Thursday 11 July 2024

Berkeley, Bugan and Yoseloff

Today I went to a poetry event where Tamar Yoseloff (I've recently read her "Belief Systems"), Anne Berkeley (I thought her "River" poem was the best of the evening - looking back at my notes about her book, I note that I liked it when I first read it) and Carmen Bugan (new to me) read and did a Q&A session. The latter 2 poets had written several of their poems during lockdown.

The event was organised by the ARU's excellent Cambridge Writing Centre.

Thursday 4 July 2024

The book/magazine hierarchy

When I read a poetry/story book where few of the pieces have been previously published, my first reaction is "if they're not good enough to get into magazines, why should they be preserved in a book?" I then wonder about how many of the pieces are padding, there only so that the few good pieces can be sold in a book-length package.

But now that e-mail and submittable has helped to increase the number of magazine submissions by an order of magnitude or so, magazines may not be as reliable gatekeepers as before. On X recently Matthew Stewart pointed out that "Submittable lends itself to poems that generate an immediate impact. There's no time for a poem to grow on an editor, for apparent simplicity to reveal its depths." It's similar with stories. A piece whose strength is the acculumation of small domestic details is going to struggle. There's no point in dropping little depth charges that will be detonated by a little phrase near the end, because by then the overworked editor (or intern) will be onto the next submission.

So I'm beginning to accept that some pieces may have to first appear in a book.

Authors of quiet pieces can wait until they have a book-sized collection. But such a book isn't likely to be a new author's way to burst onto the scene. An alternative is to compromise by putting a teaser in the first paragraph - hinting at trauma to come rather than beginning with a dead body or madness.

I think magazines are aware of the problems caused by too many submissions. Already they're restricting the number of submissions they get. Submission windows are getting shorter (a fortnight a year sometimes) and submission fees are more common. Niche publications (specialising e.g. in "Seaside Gothic") may be an option too.

Saturday 29 June 2024


The standard Lady Justice sculpture is of a lady holding scales. She's usually blindfolded too. But when judging poetry, impartiality is not as easy as that.

When I'm commenting about poems I try to be aware of some of my prejudices -

  • I fall for poems about unwanted childlessness and dying children.
  • I like new metaphors (though I take marks off for ones I've heard before).
  • I admire technical mastery (e.g. a sestina that works!).
  • I like poems that seem to be about one thing until the last line makes me realise the poem's really about something else.
  • I'm suspicious of "simple but strong" poems.
  • I distrust poems that look too much like confessions or therapy.
  • Poems like "The Two-Headed Calf" by Laura Gilpin trouble me too. It's prose until the killer final line. Should a single line be sufficient to win a prize? If it's memorable enough, perhaps it should.

I try to compensate for these idiosyncrasies. But what about the ones I'm unaware of?

I wonder how competition judges feel about this? At least at workshops when commenting on pieces I can admit my prejudices and shortcomings, and withhold evaluation if I choose. Judges in their normal 9-5 Creative Writing jobs might be unable to say that they don't understand Jorie Graham at all. What if a good Grahamesque poem is entered by someone unaware of the inevitable outcome?

In the end of course, people entering a poetry competition just have to accept the judges' inevitable baises without knowing what they are. It's the only way - Simon Armitage isn't going to refund the entry fee if a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem is submitted.

Monday 24 June 2024

Jigsaw puzzles

Yesterday I attended the UK jigsaw championships as a spectator. It's moved to a big, plush venue. I've already written a story involving the event, so I thought I'd better do some research - not only to improve my writing, but to study the participants' techniques. I might enter next year.

There were various categories. The "Elite" zone reminded me of the chess tournaments I used to attend. The "Fun" zone was more relaxed with small groups around tables, like at Christmas.

As part of the 5 day festival of events there was a church full of completed jigsaws for sale - mostly 1000-piece ones.

Sunday 9 June 2024

Submissions and perseverance

On Facebook recently, Judy Birkbeck wrote "Yay! Another of my short stories has been shortlisted by the Bournemouth Writing Prize. Made my day. ... It's encouraged me to keep going. I've submitted this story 61 times! Perseverance is key."

I can't match 61, though a few of my pieces are approaching 20 rejections. I think some of my best stories have been repeatedly rejected. I send them out to the best places first, so they're going to be rejected often even if they're reasonable. And they might be bad - I may be attached to them for non-literary reasons.

I've 2 poems out that have been rejected 14 and 17 times. I'll keep trying, because sometimes perseverance works. Sam Gardiner, who won the National Poetry Competition long ago, told me that the poem had previously been rejected by many magazines.

Earlier this month I got £50 for a 250-word piece that's been rejected 15 times (mostly in a longer form). It was a competition where the pieces were read out and judged by the audience on the night, with Zoom participation.

I recently had a short story accepted at the 17th attempt. I've a story (neurodivergent female 1st-person PoV) that's been rejected 19 times. I'm about to send it out again. I'm giving up on another piece of prose that's been rejected 12 times - it's dawned on me that it's not very good though I can see why I like it.

Monday 3 June 2024

IIse Pedler at CB1

On June 3rd, Ilse Pedlar was the main act, reading from her Seren book, her prize-winning pamphlet, a competition anthology, her phone, and sheets of paper. She concentrated on her main themes (vet, step-mother) at first, before reading some newer Lake District pieces. Her books seemed to sell well.

There were 17 open-mic readers too, so no lack of variety.

Friday 31 May 2024

Flash collections

On my Reviews of Flash collections page I have links to write-ups of most of the Flash books I've read. A third of them are anthologies, which is an indication, I think, that it's still an evolving market.

Who buys Flash books? At least with anthologies the contributors might be buyers, but how many of those people will buy single-author books? Who are the trusted publishers?

Reader expectations are maturing now that people are no longer buying only books written by friends. How good should a book be before it's publishable? I think the bar is rising. Should it have sections, like many poetry books have? Will readers accept a mix of prose-poems, dribbles and narrative Flash all in the same book? Are Flash pamphlets viable? Are more Flash books being published by non-Flash-specialist publishers?

At the moment I'd guess that only Flash writers buy (or know about) Flash books. If the customer base expands, are poets or short story writers the most likely additions? Books of short stories and poems aren't flying off the shelves either, but at least the Flash market is expanding. I think Flash might appeal to (narrative) poets who feel that modern poetry (obscure, or "exploring issues") has abandoned them.