Saturday 13 December 2014

A submission schedule for early 2015

I shall try to submit to most of these (a mix of prose and poetry)

Sunday 7 December 2014

Nine Arches Press Poetry at Five Leaves Bookshop

I spent a formative year or so in Nottingham long ago. It was there that I once wondered whether I might become a part-time writer. I was on the tipping point, nearly on the slide. Instead I went off and did an M.Sc in something else. Nottingham seems to have a thriving arts scene, helped no doubt by the c.30k students in the city.

On 7th December I went to a Nine Arches Press Poetry reading at the impressive Five Leaves Bookshop. It's down an alley in the heart of town and has shelves of poetry books that are rarely seen in bookshops. It has some poetry magazines too, as well as the usual range of books that one might hope for in an "alternative" bookshop. If you're in Nottingham, go and buy something there. I bought myself some early Xmas presents. I've talked to Matt Merritt before; we often attend the same Midlands or London bookfairs and have 2 publishers in common. I've read his books and those of Tony Williams, who I met for the first time on the night. Those 2 readers were joined by Bobby Parker and Dorothy Lehane, who were new to me. I need to see Dorothy Lehane's work on the page. With Bobby Parker it was the other way round - until I heard Heroin Lullaby spoken I didn't realise how much I liked it.

I met Maria Taylor too (we read each other's blogs), and I think I recognised Andrew Duncan in the audience.

Sunday 30 November 2014

Local Poets

The local "Cambridge News" has recently published 2 features -

  • In late summer I went to a poetry workshop in Cambridge. Just 7 of us and 2 tutors. One of the tutors (Emily Berry) was later announced as a Next Generation Poet, and one of the "pupils", Natalya Anderson, later won the Bridport out of the blue (though she's just completed an MA in creative writing). Clear Recent History is the article about her that appeared in the paper. See the bio and judge's report at the Bridport site.
  • I've known Diana Brodie for years. The 29th Nov edition of the newspaper has nearly a page about her. The headline is - "I write about people who lose their way". My interview with her is Diana Brodie: an interview. She's also been interviewed by Cambridge 105's booknight - listen to the podcast

On 25th Nov I went to a "Cambridge Poets" poetry event at Corpus Christi attended by at least 50 people and introduced by Richard Berengarten (formerly Richard Burns, though I only realised that today!). He pointed out that Cambridge poetry is internationalist and varied. 10 poets read - 1 lecturer, 6 pgrads (2 doing Beckett, 1 doing Olson, 1 doing architecture, 1 doing education, and another doing Assyrian/Neo-Aramaic). There were 2 performers (a winner of SLAMbassadors UK, and a slam champion of Macedonia + neighbouring countries). Another's doing a Writing MA at Royal Holloway. Several had been published, but the only publishers' names I recognised were "Knives, Forks and spoons", "Emma Press", "Magma", "Rialto" and "Poetry Wales".

Yes, there was variety. There were poems about nothing much, and a poem about a college porter who'd died. One poem was for 2 simultaneous voices. Another was some Google suggestions for search target completions. There was also some Oulipo (which I think is more suited to page than stage).

Friday 7 November 2014

I'm not giving up the day job yet

In 2010 my pamphlet appeared. In 2012 my book appeared. 2014 is coming to a close with no new book in sight. After a productive September, I've had a barren October. Our courgettes were flowering on Guy Fawkes day, but I've written next to nothing for weeks, and have had no acceptances. On Making a living from writing books: what works, what doesn't Emma Darwin points out how difficult it is to make money from literary writing. If you don't write the right stuff you won't sell. There's money for writers within education, but that involves compromises too. In "A Poet's Work" Sam Hamill writes that "A typical poet in North America finds it necessary to relocate every year for the first few years after college, and every several years for a couple of decades after that. The poet becomes disconnected, never developing a true sense of place or of community outside the community of the printed page. The typical poet teaches". The UK is getting like that too, with budding writers chasing residencies and short-term contracts from place to place.

Having a real job doesn't interfere with my writing. If anything it helps. Maybe it's as well that all's quiet on the literary front because at this time of the year I'm busy at work. The invitation, a reward for 25 years of non-relocating, came as a surprise - is it really that long? The Web was barely around when I started.

I've been to more poetry events this year than usual (most recently readings by Allison McVety and Ben Wilkinson) but generally I don't frequent the literary circuit. Again, I don't think this harms my writing, though it may damage my chances of publication. There's a world outside literature. This year, because of family events, I've been to places I wouldn't otherwise have visited - Newcastle, Sunderland and Durham, but also the "Up the Creek" comedy club in Greenwich, to see a son performing. He says he doesn't intend to do stand-up as his day job.

If work and family aren't distraction enough from writing then I always have the Italian connection. I've recently rediscovered my wedding certificate. I was married in Italy, so we don't know why it's partly in French. My 2015 resolution will be to read a book a month in Italian. I'm not going to set myself any writing resolutions, I promise.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Submission snapshot

Writers new to submitting their work sometimes begin by sending away a piece at a time. They're surprised when I suggest that they keep many pieces in the post. Here's what I have out at the moment -

  • Poems to magazines - 11
  • Stories to magazines - 2
  • Stories to competitions - 5
  • Flash to magazines - 4
  • Micro-fiction to magazines - 14
  • Poetry book competition - 1

That's 37 pieces sent to 17 places - a mix of ambitious targets and smaller outlets. If 10% of these succeed this time round I'll be happy. For some of these pieces I already know where I'll send them next if they're returned. Some have already been rejected many times, but I like them. Overall, my eventual success rate with poems is 30%. With articles/stories it's 14%.

