Monday 31 December 2018

My literary 2018

At the start of 2017 I decided that I'd try to increase quantity of output (easy to do, since I write a poem a month if that, and few stories), being less precious about quality, and I decided to send more things off, not ignoring themed issues and calls for submissions. The year was fairly successful - about 20 acceptances, and more pieces written than usual. People say that the wider the base of the pyramid, the higher the pyramid, and that's what I found. I got into some places I'd not been in before, and wrote several pieces that I was pleased with.

In 2018 I intended to build on this. In addition I decided to start afresh, going to workshops on how to write, how to get published, etc. I also walked around with a notepad. However, it's been one of my worst years for acceptances. Why?

  • Several publications stipulate that people shouldn't submit for a year after being published, so there were places I couldn't send to in 2018.
  • In 2017 I had a backlog of unpublished material. Many of the acceptances were of old work that I'd made more marketable.
  • Though I think I'm writing better, I suspect that actually I'm becoming more niche, less fashionable. An elegant prose style maybe, but few characters to empathise with. Interesting poetry, but disruptive style-switching.
  • I've had several near-acceptances (short-listed, etc) that in other years might have been acceptances.
  • If I'm trying to improve quality by widening the base, I need to widen the base a lot to improve quality a little. I know of people who've widened their base by an order of magnitude. My increase was nothing like that.

What's perhaps most disappointing is that I've a handful of c.2000-word short stories written in the last 5 years whose publication I thought would be just a matter of time. Silly me. So next year -

  • I'll pay for submitting - several magazines (e.g. Ambit) now charge for submissions. I don't mind this - after all, they need to cover submittable costs, and in the olden days submissions weren't free anyway, requiring 2 stamps and 2 envelopes. I've avoided such publications up to now.
  • I'll more brutally cannibalize old stuff
  • I'll try more US paper magazines
  • In the bio that I send mags I'll not say when my books/booklets were published (too long ago).

On the plus side I'm getting more pleasure from others' successes - fellow members of writers groups I go to are appearing in several magazines.

Sunday 23 December 2018

A UK poetry submission schedule for early 2019

I shall try to submit to several of these (mostly UK) competitions and submission windows -

Saturday 15 December 2018

A UK/Eire prose submission schedule for early 2019

As more magazines introduce submission windows, and competitions increase their significance, it's worth planning ahead. I shall try to submit to these (mostly UK) competitions and submission windows -

Wednesday 12 December 2018

Gran Canaria

An all-in deal that includes alcohol is a challenge to one's will power, especially if there aren't many other distractions. I think I coped - alcohol doesn't fuel my style of creativity. I saw my first whale in the wild, and the dunes were sometimes Saharan. We went through the gay nude part of the beach on the way.

I read "Mislaid" by Nell Zink, "Bearings" by Isobel Dixon, "Honeycomb" by M.R. Peacocke (the sunset suits her pamphlet) and "The things I would tell you" by Sabrina Mahfouz (ed) - writing by British Muslim women. I wrote 3 little pieces - about 1200 words all told.

The interior of the island is raw geology with a few little villages in the process of abandonment or touristification. Here's a little community stage that might not have been so different years ago. No Moroccan influence, though the mainland's not that far away.

History and culture weren't easy to find. There's little evidence left that there was an indigenous (Berber) population, and churches are few and far between. But the island's not short of interest - "Secret" is a Swingers' Club by a Spar shop, in a themed block of buildings (Holland, Italy, etc).

We visited Tirgan, Teror, Fataga, Cruz de Tejeda, etc.

Friday 30 November 2018

The state of UK poetry

In a recent Guardian article Sandeep Parmar noted the poetry concerns of some writers -

  • "contemporary poetry is in a rotten state,” according to Rose Tremain in the TLS. “Having binned all the rules, most poets seem to think that rolling out some pastry-coloured prose, adding a sprinkling of white space, then cutting it up into little shapelets will do. I’m fervently hoping for something better soon.”
  • In a recent interview, poet and editor Robin Robertson also railed against current poetry, which for him divides into two extremes: “light verse” or “incomprehensible”

These are time-worn moans. I have some sympathies with them but no more so than decades ago. Here are some extracts from poetry publications I've recently read -

  • "it's not until we quiet again that we clock the car we're in is not in fact the thing we thought was moving" (Sam Buchan-Watts). Not even good prose.
  • "Like others/ you wait/ in queues/ for the drought to end" (Arundhathi Subramaniam). Four line-breaks disguise nothing
  • "And love grows angel in the gloom/ with your calls through resistant stars" (Ishion Hutchinson). Eh?

To those complaints could be added

Poetry's commonly attacked from without for being prose chopped up or for being difficult. Are these criticism from within more worrying? (Tremain may not be a poet, but she's been part of the Literary and Creative Writing scene for years). I think they signal a shift in the nature of the literary world, and of the mainstream.

