Monday, 2 October 2017

Can you earn a living as a poet?

In the latest Acumen there's this quote by Hilary Davies which sounds true to me - "it is now possible to make a living of sorts as a poet, as it never was before, but this does entail being willing to engage with the public in ways that were not there, or not required before." It's not an issue that worries me except when I do free workshops - am I undercutting people who are trying to "make a living of sorts"?

I missed the session about money at the Poetry Book Fair in London on Saturday. Fortunately some notes are online. They're worth a read.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

FreeVerse 2017

A rather short visit this year (I had other commitments) but it was still valuable. Amongst other books I bought Paul Stephenson's "Selfie with Waterlilies", Peter Daniels' "A Season in Eden" and (long overdue) Katy Evans-Bush's "Forgive the Language".

I had time to attend one reading, by poets from Gatehouse Press. Peter Daniels read some poems from his book. The Norwich-based press is run by about 15 volunteers. They produce the Lighthouse journal too.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Morocco

I visited Morocco long ago, Interailing by myself. This time I was on a guided tour. We visited Casablanca, Rabat, Meknes, Volubilis (Roman remains), Fez (tanneries!), Merzouga (near the patch of sand bottom-right of this map), Todra Gorge, Quarzazate (abandoned), Kasbah Ait Benhaddou (it appears in "Gladiators" and many other films), Tijzha (a village in the High Atlas), over the Tizi'n'Tichka (2,260m above the sea level, the highest major mountain pass of North Africa), Essaouira (a fishing/sea-side town, once Portuguese - a back alley is below), and Marrakech with its Djemma el Fna. Motorways to mule-tracks, palaces to hovels, deserts to seasides. And we took in the French, Arab, Bedouin, Berber and Jewish influences. The New Town (French) / Old Town division was obvious in the big cities. The Jewish areas are still known as such, though most of the Jews left in a hurry. Some of the areas they abandoned are still no-go areas at night.

Lifestyles are changing. The semi-nomadic people want to settle down for the sake of their children's education. They like their high walls, the Moroccans. They surround factories, palaces and farms, with towers at the gates. Some are made of clay and straw. Rain and wind easily damages them. I couldn't tell whether ruins were years or centuries old. Warring tribes in previous centuries meant that battles were small-scale, involving fortified houses and villages rather than huge castles. People in some places are gradually building themselves new homes, abandoning the old ones. Some towns are empty. Even populated villages can seem abandoned in the heat of the days. Clues are satellite dishes, washing on the line, dates drying on the roof, and goalposts on wasteland.

We stayed in a mountain village, walking for an hour to get there, our luggage carried by mules. It hadn't long had mains electricity. Once it arrived, people got fridges and they didn't need to harvest food daily. They saw what other people had and wanted it too. But people still use mules to collect crops and provisions.

Life can be very seasonal. Up in the mountains we saw a subsistence group of 10 people - 3 generations, semi-nomadic. Near the sandy Sahara we saw how labour-intensive farming and irrigation can coax food out of sand - date palms (easy to manage, low on water use) providing cover for cabbage, maize, alfalfa to grow, watered by a series of narrow channels whose tributaries could be blocked by mud to share the water around. There were some similarities with how we looked after our allotment.

We were driven for hours through landscapes that could have been in Westerns, and through mountain passes that reminded me of Italy (Morocco has skiing resorts). Photos don't do justice to the spectacular views. The deep red soil in places looked like Crete's. The exteriors of houses, especially in the medinas, can belie the wealth within. We stayed in some smart hotels (once we had a four-poster bed), and some quirky hotels. Other times there was neither TV or air-conditioning. Wifi was only sometimes available. Alcohol wasn't in all hotels and was difficult to get it at all in some places. Bigger towns had bottle shops - our first stopping place. There was a Jewish tradition of distilling which continues in places, allegedly. Sometimes the accommodation blended into its surroundings. This hotel on the side of the gorge had good views - a ribbon of green in the valley.

We stopped off at a weekly market which looked like a car-boot sale. We bought 2 packets of seeds, though we could have bought much more stuff - domestic ware especially.

In Essaouira we had a meal in a steamy back-street cafe where you took the fish that you'd brought earlier. I wouldn't have gone near the place normally, let alone eat there. And we ate street foot in the square at Marrakech. One breakfast up in the mountains included a kettle of water, a jar of Nescafe and a pot of porridge with honey.

And of course, we saw life in the Medinas - Fes with its confusing 9,400 alleys, Marrakech where you stay on the right to have a better chance of avoiding the mopeds and motorbikes that are let in. I'm still rather nervous about such places with their dark, narrow alleys, and I can't haggle. In some towns there are collectives where items are labelled. Going there first to check prices before haggling is a good idea.

I wasn't sure what to expect of the Sahara part of the visit, but as you can see, it's like you see in films. We went for an hour or so by camel until in a hollow we saw where we'd be spending the night. I slept under canvas. Others slept rough until the wind rose. The milky way was very clear.

In the morning I climbed a dune to catch sunrise. Then it was back on the camels for breakfast.

Yes, this is a tree of goats. Goats will climb Argan trees to eat the fruit whose nuts are used to make oil, but this particular scene is a stunt. Elsewhere we saw Barbary apes in more natural surroundings.

