Sunday 12 December 2021

The vocabulary of poetry appreciation

Wine-tasting has its vocabulary. So does poetry appreciation. Orbis magazine has many pages of reader feedback which provide a useful sample. In the recent issue 198 I noticed that the most popular phrases are about

  • how well the poet collected the data/experience: "precisely observed", "beautifully observed", "precise observation"
  • the conversion into words: "captures" was popular (of "a moment", "the past", "the essence", "the intensity"). There's "compressed energy"
  • the artifice/craft of the words: "constructed" appears twice ("beautifully constructed", "well constructed") and there's "exquisitely crafted", "well made" and "clever". "precision of language" appears too - see my Poetry and Precision article.
  • the effect on the reader (getting the original data/experiences back): "evocative" appears more than once. There's "immersive" and "relatable". Also "amusing"

These phrases suit the idea of poets having experiences that they try to communicate to readers using expertise which ideally can be measured. I think the poems in Orbis have a wider aesthetic range than this, but only certain types of poems attract comment, it seems to me.

I'd imagine that if Shearsman magazine had a correspondence page, the vocabulary would emphasise other features.

The phrase "skilfully written with the rhymes barely noticeable" caught my eye. It's common to think that the artfulness is best hidden - it's the effect that matters. When rhyming words are chosen at the expense of meaning, the rhymes will stand out. But it's ok when the rhymes in "Do not go gently" stand out, because nothing is sacrificed, I guess.

Saturday 4 December 2021

Rejection records

On 25th April, 1917 Freud wrote in his journal "No Nobel Prize". Of course, few people have disappointments on that scale. At this time of year I expect to get some acceptances to balance the many rejections of earlier months. Surely some editor or other can make an error of judgement in my favour for once. But the rejections keep piling in. Here are my top 5 sources of poetic woe

Poetry Review240

I'm most disappointed by my North failures. They say they accept 10% of submissions. I'm not even reaching that level.

Here are my short story records

Stinging Fly60
Into the void50

I've never expected my poetry to be in the Forward Anthologies. I've sometimes had hopes of being in a Best British Short Stories anthology. It's quite possible that the anthologist didn't even read my more promising candidate stories - it's rather difficult for him to get hold of all the publications. I'll keep plugging away, sending stories to the outlets that I know are read.

Saturday 20 November 2021

Literary Quiz - Places

Answers are at the end

Which city is this in?

On which bridge is this sign?

Where are these two towers?

Who is represented here, and where?

Where is this pub and why is it famous?

Where is this sign?

Where is this?

Joyce in Dublin. Bunyan in Bedford. Two Towers in Birmingham (where Tolkien grew up). They're near a watermill where he used to play. They're models of 2 nearby towers which might have inspired him. George Bernard Shaw in Wheathampstead (waiting for a train at a no longer used station). The Oxford pub is where Tolkien and CS Lewis drank. Samuel Beckett bridge is in Dublin. Dante's bones are in Ravenna I think.

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Old Toys

An ancient board game (actually just a piece of cardboard. I suspect it was free in a magazine) from the early days of Dr Who. Note that Daleks are flying even then! My first visit to the cinema was to see Dr Who - in colour.

I liked Stingray too. Not long ago I visited the Toy Museum at Stansted Mountfichet. This jigsaw was one of several toys on display that I still own.

"Thunderbirds" was my favorite TV program. Many of my notions about plot derive from the program. Before the series began I recall entering a competition to invent a name for its villian. The prize was a Dalek. I think I suggested "The Cobra". He became "The Hood". This card is from a cooperative board game that's rather like Pandemic

I played serious games too. I learnt chess in junior school. This old pocket board of mine has been through the wars. Some squares have clearly seen more use than others.

Monday 18 October 2021

Save the UK plant-based, story-only mags

Paper magazines are expensive to produce and distribute. They need many buyers/subscribers. Issues of Poetry and Flash magazines can include the work of dozens of potential buyers. Not so for short story magazines - many buyers have no hope of seeing themselves in print. Several magazines have fallen by the wayside or gone online-only. Here I'll list the UK paper ones that I know about. Buy an issue and see what you think -

  • Postbox - 5 issues so far. See their webpage
  • Riptide - 13 issues so far. See their webpage
  • Unthology - 11 issues so far. See their webpage. They're on hold at the moment, but back issues are available.

Wednesday 13 October 2021

Prose and Poetry (The Dark Horse 44)

In The Dark Horse 44, Edna Longley has an article entitled "Holding the Line: Prose and Poetry: A Pendantic Argument". She writes -

  • "This essay ... starts from the premise that to classify Citizen as 'poetry' raises significant questions"
  • "why did Rankine publish Citizen as 'poetry' rather than as 'hybrid' collage or simply a 'book'? ... if you seek freedoms beyond 'free' verse, what is wrong with calling it 'prose'? In effect, the word 'poetry' retains a prestige or mystique divorced from poetry's actual marginalised cultural status"
  • "Perhaps marginalisation, as well as commitment, leads poets to embrace material that might be thought 'prosaic': to bulk up their work by reclaiming narrative or discursive territory largely abandoned in the late nineteenth century"
  • "'flow' is a verb that desperate students use in their essays on poetry"
  • "apart from metre, no verbal 'techniques and devices' belong exclusively to poetry ... it's just that poetry's 'elliptical intensity' combines more of them simultaneously"
  • "One of the effects of losing the line break is losing the provisionality that poetry achieves, the sense of a mind at work" (Nick Laird)

