“Common mistakes when writing poetry”

On Hallowe’en I dressed up as a Poetry Expert, and took my place on an international Zoom session organised by the ever-entrepreneurial Middlesbrough author Kudzai Pasirayi. I was asked to speak about common mistakes when writing poetry, which felt/feels like massive hubris!! What follows is a rough summary of what seemed to be the most helpful points, judging by the questions and conversations that ensued with some of the young writers tuning in from Zimbabwe.

Common mistakes that poets make:

  1. Thinking you can make a living just from selling poetry books

Yeah, not a reality for 99% of us, even the acclaimed or famous ones. I’ve published two books, and have a third collection coming out in February, but I make my money by teaching, and setting up funded community arts projects that have poetry somewhere in them. For example, I’ve just been writer-in-residence at a local festival, where their usual public parade has been replaced by a COVID-safe self-guided trail of art in people’s house windows. I wrote A Glossary of Lights – haikus that appeared as cut-out paper panels illuminated by people’s lamps. About one-tenth of my time has been spent writing poems – the rest is all about talking to people, cutting out the paper panels and installing them. But actually, poetry for most people is still very much what it’s always been – something to do in the time they have outside their day job. This includes many, many poets with a good public profile for their work.

The glamourous life of a poet – cutting out haiku panels on the kitchen floor

2. Thinking getting published by a press is automatically ‘better’ somehow than self-publishing

Hmm, yes and no. There is a definite advantage to being published by a recognised press, even a small one, if your aim is to build a reputation as a poet. A good publication track record can then lever in more work in the form of commissions, appearances, and teaching. If poetry is your career, its likely you’ll be aiming at a serious press sooner or later. But if you just want to make a beautiful book, then why not go for it? My first collection was published by an award-winning indie press, but I still had to buy my own copies at cost price and sell them myself at gigs – I barely broke even. My second book was ‘assisted’ self-published, meaning I bought the services of a proof editor and also bought my own copies to sell. It was a collection of illustrated poems that I’d already put out on my blog and I’d built an audience for the poems through social media posts. I crowdfunded the entire cost of publication through pre-sales and sales of bespoke illustrations, and every copy I sell now is clear profit (if you forget about the value of the time I’ve put in being my own marketing department). So which approach is mistaken?

Illustration from my self-published book, ‘Utterly Otterly’

3. Writing in a vacuum

You’ll hear this from absolutely every poet who has a halfway decent career – to write good poetry, you need to read good poetry. None of this ‘keeping my voice pure and untainted by influences’ bullshit. You won’t end up sounding original, you’ll end up sounding lazy, self-indulgent, old-fashioned or just plain mediocre. There, I said it. You can do almost anything with your poetry, but please have a reason for the choices you make – of words, of line breaks, of layout, of poetic form. Don’t rhyme for rhyme’s sake, especially if you have to twist your syntax to achieve it. Don’t go free verse without considering if a form would serve you better, either. White space on the page is not neutral, it should be ‘read’ as pause, beat, silence; and a good poet will position it in such a way as to draw the reader’s attention to an important word, or thought where they want you to pause. You can learn how to do this well by reading other poets and asking yourself – why did they make this poem in this particular shape?

4. Dispensing with editing

I think another possible mistake some poets make is to assume that their first or second draft of a poem is as good as it can get. I’m not saying you should agonise over something for years, or refuse and mistrust the gift of sudden inspiration, but really good poets tend to have a habit of close editing. They also tend to have a habit of seeking ways to get good critique, to push them to become better – attending masterclasses, or a really good writing group, or joining a collective, or investing in getting a mentor to read your work. It would be a mistake to think you can ever reach the point where there’s nothing left to learn; after all, you don’t want to become a pastiche of yourself.

