Thursday 31 December 2020

A UK poetry submission schedule for Jan-Jun 2021

There's more uncertainty than usual about poetry magazines and pamphlet competitions. "Envoi" has gone and some other magazines are taking a breather. I'll update this list as I find out more.

Monday 28 December 2020

A UK/Eire prose submission schedule for Jan-Jun 2021

As more magazines introduce submission windows, and competitions increase their significance, it's worth planning ahead. Details are more hazy this year - I'm unsure whether those below are correct - I'll update when I can. Some magazines are taking a break. Anyway, I shall try to submit to these (mostly UK) competitions and submission windows -

Friday 18 December 2020

Poetry in 2020

  • More of the magazines that I've subscribed to have disappeared, and I've not renewed subscriptions to some others (e.g Rialto, Stand) because I understand far too few of their poems - I think they've changed more than I have.
  • My successes have been limited in number though I'm glad I got in The High Window and Fenland Journal
  • I've written 6 poems this year. I wish their scarcity meant they were good.
  • I didn't enter any poetry competitions except for the Magma pamphlet competition.
  • I've given up thinking I can ever get in Poetry Review, PN Review, Poetry London, etc.
  • I've read quite a few poetry books. As usual I didn't choose just the books I thought I'd like. I understood very little of "Wade in the water" (Tracey K Smith) and "The Prince of Wails" (Stephen Knight). I thought "Fleche" (Mary Jean Chan) was far longer than it needed to be - it would have been better as a single-topic pamphlet. I liked Happenstance pamphlets by Edwards and Buckley.
  • From my (very limited) viewpoint, I feel that the poetry community is expanding in terms of styles and ethnic origins, even if the statistics don't yet show it. There's more fusion and vitality.
  • I didn't replace my attempts at physical networking by virtual networking. I miss the small-press book fairs.

Sunday 13 December 2020

Prose in 2020

  • This was the year of my blitz on story competitions. A complete failure. Few successes in magazines either.
  • I've written more prose than usual. Nothing show-stopping. I like a 3000 word piece and a 250 word piece that I've written. Neither have been accepted yet.
  • Because of covid I've been listening to audio books for the first time - a life-style change. I was unsure whether I could maintain attention intensely enough. I can handle "The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle" (Stuart Turton) without having to make too many notes, so I reckon I'm going to be ok. I listened to several Booker long-listed novels that I wouldn't normally have read, and liked them more than I expected.
  • I attended the Zoom launch of Postbox, issue 4 - the only virtual launch I've attended.
  • I worked my way through my reading list of books old and new - "Asymmetry", "Regeneration", "The Prime of Miss Brodie" etc. My favourite books were the Bath Short Story Award anthologies.
  • I noticed that the Edge Hill University Short Story Prize (worth £10,000 - the only UK based award to recognise excellence in a single authored short story collection) had a longlist of 12 authors, all female. I conclude that I must try harder.
  • I ended the year by reading Zadie Smith's "Grand Union", a story collection which should give hope to budding short story writers. She famously got her first book contract while a Cambridge student, and still is a highly regarded writer. The pieces are in several styles (SF, essay, etc), some rather derivative - Cusk, Le Guin, etc. I guess it's good that she's experimenting. 5 were in New Yorker, 2 in Paris Review and 1 from Granta. The rest are unpublished. To me, Parents' Morning Epiphany is a dud - not even good of its type. Some of the others look dodgy too. Reviewers, even her fans, have doubts -
    • "At least eight of the 19 stories in Grand Union aren’t very good."
    • "an uneven grab bag of picked-up pieces and experiments — some of which, from an unknown or less-celebrated writer, might have stayed in a drawer"
    • "you’d think that this collection would be a banger of a book, but for me, unfortunately, it felt more like a wet squib – and needless to say I was hugely disappointed."

Saturday 28 November 2020

Postbox (issue 4)

My "Matters of Life and Death" story recently appeared in Postbox (issue 4). Unusually for a story of mine, it hops back and forth in time. It begins with the narrator recalling holidays visiting his aunt with his parents, and how he met an artist. "Foreigners/strangers" and "death" are introduced as themes.

It was part of my routine to be down by the shore when the fishing boats returned. When I saw a fish flapping on the deck I was transfixed by the thought of seeing something die. Years later I used the image to describe a foreign couple in the throes of sex.

After a boom-and-bust career and mental health issues he turned to writing and art. Art and Life became correlates, an art book's title corresponding to the story's.

I don't think art's an escape from life, however abstract or shocking it might be. In the art book I'm reading at the moment, "Masters of Line and Depth", Cezanne says that "a picture should give us ... an abyss in which the eye is lost". His perspective wasn't a simple pyramid of pencil lines leading to a vanishing point. We are seduced by his paint, not his lumpy women. But I also believe that art, however primitive, can enrich life. Even if we are so overwhelmed by sensations that our sense of self is diminished, paintings fail unless we return enriched to the real world. Cezanne says that we should "rise again from them with colours, be steeped in the light of them". I try, though some days are harder than others.

Much later he and his foreign wife return for his aunt's funeral. After years of trying, his wife's pregnant. In the final paragraph his attitude to time remains unresolved -

I believe that life can rise from death given time. I believe that art can preserve what genes forget. When the past's a mirror, the future repeats its patterns, though I needed a son before realising this. My wife says that I think too much, that I should lose myself in the here and now. When our son's old enough we'll return, making sandcastles together.

It's a tidy story, the Art=Life theme ornamented by details. It's not the only anecdotal, family piece in the issue. Quite a few fathers die. "The Theatre of the Psychotic" is very different though. I like "The Museum of John and Mary Masters" most.

Friday 6 November 2020

Story competitions - an experiment

This January I won £100 for a story. Rather than become a tax exile I thought I'd re-invest the windfall by entering more story competitions.

In the past I've won a few hundred pounds, but I don't enter many nowadays because my chances of winning are too small. However I've noticed that on acknowledgement pages, authors mention short-listings, so I decided to treat being short-listed as a worthwhile outcome. Some competitions print short-listed stories in an anthology, which is better still. Having read a Bristol anthology, I knew that the best stories were excellent, but I felt I had a chance to creep in among the lesser works. I hoped to be in at least one short-list.

I only entered competitions that I felt were worth winning (perennial competitions that other writers have heard of). I know that some competitions raise money for worthy causes but I didn't enter a competition where the 1st prize was less than 100 times the entry fee - I wasn't going to pay £5 for the chance of winning £100. I was also hesitant about entering the "V.S. Pritchett Short Story Prize" - £1000 first prize for a £7.50 fee, but no other prizes, and 3 judges get paid.

I had several stories ready to send off. I tweaked them especially for competition purposes, and tried to choose pieces appropriate to the particular competition/judge. I think that I improved some of the stories significantly under competitive pressure. I sent the best pieces to the biggest competitions, and the worst to the smallest (though maybe I should have sent the best to the smallest, to give me a better chance of at least winning something).