She compares two passages by Edward Thomas -

  • "She never talks of it, but I wonder how much of the garden she will remember, the hedge with the old damson trees topping it, the vegetable rows, the path bending round the house corner, the old man's beard opposite the door, and me sometimes forbidding her to touch it, if she lives to my years"
  • Not a word she says;
    And I can only wonder how much hereafter
    She will remember, with that bitter scent,
    Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees
    Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door,
    A low thick bush beside the door, and me
    Forbidding her to pick

She then compares a prose and a poetry passage by Ciaran Carson. She thinks he "may be a unique case of a poet actually perched on the frontier"

I go along with Wittgenstein's idea that to understand a definition, one needs to know its purpose. To use an analogy: the Male/Female distinction used in athletics isn't the same as the one to determine state pension age. Being classified as Female for one doesn't mean one's classified as Female for the other. So why was Citizen marketed as poetry? One can try to assess whether it conforms to some common notions of poetry by measuring the density of certain linguistic features, but it's not a reliable metric. Maybe it was classified as such to be provocative or attention-seeking; to have a chance of winning poetry prizes; to escape the QA that prose would be subject to.

If someone wants to get Aunt Maud, who likes a bit of poetry, a book for Xmas, they might depend on the publishers' classifications to decide what book to get. I think Citizen is far enough from the expected norms for there to be a suspicion that the book falls foul of the trade descriptions act. For pages at a time it's not poetry.

To be fair, many poetry books have pages that, but for line-breaks, would be Flash, or anecdotal mini-articles. Short texts, whether they're "prose" or "poetry", are likely to have several features in common - economy; hidden meanings, etc. - and prevailing fashion (rather than any intrinsic qualities) will determinethe format. The problem really is that very few single-author books are openly a mix of poetry and prose. I think John Updike produced one, but they're a marketing nightmare.

In short, I don't think that Citizen has redefined our notions of poetry. It's an example of how genre can be used as a marketing ploy.

Thursday 7 October 2021

South 64

South (also on Facebook), a poetry magazine, currently comes out twice a year - on paper! I suspect it has many subscribers who've been supporting the magazine for ages. This issue has 12 pages about feature poet Wendy Klein, 58 poems from 47 poets (no bios), and 10 reviews (books from Frogmore Press, The High Window, Indigo Dreams, etc). D A Prince has a poem and a review.

The poems aren't chosen by the same editors every issue - this time 2 people chose - and submission is anonymous. All this should lead to variety and fairness. I understand why most magazines don't have anonymous submission, but I think this magazine should be commended for its policy.

Submission is by post. I suspect that many submissions are from subscribers who aren't in their first flush - the magazine has more than its fair share of poems about aging or dead parents/partners, and the trials of old age. I don't mind that. Style-wise there's nothing adventurous. I think I understood what each poem was trying it do, which makes a change nowadays. My favourite was "The night the willow fell".

Thursday 30 September 2021

How many plots?


A text can have multiple minor plots, occasionally intersecting. I've tried writing these. I don't think any of them have been published, though I still send them away. They're not going to stand out amongst other submissions.


A text can have 2 plots - Plot A and a smaller, unrelated Plot B. Both have resolutions. At the end (or less interestingly as part of the plot resolutions) the reader learns how they're related. This is used in some Star Trek TNG episodes. It's an easy way to enrich an existing single-plot piece. It's also quite an easy way to generate texts - pick 2 plots at random and make them work together. I'm going to try more of these. It needs space to work - Flash and poems are too short.


Single-plot pieces (especially shorter pieces - Flash or poems) are often based around a big event (or an event with big consequences) and its aftermath. If the event (a sudden death, say, or discovered letter) happens early, some flashbacks or memories will be necessary to justify the reactions. The piece might become a kind of psychological whodunnit - the latter part of the text explaining, say, the suicide mentioned in the first few pages.

What interests me more at the moment is when the big event is a surprise near the end. This is a ploy that poems as well as novels can try. There's time to set things up ready to go off. The reaction section could then be short. What purpose can the earlier part of the text have?

  • It can be there to add interest (lull the reader into a false sense of security) and stop the story being too purely sentimental.
  • It can construct a kind of reverb chambre to magnify the event. The event lights the fuse that brings the rest of the piece to life. Some poems use this idea, the event being as slight as possible. I think the late Smiths Knoll magazine liked this style of poem.
  • It can construct a scenario which the event flip-flops (a good person revealed as bad, etc). The event is ideally minor in itself

I haven't yet exploited some of the surprise-at-the-end options. I think I'll start with short forms before trying a story.

Friday 17 September 2021

Loose forms

I'm used to the idea of variation within a tight form, in particular established ones like sonnets. I prefer it when the looseness/tightness variation corresponds somehow to the content, or where expectation is exploited. Some other forms (e.g. those based on acrostics and anagrams) are less tolerant of imprecision.

"The Mizzy" by Paul Farley includes "The Sloth" which has a form whose details puzzle me.

