... Current historical fiction seems to be written with the sole purpose of denying life
  • We are moralists, so all texts feature a recognisable ethical reality

A write-up of the initiative and aftermath is on workshyfop