  • The eco-system - As more Creative Writing students graduate, the number of potential literary readers and writers increases. Thanks to the internet, they no longer form an archipelago. Members of a minority need no longer live in the same geographic community to sustain each other.
    Readers and writers are more in touch with each other. Writers run workshops, attend festivals, and engage via social media.
  • The poetry - The notion of "mainstream" has often been contested. Here are two attempts to describe it
    • "The conventional or mainstream poem today is a univocal, more or less plain-spoken, short narrative often culminating in a sort of epiphany. Such a form must convey an impression of closure and wholeness no matter what it says", Rae Armantrout, "Sagetrieb", 11.3 (1992)
    • "the [mainstream] work appears spoken in a natural voice; there must be a sense of urgency and immediacy to this 'affected naturalness' so as to make it appear that one is reexperiencing the original event; there must be a 'studied artlessness' that gives a sense of spontaneous personal sincerity; and there must be a strong movement toward emphatic closure", Charles Altieri, "Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry", CUP, 1984, p.10
    If by "mainstream" people mean accessible poetry which has literary credibility, then I think the old mainstream has been squeezed. Perhaps once upon a time there was (as viewed from within) a majority style and several minority styles, but now more than ever that "mainstream poetry" is one style amongst many others.

So I can see why writers might feel that poetry has changed, that mainstream poetry is under attack. It would be an exaggeration to claim that there is a new mainstream, but a new shared set of influences may be leading to a loose consensus. For a start, the building blocks of poetry have changed. These books indicate the shift -

  • Close calls with nonsense (Stephen Burt). An unpreachy look at the factors and fashions involved with recent North American poetry.
  • How to write a poem (John Redmond) A book for beginners that provides building blocks more in keeping with contemporary poetry - a Jori Graham poem is successfully discussed

The new mainstream has more styles, and is written by more types of people. I see this as enrichment rather than dilution. It's as likely to involve Oulipo wordplay as Confessionalism (and one person is more likely to write either). It may have one foot in academia, though the other might be on local radio for National Poetry Day. I don't think "The Poetry Review" represents it. Magazines like "Under the Radar" may.

Saturday 24 November 2018

The state of the UK/Eire short story

Suppose you were asked about the state of sport rather than short stories - what would be a reliable indicator? How many gold medals were won in the Olympics? How many people jog? How many people watch football? How many pages of media are devoted to sport?

Judged by these sorts of criteria, stories aren't doing well. When did you last read one? When did you last buy a story book? Can you name any living story writers?

Every so often there are articles about the revival of the short story. They're soon followed by articles about false dawns. Alice Munro's Nobel win didn't turn things round. Nor did Tom Hanks' book.

Why are there so few outlets? I asked a publisher about this and he said that short-stories are like poems - only people who write them read or buy them. His magazine's guidelines say "Our preference is for literary fiction". Ambit Magazine says "We’re not afraid of genre fiction, but it should probably have an interesting relationship to the genre at hand – a straight-ahead detective or horror story probably won’t appear." Maybe it’s only literary short stories that are suffering. When demand for them slackens, so does supply. Why write stories if nobody reads them?

All is not lost. The BBC is trying to generate interest with the £15,000 National Short Story Award and the Young Writers' Award. Hensher in the introduction to his latest anthology suggested that competitions would be ok if the rest of the story eco-system were healthy. A few more story collections are being reviewed - see Fen by Daisy Johnson (Vintage, 2017). More small presses are dipping their toes into story collections. And Flash is a growth sector, though surely one can't really compare a 250-word piece with an Alice Munro story. It's like comparing Twenty20 cricket with test matches.

But is England the best place to be? Dublin has "The Irish Writing Centre" at 19 Parnell Square with a shop and many events. Edinburgh's Scottish Storytelling Centre is along the Golden Mile. England's catching up - the National Writing Centre has recently started in Norwich - see Its NCW Podcast is worth subscribing to.

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Aldeburgh poetry

I've always intended to go to more literature festivals, in particular those that specialise in poetry and Flash. Especially this year I regret not being able to get to the Aldeburgh poetry festival. It's not so far away from where I live, but it seems always to be on a weekend when I have to work.

2018's festival is curated by Poetry School / Paul Stephenson and involves many people I've talked to (albeit briefly), including Helena Nelson, Julia Webb, Chrissy Williams, Fiona Moore, Robert Peake, George Szirtes, Jane Commane and Matthew Stewart.

Also there's a session entitled "A Cambridge Quartet of First Collections" with Rebecca Watts, Adam Crothers, Claudine Toutoungi, and Alex Wong. I've seen some of them perform locally though I've not read their books.

I suspect that much of the valuable interaction at these events happens outside of the standard sessions. Next year my work commitments will be changing, so who knows, I might manage to visit for an extended period and imbibe the atmosphere.

Saturday 29 September 2018

Neglected writers - Hempel and Berlin

I've a list of writers that I want to read. Some of them have been rather neglected by readers at large. Here are two whose books I've recently found -

Amy Hempel

"The Dog of Marriage" (Quercus) contains all her stories up to 2008. 400 pages for £9.99. A bargain. Here's a sample (the narrator's a widow, Nashville's a dog)

Here's a trick I found for how to finally get some sleep. I sleep in my husband's bed. That way the empty bed I look at is my own.
Cold nights I pull his socks on over my hands. I read in his bed. People still write from when Flea had his column. He did a pet Q and A for the newspaper. The new doctor sends along letters for my amusement. Here's one I liked - a man thinks his cat is homosexual.
The letter begins, "My cat Frank (not his real name) ..."
In addition to Flea's socks, I also wear his watch.
It's the way we tell each other.
At bedtime, I think how Nashville slept with Flea. She must have felt to him like a sack of antlers. I read about a marriage breaking up because the man let his Afghan sleep in the marriage bed.
I had my own bed. I slept in it alone, except for those times when we needed - not sex - but sex was how we got there.