Thursday 2 October 2014

Recently published pieces

In the last few weeks I've had a few things published online -

Along with recent paper appearances in "Acumen" (poetry aphorisms) and "Under the Radar" (2 poems) these add up to a busy month.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

CB1, September 2014: Mark Waldron and Fay Roberts

The poetry event CB1 hasn't met in the CB1 cybercafe for a while. Yesterday at its new venue, the Gonville Hotel (inches from where a Tour de France leg started this summer), they hosted Mark Waldron and Fay Roberts. Since being booked, Mark Waldron's become a New Generation Poet. I didn't know anything about him. Ben Wilkinson in the Guardian thought that Waldron's 2nd book was a "middling, at times disappointing successor. At best, it continues to match Waldron's gift for novel perspective with intellectual cunning ... but at worst, its poems settle into second-rate image-making; latching on to outlandish similes in the hope that they might lead somewhere new. You have to admire the intention, but in "Iron" and its conceit of household-appliance-as-dog, the shortcomings are readily apparent". Waldron read "Iron" (I think it takes mere comparisons somewhere new) and several other poems that I liked. I don't usually come away impressed from a reading but I did from his. He didn't outstay his welcome and performed his pieces ("Were I to jump", "The Chocolate car", etc) well. I can see why he gets into anthologies. But I can also see why a short live set of his might impress more than another book.

Fay Roberts is active on the local spoken word circuit. I'd not seen her before either. My limited concentration span meant that I had trouble with her long poems (and most of them were long). In the open mic sessions about a dozen poets performed. I was one of them. I think next time I'll try to memorize a piece. Both the headline poets performed mostly without texts, though their recall wasn't perfect.

Monday 15 September 2014

Next Generation poets, 2014

The last Next Generation list came out in 2004. In my review I pointed out that the UK's 2001 population statistics show that 92% describe themselves as White, 4% as Asian (Indian/Pakistani, mostly) and 2% as Black, which matched the list's stats pretty well. I moaned about the Narrow stylistic range, Non-Intellectualism, Form/Word blindness, and Narrow range of imagery in the poets' work. Particularly striking was the lack of contemporary references. Computers, mobile phones, games shows and cheap flights barely figured, and War, Politics or World Affairs weren't alluded to let alone addressed. In 2004 only 1 poet was from Scotland. 1 was originally from Cork and 6 poets had strong Welsh connections. 12 out of the 20 were female. There was a spoken word expert.

Now the next-generation list for 2014 list is out. I made some predictions back in May, amongst them Helen Mort, Luke Kennard, Sam Willetts, Emily Berry, and Rebecca Goss (not because I thought all of them good). If I'd have thought more about who was eligible I'd have predicted Hatfield and Daljit Nagra too. I'm surprised that Ahren Warner wasn't there.

I've read 9 of these poets already, and some of the others are on my radar. The list is Tara Bergin, Emily Berry, Sean Borodale, Adam Foulds, Annie Freud, Alan Gillis, Rebecca Goss, Jen Hadfield, Emma Jones, Luke Kennard, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Hannah Lowe, Kei Miller, Helen Mort, Daljit Nagra, Heather Phillipson, Kate Tempest, Mark Waldron, Sam Willetts, Jane Yeh. They have a web site with videos and PR machinery.

There are 14 women this time, at least 1 Irish poet, fewer Welsh than in 2004, and similar racial background breakdown to the last bunch (this time there's an oriental addition at the expense of an afro-Carribean). As before, there's 1 spoken word expert. A few of these poets have sad stories to tell that will interest the media, but whether their 2nd books will be as interesting remains to be seen. And Jen Hadfield, who's already produced a 2nd book, already seems to be going backwards.

The judges were Ian McMillan, Caroline Bird, Robert Crawford, Clare Pollard and Paul Farley, who certainly know their way around (though a view-point from abroad might have been useful). Clare Pollard said in a Guardian interview that the judges were instructed to focus on books rather than poets, and to find the best 20 debut books of the last 10 years. It's not easy to predict whose poetry will be read in a decade's time. Within the constraints, both late bloomers and hot-housed newbies could have qualified for selection. How does one judge the record of achievement of (say) Katy Evans-Bush (mentioned by Todd Swift) against the output of a young person who even after mentoring and courses still produces a patchy book whose failures might be more predictive than the successes? Todd Swift also mentions Jon Stone, whose inclusion would have injected some different kinds of invention and subject matter into the mix.

Just as a game, suppose you had to come up with such a list without reading/hearing the poetry. You could read their bios, and find out if articles have been written about them. You could take into account the poetry world's under-representation of minorities, the candidates' potential effect on booksales (older women are the main poetry-buyers) and how effectively they'd exploit the opportunities that selection would bring. I think the list you'd produce might not have been much different from the current crop. Having a book out from a big publisher helps, and the poets rather than the poems are what's going to keep the generation in the news.

Other opinions

Sunday 7 September 2014

Free Verse, 2014

I keep meaning to chat to Matt Merritt but circumstances intercede. I heard him perform out in the square in front of the cafe. Later I chatted to Stephen Payne, Jon Stone, my eds, etc.

I went to a discussion involving anthology editors Tom Chivers (Adventures in Form), Mark Ford (Best British Poetry) and Karen McCarthy Woolf (Ten: The New Wave). Their anthologies were constructed in different ways - Chivers' was by invitation, McCarthy Woolf's was the result of mentoring, Ford trawled through all he could find. Chivers was hoping for a weakening of the canon, and felt that the current publishing system didn't capture the variety of the poetry produced. Ford thought that there much randomness in the selecting of poems. Some anthologies are forward-looking, trying to identify or influence trends. Others are more archival, but the tastes of the selector can't/shouldn't be neglected.

If (as seems likely to me) many poets who've not published a book have written poems that are easily better than the worst poems in poets' books, is the current system "fair"? If the system includes magazines, then there's hope for the lesser names provided that the world of magazines is a meritocracy. But in a fragmented, non-hierarchical world where each niche is a self-sustaining system and niche-transcendence isn't considered a worthwhile aim, what hope has the occasional reader of poetry?

I bought more than I meant to - "Cairn" (Richie McCaffery, Nine Arches Press), "sequences and pathogens" (Litmus), "Common Ground" (D.A. Price, HappenStance), "Ways to build a roadblock" (Josh Ekroy, Nine Arches Press), "Incense" (Claire Crowther, Flarestack), "Tree Language" (Marion McCready, Eyewear), "England Underwater" (Christopher James, Templar), "Identity Theft" (Alec Taylor, Acumen), "The Midlands" (Tony Williams, Nine Arches Press)

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Prose Workshop on Tuesday, 2nd. Sep (Cambridge)

Out of ideas? Fed up with soul-searching? Why not take a break and relax at an evening of games, scavenging and recycling. Without realizing it, you might go home with enough material to last you through the winter.