  • The indents (in characters) of the lines in stanza 1 are 0 4 0 2 2 4 6 2 4 6 0 1. In stanzas 2-11 the pattern is slightly different - 0 4 0 2 2 4 6 4 4 6 0 1.
  • Lines 1 and 3 (same indent) only sometimes rhyme (down/sown, interference/chance, ants/haunts, appear/shy, life/limb, skull/fell, degrees/tree, growth/forgot, rain/trapped, earthed/fair, stand/planned).
  • Line 4 has 2 syllables in all stanzas, line 5 has 8. The rest vary, I think (e.g. the first lines have 13, 14, 13, 14, 12, 12, 12, 13, 11, 14, 14 syllables, I think, and vary in their beat count).

Why make up a form just to break it? The expectation levels are so low that surprise is minimal. Maybe the title refers to the persona's laziness? Maybe it's like Islamic art, where the imperfections are deliberate? Or maybe it's poetry's equivalent of torn jeans.

Of course, the practice is nothing new. In Acumen 101, Fred Beake points out that in Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar",

  • "the ten syllable lines ... occur in a different place in each stanza"
  • "There are two ten syllable lines in stanza two and four and one in the other two"

"And yet somehow the very regular rhymed and the smooth wave like movement leave us with the illusion that this is a very regular poem"

My Relaxed Forms article has more info, looking at Larkin, etc

Wednesday 28 July 2021

The Dark Horse (issue 43)

In Orbis 196, Philip Dunkerley wrote "Those of us who are white, middle-class, of a certain age and gender-conventional have to work hard at our poetry to find relevance in today's fast-changing world". I know what he means. I'm a middle-class computer programmer living in a semi-detached Cambridge house. I'm Caucasian and wear glasses. I have an allotment and ride a bicycle. I shop at Waitrose. I get mocked at comedy shows and in novels. And I'm not young. In an interview, Helena Nelson wrote - “Neil Astley will say openly that he wants poets with a future — young enough to build a profile”. So I'm not sending manuscripts to Bloodaxe.

It's becoming harder for me to find places to send work to. I feel I've had my chance, in conditions that favoured me, and now it's the turn of others. Magma magazine's next issue "will focus on Black poets", a wording which came as a surprise to me. Increasingly, there's a requirement for the poem's persona to be the poet - not so much an obligation to be confessional (that's last season's trend, which left a few victims in its wake), but to "write about what you know" without risk of appropriation. In the UK, an item can only be sold as a "Cornish pasty" if it's made in Cornwall. It's up to the consumers to decide whether this improves the quality of the product. In general I'd rather have a good cook than authentic ingredients.

At least I'm not very tall. People would called me "Lofty" or refer to me as "That tall guy". Tall people have to bow when entering rooms. They lack leg-space in public transport. It's as if society wants to take revenge, making them cower, confining them. They can't help being tall. Why aren't there more 'mind your head' signs? Why isn't there a satisfactory minimum height for doorways? Tall people on average have higher IQs than short people, so perhaps the idea is that a few bumps on the head would even things up.

Anyway ...

Two guest editors of a BAME background curated just over a third of the recent The Dark Horse issue (164 big pages). The prose attracted me the most.

Miguel Barretto García's piece about annotations, footnotes, bodies, and nationhood was good in parts but too bitty and flashy for me - phrases like "the colonised body is punctured of agency" don't help.

Karl Knights' 'The Face Not Seen': Disability, Staring and the Canon article made me think. It's cogent and informative. I can believe many of the points made, though sometimes I think he oversteps. Here are some quotes and my comments -

  • "The repertoire of disabled images and themes used in literature through history to the present is very small ... Firstly there's the bleeding heart, or what the disabled community calls 'inspiration porn' character ... Dickens' Tiny Tim is a prime example ... Secondly there's the bad cripple ... most James Bond villains come to mind. Finally there's super-crip ... Paralympians are almost always portrayed in this superhuman way"
  • "The disability scholar Tobin Siebers summarised that 'Disability has provided the public imagination with one of its most powerful symbols [...] but it always symbolizes something other than itself'"
  • "[Edwin Morgan's] 'In the Snack Bar' is, to me, a greatly overrated and dislikeable poem ... Morgan may have had the ability, but did he have the right? " ... "Nuala Watt rebukes Edwin Morgan in 'The Blind Poem'" - but even if (as in the Morgan case) there's evidence to match the persona with the poet, there's no need for the reader to. The character's response in this poem seems typical of the times - not an anachronism.
  • "[Louise Glück] used that voice to return to disability on numerous occasions to write what to me are badly-executed arid poems"
  • "[Ted Hughes'] 'Deaf School' achieves nothing but denigrating a group of children. They become merely another entry in the beastiary of Hughes' mind" ... "Raymond Antrobus writes two responses to Ted Hughes' 'Deaf School'". When I read the response that involved redaction it seemed a stale idea to me - not the first poem I'd seen to use the device that year. The book was interesting, though I'd describe it as a prose/poetry miscellany rather than poetry, which what it was marketed as. There are a lot of misleading labels around nowadays.
  • "Disabled speakers are often used as symbols of the writer's outsider status"
  • "Rilke and Glück participate in one of the most harmful hallmarks of the ableist poem: an imaginary monologue by a disabled speaker ... the author suffers none of the consequences of being in a minority group, and profits from the prestige that their masquerade brings. Meanwhile, actual disabled people experience the very real effects of being an outsider" - when an actor plays the role of a soldier they don't risk dying in action. I presume they get the job because it's thought that the film will be more successful with them in it than if a soldier performed. Indeed, the public may think the actor a more believable soldier than the soldier might appear to be.
  • "ableist poems abound in the tradition. More appear each day in periodicals, pamphlets, full collections ... Such a poet's overused metaphor of disability robs all meaning from the lived experiences of disabled people" - examples of Ableism provided in the article include phrases like "blind to criticism", "lame", and the use of phantom limb imagery. Poets shouldn't "rely on stale metaphors, images and ideas" (e.g. phantom limbs, which is a bugbear for disabled poets like Jillian Weise)
  • "As a visibly disabled person, being stared at is nothing new. Almost every memory I have of my life involves staring ... On the page, what is otherwise a brief annoyance or discomfort is immortalised ... I can hardly open a magazine or a collection without being stared at"
  • "Nothing about us without us, goes the slogan in disability activism"
  • "disabled literary criticism began in the form we know it today in the early 2000s. Queer criticism, the closest to disability criticism in age, began in earnest in the 1980s and has become a part of the academy"