It's fast, with jokes and feeling. Names mentioned in the book's introduction came to my mind too - the wit of Lorrie Moore, the concision of Lydia Davis (some of Hempel's pieces are a page long, a few are much shorter). I suppose she's a bit of a writer's writer.

My favourite pieces include "San Francisco", "In the cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried" (her most famous piece), and "Weekend".

Lucia Berlin

"A manual for cleaning women" (Picador, 2016) has 43 stories (about 400 pages) for £9.99. She had a lively start to life (3 failed marriages and 4 sons by the time she was 28) and was an alcoholic for decades. From the age of 10 she had scoliosos, which was often painful. For a while she was an elective mute. Her mother had alcohol problems and may well have killed herself. Her output was intermittent - she did many jobs because she needed the money - but she ended up being a creative writing prof, dying in 2004.

As the introduction to the book notes, her stories don't hang around. The first story begins in a laundromat. In the second paragraph the narrator recalls Mrs Armitage from a previous laundromat she visited - "I was a young mother then and washed diapers on Thursday mornings. She lived above me, in 4-C. One morning at the laundry she gave me a key and I took it. She said that if I didn't see her on Thursdays it meant she was dead and would I please go find her body. That was a terrible thing to ask of someone; also then I had to do my laundry on Thursdays". It's zappy, with the speed of stand-up or Flash. Indeed, there are pieces which are little longer than a page. All I know of her life is from the notes in this book, but that's enough for me to view the pieces as thinly disguised autobiography - overlapping attempts at using the source material of her life.

There aren't many happy stories. In "Carmen" for example Mona is living with Noodles, an addict. She has kids and she's pregnant. She agrees to be a drug-mule, flies off, nearly gets raped, returns with a condom of heroin. Her waters break as Noodles tries the new supplies. She gets herself to hospital, has a baby girl, but the baby dies moments after birth.

"Point of View" , "A manual for cleaning women", "Toda Luna, Todo Año", "So Long", "Wait a minute" and "Homing" are my favourites, though they're not all stories.

Monday 17 September 2018

Poets on form

I've done a write-up of "Ecstatic occasions, expedient forms", David Lehman (ed) (Univ of Michigan, 1996) in which poets explain their forms. A mixed bag of scientific and mystical explanations -

  • "Since it is not my custom to capitalize the initial word of each line, I decided to experiment with this convention"
  • "it's foolish to think a line should break so that the reader might rest or so an end word can shiver and throb in order to call more attention to itself"
  • "I broke the poem into quatrains for the purpose of making a better shape on the page"
  • "an eight-syllable line with no regular meter, no counting of stresses. It is almost free verse broken into an arbitrary length. ... I like this form because it leaves the musical cadence almost entirely free to follow the content. ... yet has some of the surface tension of regularity. "

etc. Some of the poets decided not to mention the form even though it was overt.

Tuesday 21 August 2018

The Flash Fiction supply chain


More Flash is being written than ever before - by poets (realising that they already write some Flash), by story writers (who can't find markets for their usual pieces) and by an increasing number of specialists.


Literary magazines are increasingly willing to print Flash, and the number of specialist magazines is increasing. The market's big enough to support genre outlets like Flashback Fiction. Short story books often include Flash nowadays, and some authors produce books of Flash.


My impression is that both poetry and prose readers are more receptive to Flash nowadays. If a poetry reader says they like Armitage's "Seeing Stars" or a prose reader likes Borges they can hardly turn their noses up at Flash.


What are the limits to growth of this chain? Are there too few respected outlets? Is the market saturated? Firstly it's worth pointing out that many Flash readers are writers, so it's more of a loop than a chain. Limiting the number of writers will limit the number of readers. Also, Flash grew when the web was already mature, so Flash readers are used to the idea of the best work not necessarily being on paper, so the cost of producing paper magazines isn't a constraint.

An experiment

During August, Spelk has printed a piece of Flash daily, at least doubling its output. I don't think quality has been diluted, and judging by the Comments and Likes, the market is far from being saturated. So perhaps the bottleneck is distribution. Maybe there's space for more Flash magazines, even though Everyday Fiction already prints stories daily, and many other magazines already exist.

Friday 10 August 2018

Who do you write for?

When you're pondering over whether to keep a line in a poem, do you ever ask yourself if the editor of "Poetry Review" would like it? Or perhaps you wonder what your poetry workshop colleagues would say? I can imagine people disliking this, describing it as "writing for the market". It sounds grubby, but in the poetry world, "market" doesn't have capitalist implications. Essentially, the market is composed of your peers. Pre-empting their criticism is better than belatedly learning from a history of failure.

The phrase "target audience" also has unsavoury associations. For at least part of the writing process I have a target audience in mind. It comes into play for example when I'm wondering whether to spell out an allusion. This "target audience" is perhaps nothing more than a personification of my inner critic - self-criticism is no bad thing.