I'm running it. For details see the Cambridge Writers page

Tuesday 19 August 2014

UK literary magazines - an update

Magazines come and go. Here's a UK update -


Some of my main markets have disappeared

  • Weyfarers - After 115 editions, the poetry magazine Weyfarers is closing down. They cite "rising costs and the increasingly diverse forms of publication now available to poets". They published 25 of my poems.
  • Other Poetry - It's dormant (funding issues). They published 11 of my poems.
  • Assent - Apparently dormant. It carried on from Poetry Nottingham. Together the 2 magazines published 22 of my poems.

Newish [e-]paper mags

I'm surprized that so many of the newcomers are paper-based. Often they have high production values

Newish online mags

Some of these are already attracting big names and are seen on Acknowledgements pages in books.

Friday 15 August 2014

Edinburgh, 2014

We stayed at Colinton (Edinburgh), a minute or so from some literary sites. Nearby lived Henry MacKenzie, whose "The Man of Feeling" (which I'd not heard of) was a bestseller in 1771. The 1886 Cassell & Company edition by David Price includes an "Index to Tears" listing the novel's hero's emotional upwellings. Apparently the novel was made fun of in the wake of its fame because of its sentimentality, though it's not without interest. Written after Sterne started being published, it was presented as if it's a reproduction of a partial manuscript, with the first 10 chapters missing and various other games played.

There's a Robert Louis Stevenson tour also. I've not read him either. The photo shows a statue of him as a boy. He was sent to university to do engineering, gave up, did law, but wasn't too committed to that either.

I also visited Glasgow for the first time. I looked around the city centre and went to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Inside the cafe in the photo is "Tell It Slant", which sells poetry books and magazines. The Oxfam bookshop on Byres road was good too.

Friday was my literary day, meeting Helena Nelson at the Edinburgh Book Festival (where I was introduced to James Robertson) then going to The Fruitmarket Gallery in the evening to see part of a show by Simon Barraclough, Isobel Dixon, A.B. Jackson, Rob A. Mackenzie, Andrew Philip, and Chrissy Williams, with Gerry Cambridge and Colin Will amongst the audience.

Thursday 7 August 2014

Poets being rude to readers

When a letter is poorly written (i.e. written without due care and attention, written without concern for the reader) or if a poet fails to rehearse for a reading there's a case for describing the author as negligent or even impolite.

If I read an application form that's messily filled in, I wouldn't be impressed; my time's been wasted. If I think the applicant is trying to bluff me, I grow suspicious; I feel I'm being taken advantage of. When I see difficult poetry, or a rough draft presented at a workshop, I sometimes wonder whether the poet's thinking more about themselves than the hapless reader.

Some standard guidelines for communication concern relevance - don't include material (e.g. line-breaks) that has no purpose, and certainly don't add features that have a negative effect on communication. Equally, don't delete too much - removing a few words to make a poem "denser" means that the reader will take longer to read it (i.e. the poem becomes in some sense longer - less dense - rather than shorter).

So when does "inconsiderate" become "rude"? When the behaviour's intentional? When it's continued despite it being pointed out? Of course, poets aren't mere communicators, and they can't be all things to all people, but if they make their work gratuitously difficult (e.g. by not providing notes, not explaining foreign words, adding skew-whiff line-breaks), if they don't bother spending just a little more time trying to make their work a lot easier without compromising artistic integrity, isn't rudeness sometimes a valid description?

And yet, I've never seen the term used in this context ("elitist" or "socially inept" yes, but not "rude"). Should poets think about their readers? Perhaps difficult poets do, but they don't want to insult the readers' intelligence. Considerate poets of various types exist. On the back cover of Billy Collins' "Ballastic" it says "No poet writing today insists on such open, direct and courteous engagement with the reader". Andrew McMillan in "Eyewear" wrote that "Constant consideration of the reader, of an audience, is the mark of a great poet. In [Emily] Berry, that is exactly what we have". I'm not convinced by the first sentence, and great though Emily Berry might be, her poems don't seem especially reader-centred, but at least the reviewer's addressing the issue. I think poets are well advised to anticipate the reader's reaction when rewriting a poem in order to weigh up whether any loss of reader-friendliness is sufficiently compensated for. There are poets (especially after receiving workshop feedback) who consider line by line how the poem will be received, how the reader's state of mind might change with each phase.

Some readers don't look for the author behind the text. Some poets don't actively consider the reader, concentrating instead perhaps on authenticity, on expressing what they really feel inside. The poet (though much more often the novelist) may wish to be invisible, discouraging a poet-reader relationship. Nevertheless, the poet might still show through. More often with poetry than with prose, there might be an assumed one-to-one connection between author and reader.

Readers may become irritated if they think the poet's Sexist, Racist, Anti-semite, Anti-gay, etc. Readers might become more than just irritated if they belong to the aggrieved set of people. Elitism or aloofness doesn't tend to provoke similar reactions - the poet's behaviour is less personal, less targeted, and could be described as style rather than attitude, and style isn't, as far as I can tell, considered a legitimate justification for becoming angry about a poet/artist.

Perhaps rudeness isn't an applicable emotion in this context; readers should be engaging with the text, not the poet. Or perhaps the presumption is that readers voluntarily enter into this unequal relationship with the writer, and should be prepared to walk away feeling disappointed, humiliated or inadequate. Perhaps it's felt that the editor or publisher rather than the poet is really the culprit. If more poets were criticised as being rude, perhaps they'd write more clearly. Describing them as elitist only encourages them.

Thursday 31 July 2014


On the weekend before we left I was sorting out old postcards in my late parents' house. I found this postcard from Istanbul. I think a relative must have ended up there in a war. By some miracle, our first hotel was just across the road from this scene.