He doesn't address the d/Disabled (D/disabled?) issue, which I presume exists.

The advice is -

  • "If you're desperate to write about your crippled aunt, think twice" (which seems a little mean)
  • "Don't use what you imagine is a disabled person's experience to fuel your poems". Are disabled poets allowed to use what they imagine is a non-disabled person's experience to fuel their poems? I suppose so, because they're a minority, and because they once might have been abled themselves.

I know wheelchair users, and I have dyslexic relatives. One reason that few disabled people appear in my pieces is my worry about getting things wrong - risks outweigh benefits. When, years ago, I read that to a person in depression the self was like a phantom limb, I was impressed by the analogy - I'd seen the phantom limb image used before of course, but not in this way. I'm going to have trouble avoiding Ableist phrases in my work.

There's a trend in poetry towards writing about self-identity and social unfairness, where the poet is the persona pointing out issues. Worthy though much of it is - important even - it's not my type of poetry - the subject matter tends to displace the kind of poetry I'm looking for. Wallace Stevens isn't my favourite poet, but in times like these I turn to him. Or Hart Crane. Or Michael Donaghy.

Sunday 18 July 2021


Cambridge's University Library is a copyright library - a very tempting place to browse. Books are roughly sorted by size and subject. They're sequenced by acquisition date, so all the new books on a topic are on one shelf.

I've never visited the British Library though I've passed it many times. Behind these gates somewhere lurks my book.

There was talk of shutting down the National Poetry Library on the South Bank. I popped in whenever I was in London to catch up with current magazines.

Libraries are turning into hubs. Within reason, students can snack in my department's library. There's a library within the library where old habits like silence still apply.

I've been around Pergamon, Turkey - the place-name that "parchment" derives from. The library was second only to Alexandria in its prime.

These mini-libraries are common in the nearby villages

Just outside my house the mobile library sometimes parks.

A community library in Sweden which looks like a wooden shed.

Monday 5 July 2021

The changing world of reviews

Given the limited interest in poetry and short story books, the reviews/adverts need to be targeted. Small press magazines may have a limited readership, but at least it contains a significant percentage of book buyers. So in the olden days review copies were sent to many magazines. It was costly to send copies out with no guarantee of a review. Publishers tend to send out queries and PDFs nowadays.

I've heard publishers say that reviews don't sell books, and reviews sometimes took a year to be published. Sales are not the only purpose of reviews. All the same, it does no harm explore other options. There are mass audience sites for reviews nowadays, and "influencers". These methods work for novels. I don't know how useful they are for poetry and short story books -

  • In a Twitter announcement by Dahlia Books about a book release they said - "Please get in touch with us via DMs if you'd like to receive an ARC. Don't forget to include a link to your blog or review site." On Goodreads and blogs I see many reviews that begin by thanking the publisher for a free copy of the book.
  • I heard on a podcast how Jen V Campbell (story writer and Bloodaxe poet) reviews. She's a booktuber with 50k followers. She uses Patreon to attract donations. Here's part of her "REVIEW POLICY" - "If you would like to contact me with a review request, please ask your publicist to email me with an AI sheet. As I receive over 40 requests a week, I can only take on a couple"
  • Elizabeth Baines pointed out that "that many book reviewing bloggers are now tied up with the market campaigns of big publishing houses. The big publishing houses have - they can afford - long pre-publication marketing periods, and as a result those bloggers are too committed for the future with advance copies from those publishers to be able to consider the necessarily more short-term review request of a small publisher."

An alternative targeted approach is to do a blog tour.

Sunday 20 June 2021

2 poetry hatchet jobs

  • "Bad and ungenerous reviews are necessarily more subjective than positive and generous reviews, because as with any other manifestation of ill will, the bad reviewer is indulging in an egotistical display of some state of mind that is supposed to enhance the reviewer's status at the expense of the subject of the review" (Jane Smiley)
  • "one cannot review a bad book without showing off" (Auden)

Yet there must be more to reviewing than appreciating the books you like, and being silent about the others. In Hatchet jobs: Agony for the author but bliss for us to read John Walsh writes "The best hatchet jobs are wholesale demolitions, performed without any judicious weighing of strengths and weaknesses, and carried off with murderous glee." I don't know how good the review articles in "Areté 22" (2006) are, but neither have much judicious weighing. Adam Thirwell in "On Bad Poetry" quotes extensively from Daljit Nagra while Craig Raine takes on Don Paterson.