Perhaps you just enjoy writing for its own sake. It gives you pleasure, the way that singing in the bath gives pleasure to some people. You might decide that you enjoy performing, so you try reading at an open-mic. You don't go down well. You go to workshops and soon gain the impression that your style is old fashioned. You can't get into magazines. If you were really writing for the fun of it (being "true to yourself") such a reception shouldn't deter you from writing on, but there might have been a lingering hope that you were an undiscovered talent. Of course, if you don't keep up with the work of your peers it's no surprise that your quality assurance isn't like theirs. You don't read other people's stuff in case it affects the uniqueness, purity, and authenticity of your voice. But where did you get your voice from if not from other poets? By reading other poets you can discover your influences - maybe even break free.

Singing in the bath may mean that dishes are left unwashed, but you wash them later. Self-indulgence is only a problem when others are involved. I think people need to be somewhat public spirited at workshops if they're going to get the most from them - interested in others' work and open to the possibility of changing one's own poems.

Tuesday 31 July 2018

Standard stories, changing fashions

I think I'm more a writer of magazine stories than competition ones. I write competent conventional stories, and I write less mainstream, essay-like, no-4th-wall pieces, neither of which would win prizes. Fashions come and go, doing so at different speeds for different story readers and writers. I'm waiting for my styles to come back into fashion. Recently I've had some opportunities to check on current trends.

Keep the reader interested

Two reviews of Mark Haddon's short story book gave me pause -

  • "Mark Haddon recently called them “beige”: the stories he has had enough of and never wants to read again [] You know the stories he means, pieces in the mode of what might be called received realism, set in a generic present day and written in inhibited, risk-averse prose, containing little to no external action, and usually ending – or not – with some minor calibration of the main character’s mindset, or with some oblique, and by implication significant, gesture" - Colin Barrett
  • "Each story displays the range of Haddon’s imaginative powers, complemented by the author’s urge to keep things happening (in itself, a not-altogether-common trait of short fiction)" - Lee Polevoi

For years I've been trying to eliminate garish excesses from my work, trying to write beige stories, stories where not much happens, hoping that readers will thus be incited to look beyond the surface to see where I've carefully buried things. Perhaps I get mixed up between slight and subtle. Tessa Hadley looks rather slight to me, but I'm told that the details undermine the simple explanations, language and plot. I can't see much in VS Prichett or Anita Brookner either.

Start with a Bang

In "Five Reasons I Stopped Reading Your Story" (Gaynor Jones), one of the reasons she gives is that "You used a killer first line". However

  • In a review of 'Subjunctive Moods' Melissa Fu praises "Bewitching first lines" like ‘I used to be a god.’ and ‘It wasn’t till after we burnt her that Leila began to cause trouble’, writing "Who wouldn’t want to keep reading after an opening like that?"
  • I've been to two talks (by Ingrid Jendrzejewski and Rupert Dastur) recently that suggested the use of long, striking titles.

I'm in Gaynor Jones' side, though I'm feeling out-numbered.

Avoid common topics

I traveled to a workshop with a draft to work on during the train trip about a couple breaking up. One of the first pieces of advice at the workshop was to avoid kitchen sink dramas. Oh well. Another suggestion was to avoid dead babies - they crop up too often in stories. I'm ok with that - there's a low body count in my pieces, though as I age the count increases.

Make it look effortless

Mannerist tendencies fluctuate in popularity. I rather like "Centre Pompidou" pieces where the plumbing shows, but it's an acquired taste.

Make it weird

Nicholas Royle's BBSS anthologies have several New Weird pieces, and in his Irish Times article Ashley Stokes suggests that grassroot level writing's "becoming darker, weird, twisted-out-of-shape, dripping with fear of the end and apocalypse"

Mark Haddon's stories can slip into another genre, especially towards the end. I'm wary of Magic Realism, though I've written SF in the past. Maybe I should try writing new blends.

Friday 27 July 2018

Unthology 10 launch

Train cancellations and the weather shortened my stay, but I managed to see the Brick Lane area again before attending the Unthology 10 launch in London on July 26th. The story anthology is available as a paper book or on Kindle - see the web page.

The readings made me realise how many good writers there are fighting for just a few places. I don't feel quite so bad now about the run of rejections I've been having.

Monday 23 July 2018

A UK submission schedule for the rest of 2018

The second half of the year seems to have fewer competition and magazine-window opportunities for me. Here they are -

Wednesday 18 July 2018

More publications

I've a metrical piece in The Orchards, p.7 - At 50

I've a story, "Woman Trouble", in Freedom: Cambridge Writers Short Story Competition 2018 anthology (Kindle and paperback versions)

Wednesday 11 July 2018

Jellyfish Review

How can magazines prosper in the Age of the Web? Jellyfish Review, which has been going for less than 3 years, offers one model. Originally it printed only Flash Fiction (max 1000 words). Now it prints Flash Essays too. It prints 2 illustrated pieces a week, advertised on social media. Cunningly, it retrospectively bundles them into issues - well actually, jellyfissues. If these issues could easily be printed out, readers would have the best of both worlds.

Wigleaf's Top 50 very short fictions of 2018 lists 5 Jellyfish stories!

Sunday 8 July 2018

Cycling in Holland

We went to Hook of Holland, Rotterdam, Gouda, Ultrecht, Amsterdam, the Hague, then back to the ferry. Ulrecht in the rush hour was scary, especially since some of the bike-lanes were used by mopeds too. We did up to 100 km/day, using many bridges and ferries. The most interesting was this one, which we propelled ourselves.