After nightfall people sat and chatted the way they might in Italy. Gaza was the main news topic. Turkish flags were at half mast. Religion in Turkey seemed little more pervasive than in Italian villages a few decades ago, except that more women were dressed conservatively; that said, there were fewer Burkas than in London. Some mosques were little more than a 2 storey house with a minaret coming out of a corner. They were white, silver, painted green or made of terra cotta bricks. Though there was some segregation, much of the time it wasn't evident. In the evenings families were walking around, with many affectionate fathers holding babies or steering pushchairs.

These are the walls that kept the crusaders out. Recently, gipsies were evicted from this area. Looks like they're returning. Someone's using the land for crops.

We visited Gallipoli, saw some trenches. Once we'd crossed into Asia we saw several amphitheatres. This was one of the more impressive - at Ephesus I think. We saw the remaining column of an Ancient wonder of the world - the Temple of Artemis - and the rather confusing site of Troy, whose numbered layers had lettered sublayers.

These "cotton castles" and thermal pools in Pamukkale are beside the extensive Roman remains of Hierapolis which we walked around while the temperature was in the 40s. Russians posed in bikinis.

Back in Istanbul we were in the mood to buy tacky souvenirs, but it was holiday time, the end of Ramadan, and the Grand Bazaar was closed (we'd lost ourselves in it on an earlier trip). Allegedly it's full of Chinese goods anyway. Fortunately there was no shortage of other places open.

We did all the usual touristy things (though I bottled out of going to a Turkish Bath). The merchants were much less pro-active than in Egypt. The food was rather like Crete's though there was no pork. We saw many scrawny cats, not all of them alive.

If I hadn't seen The Basilica Cistern on TV we might not have bothered with it. It's an underground water storage tank with columns making it look like a subterranean cathedral. Later on our 1500km travels we saw silk threads spun, carpets being woven (I hadn't realised that carpets could change colour as they're rotated) and saw pancakes being made in the traditional way down a village track.

The variety contained within Hagia Sophia (features similar to Ravenna's combined with Islam) was mirrored in other aspects of life. Burgerking rubs shoulders with mosques. We went in a minibus with disco lights to a club that sold the usual cocktails. Cheddar cheese was in restaurants, and Vegemite sandwiches were at Gallipoli. The riverside houses we saw could have been beside Lake Como. As we went East I expected scenes from Borat's Kazakhstan. There were a few, but mainly the country seemed south-European. Outside Istanbul and Izmir were hills and hills of tower blocks. 50% of Turkey's 70+ million population is under 30 and they have to live somewhere.

Literature? I try to mention it in each blog post, so here goes. There was a multi-tent bookfair in first square we visited (in the foreground of the old postcard I found). We walked through Istanbul's book market. We saw the Roman library in Ephesus, which once held 12,000 to 15,000 scrolls. We visited Pergamun where they invented parchment. I read "Riptide" issue 10, the latest issue of "The Interpreter's House", "The loneliness of the long distance runner" and "Slaughterhouse 5". I wrote about 100 words. Such a feeble writing urge isn't usually a good sign for me. I suspect I'll use Troy's confused layers as a metaphor eventually.

Monday 14 July 2014

Getting another publication out

People talk about the "difficult second album". It's the same with books. The follow-up to the debut book shows whether the first was a fluke, and whether the writer has any material left after having printed the collected best work of their life so far. I have 2 book[lets] to follow up - one poetry, the other prose - so my situation's doubly tricky. Two reasonable guidelines I've heard are

  • Wait until you have enough material - there's no rush
  • Wait until you've marketed and sold your earlier publications

In my case it's not clear that either guideline's been met. All the same, here are some possible future publications

  • A 2nd poetry pamphlet - Less mainstream than my first. I've already sent to publishers and pamphlet competitions. Got close once or twice.
  • A themed poetry pamphlet - Wordplay. Already sent to pamphlet competitions without success.
  • A poetry book - using a few poems from my first pamphlet along with material from the above pamphlets. Never sent out.
  • A 2nd story book - rejected once. It includes several previously published pieces, plus some prizewinners - about £300 worth of stories. More varied than my first book - in particular there are more micro-fictions.
  • A prose book of pieces less than 1000 words long - never sent out. A dozen or so of the pieces have already been published, earning about £80.

I can pursue the publication of some of these in parallel. However, none of them is marketing gold, and competition from creative writing graduates and poets overseas grows more intense. The book need to be headlined by some more successful pieces. My plan in 2013 was to get some prose competition successes to strengthen the credentials of the 2nd story book, while placing poems in a rather higher league of magazines than I'd previously appeared in. No success. I'm trying the same scheme this year, with more emphasis on short prose. I've had some success, but not enough yet. So I'll wait.

Monday 7 July 2014

Artifice and UK writers

No, truly; for the truest poetry is the most
feigning; and lovers are given to poetry, and what
they swear in poetry may be said as lovers they do feign.

Do you wish then that the gods had made me poetical?

This, from "As You Like It", exploits a pun - "feign" means "fake" and "fain" means "desire". Julian Barnes when he quoted the passage added "Does he mean that feigning is the only way to a higher truth? That all poetry is made of lies? That true poetry comes from a lover’s deepest desires? That love poetry is deceitful, and provides a way to satisfy one’s desires under a pretence of love?".

The popularity of Artifice and Mannerism goes through phases. "Give a man a mask and he will reveal himself" said Oscar Wilde, but in general, readers like their prose to be free of artifice. At book clubs where novels are discussed, the behaviour of the characters ("why did he fall for her?") and the book's main issues ("should she have had that abortion?") tend to dominate the discussion over issues of technique and word choice. When authors like Julian Barnes, Toby Litt, Matthew Francis and Ali Smith (in "Artful") slip into essay mode, use wordplay or exploit Oulipo techniques, the effects may be described as clever, but they're less often considered to be of literary value. Even if they're not described as "showing off" the effects are "distracting". Sincerity and restraint are admired both in displays of emotion and of language.

Not quite as bad as being called "clever" is being described as "a stylist". Again, content is seen as being affected by (or obscured by) the mode of expression, which is considered to be of less literary value than the content (though at least style, unlike form, is unlikely to have a negative value).