Here's a list of the competitions I paid to enter, and how I fared -

  • Exeter £8 - Long and Short lists published. No success.
  • Bath £8 - Long and Short lists published. 1000+ entries, 20 in the anthology. No success.
  • Bristol £9 - 2,705 entries. Long-list of 40. No success.
  • Bridport story £12 - No success
  • Bridport Flash £9 - No success
  • Brick Lane Bookshop £10 - Long long-list of 50. No success.
  • Yeovil £7 - No success.
  • Wells £6 - 376 entries. Shortlist of 25. No success.

I'm disappointed to get no mentions. Two of the pieces have already been accepted elsewhere so the polishing hasn't been in vain. All the same, I don't think I'll be repeating the experiment next year.

Friday 16 October 2020

Introduction for poetry group members

I help run the poetry workshop group of Cambridge Writers. Anybody can attend provided they're a Cambridge Writers member. People can try us free for one session. All sorts of people come along - in Cambridge, people come and go. Occasionally someone turns up with poems and the ambition to publish a book having published nothing before. More often we get serious amateurs. First I mail them this info sheet -

We’re part of Cambridge Writers ( so if you join us you can attend the group’s other meetings too. The poetry group meets monthly. 3-10 people attend. Some of us are unpublished and are happy that way, but I think it’s true to say the tone is “serious amateur” rather than academic or therapeutic. The format is pretty standard. At the start we exchange market information and sometime swap magazines. Then we take turns to read our non-published work. The poet hands the work out. After having given people time to read it, the poet reads it. Then all but the poet discuss it. Finally the poet joins in.

Cambridge has some other poetry groups and several poetry places of interest

  • The Poetry Society organizes some Stanza groups nearby
  • The Central Public Library has events and a good selection of poetry books. Before covid they had poetry meetings on the 3rd Thursday of the month.
  • The University Library has many poetry magazines (it costs outsiders £10 for 6 months of access)
  • Students have their own groups. The University sometimes has a writer-in-residence
  • “CB1 Poetry” holds readings, some open-mike - see their website
  • College literary societies organise readings - see Varsity
  • Cambridge holds 2 literary festivals each year - see (
  • The Poetry School run a few events in Cambridge and many in London-see The Writers’ Centre at Norwich is good too (
  • Heffers and Waterstones bookshops have some current poetry magazines. The Amnesty International bookshop on Mill Road and the Oxfam shops in Burleigh St and Sidney St have some older ones, plus pamphlets.
  • See for a list of Spoken Word events (poetry slams, storytelling, word- shops, open mics etc), many at “The Fountain” on Regent Street.
  • There are some poetry evening-classes.

If your aim is to publish a poetry book, beware. If you’ve not had dozens of poems in magazines, you’ll have to pay for it and there are many people only too happy to take your money. The University Library and poetry library on the South Bank has hundreds of magazines you can browse through. Some of them have been scanned in online (see

Below are the sort of things I sometimes say when new people attend.

Suppose we weren't a poetry group. Suppose we were a music group instead. We might get Jungle House DJs, players of authentic instruments, people from oil-drum groups, buskers, opera singers and brass band fans. They might not have much in common. They might not even consider each other's work music.

Poetry has as much variety, and poets may have as little in common. What makes poetry more confusing is that it's easy for poets to mix and sample styles. You might not even notice when they're doing the verbal equivalent of combining synths, ukeleles and oboes. So don't worry if you can make no sense of someone else's work. When I'm in that situation I often find that by the end of the discussion I know a lot more than I did at the start. So hang on in there!

It works both ways - you may need to develop a thick skin when people comment on your work. Don't be surprised if when you pour your heart into a poem, people comment mostly about the spelling and line-breaks. Just try to extract whatever you find useful from the comments and ignore the rest. If you're writing for a particular audience (kids say) it might be worth telling the group first, but we don't want a poet to preface their poem with an explanation of what the poem's REALLY about. The poem itself should do that, and our format is designed accordingly.

The group discussion may come as a culture shock. A lot of what goes on in the poetry world never reaches the mass media. The members of the group might not be able to claim many Eng-Lit degrees, and they have many blind-spots, but several of them have lurked for years in the hidden underworld of magazines, networks, and small presses where poetry changes fast. We may mention magazines and poets you've never heard of. Don't worry - hardly anyone else has heard of them either.

So whether you're a head-banger or a serialist you should come away with something of use. And don't forget that other poetry groups exist - ask if you want to know more!

Wednesday 30 September 2020

Matthew Stewart and Paul Stephenson

I've not found the poetry world to be the bitchy place that it's sometimes made out to be. It's unfair to pick out just 2 generous poets - for a start poetry journal editors merit a mention - but I've chatted to both of these poets, they've both been published by HappenStance, and they've both had some recent successes.

Matthew Stewart

His blog is Rogue Strands where he often posts supportive reviews. He's published

Recently he's had 2 poems in the Spectator!

In Writing Simply he writes "Helena Nelson suggests that one reason why poets are afraid to write plainly is because they're worried the result wouldn't be a poem at all. I'd agree with her, but argue that writing simply also carries huge risks. There are no accoutrements, no verbal fireworks, no make-up to hide any flaws, and the consequence is that any mistakes become glaring". This is an abiding theme of his. Here are some other quotes -

  • Countless poets, editors and critics appear to equate ’simple’ with ’easy’ or ’facile’. However, the reverse is true, as many readers recognise.
  • Richie McCaffery speaks to us directly, with passion, with sincerity. He moves us in ways that should theoretically lie beyond the capacity of such accessible words.
  • Michael Brown’s poetry might initially seem straightforward. Certain critics might dismiss it as facile or simplistic. In reality, the opposite is true
  • Rory Waterman stands out among the poets of his generation in the U.K. not only for his awareness of form and his technical control but for how lightly he wears them. His use of language is so natural that the reader is carried along by the cadences of his lines without any need for extraneous resource or recourse.
  • There’s a poetry that doesn’t tackle difficult subjects head-on, preferring instead to seek out angles that might lend new perspectives. It’s not cowardly for doing so. In fact, its risk-taking is greater, as it doesn’t pulse out obvious messages. Instead, it prefers a far more subtle, more powerful and longer-lasting approach to its awkward themes (of Charlotte Gann)

He's also interested in metrics - syllabics, etc.

He spends much of his time in Spain where he works.

Paul Stephenson

On his blog are interviews with poets and much else besides. Interviews like the one with Richie McCaffery (yes, the same poet who caught Matthew Stewart's attention) are extensive and well researched. As well as helping fellow poets by writing about them on his blog he co-curated Poetry in Aldeburgh in 2018 and in 2019.

He's published

  • Those people - a winner in the 2014/2015 Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet competition judged by US poet Billy Collins.
  • The Days that Followed Paris - by HappenStance in October 2016 and included as one of the Poetry School’s Books of the Year 2016
  • Selfie with Waterlilies - which won the Paper Swans Press pamphlet competition and appeared in September 2017.