"On Bad Poetry" by Adam Thirwell

  • His method is a cute amalgam of e e cummings and Dylan Thomas. From cummings, Nagra has inherited a habit of inverting words' grammatical status ... From Thomas he has borrowed obscurity
  • it is not enough simply to allude to another poem ... as if the borrowing will confer significance
  • I am not sure if it would be possible to write a more obscure sentence. It would certainly not be possible to write an uglier sentence. Nor would it be possible to discover a sentence which is more over-written. The reader of Daljit Nagra longs for a verb to be left alone, for it just to be simple. But no verb is left unturned.
  • The sentimental is Nagra's constant mode
  • This is Nagra's favourite style - in which word order is inverted, where adjectives and verbs are unexpected. It is meant to represent an outsider's freedom with English - but it simply sounds clumsy
  • As always, the situation is clear but the language is not

"Little Big Man: The Poetry of Don Paterson" by Craig Raine

  • The two great, natural enemies of poetry are exaggeration and euphemism
  • Paterson is serious - if not literal - about his melodramatic, metaphorical scenario. Alas. There is no ironic gap between the actuality and the image
  • exaggeration, a kind of immodesty that relies on no one calling your bluff ... Why would anyone credit this baloney, unless you were Jeanette Winterson? ...The absurd paper currency of runaway poetic inflation
  • That last line is a minor miracle of ugliness. You want to take it to Lourdes.
  • The tendency to exaggeration is endemic in Paterson's poetry and not restricted to the subjects of love and sex. This is partly cultural. Paterson comes from a culture that prizes the anecdote and the exaggeration that goes with it.

Thursday 17 June 2021

A prose/poetry submission schedule for Jul-Dec 2021

The second half of the year seems to have fewer competition and magazine-window opportunities for me. I'll update them as the year progresses. Here they are -

Wednesday 2 June 2021

"Acumen 100"

Acumen has reached a milestone. I've been in it a few times - poems, articles and letters. The poems are more accessible than in most other magazines. I've always admired the reviews, and the articles can be instructional - this issue has articles on Ihor Pavlyuk as well as Denise Levertov. Here are some points that caught my eye -

  • Levertov's "The Rainwalkers" is quoted from by Fred Beake - "An old man whose black face/ shines golden-brown as wet pebbles/ under the streetlamp is walking/ two mongrel dogs of dis-/ proportionate size, in the rain,/ in the relaxed early-evening avenue". She "learned to move away from the metrical while writing with precise controlled musical phrasing, related very closely to the breath and its movements", though I don't understand the line-breaks in the quote.
  • Elaine Jarvest Miller's "How important it was" is a poem about jigsaws as therapy and a source of analogy. I've written such pieces too. Importantly this poem begins with "When I offer you the jigsaws in their faded boxes,/ I won't tell you when I bought them". I should try to add more interest to my analogy-poems in this way.
  • John Miles' "Pandemic Pantoum" is a neat idea - no doubt used before, but fun.
  • Gordon Scapens' "The Weight of Time" ends with "Time will tell you/ when it's time", which I like
  • Jeremy Young's "The Temptations of Boars Hill" looks like prose
  • Shanta Acharya poem has "If we accept the world as a gift,/ not take the gifts of the world for granted,// we may still learn to cherish what we have, thankful for things we never had, never needed" sounds too pat to me. Several other poems have similar pearls of wisdom
  • Sean Hewitt uses "Short, powerfully propulsive lines whose ending cut against the grain of the syntax" - Edmund Prestwich

Tuesday 1 June 2021

Some UK Magazine news

  • The Alchemy Spoon is a magazine that's particularly interested in poems from new phase poets. These are poets who have come late to poetry, often following retirement, or a life-change. See "Body" is their next theme
  • The Friday poem has interviews, articles, reviews and the odd poem. See
  • Northern Gravy is a new UK magazine (funded by ACE, etc) that pays £100 for publication. It welcomes Fiction, Young Adult and poetry. See
  • Dust, a Cambridge-based poetry magazine, has several theme-based issues per year. See
  • Tamarind magazine wants science-related prose (articles and stories) by 30th June for their next issue. See
  • Acumen's 100th issue is out (Alison Brackenbury, Martin Crucefix, Mimi Khalvati, Roger McGough, etc. 238 pages!). See

Sunday 16 May 2021

Poetry books that are too long

Some quite well known poets produce books with only a few good poems in them. After those, the quality drops dramatically. Even if the best poems are excellent, are such books a good buy? Many readers will be grateful for the good poems and quickly forget the rest, but why should they?

If a poem can't get published in a magazine despite several attempts, why should it be considered good enough to be included in a book? True, some poems work better as part of a sequence, but equally, that might be a clue that the poem has too many inert lines.