I think my prose is vulnerable to both types of criticism - I write Formalist Prose, and passages of mine like the following depend on style and symbolism at least as much as on character

  • My parents’ loft is full of broken pieces of my childhood. There’s a suitcase of Rupert Annuals with sellotaped spines. The annuals included origami instructions — a historic breakthrough for the British Origami Society. When there was a bird in a story, they had instructions to make a bird with flapping wings, as if the bird could escape from the printed page.
  • When mum used to drive me home from swimming practice I sometimes closed my eyes, guessing from the turns and braking where we were. Often, as we turned into our drive, I'd convinced myself we were somewhere else

The norms of poetry are different, though even there some types of artifice are frowned upon - acrostics and foregrounded rhyme are playing with words, but unobtrusive syllabics are ok. In his recent Twenty-First Century Modernism blogpost Gareth Prior writes "A caricature of the current “conventional wisdom” would trace a line of descent from Edward Thomas down through Larkin to the contemporary lyric “I”, bypassing poets like Bunting, MacDiarmid, David Jones and Lynette Roberts. . He goes on to suggest that "Poems are allowed to be experimental in an easy-to-grasp tricksy way that makes us feel smug for “getting” them, but genuine difficulty is seen as suspect and/or elitist", and that the UK "seem to have it worse than the rest of the Anglophone world". He's writing more about difficulty than gaudy artifice, but for readers who want the language to be as clear as possible to reveal the true meaning of the content, anything that draws attention to language isn't welcomed.

Perhaps the English reputation for plain speaking intellectualism is deep-seated, perhaps US writers have more freedom. Helen Vendler wrote that Jorie Graham "is willing to indulge in extreme Mannerism in order to reproduce, in what she believes to be an accurate way, the shimmer of body-mind as it attends to nature".

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Poetry Prize culture

At least 3 articles have appeared this year about the Poetry Prize culture. They're all good reads.

Fiona Moore's Poetry prizes: the elephant on stage blogpost does the stats, looking at the "last ten years of shortlists, from 2004 to 2013, for both the TS Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Best Collection". Follow-ups to that post present stats for some smaller competitions, and mention the Poetry Book Society choices.

Joey Connolly's The Glittering Prizes (The Poetry Review, Summer 2014) considers some explanations of those stats

  • the biggest publishers publish the best books
  • judges have connections with those publishers, and with the poets (who they may have taught)
  • the prizes aren't intended to pick the best poetry but to catch the eye of the public
  • committees go for safe choices

In isolation each of these factors might be natural enough, and compensated for, but in combination their effects accumulate. He suggests that "more transparency would be a start". In the States they've already taken steps in that direction.

Jon Stone's Five Fixes For Contemporary British Poetry Culture #1: Prize Culture suggests that we could "Acknowledge prize culture for what it is and what it does, and make it do its job better". He also calls for more openness.

Sending the collections over to the States for someone over there to judge might reduce some bias. Or perhaps the UK could try what Italy's RAI did, and give literature the "X Factor" treatment -

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Psychology and literature

I think psychology should be part of any creative writing curriculum. I read psychology books to find out more about the processes of reading and comprehension, to help me understand how rhyme works, how readers construct characters, etc. I also read them to find out why people write, what influences the way they write, and what the health consequences are.

Below are links to some psychology articles I've written (I think they're some of my better articles) and responses to some psychology books I've read.



Thursday 19 June 2014

Poetry and ordinary people

The term "ordinary people" has come up in Paxman-inspired poetry discussion lately. I confess that I don't meet many ordinary people. Over 50% of Cambridge people have at least a degree (the 3rd highest percentage in the country), so it's not an ordinary place. The local paper sometimes has a poem on the letters page. Here's part of "Pylons" from the latest issue we have

When the weather is clear, no mist or rain
I can see pylons stomping across the plain
Arms out stretched they stride the land
Or with hands on hips in cornfields stand,


They step over motorways with ease
And straddle roads and lanes where ere they please

I don't know how typical this is of the newspaper's poetry, but I imagine the editors know what goes down well. It's interesting to see how the formal features are dealt with. The rhyme is tight, the rhythm less so - there are 4 beats a line with a variable number of unstressed syllables. There seems little pressure to regularise the rhythm except for the use of "ere" (I presume "e'er" was intended).

The language has rather a "retro" feel - inversions aren't avoided, and compression isn't a priority.

Using pylons in this way as subject matter (rather than writing "Pylon poetry") is tempting - I've done it (though with much less anthropomorphising), and so, I imagine, have many other people. Often the pylons hold skipping ropes. Here they're mostly on the move. The ending's not so different to one of mine in sentiment.

Strung together for ever more until they reach some distant shore

I imagine that ordinary people read little contemporary poetry written by "poets". In a way, poems like "Pythons" take advantage of its readers' ordinariness. For that reason (and others) I'd feel rather awkward writing such poetry; exploitative. I wouldn't be writing for my peers.

And yet, I think I do sometimes write for non-poetry readers. Whether they'd be called ordinary is another matter. I have in mind people who have to read or write prose carefully, people prepared to challenge and question. But they won't know about the aims of some modern movements - Flarf, LangPo, etc - and they won't have much patience re Oulipo, minimalism, or anything that looks too much like the literary prose they usually read. So the poetry needs to allude to familiar material, and the aesthetics need to be familiar. Alternatively (and I've tried this too) it can be explained.

I went with my wife to see Luke Wright. His allusions to events and TV programs in his childhood were beyond her. He, John Cooper Clarke, rap artists, Wendy Cope, Pam Ayres and Roger McGough are amongst those who at least sometimes write poetry that ordinary people will pay attention to, though not the same "ordinary people" in each case. And John Cooper Clarke fans probably won't go for "Pylons".

Wednesday 18 June 2014


I stayed for 24 hours in Newcastle - my first visit to the area. I didn't know whether to treat it as a photography holiday or a writer's retreat. I ended up reading and being a tourist. I found this spiral poem on the pavement close to where we parked my car - outside Newcastle University's library, I think.