Working with, and learning from, other poets will make us all better and happier poets!! Here are performance poets Don Jenkins, Steve Urwin, Sky Hawkins and Ellen Moran

5. Some pitfalls of publishing

Finally, a not-entirely serious word about publishing, and the hierarchy of prizes and publishers. England is inherently snobbish, even when we try not to be, so there definitely IS a hierarchy. A “perfect” career for a poet might go something like this:

  • Be discovered as a teenager, having attending one of the hothouse development programmes like Foyle Young Poets or the Roundhouse.
  • Win a Foyle Young Poet award.
  • Get multiple poems published in PAPER magazines, not just online ones – especially magazines with the word Poetry in their title (Poetry London, Poetry Birmingham, Poetry Wales, just Poetry) or magazines that have been around for a long time (Magma, The Rialto, The Stinging Fly, Frogmore Papers) or are produced by people who also publish poetry collections (Under The Radar by Nine Arches Press).
  • Write a pamphlet and have it either accepted by a reputable press during one of their free reading windows, or have it win a pamphlet competition. Slightly more kudos to just get accepted without all the grubby business of paying money to enter a competition.
  • Win an award with that pamphlet.
  • Write a collection, same procedure.
  • Win an award with that collection – if you’re young enough, make that an Eric Gregory Award. So if you’re already over 30, tough luck, or maybe try to win the Felix Dennis prize for best first collection. Whatever you do, MAKE YOUR FIRST COLLECTION AS INCREDIBLE AS POSSIBLE.
  • Get taken up permanently by one of the Big Presses – Faber, Carcanet, Cape, Bloodaxe, Nine Arches.
  • Write several more acclaimed collections, end up winning the Forward Prize and the TS Eliot Prize and as many others as you can manage.
  • Still have virtually no money.

Ok, so of course I’m joking! For everyone else, you and me and the many, many poets I know, this kind of poetry journey is neither possible nor relevant, and your greatest mistake would be thinking that it’s the only way to go, or the only measure of whether or not your work has value. Your work always has value. You might find it inspirational to read some interviews with the very compassionate and non-competitive poet Ocean Vuong. And to quote Miles Davies “It takes a long time to sound like yourself”. There are LOADS of poetry festivals, readings, open mics and supportive online communities out there who are waiting for YOUR words. So really, your biggest mistake would be giving up. But you’re not going to do that, are you?

Some resources and links to get you started, but just look for #poetry related hashtags on your socials and you’ll soon get a sense of what’s out there for you.

Nymphs & Thugs online poetry events

Bad Betty Press online poetry events

Say Owt poetry events

Apples and Snakes online poetry

Jo Bell writing prompts Try To Praise This Mutilated World

Magazines and competitions to enter

Poetry courses online – The Poetry School

Creative drought and identity crisis – how to feel slightly less dreadful

Dear free-falling freelancers, the flock in which I find myself; are you frantic, too? Do you feel flightless?

What are we if not what we do, if not what we make? Commissions, projects and productions, a scant living but a joyful art. People! These things are our guide feathers, our winter down. We’re all so plucked.

I got together with fellow poet-theatre-maker-producer Zoe to interrogate these sensations of collapsing identity. What I mean is, we had a much-needed commiseration Zoom. We’re both trying so hard, but we just can’t write the poetry and theatre that we thought made us who we are. Were?

Nor can we scrape together enough success from the constant hustle to pay our bills. Nor can we slice our energy fine enough to feed the housework and exercise and good home cooking and social Skypeing AND survival.

Dear free-falling freelancers, do you feel you’re flailing, failing?

A magazine picture of a sad-looking woman in a glorious evening gown made of overlapping white petals edged with black sequins has been stuck into a scrapbook. Handwriting underneath reads "But will I ever write poetry again?"
A page from my sketchbook-scrapbook diary

Here are some of the most useful or uplifting straws Zoe and I gave each other to laugh and clutch at, perhaps they may help you too.

“Expect less of yourself”. This line and many others from this brilliant article on ‘surge capacity’ might speak to many. It’s difficult to apply patience when creativity is your selfhood and your livelihood, but even without a global pandemic you gotta fill the well sometimes. My fellows, lie fallow. Make like a daffodil and spend winter in a bulb of nurturing inactivity. Trust the art will grow again.