Books can be too long for several reasons -

  • A publisher thinks it's about time one of their poets gets a book out, before readers forget about them. In particular, there's a rush to get the second book out if the first is a success. I remember how pop groups used to be pushed into releasing LPs regularly.
  • A poet's written a poem that won a prize or has appeared on TV, and this is considered enough make a book marketable.
  • A poet doesn't write many poems. The publisher thinks that people wouldn't buy a 35 page book for £10, so they add many poems that wouldn't normally make the cut.
  • The book's a commission.

Of course pamphlets offer an alternative. A pamphlet each 5 years may be preferable to a book each decade.

It's not only poetry books that have QA issues. Flash fiction books are appearing nowadays which are about as long as poetry books, and contain as many pieces. The poetry book market is mature, but reader expectations for Flash fiction books haven't been established yet. Already I've seen Flash fiction collections which sag soon after the early rush of better pieces - why didn't the author wait?

Wednesday 5 May 2021

What One Can Invent

Hans Christian Andersen's What One Can Invent merits a read. It's part fable, part satire.

  • This is the start - There was once a young man who studied to become a poet. He wanted to be a poet by next Easter, so that he could marry and earn his living from poetry, which he knew was just a matter of making things up. But he had no imagination. He firmly believed he had been born too late. Every subject had been used up before he had a chance at it, and there was nothing in the world left to write about.
  • He visits an old lady, who lived in a tiny gate-house. She says "Just try on my spectacles, listen through my ear-trumpet, say your prayers, and please, for once in your life, stop thinking about yourself." That last request was asking almost too much of him. It was more than any woman, however wise and wonderful, should demand of a poet.
  • She shows him a potato, a blackthorn, a bee hive, then gets him to watch the people on the road. He has many ideas. But when he returns her ear-trumpet and spectacles, the ideas go. So she suggests "Write about those who write. To criticise their writing is to criticise them, but don't let that trouble you. The more critically you write, the more you'll earn, and you and your wife will eat cake every day."

Monday 26 April 2021

All my reviews of story collections

I've made a list of links to my 250+ reviews of story collections I've read. Most of the write-ups briefly review each story in the collection. A few go further, seeking themes, etc.

I'm surprised not so much by how many I've read, but how much I've forgotten. Impressions that have stood the time of time include -

  • Ones to watch - Elizabeth Baines, Chris Beckett, Vanessa Gebbie, Mark Haddon, Miranda July, Adam Marek, Danielle McLaughlin, David Means, K.J. Orr, Angela Readman, Ali Smith
  • Ones to miss - Douglas Dunn, Penelope Lively, Rose Tremain
  • Stories - "Maxine" by Tim Etchells, "Walk the blue fields" by Claire Keegan, "Everything in this country must" by Colum McCann, "The Goldfish" by David Means, "Watching God" by China Mieville, "All Downhill from Here" by Guy Ware

Friday 16 April 2021

Magazines I've been in

While tidying up my files I made these lists. Many of these magazines no longer exist. There are still a few magazines I'd like to appear in, but maybe I'll just try to complete the alphabet. What poetry magazine's name begins with D?

Poems - Acumen, Agenda, Allegro, Angle, Antiphon, Ariandne, Assent, Atrium, Bluenib, Cake, Envoi, Fenland Journal, Flea, Folio, Glasgow review, High Window, Horizon Review, HU, Ink, Sweat & Tears, Interpreter’s house, Iota, Jennings, Lake, Lighten Up, London Grip, LossLit, Magma, Mobius, Morning Star, North, Nottingham Poetry, Orbis, Orchards, Other Poetry, Outposts, Oxford Poetry, Poetry Nottingham, Poetry Voice, Quartz, Resurgence, Rialto, Sand River, Seam, SHOp, Smith’s Knoll, Snakeskin, So it goes, Sol, South, Stand, Staple, Under the radar, Urthona, Verse, Virtue Without Terror, Weyfarers

I've not had a poem in a magazine whose initial letter is D K T X Y or Z

Stories - Acumen, Aesthetica, Black Market Re-view, Bottom of the World, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Cake, Clam, Connotation Press, Cortland Review, Dogzplot, Drabble, Dream, Dream Catcher, Ellipsis Zine, Everyday Fiction, Fictive Dream, Firefly, Flash, Flashflood, Forge Literary Magazine, Fragmented Voices, Giant Pygmy, HU, Horizon Review, Ink, Sweat & Tears, Jellyfish Review, Journal of Microliterature, Momentum, Necessary Fiction, Nerve Gardens, New Moon, New Walk, Orbis, Panurge, Paragraph Planet, Postbox, short fiction, Southfields, Spelk, Splonk, Stand, Staple, Stockholm Review of Literature, Summit, Toasted Cheese, Transmission, Unbroken, Under the Radar, Unthology, Varsity

I've not had a story in a magazine whose initial letter is K L Q R W X Y or Z

Saturday 10 April 2021

Gender, writing and judging

"The Best American Short Stories (1994)” was edited by Tobias Wolff. He didn't know who the authors were when he was picking stories. He chose about twice as many male authors as female. The year before when Louise Erdrich read blind, she chose twice as many females as males.

Such outcomes shouldn’t surprise us even nowadays. The 2020 longlist for the Edge Hill University Short Story Prize had 12 authors, all female, and 3 judges, all female (the entries were published books - I don’t think the judging was blind).