I'd planned to photograph night-life, but after an evening meal at a world all-you-can-eat buffet I fell asleep before 10pm. Next day I had a buffet breakfast then dashed to the train station where groups of smartly-dressed people were waiting to catch an early train South - a palace garden party? The races?

I used the Metro and trains to see Sunderland, the Stadium of Light, Durham (where there was a 4-floor Oxfam bookshop with many poetry books and magazines) and the coast. Near Tynemouth there was this abandoned swimming pool.

Later, back in Newcastle I found a "Books for Amnesty" shop, then walked over the Tyne Bridge (roof gardens and kittiwakes beneath me, a note about the Samaritans half way along) to Gateshead (where Defoe spent a while), watched the Millennium bridge rise, went up the Baltic tower, and looked for Morden Tower (which has a literary history). Beside the walls were the backs of Chinatown restaurants and their ventilated smells.

The football stadium and the bridges can be seen from many parts of the city. Also quite a common sight were groups of party-goers (all-male or all-female) in good voice. Bouncers have a full-time job.

I wasn't in the mood for writing, but I can take photos in any mood. They'll come in useful for writing eventually. I finished a poetry magazine ("The Dark Horse") and read most of an Italian novel ("Se chiedi al vento di restare"), returning home just in time for the England vs Italy game.

Monday 16 June 2014

List of my online pieces

I've some short prose (not flash) in Ink, Sweat & Tears today.

I've recently made a list of my online publications - poems, stories, articles and reviews. There are more than I thought - about 50. Some are web originals, some are re-prints from paper publications.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

Yet more line-break experiments

Pound wrote "to break the pentameter, that was the first heave". People objected that without meter there was no poetry, yet poetry survived. The resulting poems didn't have to somehow compensate for the loss of meter. Though meter had sometimes been used to effect, often it wasn't - it was just habit - so leaving it out merely removed the superfluous. Maybe line-breaks are the next to go. People will complain of course, and of course line-breaks will still have their uses, but they've become so much a habit that even their users struggle to explain them. If in doubt, leave them out. Let rhythmic, articulated sentences recover their lost potency, making line-breaks seem rather heavy-handed, more suited to ads and teleprompters.

Try the task below with a poem. For each version, start with a non-line-broken text.

  1. Lay the text out in rectangles, 2 lines per stanza, lines over 8cm long. Isolate the final line if you wish
  2. Lay the text out in rectangles, 5 lines per stanza. lines less than 5cm long. Isolate the final line if you wish
  3. Break it into stanzas as you'd break prose into paragraphs. Then break lines at the clause-break nearest to the 6cm mark.
  4. Look for a place or two where you can add a clever line-break (at the word "break" for example, or "he was good/ for nothing"). Then break the other lines so that the resulting poem's lines are all about 6cm long. Add a stanza break half way through the poem.

Give these versions out. Ask people to put a "1" by a line-break that deserves a point, a "-1" by line-breaks that detract from the poem, and nothing beside line-breaks that do nothing. Try to have some people who read many novels/stories but no poetry amongst your audience. Assess the results. In how many of the versions does the line-break total score come out positive? In particular, ask yourself why the line-breaks with a "-1" beside them need to be there. Then consider removing the line-breaks that have nothing beside them - if they do nothing, why clutter the poem with them? Or do the results suggest that the more line-breaks used the better?

You might try scoring the adverbs and adjectives while you're at it, culling those that don't earn their keep.

There may well be more uniformity of opinion amongst the poetry-reading (aka poetry-writing) audience than amongst the general audience. The poets know that line-breaks can be used to

  • suggest to the reader the overall reading-strategy to adopt
  • disrupt the language
  • create units of breath
  • create units of meaning
  • replace punctuation
  • create a pause (less than a comma)
  • emphasize the final word of the line
  • emphasize the first word of the next line (US poets moreso than UK ones do line-breaks like "the/ death", leaving a minor word at the end of the line)
  • create a shape poem
  • force a premature parse ("he fell/ asleep")
  • set up a pattern of line-length expectation (or clause/line-ending synchronisation) that can be used to surprize the reader
  • etc

In fact, it's rather hard not to be able to find an excuse for any particular line-break. And it's hard not to sound like a boring kill-joy when trying to describe why a line-break isn't good enough. Moreover, some people tend to be defensive about their line-breaks, especially if the poets can't explain why the line-breaks (which begin to be described as "powerful") have to be just so - it's a personal thing, part of their "voice", the last vestige of visual evidence that they're writing poetry rather than prose. One of the outcomes of the above exercise is to gain experience at discrediting line-breaks so one is able to perceive that adding a line-break is taking a risk, that there are disadvantages too. If there aren't, we'd all be writing long, thin poems.

I sometimes use rhyme (and half-rhyme). I usually use line-breaks, and often my stanzas are bricks. Like the rhymes the line-breaks vary in their "strength". Much of the time I use line-breaks because other people do - they're the default, they're what readers expect, and they're easy for readers to ignore (easier than ignoring the lack of line-breaks in "prose poetry").

The book I've got the most from on this subject is Next word, better word by Stephen Dobyns. He points out that for some (generations of) poets, "many of their lines appear flaccid and lack any apparent reason why a line is broken this way rather than that. Their lines often read like prose". However, not all poetry's like that - "Rewrite Gluck's poem with end-stopped lines and it would read as prose, while if the same were done to Lux's poem, it would still read as a poem, though a much weaker one". He points out that readers can find in prose the patterns of sounds and pauses they appreciate in free verse. He spends 3 pages on this first sentence from Henry James' "The Middle Years" - "The April day was soft and bright, and poor Dencombe, happy in the conceit of reasserted strength, stood in the garden of the hotel, comparing, with a deliberation in which, however, there was still something of langour, the attractions of easy strolls".

The stage/page issue arises with line-breaks too. In his book Dobyns write that "Wallace Stevens, when he read his poetry, never audibly broke the line". At the other extreme is the poet I heard who read his poem (shaped like a temple) so that his pauses matched the length of the spaces on the page! As an experiment it would be interesting to see where listeners think a poem's line-breaks are.