He's recently had poems in PN Review. He writes a wide range of poetry, from identity politics to Oulipo. One never knows what he'll come up with next.

Like Matthew Stewart his interest in Europe isn't token - he's worked in Paris, etc. Perhaps this outsider perspective is what helps fuel both of these poets, letting them observe English language and society from a distance. Both poets deserve the success that's coming their way.

Thursday 17 September 2020


In Poetry Salzburg Review (No.35), James Russell entitles his reviews section "Aboutness", using the term (which is used in philosophy, apparently) to help classify some types of difficulty -

  • Late modernist - there's no "poet standing 'behind' the text talking about something" - e.g. Prynne's "The Oval Window"
  • "standard-issue difficulty" - "there certainly is a poet writing from a viewpoint behind the refractory surface, a poet who is deliberately withholding the poem's aboutness. (In the worst cases, the poem only attains poetic status because of this withholding)"
  • poetry with aboutness, which however uses a "particular form of diction and lexical range [] withholding closure" - Ashbery, Stevens
  • poetry where the seeming aboutness and the content don't obviously match. High-modernist? - e.g. Geoffrey Hill, Pound

Readers who think they can see what a poem's "about" (who can paraphrase) have a foundation to help appreciate the poem. It probably means that the poem has some cohesion, which also aids conventional understanding. It may only be a prop to be discarded after use, but there's no harm offering a helping hand to readers, is there?

If a collection has aboutness (e.g. a theme or two), the themes can provide the narrative for a review, which helps both poet and reviewer. It makes commercial sense for the back cover to say what the collection is "about" even if a minority of the poems match the description. If the poet's autobiography matches the theme, so much the better.

But "aboutness" isn't univerally popular. I've heard poets say of a poem of theirs that "If I knew what it's about I wouldn't have written it." I rather like trying to discover what a poem is "about", which is perhaps why I'm not so keen on single-theme autobiographical collections. I like trying to work out how a poem achieves its effect, which leads to psychology and market awareness more than soul-baring. Even if a poem doesn't work for me, I'm interested in how might it work for others.

At the end of his review, Russell wonders wonders whether poems can be about themselves. He mentions theories which claim that mental states have to be about something, if only in a "I think therefore I am" way. Poems can perhaps create a sensation of being poetry without paraphrase getting in the way.

I don't write many poems that are clearly about something. Perhaps I should write more of them. I can write them more quickly than my usual ones, and I'd like to increase my output.

Friday 4 September 2020

What I did during lockdown

Just to make sure I didn't go in, they padlocked my workplace but that didn't stop me working full time, more or less. I've been cycling around to avoid cabin fever. I started taking photos of village signs, ending up doing trips just to take photos. Some of the signs have stories behind them, with Saturn V rockets, radio telescopes and DNA featuring among the more common windmills, ponds, Romans and Vikings.

I've seen parts of the area I should have visited long ago. Girton used to supply goose quills for Cambridge University. This sculpture goes rather beyond celebrating that though. It's lit at night.

We've driven places too. This area is 2m below sea level, allegedly. Before the fen was drained, these green posts were mostly underground.

And at last I've visited Aldeburgh. I found the shell sculpture that I've seen many photos of. I've still not attended the poetry festival. My writing hasn't suffered as a consequence of lockdown though the mood has narrowed. When I've had little bursts of creativity I've been free to take immediate advantage of them. I've radically rewritten some old pieces, merging them when I can. I thought I'd get more acceptances than I've actually received. I expected to do more reading. I'm still working through my book list. I've belatedly discovered audio books.

The allotment has of course been receiving more care than usual. Our sweetcorn's been ravaged by badgers in recent years so this time we built some protection.

Tuesday 18 August 2020

Paying for literary success

An enhanced version of this article is on my articles blog at Paying for literary success

Friday 14 August 2020

Writing and evaluation

Some people write for the sheer joy of it. Putting things into words helps other writers understand themselves better, maybe. Or they find it therapeutic. They don't need the ego-trip of publication. After all, look at Emily Dickinson - only 10 poems published in her lifetime.

Other people tot up their publication successes, happy to change what they write to fit the required themes and guidelines. To them, writing for yourself is like talking to yourself - a dead-end.

Such a variety of motive makes it difficult to offer suggestions at workshops. A comment that one type of writer may find useful (e.g. "your main character's too naive") might be heartbreaking for another.

Offering assessments is even more fraught. Evaluation can put a damper on creativity but it's what some people want. It's not uncommon for new members to come along with a piece that's been in their drawer for years wanting to know whether it's any good. Alas, however much the group prefaces their opinions with provisos, it's easy for the author to take opinions too seriously. Problems arise especially when the harsh realities of the publishing world begin to impinge on our little meetings. When considering the chances of getting accepted by Picador, say, our assessment-meters need drastic recalibration. A story that goes down well in the sheltered surroundings of a writers group may be rejected in seconds by a busy publisher’s intern.

People are often advised when commenting on a piece to say two positive things for each negative one. That approach has risks too - a newcomer with a poor piece might think that it’s mostly ok (apparently better than pieces read by experienced writers at the very same meeting, which can get criticised a lot!). Consequently they might waste much time and money. There are people out there all too ready to take hundreds of pounds from budding authors.

Also if a writer knows that their piece is bad but the group says it's good, the group may lose credibility in the eyes of the writer.

Adding numbers doesn't help. An Italian paper I read had these evaluation categories. Places like Goodreads and Amazon have a simpler system, though the details are worth checking - stars don't always mean the same thing.

*did not like ithate it
**it was okdon't like it
***liked itit's ok
****really liked itlike it
*****it was amazinglove it

The overall rating's not a simple average - age of vote etc matters

It's worth asking authors what they want out of the meeting, though replies needn't be completely believed. One option is to offer information rather than overt opinion - suggesting some relevant books to read, etc.

Thursday 6 August 2020

2 manifestos

Two books I recently bought in a charity shop feature manifestos.

"The vision of culture and other poems" by Mark Howard Davis (Minerva Press, 1998) begins with a 10-page preface. Here are some extracts -

  • In an age where individualism is haloed with spotlights, where relativism runs amok, there are many clever and sophisticated people but few with real, intense, aesthetic depth of wisdom
  • Everything is based on good contacts in the right places at the right time, rather than on serious evaluative criticism
  • when I read any of the current poetry on offer (whether written by supposed first league or lesser poets) I am aware of a lack of structure, lack of form, content and style
  • Once you slide into cultural relativism and it is deemed fine for everyone to pursue 'their own thing', all the critical apparatus and accumulated wisdom of tested craft and innovation become as nothing
  • Relativism has enslaved our culture and nowhere more so do we experience this bitter truth than in the meagre, half-cooked microwave poetry of postmodernism
  • today's postmodern conformism is due to the absense of any sort of intelligible poetics
  • The world of the true poet is, in the last result, a unique world of personal joy and suffering. The sheer intensity of such inwardness seals this world off from any mere facile cleverness
  • Poetry must regain its basis of meaningful patterning

"All hail the new puritans" by Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thome (eds) (Fourth Estate, 2000) begins with a single page manifesto, explained in a 10-page introduction. Here are some extracts -

  • In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing ... Flashbacks are a cheap trick ... I have no problem with dual narratives generally, especially in longer fiction. But for this project we wanted to force the included writers into putting everything into a single narrative strand.
  • All our texts are dated and set in the present day. All products, places, artists and objects named are real ... Current historical fiction seems to be written with the sole purpose of denying life
  • We are moralists, so all texts feature a recognisable ethical reality

A write-up of the initiative and aftermath is on workshyfop

Wednesday 29 July 2020

Publishing poems

I'm going to be in "The High Window", which I'm pleased about.