In "Why Women Read Fiction" Helen Taylor pointed out that "Female readers are [...] the main buyers of fiction, members of book clubs, attendees at literary festivals, and organisers of days out to fictional sites and writers' homes". As more readers become writers, and more females become judges, the gender balance of prizewinners is bound to change. Judges, like other readers, will more easily understand the allusions and concerns of writers who share their life experiences.

Having more than one judge will help reduce partiality, but how many judges are necessary? Gender’s not a binary issue, and besides, there are so many other issues to consider - I suspect judges also tend to select stories by authors their own age, etc. There are times when I barely understand my nieces’ conversation when they talk to each other - what chance would I have judging their prose?

So although one shouldn’t typecast judges (their tastes are often far wider than their books might suggest), I don’t think one should over-estimate their broad-mindedness, especially if they’re authors rather than tutors/academics.

Thursday 25 March 2021

"Fleeting" gone

"Fleeting" magazine is no longer online. Here's my poem from it

The Gallery Affair
Then I see her, the girl of my crutched dreams -
Mona Lisa smoking a pipe that's not a pipe,
sipping absinthe from a fur-lined cup
that tickles her moustache.

We miss the train that leaves the fireplace,
but anyway it's raining businessmen so we stay in,
smooch to the Broadway Boogie Woogie,
sleeping in this tent with en-suite Mutt urinal.

We've learnt our lessons. Abstraction came too easy
for Brancusi, the universe already constipated with objects.
He fed his 2 white dogs lettuce floating in milk.
Schiele was more realistic - he couldn't afford the paint,

he said, when the judge who burnt his work in public asked
why he chose models with amputated feet. Our millennium
opened late for staff training. By the time we wake to
Turner's blazing sunrise, it's all on video, our taut bodies

reviewed as allusive symbols of when beauty was freer
than porn, though the cafe's a rip-off and the Impressionists'
cheap pigments are fading in the light, irreplaceable as our love,
the frame and signed canvas statements in themselves.

Thursday 18 March 2021

"Angle" has gone

"Angle" has gone. Here are 2 of my poems from it -

Musée des Beaux Arts

From Belgium's pre-war fields he saw a boy
who fell through centuries, his technique failed,
not finding love while Jews, unnoticed, died.
The weary ploughman's pleats, unruffled, match
his measured furrows not the puffed-up sails,
old masters pleased young Wystan thought to rhyme.

His craft sailed far from Europe's tumbled myths,
conversion in its wake. Invited back
to Oxford, limestoned wrinkles deepened, touched
a crazed belief that prayer, not God, would help
him suffer, slipper-shuffling from the bar
each night to find his cottage in Christ's grounds.

He left Kirchstetten farmhouse one cold day,
his life's sole purchase. We know only that
he found a Gasthaus, somewhere to go. Clocks
kept ticking, heaven harvesting the gold,
a blinding influence that makes us fail
to see young stowaways thrown overboard.

The Poetry Channel
Once more we sail beyond dawn's harbour walls,
pose laughing in the prow's romantic spray;
our site's not shown on any chart, and yet
our winking, wine-breathed pilot knows the way.

Our masks prepared, we dive into the wreck,
set on our course. We talk in signs, defy
our age, rise heavy to our craft. They want
to see us stripping off - we can't be shy.

No mast-tied hero - we're all equal now,
we all have lines to change, the licensed power
to dream. By setting good examples we
achieve our 3 cliff-hangers every hour.

Of course there's no surprise - back home we'll add
addresses to our lists, unload our cache
which later polished up in workshops is
revealed - but gently so - as last year's trash.

Friday 12 March 2021

"The Flea" gone

The Flea ( has disappeared. Here are 2 of my poems from it

Lost Letters

"Too staid", critics said, "too sad. Poems shouldn't
mean but be". So must the work of men like me
who chose Jarrell's hose or Heaney's hoe become
sparse, hard to parse as it disappears up our collective arse?
Must we haunt palaces, places where thought paces in ermine?
Can't we swing and sing as if prose were a sin?

I know just what to do now there's no Eliot
daring to preach about eating a peach. We should each seek
the best public forum and form for expression,
slowly learn our craft, win words' trust, earn a good ear,
not beg a grant to rant like a rat on a sinking readership.

Their stuff's just prose in a pose. Poe's turning in his grave.
While stolid, solid poets slid into obscurity they've zoomed like
human cannon-balls into the canon, ousting poor anon.
Mon frère, they'll explain their free verse to you for a fee, but
I'll never cast pearls before swine, serving wine to win friends.
Let them eat cake. I'll earn my bread, read their books, always see red.

(each line has a triple of words with lost letters – e.g. staid/said/sad)

Today I've a diction addiction,
marooned in maroon,
alone without interest,
my celibate celebration of
innocence in no sense
pure, the
therapist, the rapist
all ready already
trying together to get her to
swing, sing, sin in-
side me, leaving me sentenced,
solitary, so literary.

Today I'm a pathologist
studying roads not taken,
aching for rumourtologists
to break the news to me,
and for wellwishers
to lower their buckets
as a sign of respect,
dyslexia my only hope of escaping
from the word to the world.

Sunday 7 March 2021

Getting reviewed

Looking back, I was lucky to get so many reviews for my "Moving Parts" poetry pamphlet - see my reviews page. I wasn't so lucky with my short stories reviews but stories always struggle.