Monday 26 May 2014

Poems about bicycles

"Ten poems about bicycles", Jenny Swann (ed), (Candlestick Press, 2009) has poems by Donaghy, Mahon, Helena Nelson et al in a pamphlet sold with an envelope. It's part of a series that has sold well, I believe. They're easy for the seller to deal with, and easy presents to buy and deliver; something a bit different costing not much more than a posh card.

Poets like sitting in trains and waiting at stations, writing while they do so. Trains not infrequently appear in poems - see my post about trains and poetry. Some formalist poets think lines up while walking with a measured gait. Cycling's a mode of transport that appeals to poets, but bicycles haven't received so much poetry coverage. In 1990 I wrote a poem called "Cycling". I recall a rejection slip from "Staple" saying that it contained some lines they liked, and some they didn't like at all. It's never been published - until now

The dynamo's whine comforts you through unlit streets.
If you stop to turn, silence overtakes you. In the darkness,
alone, it's safer to keep going, hard to start again.
Not so with daguerrotypes. Move and you're a ghost.
Move, and your words already lie. A mind that's still
enough to fix upon the page cannot express.
Waiting to turn, it's too easily struck.
Your beam turns with your handlebar as you regain your poise.
Speeding cars shake you as they light your way, leaving you
blindly trusting till your eyes adjust. The patch of future
that your front wheel cannot splash starts flickering
like old cine film. Motion's aim is stillness;
it's difficult to think if you pedal hard enough

This is rather heavy-handedly in the mode of "Machines", Donaghy's poem in this pamphlet. The bicycle featuring in that poem was my first, seen here leaning against our first shed. I inherited it from my uncle when I was 21 or so. I learnt to cycle on it, then used it to pop to France and back on the ferry. It went with me to Bristol, Oxford (where I sprayed it silver), Nottingham and Liverpool before ending up in Cambridge, never worth stealing.

Trying the new baby-seat of a new bicycle. We might still have been carless then. Putting the children in the baby-seat and going for a ride became a reliable way of getting them to sleep. I, like many parents, became skilled at cycling with one hand on the handle-bars and the other behind my back, cupping a child's head. That baby-seat stayed on the bike for a decade or so. I had great trouble getting it off in the end - once a parent always a parent.

My current bicycle (front-top of the double-decker park-space) at Cambridge train station, a hand-me-down from a son who outgrew it. No suspension, never out of top gear, easy to carry.

Our loft now. My first bike is in pieces, upside down - you can see the rusty chain and big gear-wheel. In front of that are 2 red bikes (one barely visible) - birthday presents to our sons that will be useful later.

My son's old bicycle in an Edinburgh tenement block, illuminated by a skylight 3 floors above. I recall in my Bristol bedsit parking the bike in my room. I guess the stair-well's an improvement - photogenically anyway.

On July 9th the Tour de France will be passing the end of my road, so we'll be stuck for hours. I'm not expected to work on that day so I might get some poetry done thanks to cycling.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Next Generation Poets

The Poetry Book Society is looking for 20 poets to be part of their Next Generation promotion. It last happened about 10 years ago (I wrote a review), and there was another 20 years ago.

Submissions are made by publishers who pay £20 to enter a poet who's started publishing in the last 10 years. They pay a further £300 per title if the poet's selected. See the PBS page page for details. That all sounds fine to me - those amounts shouldn't discourage small presses too much. Previous promotions have raised the profile of poetry, so I don't see why it shouldn't work this time too.

There are signs of a new generation emerging - see my Recent UK poetry anthologies: tradition and the individual - so perhaps this promotion is timely. Judging by previous years however, the choices will be rather conservative, barely risking the odd joker in the pack. The M/F and regional ratios will be scrutinized. Niall Campbell can represent Scotland. I expect Ahren Warner to be included. Also Oli Hazzard, Helen Mort, Sam Riviere, Luke Kennard and Toby Martinez de las Rivas. Sam Willetts would add marketing possibilities if he's eligible. Emily Berry and Rebecca Goss are contenders too. And why not Matt Merritt, Marion McCready, Rob MacKenzie, Simon Barraclough, and Judy Brown?

Oops - I'm up to 15 names already. The official list of 20 will be announced on 9 September 2014.

Sunday 18 May 2014

books I plan to read

I carry a list of books/authors around, in case I visit a bookfair or 2nd hand bookshop.

Ashfeldt, Lane - "Saltwater"
Ballard - "Dead Astronomy"
Caplan - "Questions of Possibility"
Cullin - "A Slight Trick of the Mind"
Davis, Carys - stories
DeLillo - "The Angel Esmeralda"
Doerr - "Memory Wall"
Goldschmidt - novel
Hall, Tina - "The physics of imaginary objects"
Iyer - "Wittgenstein Junior"
Johnson, Kij - "At the mouth of the river of bees"
Leslie, Ann - "Ancilliary Justice" (SF)
Levy, Deborah - stories
Logan, Kirsty - "The Rental Heart"
Moore, Alison - stories
Paul, Collette - "Whoever chose love"
Pynchon - "Bleeding eye"
Rose - "Posthumous stories"
Tarrant, Padrika - novel
Tuttle - a short story
Walter - "We Live in Water"
Yorcenar - "Zeno of Bruge / Abyss"

Barlow, Mike - poems
Brant, Clare - "Dark Eggs"
Chandler, Catherine - "Lines of Flight"
Chase, Linda - poems
Corbett, Maryann - poems
Henson, Stuart - poems
Kennard, Luke - "...hotel"
Maier, Jennifer - (US)
McCullough - "Frost Fairs"
Payne, Stephen
Ragan, James (US)
Ryan, Kay - Flamingo, Niagara
Smith, Tracy - Life on Mars
Tapiador, Frank - his Bridport 2002 poem
Wainwright - poems

Attridge - Moving Words
Carey - "what good are the arts"
Forsythe - "elements of style"
Harris - "the end of absence" (internet)
Herbert - "Strong words"
Lightman - "Einstein's dream"
Macdonald, Helen - "H is for Hawk"
Paglia - "Break, Burn ..."