Sad news is that Envoi's closing down after over 60 years of issues. I've had over a dozen poems in it. Fortunately magazines are still coming into being. See for example

For more ideas about where to send pieces it's worth looking at

Saturday 18 July 2020

Publishing short stories

I've had a story accepted for the next Postbox magazine. They received 82 submissions, from which they chose 15. I'm surprised so few authors sent stories. The press which produces the magazine published a book which has just appeared on the Edge Hill Prize longlist of the year's best short story books (along with books by Picador, Faber, etc). All 12 longlisted authors are female.

Magazines come and go. Here are some magazines I've sent stories to in the last year or so, and got replies. There's a UK bias. A few are prose only but most print poetry too, so space is at a premium. Some are paper only. They all accept longer stories - I've a different list for Flash. Have a look at the sites if you can before sending off, to see the types of authors and stories they deal with. Buy the printed magazines - they deserve your support. I think they're all respectable (even if they're all not major). Many accept simultaneous submissions. Many have submission windows.

Sunday 12 July 2020


We spent a few days at St. Ives, visiting Land's End, Penzance, The Eden Project, St Michael's Mount and Tintagel. The street names in St. Ives were dual language - a tourism ploy maybe, though I know more people are learning Cornish nowadays. Cornwall flags were flying.

The visual arts seemed popular in the region, with galleries, art schools and the occasional sketcher. Alas, the Tate and the Barbara Hepworth museums were closed.

Driving was a hassle. Sometimes there were helpful signs. One road advertised itself as a 25% slope, though other unsigned roads seemed steeper.

I read an anthology of short stories (Updike, Achebe, etc), and a book about why people read fiction (theory of mind, etc).

Monday 6 July 2020

Diversity statistics

In a recent report The State of Poetry and Poetry Criticism in the UK and Ireland 2011-2018 there's an analysis of how well women and BAME writers (BAME=Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) have got on in magazines. 26 magazines were studied. Over the period, the percentage of poems written by women and Non-binary people rose from 39% to 48%. In contrast the percentage written by BAME poets has stayed at about 8% (the census results suggest that about 13% of the UK are BAME).

I have some sympathy with the editors. Perhaps the low-BAME magazines get few submissions from BAMEs despite their best efforts. Perhaps they publish a high percentage of some other oppressed minority group - the old for example, or Rhymesters. Sometimes only a change of [sub]editorship will convince submitters that a magazine is genuinely open.

Poets will send poems to outlets that they think gives them the best chance. Sonneteers will send sonnets to magazines that publish sonnets, not realising that other magazines might love to publish more sonnets if only they were sent more. Ditto perhaps for poems written by BAME poets - poems of particular types/origins will tend to cluster.

Articles and reviews were studied too. The magazines have more control over this - most pieces are commissioned. White males dominate. It's tempting to stick to contributors who've not disappointed in the past - newer magazines have an easier time getting a mix of contributors. On the face of it, some magazines aren't doing well - the report states that "The London Review of Books has publised (sic) 70 articles by 33 different poetry critics. All 33 were white. Those 70 articles reviewed 86 different books. All 86 were by white poets. Of those 83% are male."

Tuesday 30 June 2020

A submission schedule for the rest of 2020

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

Wednesday 10 June 2020


I like Spelk. It's been going since September 2014. It prints 3 Flashes (max 500 words) a week. It allows comments and "likes". I suspect the stories are read by quite a few people.

Amongst the contributors are Angela Readman, Carrie Etter, Gary Duncan, Ingrid Jendrzejewski, Meg Pokrass, Michael Loveday, Paul Beckman, Robert Scotellaro, and Sandra Arnold. It has 3 pieces in Wigleaf's list of 50 best flashes this year.

I suggest you dip in and have a look around. There are links to all the stories on the front page. The Nominations page picks out some highlights.

Tuesday 2 June 2020

Prose/Poetry - ten comments

  1. Most of the time I don't classify texts - I just read and enjoy them.
  2. If I buy a novel and it turns out to be haiku, I'd ask for my money back. If I enter a poetry competition and the winning entry looks like a Daily Mirror sports report I'd be grumpy.
  3. Judging by many book lovers I know, the poetry/prose divide matters. Even experienced prose readers/writers often can't abide poetry. In books with mixed poetry and prose (John Updike wrote one) half the book would be waste of money for them.
  4. Conventionally, if people have to classify a text as prose or poetry, they look at the vocabulary, sound effects, shape on the page, discontinuities, length etc. Clearly there are grey areas, and the classification shifts over the centuries, but for many texts the classification is clear enough.
  5. People often classify so that they know how to interpret the text. Poetic features lend themselves to a poetry mode of reading - tolerance of ambiguity, awareness of linguistic effects etc.
  6. When an author asserts that a text is "Poetry", the reader's likely to start reading it in a "poetry-reading" mode. If they discover that reading it that way is inappropriate, they might shift their approach, wondering what the author's game is. If they're a poetry judge, they might play safe and reject the piece categorically.
  7. In the last decade or so, there's been an increasing amount of outlets for short texts, bridging the gap between prose and poetry. 20 years ago, a short anecdotal piece with a moral twist at the end had to be presented as a free-form poem to get published. Now we have Flash, etc. In the past anything with a form (e.g. abcedarian, shopping list) or a "Found" piece could only be published as a poem. That's no longer true.
  8. Poetry magazines are more open to poetry-without-linebreaks than they used to be. And it seems to be a rule for debut collections that they should contain at least one piece without line-breaks.
  9. Book classifications are looser now. Novels like Max Porter's "Grief is the thing with Feathers" has many poetic aspects (indeed, I'd say it was more poetic than Rankine's "Citizen", that won poetry prizes). Saunders' novel "Lincoln in the Bardo" has passages of multiple, unattributed voices.
  10. Consequently nowadays writers have more freedom, and readers need to be more agile. With freedom come responsibility. For example, I think there's less excuse for producing texts that look like "prose with line-breaks". And readers are less likely to give poetic license to a work which though presented as poetry, seems to be like prose - they're likely to switch to a prose mode of interpretation. Experimental poetry may be fairly mainstream literary prose.