Zanvoort had a British Festival - Highland games, Sherlock Holmes, a mini Eye, and afternoon teas.

This was in the museum park. I bet many people photograph it.

The landscape and lifestyle between the cities had a Hobbity feel to it. There were many moated houses, and more horses than I expected. In Amsterdam we passed a dressage training place.

We travelled cheaply, but stayed in comfortable places like the SS Amsterdam, living off buffet breakfasts. I watched England beat Columbia in Ultrecht, in a hotel where Messi has stayed.

The language puzzled us at times. My German wasn't as useful as I'd hoped. This sign was warning us about a cattle grid.

I read "The Pier Fall" (Mark Haddon), "Nothing to worry about" (Vanessa Gebbie) and "Subjunctive Moods" (CG Menon). No poetry. I am rethinking my prose styles.

Saturday 30 June 2018

Leicester Writes Short Story Festival

On 30th July I attended a day of sessions about getting a short story collection published, with talks by Divya Ghelani (who was tutored for a year by Venessa Gebbie - small world), Rupert Dastur (TSS), Farhana Shaikh, Rebecca Burns, CG Menon, Alison Moore, Mahsuda Snaith and Megan Taylor - all of them good. A good audience too - lots of us are trying to do what so few of us will succeed in. The points I noted were

  • Think about using long, striking titles. It's the second time this summer that I've heard this advice. Such titles still feel gimmicky to me, but I'd better try.
  • Publishers like to take on people with many Facebook friends and Twitter followers because each friend/follower is a potential buyer. I'm going to have trouble there too.
  • People who read lots of submissions have a good idea of what topics to avoid - e.g. "weeping", dead babies, kitchen dramas with couples discussing their failing relationship.
  • Enter competitions. Even long-listing is worth adding to one's record (I don't bother mentioning anything unless I won a prize).

Monday 18 June 2018

A Birmingham visit

I hadn't realised how much Birmingham figures in Lord of the Rings. Tolkein used to play by Sarehole Mill (close to where he used to live), where now there are two metal models of Birmingham towers (Perrott's Folly and Edgbaston Waterworks Tower) that he may have had in mind when writing his book. We went to see the actual towers - part of the Tolkein Trail. It's a good bet that aspects of the mill and the surroundings - Moseley Bog - feature too.

I popped into Waterstones and by chance found my story book there, next to Christopher Logue's poetry book. By some strange reasoning that I now can't recall, I thought it best to leave the book where it was.

Friday 15 June 2018

Launch of Lighthouse 17

I attended the launch of Gateway Press's "Lighthouse" issue 17 in Norwich last night. It was compered by the tireless Julia Webb.

I read the issue on the way home. The theme was science - poetry, flash, short stories and essays. Many interesting pieces. My favourite ones were by Anne Bailey (poems) and Marc John (an SF story, sort of).

Anne Osbourn's article begins by discussing specialism, not only in science. She points out that there are benefits to society with having specialists, but the resulting breakdowns in communication may be dangerous. I agree with this. Scientists and artists/writers (or their representatives) need to transmit their findings, to help the public appreciate the latest Tate exhibition, atonal symphony, global warning, number theory, etc. After all, it's the public who pays them. It's the public who deserve to know why some charlatan performance poet or ivory tower pure mathematician is publicly funded while people are dying through lack of NHS funding. Outreach and Open Days are good things.

Half way through, the article turns to seeking common factors between the arts and sciences. It's here that I begin to have trouble. She writes that they both "involve a combination of creativity and technical competence", and that they "depend on the ability to define a problem ... and extract the essence of the problem in hand". Even were this so, it also applies to knitting a cardigan, preparing a cake, etc. It's how humans do things.

Then she writes that "The ultimate objective for both is to pinpoint the truth, and to communicate this clearly and succinctly to others for appraisal". I don't think it is. Her conclusion is that "We all look at things in different ways. Together we can draw on our strengths and differences to build up a patchwork of understanding, a better approximation of the truth". I try not to use the word "truth" in such circumstances - it means too many different things. Truth in logic is so far from the Truth in religion that it's misleading to use the same word. Besides, it seems to me that poets have backed away from claiming to be Seers, to be seeking great Truths.

I have abiding doubts about Valerie Laws but at least her article "Poetry and Science, Beauty and Truth" ends with "if there is more than one kind of truth or beauty, that is all the more cause for celebration".

See -


Friday 8 June 2018

Recent publications

I've a poem in London Grip - Dark Matter - deliberately packed with similes, and today a story in Spelk - The Park - which rather depends on readers seeing the implicit comparisons: tortoise and old man; decision-making and blind wanderers.

Wednesday 23 May 2018


The transparency of language - its ability let us see the world through it - is a joyous make-believe, a spell that shouldn't be broken carelessly. It's often thought that this transparency is at odds with art -

  • "If reality impacted directly on our senses and our consciousness, if we could have direct communication between the material world and ourselves, art would be unnecessary", Bergson
  • "If what has happened in the one person were communicated directly to the other, all art would collapse, all the effects of art would disappear", Valéry
  • "The non-mimetic character of language is thus, in a certain way, the opportunity and the condition for poetry to exist. Poetry exists only to 'renumerate' in other words, to repair and compensate for the 'defect of languages'", Gerard Genette

Language nowadays has two foundation layers - that of sounds and that of typography. Both these layers can show through when we experience a poem. I suspect a text will seem more poetic if they do - i.e. if the text has many sonic effects or uses visual effects.