Monday 12 May 2014

More or less writing

On her blog Vanessa Gebbie's announced that "writing is ... going to take a back seat for the next year". Last year my writing took a back seat due to circumstances beyond my control, but this year I think I've written some decent pieces of prose, and when I put together a pamphlet of poems over the weekend it wasn't as bad as I'd feared. Acceptances are arriving too. So far this year I've had an article, 4 poems and 2 Flashes accepted, most recently Inside at The Pygmy Giant.

So there's hope yet. But writing can never be my first priority. The idea of churning out 250 words a day doesn't appeal. If I don't write for ages, I often catch up months later so I don't panic. Larkin claimed to write for an hour a day after work. I rarely manage that even during the holidays except when in the early stages of writing a story - I sometimes work on it 3 times a day, re-printing it each time. Maybe 3 hours work.

Vanessa's been working on a novel. That requires the kind of dedication I can't spare. But there's always poetry. And work, and family, and weeding.

Wednesday 7 May 2014

The Bath House - end of an era

After a decade or so I'm standing down as a Trustee of The Bath House. Built in 1927, it provided public baths until the mid-70s for one of the poorer parts of Cambridge. From 1978 it's been home to several community groups and charities. It has at least 2 connections to poetry -

  • Peter Daniels' mother helped with the conversion and worked in the Friends of the Earth office there
  • Matt Simpson wrote a poem about it - "The Bath House"

Surprisingly, it's not mentioned in 2 novels that feature Mill Road - Saumya Balsari's "The Cambridge Curry Club" and Fiona Bruce's "The Siren".

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Commentaries written by the author

According to William Empson "Poets, on the face of it, have either got to be easier or to write their own notes; readers have either got to take more trouble over reading or cease to regard notes as pretentious and a sign of bad poetry" ("Argufying", 1987). I've some sympathy with this. Though the author might not be best placed to write a study guide, they have a unique viewpoint and should have some worthwhile comments to offer. The best example that I know of (and it's excellent) is Kona MacPhee's The Perfect Blue companion. She writes - "I'm hoping to provide the same kind of informal preambles that I might offer when introducing the poems at a reading" and that "The commentaries aren't aimed at other poets, critics, literary academics or "professional" poetry readers, but rather, they are explicitly intended to provide a handhold, a stepping stone, a small reason-to-trust for readers new to poetry".

I'm surprised that more people haven't written such commentaries. If you know of more, tell me. My attempts are

I've had no feedback about these. They're not often visited; the pages that are read the most are those that web searches on other subjects would most likely stumble upon. At least they serve to archive something of the books' beginnings and launches, and correct misunderstandings that might easily arise. They also helped with the issue of deciding how many notes and footnotes to put in the books.

Later ...

Having made a similar post at Eratosphere, Maryann Corbett et al made the point that I'm conflating different kinds of web-augmentation -

  • Notes - like you'd get in the poetry book
  • Study Guides - see for example Jehanne Dubrow's Red Army Red Study Guide. Some books include study guides nowadays. They might encourage CW tutors or reading groups to choose the book.
  • Commentaries - like Kona MacPhee's, aimed at non-poets
  • Companion Site - a place to store corrections, and links to youtube clips or reviews.

Monday 14 April 2014

Happenstance at the Torriano

At about 3pm on Apr 13th, my DIY/family circumstances clarified so somewhat unexpectedly off I went to the Happenstance extravaganza in London. The excitement began at the station where I had my first chance to use double-decker bicycle-parking.

On the journey I prepared for my 2 minute slot, following the brief that Helena Nelson, the Happenstance editor, had provided. How had publication changed me? I don't feel my self-image has changed much, but other people treat me differently. Of course, I have problems with people who think that my poetry's all true, consoling me regarding all the tragic events I've experienced. No less surprizingly there are people who think the poetry voice of the pamphlet selection is my only poetry voice. I was going to say that the thing I hadn't realised prior to publication was that a Happenstance poet's success depends in part on the success of fellow poets. We're all in it together - a brand. I decided to read In the soul's darkroom, one of the 5 poems I'd reprint if I published a book. In my intro to it I was going to say "I'd normally explain first what a darkroom is, but given the age of the audience maybe I don't need to".

The non-stop train soon arrived at platform 0 of King's Cross. I was early, so I walked along Regent's canal and read about Daubenton's bat before drifting north. In a window I saw this sign for writers and artists. It took me a while to work out what "rapers" meant in the third line ("ranters, rapers, poets and storytellers"). And it ends with "Do not forget: Everyone can be creative!". I wouldn't like to be running those meetings.

The Torriano venue was locked when I arrived, so I found a nearby bench and wrote a piece of short prose à la Lydia Davis. That's a dozen or so in the last few weeks. When I walked back I found Nell in Torriano Avenue. We'd both heard of the venue before, though we'd never visited. I'm glad I got there early because soon people were standing.

Nell's meticulous plan was that 20 or so poets would read in order of publication and she'd interpolate the history of the press. 9 years of history compressed into 90 minutes or so. I thought it would overrun hopelessly - not the first time my predictions had turned out wrong. When, years ago, she'd first mentioned to me the idea of starting a press, I'd not given the project much of a chance (see my article about happenstance). After all, everyone knows that poetry publishing's a mug's game. When D.A. Prince read she said that she'd anticipated problems too when Nell first mentioned to her the idea of starting a press. As Nell said, there were problems, but the show goes on.

Poet after poet (some from North Norfolk or Scotland, one from Spain) took the stage, many of whom I knew by name though not by appearance (for example, I'd never seen Michael Mackmin before). I knew Peter Daniels though (see the photo). Many poets mentioned the quality of Nell's editing (even if there were some "comma-wars") and how skillfully she'd managed to foster camaraderie. It's true - it's almost a USP. Several poets said how much publication had transformed their outlook.

A few minutes before I was due on I changed my mind about what to say and perform. In the end I read Touch, a poem I wouldn't reprint. And then I sold a book! Afterwards I dashed for the train, only to discover it had been delayed. It was a good day.