Appreciate what you’ve already made/take a holiday in a different art form. Pin your poems to your walls and read them aloud. Make them a gift of some illustrations. Sing them on your tea break. Imagine what they’d look like on the dance floor (good, I bet). Dance them. Turn to them when Zoom has eaten your brain. Trust the art will grow from unexpected directions.

Find a foul-weather friend. It’s hoying it down out there, psychologically. Is there anyone who would collaborate on something small and joyous with you? My friend Jo and I are posting each other envelopes of scrap papers and postcards every so often, as a collage challenge. She reached out to me, and I’m grateful she did. Could you reach out to someone else who is pretending to have their shit together? Trust the art will grow between you.

A slid-open matchbox. The outer cover has been collaged with a picture of a blackbird on a branch full of red berries, with a berry in his mouth. The inside box is lined with silver foil and has been collaged with the head of a blackbird and a scroll of musical score.
A matchbox collage made and posted to Jo during lockdown

Spend your energy wisely. My mentor told me, you can’t get out of a crisis like this by working harder. Decide – that thing you’re doing for money, is it a temporary life raft, or are you building an ark? Paddle accordingly. Zoe has found a life raft that is enjoyable and does good in the world. Right now, that’s all she needs to do – oh and watch out for any glimmer of creative enjoyment round the edges. I have the resources to gamble on a year of ark-building. I’m trying to focus and not go for every opportunity, because I know I can’t make a quilt out of those few scraps anyway. None of us can. This video of Elizabeth Gilbert may be helpful with anyone struggling with “I am what I do” and “I don’t want to find a life raft”. Trust the art will grow in the corners.

Be kind to your muse. Again with the Gilbert, though she uses the word ‘genius’. Your creativity isn’t down to you, it’s whispered to you by your genius. Your genius is tired and confused and over-stimulated by All The Everything. Reassure it that you will listen out for, and make a note of, any tiny sliver of inspiration they can pass your way. Draw a flattering portrait of your muse and put it on your wall in your peripheral vision. Ask your genius how they’re feeling, and if they might send you something in your dreams. Trust the art will grow again.

For networking and practical support (mostly north east UK) here are some links for you:

Tyne & Wear Cultural Freelancers

Freelance Taskforce

Freelance Lifestylers

Wor Culture

NE Creative Producers Network

Poetry Promotors

Creative Freelancers UK

I’ve started so I’ll finish

I love a fresh start, how about you? I love it so much that I have notebooks and rooms full of unfinished projects, and a head full of even more that I am definitely going to start, one of these days…

…which is why it’s a refreshing change to say I have finished something! I started this blackout poetry book back in 2012 perhaps? A lifetime ago. And last weekend I finished it. It’s not the most incredible thing in the world, but it’s mine, and I’m done. What project have you completed recently? How long did it take you?

In my imagined future I sit on a cushion rag-rug-covered in denim blues, looking at the neolithic horses I’ve sculpted out of papier mache and all those toilet roll innards. I’m relaxing after recording the seventh in my series of poetry review vlogs, and pondering the edits to my fourth collection of poems about geomancy, post-Apocalyptic shamanism and GPS. I’ve loved writing it, it’s been such a welcome break from the best-selling crime novels. On the wall behind me is a huge canvas covered with coral polyps fashioned from water-softened rail tickets I’ve collected over the past decade. My stop-motion filmpoem of hand-painted beetles has been selected for an international festival, and I pen a little celebratory sketch into one of the hand-made scrapbooks I fill each lunar month. Soon I will go out and contemplate the incredible living patterns I have painted on my garden wall in buttermilk and blended moss. Birds are bathing happily in the water feature I made from a reclaimed pedestal hand basin, encrusted with Gaudiesque mosaics. I think I may have lost a little weight…

Community Art In A Time Of Covid

As you’re no doubt aware, things are a little … unclear at the moment. We’re not locked down, but loads of people aren’t comfortable with the thought of nonessential socialising, like workshops or gigs. At the same time, we’re missing them and the specific emotional sustenance that comes from in-real-life connection. How can community artists bridge the gap between an activity made safe through digital distancing, and their desire to reach out to people?