Near Volubilis is Moulay Idriss Zerhoun where non-Muslims were not permitted to stay overnight until 2005. Here for a change, colours were on the outside of the houses.

I knew I'd have lot of time to read so I took the story collections "Whoever you choose to love" by Colette Paul, "The New Uncanny" edited by Sarah Eyre and Ra Page, and "Tell her you love her" by Bridget O'Connor. I took poetry too - "Ticker-tape" by Rishi Dastidar, and the latest issue of "Orbis". I took some ideas for poems and stories with me, returning with a poem a piece of Flash and a page of travel notes.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Tania Hershman and prose/poetry

A while ago I wondered why not many writers wrote both poetry and prose, and why few if any of them published books combining poems and prose. Then it dawned on me that many so-called "Poetry" books actually contained Flash, vignettes or micro-texts. Think of Hugo Williams, parts of Lachlan Mackinnon's "Small Hours", "Citizen" by Claudia Rankine, etc. Some books are an assortment of several categories, classified as poetry for marketing/Award reasons or because of historical inertia.

I suspect that people whose work spans a broad spectrum don't care much about where in the range a particular piece is, until submission time. Readers care most when the advertized category doesn't match their assessment. Roughly I'd suggest to reader-friendly writers that -

  • If the line-breaks (like any other features/words) are doing little or nothing, leave them out, especially if there's a risk that they might look like an attempt to divert attention from weak content
  • If the context might make readers skim over a text that would reward careful reading, it might be worth adding line-breaks as a hint that a different reading strategy is recommended. In this situation a common ploy is to make each stanza into a similarly sized rectangle to show that the particular positioning of the line-breaks doesn't much matter.

Tania Hershman's a particularly interesting case. She's almost simultaneously published two books - a poetry book "Terms and Conditions" (Nine Arches Press) and a prose book "Some of us glow more than others" (Unthank Books). Reading the two books together it's not always clear why a text should have been printed in one book rather than another. Indeed, a text called "What is it that fills us" appears in both, the poetry version being a slightly shorter version of the prose version.

Reviewers have applauded the genre-free approach (and the science/literature, mainstream/avant-garde mix) of these books. It's interesting to see that despite the challenge that this diversity might pose for readers, there's an emerging consensus about which pieces in "Some of us glow more than others" are best.

One day maybe, books won't be classified as "Poetry" or "Prose" but as "short texts". To do so now will reduce the chance of being reviewed and will reduce sales. "Poetry" is currently the safest option if there's a wide variety of content.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Publishing and luck

Authors will sometimes say how a lucky break led to their breakthrough publication - being in the right place at the right time. But I often suspect that if they hadn't have been lucky at that moment, they'd have been lucky later, because they were trying to put themselves in the right places anyway. They made their own luck.

I've been lucky with my publishers. Writers sometimes get published by people who soon go bust. It's gone the other way with me, my publishers' growing reputations doing me no harm. They made their own luck too.

Nine Arches Press is going from strength to strength. It's become an ACE "National Portfolio Organisation" for 5 years, and it's been awarded money for a shorter project. Jane Commane has led many writing workshops, co-edits "Under the Radar" magazine, and is co-organiser of the Leicester Shindig poetry series. In collaboration with The Poetry School she runs Primers. These activities feed into each other - running workshops and magazines helps to discover talent and increase readership, and the more people who become involved with these activities, the more that sales increase, which in turn attracts bigger writers and more reviews. The icing on the cake is that Jane has a collection out with Bloodaxe in 2018. How does she find the time? There's an interview online

Nell Nelson's Happenstance won The Michael Marks Publishers’ Award for pamphlet publishing and is gradually publishing more books. Like Jane, there's a strong talent-spotting element to much that she does, and much networking. She's involved with several other activities - writing articles/reviews for Dark Horse and PN Review, judging, tutoring with Writers' Forum, etc - and hasn't given up writing poems yet. There's an interview online

Monday, 31 July 2017

Some recent online pieces of mine

All prose -

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Rejection

Did you see Nadal's loss at Wimbledon 2017? He was 2 sets down, managed heroically to catch up, then lost 13-15 in the final set. Soul destroying. Similarly, some of my literary rejections hit harder than others.

Since my pamphlet publication I've been on 3 short/long lists for publication of another poetry book or leaflet. In chronological order, I've been on a short-list of 2, a short-list of 5, and a long-list of 40, which doesn't look like a good trend. The most painful of these was when the short-list was announced before the judge had chosen the winner - getting into the short-list was the hard bit surely. But I lost the final set. So close and yet so far.

This week the short/long lists of the Bath and the Bristol short story competitions were announced. I entered both and got into neither list. Depressing. I was hoping I might get into one of the competitions' anthologies.

The other rejections that depress me are when, to recover confidence, I send some of my better poems to a minor magazine and I can't even get into that. I've had these this month too.

It's not all bad news. Pieces accepted months ago are coming out in next few weeks. Also I've changed my submission recording process, making it easier to produce some statistics. I now know that about 1 in 6 of times I submit (each submission might contain 3 poems, or one story) I get an acceptance. By the law of averages I'm due for an acceptance any moment now.