The effects of the underlying layers can synchronize with the meaning or be largely independent of it - "The remarkable result of Valéry's treatment of sound and sense as consciously separated variables is that it allows the semantic components of the poem to take on structural value and the structural values of the poem to take part in a semantic or signifying action in turn" (C. Crow). Interaction can happen in many ways -

  • Sound and meaning interacting - Perhaps key words are emphasised by being rhymed, but the effects may be more pervasive and subtle. Sound can begin to take over in Dada Sound Poetry, or even in some Dylan Thomas poems. Poets like Bunting thought that the sounds could convey an important meaning.
  • Typography and meaning interacting - In Abcedereans and Anagrams words are decomposed into letters rather than sounds. Line-breaks can have various effects, and with Concrete poetry appearance can be a dominating factor.

The sculptor, Brancusi, believed that his art might "coax an image from within the material rather than forcing an image onto the materials". Similarly, poetry might help bring to light something implicit within language, especially if conventional "meaning" doesn't get in the way.

Gérard Genette used the term 'metalepsis' for when boundaries between layers are crossed by characters or other textual elements. I think the term "Entanglement" is useful to describe when, more generally, meaning and the underlying layers can't easily be separated.

I think I try to write entangled poetry - it's as likely to reach down into language as it is to allude to nature or states of mind. Here are some examples -

A poet's double life
He went gray; too
guilty to stray
he longed to graze
on beauty without
needing to pray;

At the end of this poem there's a note saying that it should be re-read omitting the rs. The next poem begins with puns and anagrams involving "surreal" and "freud dada"

Surrealism is Symbolism without footnotes,
nonsensequitur offspring of Freud and Dada,
a dead fraud, fad, a dud era. It's a real serial
artist called Sir Real - Cyril for short -

The next poem has more anagrams.

Sound sense
Lines; truths by committee,
tones buried in words
like a sword in stone.
Stock quotations tumble.
Culture’s very core is shaken; recovery is slow
until a rag man risks an anagram.

In poetry books and magazines nowadays poems using wordplay aren't so uncommon, though I suspect they divide opinion. Language (its sound and spelling) is rarely a transparent medium in Paul Stephenson's "Selfie with Waterlillies". Sometimes it seeps into the foreground as in

I want to know swathe,
want to bathe in swathe,
I'd scythe swathes of grasses,
no, better still, swathes of heather.
Lithe, I'd scythe longest swathes loose

My Truth to Materials and Heather McHugh article has more information.

Tuesday 15 May 2018

Literary journals and longevity

With the rising cost of paper and stamps, what's the point of producing a paper journal? It's unsustainable. Why not publish online? If the production quality of HTML isn't sufficient, you can offer PDF, which is what Antiphon does. And the best online magazines are taken just as seriously as paper ones.

Paper magazines are indeed being converted into online publications, but even those are disappearing - some with a bang, some with a whimper. Web sites and submission guidelines are abandoned without as much as a goodbye. The trouble is that the hidden cost of running a literary magazine - the time required dealing with submissions - increases when online submission is offered. Magazines have dealt with the extra load in several ways -

Limiting submissions

  • Retaining a paper submissions process - South for example does this
  • Online submission windows - US magazines often close during summer. An increasing number of UK magazines open for a month per issue.

Increasing person-power

  • Internships - The Forge advertised one that wasn't unpaid.
  • Teams - Realising the fatigue of sole-editorship, recently launched magazines are team efforts. The Forge has a rotating editorship - see their About The Forge page.

Getting money

  • Applying for grants - not easy nowadays unless there are special reasons
  • Having the support of an institution - This is much less common in the UK than in the USA. Magazines like Flash are based in Universities, run by staff. Sometimes a magazine is running by students, associated with a Creative Writing course, providing editing experience
  • Competitions - Reflex runs a quarterly Flash competition, entries doubling as submissions for being printed on their site
  • Submission fees - Magazines like Iota charge for submission via submittable


  • High production values - Strix (paper-based, with care) has recently appeared.
  • International contemporary writing - Wasafiri (paper-based) has lasted a while. Grant-aided.

Tuesday 8 May 2018

Long write-ups

There are some books that I not only like but also find useful for my writing. I can write a lot about them, though the result's not really a review. It's more for my own benefit - a study-aid. Here are 2 examples of what I mean -

Sometimes themes emerge. With "In the Glasshouse" by Helen Tookey (poems) I homed in on Symbols and Fragmentation. With "Used to be" by Elizabeth Baines (short stories) I wrote both long themed notes and a short review.

The longer write-ups aren't usually entertaining reading, though the original author can find them interesting enough to use - see the sites of

Monday 7 May 2018

Glimpses of home

This tapestry shows our house - it's the one on the right. Everything looks tidier than it really is - no telephone line for a start.

My bedside. Radio, diary, reading material, writing material, etc. The green folder contains my submissions record. In the distance there's an Italian/ English dictionary and a competition form.