It looks to me like hybrid project delivery is becoming a clear way forward, which can mix these elements: live digital workshops, pre-recorded instructional videos, materials kits delivered by post, and community displays either in our streets or online. Here are some thoughts about the pros and cons of all of that, based on work I’ve done so far since lockdown started.

Freelancer's desk
Our homes have become our workplaces, and our laptops are the portals to every aspect of our working and social lives.

Live connection via Zoom or similar group working platforms


  • People get to meet in real time and hopefully have fun!
  • There are a lot of good functions to use as teaching tools and as ways to facilitate new relationships (screen share, annotate, breakout rooms)
  • You can record sessions (with participant permission) again as a simple way of collecting evidence for reports to funders


  • Inaccessible to many, due to poor internet connection, Zoom fatigue, and other discomforts particularly difficulty processing online social cues for neurodivergent participants
  • No in-built auto-captioning facility on Zoom, though captions can be added if you are able to afford a speed typist. Streaming to third party live transcription services  is not without hitches
  • Combination of live talk, chat function and possibly captions as well creates utter chaos for any blind participant using a screen-reader app
  • Fatiguing for the artist as well!

Think about:

  • Having a tag team where one person delivers the Zoom workshop, and another one bridges between the Zoom and a live conversation on Facebook where people can access activities in text-only form. This is how the Tees Women Poets run their monthly writing group.
  • For a comprehensive look at providing access to digital meetings, check out this guide from disability artists and activists Little Cog.

Pre-recorded instructional videos, and handouts


  • People can access the information at a time that suits them, and as many times as they want
  • It remains useful indefinitely, for both artist and commissioning organisation, beyond the funded life of a project
  • Can be a beautiful and fun thing to make, and to watch


  • Making them requires an entirely new skillset for many artists, and the learning curve is steep
  • You need the kit – new iPad, tripod, ring light and clip-mic, anyone?
  • Downloadable patterns for craft projects are only useful if people have access to a printer

Think about:

  • Captions! So many organisations are putting out instructional videos on their social media, from the Royal Academy to local arts entrepreneurs, but not everyone is making them accessible through captioning. Try free online captioning for short videos.

Summer Streets zine
One of 15 tiny poetry zines I made for Summer Streets festival, in a project which combined one-to-one Zooms with physical making.

Postal kits


  • It’s gorgeous and exciting getting something in the post
  • It is the bridge between a digital encounter and a material one


  • Make sure your in-house packaging process is safe for Covid
  • For some artforms the postal costs might be prohibitive
  • Hard to see how this would work for people teaching pottery, for example
  • May not be able to send all equipment needed, e.g sharps, scalpels for collage

Think about:

  • The additional time needed to make up packages rather than take a big bag of stuff to a workshop – if you’re freelancing, factor it in to your fee!

Community displays

There have been some lovely projects emerging that build on our initial lockdown enthusiasm for putting stuff in our windows, such as Bloominart’s community gallery in Hartlepool.


  • Fosters community, provides a talking point for neighbours
  • Democratises art, brings it out of galleries and into community ownership


  • Same problem with access to home printers might arise for template-based arts activities

Think about:

  • How to build and prove audience as well as participation? Can we think about organising socially distanced street-viewings as well? As we move towards winter, what creative possibilities might exist around lit windows, silhouettes and ‘stained glass’ effects? Can we translate these ideas to non-domestic settings?


Later this year, I hope to set up a CUBO club using postal kits, as something to offer people who are still keeping social distance as we enter the dark months. Perhaps by the time we get there, it will no longer be needed, but my feeling is that this hybrid way of working will be with us for a long time. What do you think? And how do you plan to adapt?

Cherophobia by Jo Colley – a final cut

I’m delighted to bring you the final cut of the experimental, collaborative film-poem myself and poet Jo Colley have been making over the last 2 months. I say final cut, but in fact there are more sections to the poem, so consider this the final version of a pilot edition. Jo has edited together footage donated by several people, most of who are excellent poets in their own right – please watch through to the end for the credits.

