Saturday, 26 November 2022

Too many books

I own quite a few books and magazines. I'm a bit of a hoarder. I keep my worst excesses hidden away in the loft or in cupboards. I've been clearing the flat of someone who liked books too, and had no loft. Here's the main room after a few hours of tidying up

When we emptied cupboards (sometimes with a crowbar), bags of books fell on us. When there was no space in the room for the thousands of books, the kitchen started filling up with tottering piles.

And the bathroom was also used for storage. We found a toilet seat still in the packaging, and toilet rolls. Alas there was no water or electricity.

There were files and files of magazine, letter and newspaper cuttings, sorted into topics (one of the topics being "Tim Love"). Also in amongst the books were £30 of old pound coins. There was no single place for batteries, but at least they were labelled - e.g. "Used. Maybe a little life left?"

Books were of many types and languages. I think this is a bible in Cornish. Books have gone to local charity shops and to rural Africa in a container.

And there were exercise books filled with pages like this, written in a private code. Distances walked? Money spent? Time spent reading?

Monday, 14 November 2022

Ornamentation and aura

In the old days writers would iambize their prose and dangle rhymes on their line-endings to make their words seem more significant, adding poetic words as glitter. As Samuel Johnson said, some people think that anything that doesn't look like prose must be poetry. Nowadays writers use strange punctuation, deletions, discontinuities and line-breaks instead.

There's still something about the label "poetry" that writers find tempting. And why not? Poetic license still exists. If you label a piece "poetry", readers will look for hidden meanings. The meanings will expand to match the readers' expectations. It saves the writer needing to do so much. A short text (about doing the housework, say) can go far given a big title like "Death".

But readers might not be so compliant nowadays. They might distrust the label. They might think the shortness is a cop-out.

  • They're more alert to tricks of ads, the lure of mistique, aura, etc. They know how the addition of false eyelashes and tan can trick the eye.
  • They've seen how less pretentious "memes" and "tweets" can do so much in a few words.
  • Flash now offers an alternative vehicle for anecdotes, without recourse to the "poetry" label.
  • Books like "Grief is the thing with feathers" by Max Porter show what can be done with poetic ideas when they're developed. In comparison a slim poetry book with lots of white space looks if not unfinished then certainly expensive.

Consequently I'm on my guard when I read a text that's labelled as poetry. There's less need to label texts as such nowadays (short texts can be prose), so the request for my extra attention had better be genuine.

Sunday, 6 November 2022

What the author thinks

  • I'm in a rich writing phase at the moment - Time will tell. If you go through a phase of relaxing immediate self-criticism you can write a lot, and you may think it good, but you may only be postponing the inevitable radical editing.
  • Thankyou for your insightful review. At last someone "gets it" - Years ago I went to a workshop where someone read out a first-person piece concerning first love. It sounded Adrian Mole-like to me, and people commented that they were amused by the main character's naivity - their age unclear, but presumably teenage. Alas, the piece was deadly serious autobiography. Critics should have said it was a sensitive exploration of twentysomething love.
    At another workshop, the poet was praised for their ironic use of clichés. After, the poet admitted that they hadn't realised that the images were clichés.
    Suppose a clever whodunnit by a middle-aged man is packed with middle-aged men who pretty young women keep falling for? Suppose a poem collection has many self-sabotage pieces but the poet's announced theme is about fate being unfair? Suppose the "I" is right in all the poems, though the other characters only realise that later? Suppose the rhyme-scheme goes to pieces whenever the poet has something serious to say? Would these comments ever be considered insightful by an author?
    If the critic dutifully reads the blurb and reports on the intended meanings, quoting the phrases that most emphasise those meanings, the author will be delighted. Maybe that's the reviewer's intention.

Thursday, 27 October 2022

Periodical priorities

  • "We don’t read submissions blind and that’s not going to change. I’m unconvinced that’s a particularly helpful strategy for ensuring balance" - Kathryn Gray (Bad Lilies). Anonymity is often suggested as a means to ensure fairness, but I can see that it hinders balance. I think that overall I'm in favour of some positive discrimination. If (say) only 10% of a poem in a magazine are by women, women might be unlikely to send to that magazine and the ratio won't improve. The self-perpetuating loop has to be broken somehow. All the same, I'd like to think that blind submissions are something to strive towards.
  • "we will publish poems that shock and unsettle. These poems will speak of trauma and injustice, because that is the world we live in. We will prioritize work that deals with issues of migration, economic injustice and freedom of speech" - André Naffis-Sahely (Poetry London editorial, Summer 2021). I don't know about the shock/unsettle aspect, but the magazine content matched the manifesto as far as I could tell. The prioritisation extended to the reviews, it seemed to me. I made a note of what received any adverse criticism. Issues are good, and are discussed at the expense of the poetry. Issue-less poetry by males was the most vulnerable.

Wednesday, 12 October 2022


For a few months I've been blitzing the magazines - I've 13 stories, 3 flashes and 7 poems doing the rounds, some at places that charge submission fees. So far it hasn't gone well - just 3 acceptances, though I'm in profit having got $20 for a flash. I'm hoping to match my 2017 performance when I had 11 of my 17 poems published and 5 out of 14 stories - better than my lifetime acceptance rates of 1 in 3 for poems and 1 in 6 for prose. In the graph the blue line shows the number of poems written and the pink line shows poems accepted.

I've little left to send off - 1 good story and 2 so-so ones, 3 sub-200 flashes which are ok, and 2 poems that somebody might like - so while I await the rejections I'm trying to write new stuff because to some extent success in magazines is a numbers game: the more you send off, the more acceptances you get. Quantity as well as quality has always been an issue for me - many years I don't manage to write a poem a month. On the other hand, the graph above shows what might happen if I relax quality control: 2013 stands out as a year where I wrote far more than I published - I wrote more than usual but it was rubbish.

Saturday, 8 October 2022

Future Karaoke #1

On June 7th at Anglia Ruskin University Jon Stone organised an event where people picked an animal from the list he provided and wrote a poem inspired by it. It was a hybrid evening - there were Zoom participants and listeners.

The series of events is a chance for ARU students to meet local writers - and maybe one day for the other university to join in too. Readers included Claudine Toutoungi, Anne Berkeley, Kirsty Irving, etc. In future there might be video poems, or a live/video hybrid.

Having now attended 3 poetry events in a fortnight I'm beginning to form some generalisations about how much I'll like a open mic poem based on the age/gender of poet, type of introduction, length of poem etc. I know I have a terribly short attention span when listening to poems, but all the same, some of the pieces sounded long to me, even the ones that the poets described as "short". When a poet approaches the mike saying "Just 2 short poems. Is that ok?" trouble's ahead. Or more ominous still, "this began as a poem but it turned into a short story".

Thursday, 6 October 2022

National Poetry Day

I went to the event at Waterstones, Cambridge. Mina Gorji was the headliner, and "Environment" the subject. Some CB1 mainstays were there too. I thought Lindsay Fursland's set worked best in the situation - punchy and entertaining. The open mike session was varied - not all the pieces were too long, though several of the introductions were. Nice to see a full house.