Monday 25 May 2020

Nine Arches Press

With issue 25 of "Under the radar" just out, and another book launched (one of 11 for 2020), Nine Arches Press continues going from strength to strength. Jane Commane's at the helm, but one gets the feeling that many people contribute to the success of the venture. I'm not trying to be comprehensive below, just trying to give a flavour of the habitat that NAP has engendered, so apologies in advance to anybody I've omitted.

  • Magazine - "Under the Radar" is edited by Jane, Maria Taylor, Matt Merritt, and occasional guest editors. Reviewing is taken seriously - 15 pages of 87 in issue 25. Short fiction hangs on in there - Tania Hershman etc.
  • Books - Some are promoted as being rather issues-based: chasing the Zeitgeist? But Rishi Dastidar's work is avant-garde. In fact, the work spans the poetry spectrum - one of many spectra that NAP spans. There are books by professors and by the "2019 Young People's Laureate for London". Publication by NAP helps the authors, though it's reciprocal - the author's other successes enhance the brand. TS.Eliot-shortlisted Jacqueline Saphra recently appeared on Radio 3's "The Verb" program. And of course, Jo Bell's been on TV.
  • Mentoring - Jane mentors in several capacities. I've found their creative writing books (most recently "The Craft") useful as self-mentoring aids.
  • Events - Venue-based events are on hold. There's an online Book group series - see Readings with Q&As (I watched Julia Webb's recent one, which went well)
  • Videos - See the poetry films
  • Social Media - See Facebook and Twitter

The press illustrates (and might even lead) many current trends in the poetry word - inclusion, breaking boundaries, Stage/Page integration, Collaboration, etc. My only gripe is that they use "unflinching" in their advertising.

Sunday 17 May 2020

Mixed opinions

Many years ago I.A. Richards wrote "Practical Criticism" (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1929) in which he analysed the comments of a group of students who blind-read poetry. P.Hobsbaum in "Theory of Criticism" also covered this issue. He suggested that a good poem can support many interpretations (indeed, benefits from them) whereas a bad poem can't.

In a local poetry group I'm involved with, we've been anonymously exchanging poems. I like the variety of types of comment that such an exercise produces.

Orbis Magazine prints many reader comments about the poems in its previous issue. More interesting is when (as in our exercise) the entries are anonymous and there's more than one opinion. Disagreements are inevitable and instructive.

  • Years ago, Stand ran a poetry competition with two judges who disagreed with each other so much that in the end there were two sets of prizewinners.
  • The North Magazine has a section where 2 poets comment on an anonymous piece by a published poet. They can strongly disagree too. Sharon Black, in The North No.57, wrote of some stanzas "To be honest they leave me cold ... I'm not moved, I'm not touched, it's telling me nothing that I couldn't get from switching on an old episode of East Enders”.

Famous writers also disagree about each other -

  • "I am reading Proust for the first time. Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective", Evelyn Waugh
  • "[Tennyson] had the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet; he was also undoubtedly the stupidest", W.H. Auden
  • "You know I can't stand Shakespeare's plays, but yours are even worse", Tolstoy (to Chekhov)

One wonders what really goes on behind the scenes when there’s a committee of judges. My guess is that judges are carefully chosen, and they’re aware that if they cause trouble they won’t be asked to judge again.

See my Mixed reviews article for more.

Tuesday 12 May 2020

Whose line-breaks are they anyway?

  • Dawn Gorman in a review (The Interpreter's House 66, p.89) wrote that "you notice the spaces - blank pages, many short poems, short lines, four clear sections - there is a sense of breathing here, an opportunity to take stock".
  • Katy Evans-Bush in "Forgive the Language" writes of Sharon Olds' poems that "Putting the stress on the first word of the line below, [the line-break] creates a sense of urgency as well as hesitancy, and disorientates the reader, who then grabs for the emotional content as for a lifeline"

This common, submissive attitude to white space puzzles me rather. When I read a difficult text I stop when I feel like it, even if there are no spaces. If there are blank pages in an easy text I skip quickly over them. Spaces don't make me think. They make me suspicious. I adapt to quirks like Olds' after a few lines, as I would a strange font, American spelling, etc. Later, looking back, I wonder what their purpose was.

It's all too easy to insert line-breaks that create tension by breaking the form or the grammatical unit. If prose writers (or advertisement writers) used the same methods it would seem crass. Ditto for provoking premature parsing (e.g. "I'm dying/ to meet you."). Another problem is that once free-versers employ meaningful line-breaks they feel impelled to use meaningless ones too, driven as much by the love of rectangles as by any thought of tension. If you try to get the sense of every line-break, you're in for a tough time.

Tension in prose can easily be missed if you read it faster than you read poetry. I once ran a "Slow Reading" workshop on a Graham Greene story. After each paragraph we discussed what questions were raised, what mysteries were solved. It begins with "She found me in the evening under trees that grew outside the village. I had never cared for her and would have hidden myself if I'd seen her coming. She was to blame, I'm certain, for her son's vices. If they were vices". What genre of story is this? Where and when is it set? How old are the characters? Ask 3 questions that you think will later be answered.

Some readers don't ask themselves such questions as they go along, missing out on tension/release. I think poetry readers more often do, provoked perhaps by line-breaks.

Form creates the most obviously breakable expectations. The subtlety of Greene's tensions is that not only might readers miss them, but the tensions might be relieved in the next paragraph, the final paragraph, or never.

Friday 1 May 2020

Visibility in the literary scene

Writers as famous as Tartt can go years without producing a book and still be part of the scene - they're talked about in their absence. Other writers aren't so lucky. One might think that the situation's easier for poets than for story writers - they can place single poems in magazines, ticking over - but there aren't that many opportunities available in good magazines, and lead times can be many months. Meanwhile, new graduates from Creative Writing courses flood the market. Consequently there's a temptation to manage one's image. If you stand still you'll get left behind.

In The Poet Tasters Ben Etherington wrote about the Australian scene, pointing out that "a lingering sense of hobbyism can afflict the vocation. Just about anyone who has decided that poetry is their thing, and who has enough private means and persistence, can be confident of edging their way into a scene like Australia’s. Even long-established poets can be nagged by the feeling that the aesthetic communities from which they gain recognition only reflect back the effort they put in; miss a few readings, take a break from publishing, leave an editorial post and you and your work might disappear."

I can think of a few poets for whom that nagging feeling was confirmed by what happened after their death.

In a world where "who you know" matters, you don't want your prospective publishers to express surprise that you're still around. Even if you manage to get a book published, it's hard to get reviewed and make a splash if you don't already have a following.

Blogs or review writing might help in this respect if you're too busy to teach or judge. Also useful are appearances at launches, festivals and readings even if you're not performing. It's worth trying to maintain a local reputation even if the national scene is beyond your reach.

Monday 20 April 2020

Working from home

About 25 years ago, with paternal leave looming, I set myself up to work from home, remotely logging in using a modem that shared the line with the phone. If the phone was used while I was connected, I got logged out.

That was pre-Web. Now many more facilities are available without having to use command lines and Terminal windows. A browser's all you need. Video links have added a new dimension - I've used whatsapp, MS Teams and Zoom in the last week alone. Now that files and whiteboards can be shared, online seminars are easier.