From our bedroom window in this photo you can see the table-tennis table twice. As usual, there's lots of greenery. From this distance you can't see the grapes around the summer house. I'm trying to write outside more.

One day we'll tidy up the loft - the board-games, the children's books, old bank-statements, demi-johns, Scalextrics, etc. Here are bikes and a sledge.

A rarely-seen view of the kitchen from the spare room which makes the place look huge. I spy cereal packets top-left and Woks on the right, with a big blue cold-box straight ahead.

The spare room at the back serves many functions. Here, behind the ironing board, you can see the left-overs of my attempt to create a video of a programming talk.

Thursday 3 May 2018

Flash collections

More Flash collections are appearing nowadays. "You're Not Supposed to Cry" by Gary Duncan (Vagabond Voices, 2017) is the most mainstream one I've read lately. "Some of us glow more than others" by Tania Hershman (Unthank books, 2017) is a mix of Flash and short stories. Her earlier "My Mother Was An Upright Piano" (Tangent, 2012) was more purely Flash.

More problematic in some ways is "Seeing stars" by Simon Armitage (Faber and Faber, 2010). It was sold as poetry, but the pieces aren't even prose poetry. A few are Flash. They're all short prose. Suppose someone tried to invoke the Trade Descriptions Act? "Waiting for the nightingale" by Miles Burrows (Carcanet, 2017) is mostly short prose too, though unlike "Seeing stars" it uses line-breaks.

Other flash books I'm looking out for include "What We Know So Far" by Robert Scotellaro and "PEEK" by Paul Beckman.

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Flash Resources

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Some Offers

Friday 6 April 2018

Magma 70 'Europe' Launch

If the time they spent on my contribution is anything to go by, the editors (Paul Stephenson and Susannah Hart) have had a very busy few months. The event was in Europe House with well over 100 attendees on Apr 6th. I managed to squeeze in at the back, briefly meeting Fiona Moore, DA Prince, Eleanor Livingstone, etc.

Sunday 25 March 2018

Where can UK people send literary stories?

In 2017, almost 50% more short story collections were sold than in 2016. But collections by Tom Hanks and Jojo Moyes accounted for nearly a quarter of sales, so things haven't changed much. Before you try to get a book published you need to publish some stories elsewhere. But where? If you live in the UK it's worth trying to break into the local markets first - more chances for networking and readings.

It's not trivial choosing where to send stories. Magazines have preferences regarding genres and length. Some have submission windows. Some (e.g. Granta) require payment. Some don't accept electronic submissions or simultaneous submissions. This post is more to do with deciding which places are worth sending to - you don't want to end up regretting where your story ends up.

Read the acknowledgements in books

When you read a recently-published book, especially by one of your peers or an author whose work you like, read the acknowledgements. Here are some examples -

  • "You're Not Supposed to Cry" by Gary Duncan (Vagabond Voices, 2017) - "Flash" (Chester), "The Pygmy Giant", "Spelk", etc.
  • "Three moments of an explosion" by China Mieville (Picador, 2015) - "Granta", "Conjunctions", "The White Review", etc.
  • "Best British Short Stories 2017" by Nicholas Royle (ed) (Salt, 2017) - "Bare Fiction Magazine", "Structo", "Prole", BBC Radio 4
  • "Some of us glow more than others" by Tania Hershman (Unthank books, 2017) - "Ambit", "Bare Fiction", "Nature", "New Scientist", "Stinging Fly", BBC Radio 3, etc.

Read magazines

There are many magazines. If you like one, send them a story. The online ones can be of high quality even if they don't have the longevity of, say, London Magazine, which dates back to 1732. One place to compare magazines is The review review site.

Read the bios in magazines to see what kind of people the magazine publishes. Are any names familiar? Have they published books and won prizes? What other magazines have they appeared in? Have they had Pushcart nominations (for the US anthology)?

Eire, the USA, Canada, etc have many good magazines. And there are outposts like the Barcelona Review.

Read lists of recommendations

There are several lists that attempt to be exhaustive - e.g.

What you really need is something more selective. E.g.

Shortstops offers information and updates in various forms - Twitter, by mail, etc.


At least with competitions you'll know when your story can be sent elsewhere: magazines can hold onto your work for a year or so. Many competitions exist. Some don't have sufficient reputation to be worth winning (though they might be worthy in other ways, raising money for charity). I wouldn't enter any competition where the first prize is less than 100 times the entry fee, or there's only one prize, or it's a one-off. I prefer competitions where the short-listed stories appear in an anthology. See

Sunday 18 March 2018

Some poetry aphorisms

  • Poetry tries to restore the damage done to thoughts by putting them into words. Failing that, it exposes the wounds.
  • Artifice deforms language, but language has memory - you can feel it wanting to spring back.
  • Poetry is what falls through the sieve. Sometimes it's what you want to throw away.
  • If writers are the fish who can see the water, those who drown are the poets.
  • Writing a poem's like opening curtains; first you see more but, as night falls, others can see you. By then it's too late.
  • What gravity does for sculpture, sound does for poetry.