Amongst the many articles on getting reviewed are

Reviews have been monetized - according to "Which?" magazine, March 2021, AMZTigers charges £620 for 50 reviews, and AMZDiscover charges $125 for contact details of 1,250 reviewers. As fast as Amazon take steps against such reviews, the reviewers evade the algorithms. Such ads might help sell gadgets and genre novels. I don't think they help with poetry.

Small press magazines that publish reviews usually say how they want to be approached by authors. Often they don't want books in the first instance. Read the magazines to find out! Emma Lee is a prolific, unmonetized reviewer who appears in several magazines. She has a reviews policy which makes for interesting reading.

But do reviews in small press magazines help sell poetry books? It's unclear. I've heard a few publishers say they don't. But authors like them. I did anyway.

Saturday 27 February 2021

Losslit gone

The LossLit site ( has gone bad, so here I reprint my 2017 poem that used to be there -

A short course of treatment

Six walls replace three of scenery.
On the sides, slowly moving faces
sucking at the glass.

They put a colourful ruin in the centre
so they can watch me explore in and out,
questions and answers.

Every so often they add more
complications to avoid -
a plant, a diver, a treasure chest.

Each week while I'm out
of the way they clean, and
I forget everything.

Friday 19 February 2021

Editing down

I sometimes turn a short story into Flash as an exercise. What I try to avoid is ending up with a piece that has lost weight but is still wearing the same old clothes. I focus on a single scene, lose a side-plot, or lose a character. If I return to the short story I'm usually able to exploit what I've learned when writing the Flash.

Sometimes I've made a page-long poem more episodic, then I've broken it into a few poems. Not all of the shorter poems succeed, but at least I've salvaged something.

Welsh writer Cynan Jones' story “The Edge of the Shoal” began as a 30,000-word short novel but he cut it to 11,500 words because “it didn’t work.”  When he sent it to The New Yorker they liked it but asked him to cut it in half. He took 4 days to cut the story to 6,000 words. In that form the New Yorker published it and it won The 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. The original version was published by Granta as a novella entitled "Cove", which then won the Wales Book of the Year Fiction Prize.

Moral - you may want to keep more than one version of some of your pieces - short and long versions. If you chop, keep your drafts. You may never become famous enough to sell them, but they may have something valuable that gets worn away by rewrites.

Saturday 13 February 2021

Long shadows

Maybe you can't see the camels' shadows. We set out when the sun was low so that it wasn't too hot, spending a night in the Moroccan Sahara desert. Standing on the dunes, we could use our mobiles. Civilisation was never far away.

Here's me on my bicycle, with the long shadows of a bright February evening. Better to head into the shadows than cycle with the sun in my eyes - and in the eyes of the drivers behind me. Lockdown has brought my bicycle and me even closer together. I really should oil it soon.

The sun sank fast and brightly in the Canaries. The extensive dunes were full of surprises. We weren't so far from Morocco, and camel rides were on offer, but the facilities in the towns (Swingers clubs etc) stopped us confusing the two places.

Still looking north - this time from Fleam dyke (a bank 7m high, plus a ditch, not far from Cambridge). It dates back to the 5th century. There's also a bronze age barrow. You can see for miles.

Friday 5 February 2021


After over 30 years, Patricia Oxley is standing down as Acumen's editor. Danielle Hope, who's long been connected with the magazine, will take over. I wish them both luck.

I suspect that Acumen's loyal readership is on the older side. I've been a subscriber for a long time. I've had several poems, letters and the odd article in it - worthwhile pieces (in my opinion) that I'd have trouble placing elsewhere, especially nowadays: pieces that non-poets might like.

The extensive reviews section (35 pages in the current issue) is very ably managed by Glyn Pursglove. It doesn't rush to cover all the latest stunning debuts. It also deals with translations and the work of established (though perhaps not fashionable) poets (Etty, etc). Books by, amongst others, Ni Chuilleanain and Longley are reviewed at length in the current issue.

Having a letters section (with maybe 4 months from submission to publication) may seem quaint in this Twitter age. The letters are often mini-articles though.

Sunday 24 January 2021

TS Eliot prize shortlist

On BBC radio 4's Front Row program on 22nd Jan, Lavinia Greenlaw (chair of the TS Eliot prize judges) had the difficult task of describing each of the 10 shortlisted books in a paragraph or so, justifying each without showing favour. I think she was careful to share out the praise without overusing any particular word. She used "extraordinary", "incredible", "astonishing", and "remarkable" twice each; "powerful", "amazing", "startling" once.

She thought that there's a new stylistic freedom afoot (I can believe that) and that poetry's caught up with the present in a way that other art-forms haven't yet (I'm far less sure about that). The poets have "interrogated the constructs". The quote I'll keep is "when language fails, people turn to poetry".

See also The Guardian's article

Friday 15 January 2021

USA magazines

Which US magazines are worth sending to? Clifford Garstang's ranked lists are a good source of information -

Note that -

  • a few of the magazines still prefer paper submissions
  • many are University-based, with submission windows aligned to university terms.
  • many make you pay to submit (often $3)

“One Story” doesn’t charge, and it’s one of the best. Consequently they get about 100 submissions a week (the shortest being 3,000 words, the limit 8,000). So they have to read maybe 30 million words a year. Don’t expect a quick reply.