But really, I've only dabbled with home-working up to now. I'm beginning to experience the problems that people who work full-time from home complain about - finding a place to work, separating work from family life, isolation, etc. I still can't bring myself to use Facebook and Twitter for small talk, though I wouldn't rule it out.

The writing groups I'm involved with can't meet physically. We tried to organise a Zoom session but there weren't enough takers so we're exchanging files by e-mail. As coordinator I'm trying to collate the comments to the anonymised texts, which is interesting. Ten poets are bound to disagree on a piece. However, several of them might decide that the same lines require comment.

Friday 10 April 2020

The movie of the book

These movies of poems in "Moving Parts" and elsewhere hark back to 2005 when I first owned a digital camera. File sizes and speeds were still worth worrying about then, and I used only free software, so the results don't compare at all well with many more recent YouTube offerings. The audio is especially bad, so I suggest you buy the booklet

For comparison, see Tony William's far classier "Video-poem of The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street"

Or Matthew Stewart's - Tasting Notes or Nine Arches Press on Youtube.

Thursday 2 April 2020

Time for some ego-boosting

I've had a wave of rejections. Time to remind myself that there's hope yet.

Literary firsts

First competition win

First time I was offered a book contract

First entry in British Library catalogue

My first book launch

First time I wrote a blurb

First time I saw a book of mine in a bookshop

Review extracts

  • "A very satisfying collection"
  • "A fine intelligent collection"
  • "remarkable for their freight of experience, assured grasp of line, and a poetic sensibility as confident as it is unusual"
  • "unmistakeable authority of experience"
  • "precision and tactile immediacy"
  • "a wonderful ear"
  • "an intense and rewarding read"
  • "he writes exceptionally well about children"
  • "What’s most winning, for me, is his really human touch"
  • "The strength of the personae in the pamphlet is the thing that attracts attention"
  • "The language is deceptively plain but is deftly spiced with originality"
  • "skilled metre is matched by a deep understanding of the measured world"

Friday 27 March 2020

Frustrations of the writer


  • You're in the mood to write, and have the time, but you have nothing to write about. You read through a list of prompts without success.
  • You're bursting with ideas, but have no pen, pencil, paper, computer, phone
  • You're bursting with ideas, but you're at the wheel driving the family around the M25


  • You had a good draft, but each addition makes it worse. Somewhere along the line you've lost the scent. You know that eventually you'll have to start all over again
  • The original excitement has gone. You have to complete the piece mechanically


  • A piece of your rubbish is accepted on the same day that a piece you're proud of is rejected.
  • Someone asks what actually happens after the end of one of your stories
  • Just after you've sent a story off, submissions for a themed issue that would have suited your piece perfectly are requested
  • An editor writes "This is a great read -- it's extremely entertaining and very witty" and rejects you. An editor writes "I've read the poems many times now, with the greatest interest" and rejects you. An editor writes "in its own right it is very good work" and rejects you. An editor writes "I enjoyed reading it. It was interesting and engaging" and rejects you.

Friday 20 March 2020

Promises to keep

In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads William Wordsworth wrote

I will not take upon me to determine the exact import of the promise which, by the act of writing in verse, an Author in the present day makes to his reader: but it will undoubtedly appear to many persons that I have not fulfilled the terms of an engagement ... they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title.

When people describe their texts as poetry nowadays, what promise do they make? The traditional idea is that if a text foregrounds language more than usual, it's considered poetry. If it contains a poetic idea (Deep Image) or tries to be beautiful or moving, it's poetry. If it's short, and the culture doesn't support mini-prose, it's poetry.

"Pardoning the turkey", a poem in a Rattle issue, is by Caroline Barnes. It begins thus -

Like a priest about to bestow
a blessing, the President raised

his hand over the blue and crimson
head of the snow-white turkey,

flashed his winning smile at the cameras,
and said: By the power vested in me,

It has the layout of a poem, though the line-length is determined by a ruler more than syllable-count. The language isn't heightened, and if there's a Deep Image, it's a long time in coming. Had it been presented as prose, I wouldn't have suggested improving it by breaking it into little lines. So why was it sent to a poetry magazine and formatted as poetry?

Categorising a text as poetry is to suggest that it might have hidden depths. It's a suggestion that there might be more to the text than meets the eye, that the reader should spend a while re-reading it. Line-breaks are a way to indicate that the author wants the reader to process the text as poetry. But suppose the reader treats all short literary texts as if they need to be carefully read - what then is the point of the line-breaks? If they're given the same amount of attention as the words, can they offer any value back? Given the charitable status granted to poetry by readers, any text is likely to seem more significant when read as a poem, so I think that it's only fair to raise the bar for text with poetic pretensions.

Sometimes authors set up expectations then thwart them. For example a piece can start in one genre (comedy, say) and then surprise the reader by becoming tragedy. Or a strictly rhyming piece can slowly fall apart to match the mood. But I didn't think that's happening here.

There are two sides to promises. The author may have one notion of poetry/genre. Various audiences will have others. Especially if one's playing with expectations, it matters how you gauge your audience. Picasso said to a friend that one day an artist would display a blank canvas. He didn't do so himself, because he didn't think the public were ready. Art and writing aren't just about having ideas, they're about timing, and identifying your audience. The text is part of a conversation. Perhaps your audience exists only in the future.

"Pardoning the turkey" might be using couplets to break lines because that's a default way to present words in poems. The line-breaks aren't meant to be expressive, nor is the enclosing white space, just as prose line-breaks and the enclosing margins aren't emotive. Perhaps the reader is supposed to ignore the format rather than be puzzled by it, because experienced poetry readers have become used to ignoring formats. Perhaps this shared understanding is the basis of the promise.

My A Theory of Line-breaks post gives more examples and statistics.

Sunday 15 March 2020

Waxing poetical

many lines read like attempts to get as many “poetry words” as possible into a single sentence. “A sepia/ penumbra clears round a moon of blood” comes close but “Shadow-green patina, faint turquoise wash/ over wafer-thin kaolin” probably takes the biscuit. Such lines are interspersed with fridge-magnet wisdom: “The past is not lost/ but covered up by time."

That comes from a review by Paul Batchelor about Padel's poetry. Recently I read the following in a poem

       Awestruck, he obeys and dogtrots after her,
            language now lost, but one pudgy digit an arrow

on the cusp of pointing

It's about a child who sees a colourful mobile. He tells his mother about it but she just tells him to get a move on. It's a common enough episode, and could have been conveyed in a more mundane, minimalist way. Here it's poetized by livening the verb choice and saying things in a rather prolix, dramatic way - "cusp of pointing" is particularly figurative. Of course, the layout is part of the poetizing (indeed, the sole purpose of the layout might be to stop reading the piece as "mere" prose).