We’re very grateful to those who sent in clips, whether they were eventually used or not. One thing we’ve learned from this process is that it’s harder than you think to capture even 20 seconds of compelling video! Writing poetry and making film-poetry are most definitely two linked but separate disciplines. Where do their skill sets diverge, and where do they overlap? I’m going to think and research more in order to answer that question in future blogs, and in my own film-poems. My gut tells me the overlap lies in attention to detail, and the creation of metaphor. What do you think?


It’s In The Cards – filmpoem week 10

We’re nearing the end of this little project, but there are still a few surprises to come as our collaborative film-poem twists from verse to verse. The latest clip is from Diane Cockburn, who picks up the “four years” of the poem by placing down the four of each playing card suit. Her deliberate movements are reminiscent of a Tarot reading, where there may well be “a reckoning”. See also how the colours of the table cloth echo and continue the colours of last week’s crochet footage.

So now we move to the final prompt! Can you find a way to illustrate this last verse?

in the pocket of the night I find you, let myself be found

As ever, please see these previous blog posts for

How and where to submit

How to think up a good image

Common mistakes to avoid

Domestic alchemy – filmpoem 9

As with a traditional renga, anyone from the group of participating artists can offer contributions as often as they like – which is how we welcome back Alison Raybould, who gave us our very first images. It just goes to show, try try again! Sometimes it takes a few attempts to get a bit of film that works the way you want it to.

Poet and renga-master Jo Colley has selected this clip of hands crocheting vintage wool for a number of reasons. One is that she enjoyed how it continues an overall mood of domesticity that is appropriate to the atmosphere of the poem it illustrates. She also liked seeing an action that is different from the pickling described in the verse, yet is also a kind of magic transformation of one substance into another thing entirely. And finally, she has fond memories of the wool shop featured on the wrappers in the film – if you’re from Darlington, maybe you do too?

Cherophobia: An Autumn Journal from Joanna on Vimeo.


So now here is the penultimate prompt for you! Can you come up with a 20 second clip of film to illustrate the meaning and mood of this verse?

this is the fourth year, abacus of elderberries, an accounting of sorts

Remember to look here for all the submission guidelines, and also check out previous blogs for advice on how to come up with compelling imagery and avoid common mistakes that could undermine the brilliance of your vision!

The arrival of the abstract – filmpoem week 8

A fascinating turn in the imagery this week, as new contributor Anathema McKenna picks up on the cut paper strips of week 7 and turns them into an abstraction. The choppy rhythm and ‘prison bar’ effect of the collaged lines is unexpected yet effective in conveying the actions and atmosphere of the verse, without ever becoming a direct illustration of the words.

We’d love to see your ideas for what might come next in this multi-authored film!

The verse you have to respond to is this:

alchemy: to transform berries and spice to dark distillation ready for winter

To help you get started, please do read this earlier blog about how to generate ideas for imagery, and this one about common mistakes to avoid.

Send your films to sleeperpoems@gmail.com by 5pm on Friday 29th May – thank you!

What to avoid when filming – filmpoem week 7

Hey hey, thanks for sticking with me on this one – week 7 of 11, and the contributor this week is…… me.

There’s a couple of reasons why it’s me. One is that I really wanted to create the ‘choking on strips of the Bible’ image idea I came up with in last week’s blog. Although when it came to it, I used newspapers to evoke the word ‘truth’ that is in the verse I’m illustrating.

The second reason is one of film quality-control. We received a couple of very intriguing concepts for imagery as a result of last week’s How-To guide, but unfortunately the execution did not do justice to the ideas. Common problems are:

Off-centre framing, or shots set up so that there is unwanted background detail

It can seem super-hard to get the framing right on a shot, but it’s worth playing around to get the perfect angle. It seems like most people would benefit from simply taking the camera closer in towards the objects and actions they’re filming. If you have a central action, you need to move the camera until the action or objects appears at the centre of the frame. This might take a fair amount of fiddling on! I’m lucky that I have a tripod, and a special attachment that allows me to put my iPad in any position I want. It wasn’t an expensive bit of kit, less than a tenner I think, and it makes a HUGE difference. It also completely eliminates the next biggest problem –

Shaky-cam and loss of focus

If you don’t have a tripod, then I really recommend you improvise some other ways to keep your device still, like propping it up on piles of books. It’s amazing how eliminating hand-held shake immediately makes your film look more engaging. And finally (for now) the other thing worth trying to resolve is –

Bad lighting

Of course we don’t have all the fancy-schmancy lights and reflectors that a serious film-maker has (although you can actually pick them up relatively cheaply). Nevertheless, you can make the most of the light you have and you absolutely should do so, because it makes everything look better. Arrange your cinematic composition so that it catches full sunlight, and add in more light using as many reading lamps as you can lay your sticky hands on.