Tuesday 6 March 2018

Cambridge Writers

Cambridge Writers has been going for a long time. I expected it to fizzle out with the growth of the Web, but it has almost a record number of members - over 80 - with subgroups for travel writing, novels, etc. I attend the poetry and short prose meetings. Members of the poetry group have pieces in current/forthcoming issues of Stand, The Dark Horse, High Window, The Compass, and Magma, so our workshop evenings might be quite daunting for newbies, though we try to be welcoming, giving away spare magazines at the start of evenings. Members have had pamphlets published by HappenStance and MsLexia. I suspect more book/pamphlet success is in the offing.

The prose evenings are probably less scary - after all, everybody's got a few interesting tales to tell. There's more Flash than there used to be and consequently the number of acceptances has risen.

Friday 16 February 2018

Quality versus Quantity

Some poets don't produce much. In 1988 Faber published Ian Hamilton's "Fifty Poems". This included just about all he'd previously had published, and six new poems. In the preface he wrote: "Fifty poems in twenty-five years: not much to show for half a lifetime, you might think". Amongst novelists, Harper Lee produced little.

In the "Bridport Prize anthology 2017" one poet's bio mentions a single success - being commended in the Ware poetry competition. For the author of the Flash winner the anthology appearance was their first published work. However brilliant their Bridport pieces, these writers aren't going to break through unless they have worthwhile portfolios. For small-press writers I think quantity matters - it helps keep your name in circulation. The difference between a relatively well-known writer and an unknown one is not necessarily in the quality of their best pieces of work (an unknown's best piece may be superb) but in the quantity of good work produced.

Producing more will mean that your worst pieces will be worse than before, but can trying to write more lead to your best pieces suffering too? Perhaps. The easiest way to increase output is by lowering standards, by being less self-critical. If this policy is adopted uniformly, a writer's best work will suffer.

But there are grounds for believing that a writer's best work will be improved. In "Art & Fear", authors David Bales and Ted Orland describe a ceramics class in which half of the students were given an A for producing fifty pounds of pots, whereas the others were judged on quality, needing to turn in one—albeit perfect—piece. The best works came from the group being graded on quantity - "It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay."

I've often seen this experiment quoted. I'm unsure how generally true it is. Pots can't be re-edited - poems can. Photographers used to be encouraged to take many snaps, but now re-touching solves many problems. That said, just as you need the photos before you can use Photoshop, so you need first drafts before you can re-write, as Robert Lee Brewer points out. It's easier to improve a piece than start one from scratch.

So perhaps having more raw material helps. How can one write more? NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) and NaNo (National Novel Writing Month) are initiatives to help improve the amount produced by writers. Books like "52: Write a Poem a Week. Start Now. Keep Going" by Jo Bell can help too.

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Blurbs and reviews to tempt you?

On the strength of these blurbs/reviews, would you look forward to reading the books? I imagine some people would. Certainly I have moments when the 2nd of these would tempt me.

  • potentialities of memory and sensation are nuanced, subtle, and limned in relationship to suffering, betrayal, and loss. Fluidities of image and rhythm create an individual and musical voice to carry the reflections and echoes the poet shivers across the mirroring surfaces and abysses of her ghostly, visceral, and unflinching poems.
    (from a back cover)
  • These are poems created while parents are dying and the poet herself is undergoing cancer treatment against the backdrop of ecological crisis and several American wars.
    (from NY Times)
  • the three fine volumes published since 2009 ... raise [Clive] James to the level of quite possibly the best established poet of this admittedly rather weak period. Alice Oswald aside, James is more or less unique among contemporary established poets in consistently writing on major themes
    (Fred Beake, Acumen 87)

Wednesday 10 January 2018

A UK poetry submission schedule for early 2018

I shall try to submit to several of these (mostly UK) competitions and submission windows -

Friday 5 January 2018

About Jason Guriel's "What Happens When Authors Are Afraid to Stand Alone" article

In What Happens When Authors Are Afraid to Stand Alone Jason Guriel points out the risks of networking - "Writing as an individual pursuit has been replaced by “community”—and literature is the worse for it". Here are some quotes -

  • Apparently Thom Gunn had a “strong dislike” for “literary gatherings.” ... Christopher Middleton was “incapable of schmoozing, and his career suffered accordingly.”
  • In recent years, thoughtful poet-critics like Stewart Cole have made an eloquent case for the distinction between community and scene, and the desirability of the former over the latter.
  • while no one is truly isolated, writers have become more entangled than ever. Workshops, readings, book launches, conferences, artists’ colonies, and other glorified mixers increasingly press literary types upon one another. Creative writing instructors urge their charges to get out there and network. Social media ensures we’re always connected.
  • Literary controversies are now less about aesthetic feuds and more about group outrage.
  • literary community can have a deadly impact. The most obvious fatality: your critical faculty.
  • The American poet Kay Ryan, one of a few one-offs still around, has written eloquently about the need for writers—especially younger ones—to develop a carapace against what she calls “camaraderie.” For Ryan, this means avoiding the delivery systems by which literary community, like a virus, transmits itself: workshops and conferences. It means shrugging off the endless obligations that other writers will foist upon you. It means siloing yourself in silence.

Wednesday 3 January 2018

A UK/Eire prose submission schedule for early 2018

As more magazines introduce submission windows, and competitions increase their significance, it's worth planning ahead. I shall try to submit to these (mostly UK) competitions and submission windows -