This souping-up of language is what can happen during re-writes. In some eras it was discouraged in both poetry and prose, in others it was ok in poetry but considered too flowery or distracting for prose. It can appear ornamental, the way forced rhymes do. Or it can be praised for its density and richness.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with these features. Fashion and personal taste influence choices. Some fads come and go so rapidly that you need to be a bulk reader of poetry to notice them. On his moves in contemporary poetry page from 2010, Mike Young lists some popular poetisms - e.g. "Exposed revision" ("I almost admire it. I almost wrote despise") and "Comparing something to itself".

Nell Nelson at the end of her yearly submission windows sometimes provided a snapshot of features that repeatedly cropped up in the thousands of poems she'd recently read - see thirty poem snags and are your modifiers dangling. Examples include "Certain kinds of 'trendy' titles, leading into list poems" and "References to Edward Hopper (and especially 'Nighthawks')"

I'm going through a phrase of flattening the language, of studiously avoiding melodrama. What this means in practice is that the outcome looks more like prose.

Saturday 29 February 2020

Ahead of my time? Or behind?

I came 2nd in my local writing club's competition last year, with a story 23 years old. This year I came 1st (£100) with a story 20 years old. I've entered newer stories in the past, with little success. Have I got worse as a writer over the years?

Clare Pollard in an article pointed out how an interest in translation can lead to escaping the limitation of local trends. She admits to admiring Somali poems "which can seem clumsy ... the politically charged rhetoric ... the seeming bagginess, the extreme alliteration, the shifts in address, the digressions" thinking that "they just use techniques which are currently deemed 'unfashionable' on Creative Writing courses."

Literature has its fashions. The "From Apocalypse to The Movement" module at Warwick looks at one lurch in style. Of course there are many parallel tracks of development happening at different speeds, but if you're the wrong type of writer for your era you'll be fighting against the tide.

Because culture isn't frozen in time, one option is to wait for it to change. I notice at local writing clubs that my conventions don't always match those of other members. Sometimes mine are more literary - in particular I puncture the sense of immersion - but often I'm just out of step. My guess is that the literary styles that I employed years ago are now becoming mainstream, and the styles I currently use were popular 20 years ago, and may well be so again.

The moral, as usual, is not to throw away old stuff, even if it's been rejected a few times. Old pieces may need tweaking though, especially if you're going to transplant them to the current era. Mobile phones in particular are plot-busters.

Sunday 23 February 2020

Free Verse 2020

The photos I take at Free Verse differ little from year to year. It's not all the same publishers. I didn't notice any trends, though maybe there are more books that are hand-crafted. If you've never been to this event you really should go - the small press world is buzzing. I bought the Flash issue of Lighthouse.

Each year after visiting Free Verse I try to vary the rest of the day. This year I visited the nearby Sir John Soanes house, then whizzed over to Freud's house, the Museum of Childhood, Foyles (which still has literary magazines), and the Wellcome collection. Freud's couch (and the couch where he died) are in the house. He didn't live there long, but his daughter Anna did. The shop's interesting too.

We've recently completed a 3D puzzle of London with over 1100 pieces. There's a hidden historical layer.

The Museum of Childhood had many toys that I had (a few are still in the loft), and many others I remember. They also had a big Rachel Whiteread piece called "Place (village)".

Recent story acceptances have got me in the mood for writing, and I managed to add 500 words to an meta-SF story while on the train. I also starting reading the 2019 edition of Best American Short Stories, which I bought in Foyles.

Monday 17 February 2020

Finding time

I have a full-time non-literary job - sometimes more than full time. I have a family. And I have other interests. I can't always find the time for reading let alone writing. It's a problem that many people have of course. Writing guides say that if you really want to write you can always find the time. But it's also true that if I really wanted to do the vacuum cleaning or get someone a birthday gift or proof-read a document at work I could find the time for that.

Larkin, who had a full-time job, claimed that he needed only an hour a day for writing. I'm not sure I believe him. Besides, it's not so much the amount of time but the clashes that matter. If I suddenly have an idea I'd like to develop, what can I do if guests are about to arrive, or a meeting's about to start? Plus my mental reserves aren't limitless. If I've been wracking my brains at work all day I don't feel like winding down by reading the small-print of submission guidelines. I'm not good at attending readings either. Others seem to have the freedom to dash around the country for launches etc. I have trouble turning up to local events, even when there's the lure of open-mic.

If I know in advance that I'm going to have some time free, I try to plan accordingly. Alas, more often than not my inspirational moods don't sync with the free time. The same usually goes for residential courses too.

Carrying a notepad around helps, as does being able to assemble fragments. Audio books might make me more efficient too. Just occasionally I can combine work and play. But mostly I cope by cutting corners, and doing nothing as well as I could have. I feel I've plateau'd in the things I've tried. There are no longer any quick wins - progress will require significant time investment. It's just the way things are. I've noticed already that I'm compensating by remembering past successes more than planning future ones - see my Illustrated CV. And unexpectedly I'm gaining pleasure from the successes of people I know.

Monday 10 February 2020

Poetry, Beauty and Truth

The beauty/truth debate is one I try not to get involved with because both the terms are slippery. I tend to be on the side of those - Bunting perhaps - who think that Truth, as normally understood isn't really what poetry's about. A truth may be most neatly expressed in poetry, but if it can only be expressed in poetry I think it's illusory.

Some articles

  • Truth and honesty in poetry (Chris Edgoose) - when something evoked in a poem strikes us as ‘true’, is it in fact not just highlighting a shared experience? We might argue that there is nothing universally ‘true’ about it at all, it’s more like a stand up comic pointing out something amusing that we both recognise
  • Some thoughts on ‘Truth’ in poetry (Roy Marshall) - If I read a poem I like, or love, I generally find myself recognising aspects of life as I’ve experienced it embodied in that poem; I feel ‘Yes, this is how it is, this is what we do, how we are with each other, this is how we feel and think and navigate joy and frustration and hate. This is true.’
    In order for this to work, for a poem to engage with emotion and experience in a way that I recognise, the language of the poem has to be working consistently towards telling that particular emotional truth ... None of this means that a poem needs to be realistic. ... For me, a poem needs to contain emotional truth. ... Perhaps I’m interested in poems as ‘empathy capsules’; little units of meaning that can generate an empathetic response in the reader.