So here is the latest version of Cherophobia – an Autumn Journal, with my 20 seconds added in. You’ll see that I’ve been a bit of a smart arse and have edited together a few different sections of film to make my 20 second clip. Notice how close in I’ve got the camera in order to get the effects I wanted – cropped right in on my hands, and then on my mouth and neck. Keeping the camera further away just wouldn’t have worked – the closer I am, the more intense the effect of the imagery.

And now it’s back over to you!

Below is the verse for week 8, for you to brainstorm into an eye-catching film snippet. Please send us your clips to sleeperpoems@gmail.com by 5pm this Friday 22nd May. And remember –

  • Illustrate/respond to the words and atmosphere of the poem – can you do this without filming someone chopping shallots??
  • Shoot in landscape orientation
  • Experiment until you have the shot framed right – come in closer, get things centred or in the right place, make sure unwanted details are kept out of frame
  • Keep the camera steady
  • Use as much light as you can

I slice shallots because this makes you cry. Juice spills all over the kitchen.


How to think up good imagery – filmpoem week 6

Welcome to week 6, the mid-point of this experimental project based on a poem by Jo Colley from her latest collection, Sleeper. The footage for this verse uses a combination of old photos featuring marbles, and video of raindrops falling on a dark puddle.

Every week we ask for contributions of film clips that might in some way illustrate or respond to the words, imagery, and above all the emotional tone of the poem. This last week we received several pieces of film, some very beautiful, but few seemed to really be in dialogue with the words of the prompt.

It can be hard to put images to words, but for this to work there must be some sense of connection. Here, the roundness and clustering of the marbles are a visual echo of the berries in the poem, described as “beads”. The rain on water stands in for the “cider vinegar”, and the sinister hints of the word “drowning” are suggested by both the darkness of the water and the earlier glimpse of a doll positioned face-down in a disturbing posture. Take a look, and see if you can catch what I mean.

So, here’s a hint for how to approach making a film clip for this week’s verse, because there are very few visual references in it!

  1. Take three or four of the words that seem to you to be most important for the atmosphere of the verse. For example, you might choose ‘sharp’, ‘catches’, ‘throat’ and ‘truth’.
  2. Write them in a random way on a piece of paper, and then start to make a spider-web of associated words, images, objects, colours even. It might look like this:20200511_104749
  3. Now try connecting two or three of your associated images together (ideally three), to create a possible moment of footage. For example:


  • Connecting ‘knife’ (sharp) with ‘stroking neck’ (throat) gives a strong image. Too strong?
  • Connecting ‘drop something’ (catches) with ‘broken glass’ and ‘plasters on fingers’ (sharp) suggests a scene of letting something drop and shatter, perhaps filmed from above; or a scene of injured fingers picking up shards.
  • Connecting ‘twitter feed’ (truth) with ‘broken glass’ (sharp) makes me imagine swiping a broken phone screen – perhaps the images on the phone could be staged to be relevant to the poem’s atmosphere of a relationship in trouble – photos of the couple in happier times?
  • Connecting ‘tear’ (catches) to ‘Bible’ (truth) to ‘mouth’ (throat) gets us perhaps the most art-house image, of someone ripping up and chewing the pages of a Bible.

Have a go yourself, and see where your associations take you – and remember, ALWAYS film in landscape orientation, and send us your clip to sleeperpoems@gmail.com by 5pm this Friday! Here is the full verse of poetry to inspire you:


the sweet sharp smell catches in the back of my throat, sticks like a truth I can't swallow