Some quotes

  • "An artist's allegiance is to the truth, not the facts, and facts are often the things you have to change to make the poem more truthful", Don Paterson, "Smith: A Reader's Guide to the Poetry of Michael Donaghy"
  • "What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth", Keats, letter to Benjamin Bailey
  • "["Beauty is truth, truth beauty"] strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem, and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue. And I suppose that Keats meant something by it, however remote his truth and his beauty may have been from these words in ordinary use. ... The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless: or perhaps the fact that it is grammatically meaningless conceals another meaning from me", T.S. Eliot, "Dante", 1929
  • "Art arises out of our desire for both beauty and truth and our knowledge that they are not identical", Auden, "The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays", 1963, p.336.
  • "Every poem starts out as either true or beautiful. Then you try to make the true ones seem beautiful and the beautiful ones true", Larkin, "Larkin at 60", p.113.
  • "poetry is seeking to make not meaning but beauty", Basil Bunting, Stand V8.2, p.28
  • "From beauty no road leads to reality ... The power of beauty affects the naked being, as though he had never lived", Hannah Arendt, "Rahel Varnhagen", p.88-89
  • "Beauty reveals everything because it expresses nothing", Wilde
  • "although it is possible to reach what I have stated to be the first end of art, the representation of facts, without reaching the second, the representation of thoughts, yet it is altogether impossible to reach the second with having previously reached the first ... no artist can be graceful, imaginative, or original, unless he be truthful", Ruskin, "Modern Painters", Vol III, p.133-9
  • "Art is not truth. It is a lie that makes us realize truth", Braque
  • "In the traditional idea of form we naturally find beauty as the pacifying meeting between the visible and the true", F. Carmagnola, "Parentesi perdute", Guerrini & Associati, 1998, p.44 (my translation)
  • "We always take it for granted that all that is beautiful is art, and that all art is beautiful ... This identification of art with beauty is the root of all the difficulties of judgement", Herbert Read, "The Meaning of Art", 1955

Monday 3 February 2020

ACE – the next ten years

One way or another, many of us benefit from Arts Council England’s funding. The events we attend, the magazines we buy and the writers we meet receive funding. So I read with interest ACE’s recently launched consultation document.

They write that “By 2030 we anticipate that we will be investing in organisations and people that differ, in many cases, from those that we support today.” They aim to encourage “every one of us to express our creativity”, noting that “opportunities to experience culture and creativity often depend on background and postcode”.

Reading between the lines, my guess is that there’ll be more community-based art projects, more library based activities (using volunteers), and organisers will have to conduct more surveys to prove their commitment to diversity. Perhaps there'll be more tapestries of our house like this one - currently in our local library.

Their research noted that “that many creative practitioners and leaders of cultural organisations report a retreat from innovation, risk-taking and sustained talent development”. It isn't clear that this is being treated as a problem. As they point out, quality is difficult to access. Quantity isn’t though, and I’m sure they’ll be able to increase participation in the arts.

Monday 27 January 2020

Constable's Haywain

Over Xmas one of the unfinished old poems I managed to re-write concerned Constable's "The Haywain". By chance last week I visited the scene of the painting, Flatford. They showed what an early version of the painting looked like.

In my poem I mentioned people in the field - they're in the painting. I also wrote (because it suited my poem, not because I'd done any research) that the mill had gone and only a cottage remained. Alas, that's not true. Another poem will have to be abandoned.

Much else has changed though. Trees obstruct views, and the water level's different. It remains a pleasant little hamlet.

The urinals are decorative too, with a photo of the place rather than a Constable painting. The watery scene helps people with shy bladder syndrome I suppose.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Notes about "Together"

I had this story published a while ago. I've written better stories, but I think it's neat. It does a lot in about 350 words.

Her father used to work on battleships, said how they had more than a million parts. She showed him her iPhone, saying that it had over a million parts too.
      During a punting party her mobile sinks into the river. Friends take turns to feel for it with the metal end of the pole. When they tap something hard a boy dives in, follows the pole down through the murky water and retrieves it. She shakes it out, opens it, leaves the pieces in the sun to dry. An hour later it’s fine — “it needed a clean,” she said. There’s a new message for her — from the boy, asking her out.
      Later they share a flat. While he’s off at another conference, she takes his precious bicycle apart, down to the last little bolt, puts everything into a cardboard box, adds some bits from his spares to confuse him, then gift-wraps it.
      Some people — and he was one of them — see metaphors everywhere. He liked the idea of probing the depths for a way to communicate with the person beside you, of reconstructing the present. He promises not to spend so much time studying alone or cycling on Sundays with his club. She feels guilty. Perhaps he was right, perhaps she’d not got over her father’s death.
      And yet she doesn’t help him with the bicycle. It takes him a whole afternoon. He’s drunk by the time she returns from shopping. She doesn’t like that — nowadays he only does it to stop himself getting bored or angry.
      “What do you think?” he asks. “It would have been easier with a manual but it’s good as new now. You ok?”
      She unpacks the groceries.
      “The club’s cycling to Broxton tomorrow. Maybe you could meet us there in the car?”
      She’d cleaned each little part of his bicycle with a toothbrush.
      “Follow the A14 until you see the Broxton sign,” he says. “You can’t miss it.”
      Even with a map she misses it by miles; he phones, failing to get her.

It manages to have a narrative flow while sustaining some themes -

  • Several items have pieces - battleships, phones, bicycles. Not all of them can be mended. It ends with the title "together" coming apart.
  • There are several modes of transport - punts, cars, bikes. The couple end up taking separate ones.
  • There are communication failures - first the phone miraculously works, then at the end it fails.
  • The punting and bicycle anecdotes are interesting in themselves. Why had she cleaned the parts?

Tuesday 14 January 2020


I overuse the word "but" in both poetry and prose. I'm not the only one - when I read Margaret Drabble's "Jerusalem the Golden" I noticed on page 10 that it has a sequence of sentences which hinge on "but", "but", "but", "but", "but", "but" ... "nevertheless", "however, though", "though", "and yet".

I looked up alternatives ("although", "despite", "however", "yet", "nevertheless", etc). Using them helped a little. I then resorted to using alternative phrases in my work ("Having said that", "on the other hand", "even so", "for all his wealth, he was still sad", etc).

In a book about therapy I read about the technique of replacing "but" by the non-judgemental "and" - e.g. using "he's cute and he's a scientist" rather than "he's cute but he's a scientist". This challenges the underlying thought-pattern - the root of my stylistic problem. The underlying thesis-antithesis rhythm's ok for representing disappointment and dashed hopes (which is why Drabble uses it, I guess). It needn't be used at the sentence level so often though, even if the piece as a whole is structured along thesis, antithesis, (then maybe synthesis) lines.

Using "and" instead of "but" reduces structural detail and contrast, but opposition is the most simplistic of structures. Using "and" to make lists lets the reader decide what the contrasts are.

Monday 6 January 2020

Xmas and after

I usually manage to defeat post-Xmas tristesse by writing or working, but this year writers block has kicked in early. So I've been out and about instead. With our new National Trust ticket we've started visiting places. This one, Ickworth, is being repaired.

I haven't sent many pieces off either, because I don't want to encourage even more rejections - I've already had a few this year. But at least in our household my name is up in lights.

It's become a family tradition to make a gingerbread house with windows created by melting sweets. Once we'd finished eating the gingerbread and the other left-overs it was time for me to make literary plans. I'll go to the Free Verse event in February. My recent blog posts have listed the places where I'll submit poetry and prose. Priority will go to getting my longer stories published, or on competition short-lists. My New Year's resolution is to try some simultaneous submissions. I've a few poems that are worth sending off again. At the moment I don't feel like writing any new ones. Nor do I feel like entering pamphlet competitions.
Maybe it's going to be one of my prose years ...