“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 For example, I’ve just been writer-in-residence at a local festival, where their usual public parade has been replaced by a COVID-safe self-guided trail of art in people’s house windows.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

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

The patina of old film – filmpoem week 5

This week a contribution from Bernie McAloon takes us back towards imagery of nature, but purple and grainy with age. The road up through trees is the ‘Bank’ and perhaps the ‘challenge’ mentioned in the verse, the tint of the film stock is the stain of the burst berries.

Cherophobia: an Autumn Journal from Joanna on Vimeo.


Next week is our midpoint, verse 6, and we would love you to contribute a 20-second clip of video that responds to the following text:

Renga 6

Here is your challenge – can you send us something that shows neither forks, nor pots, not vinegar, but still illustrates the mood of the poetry. Repetitive action, the suggestion of unspoken hostilities in the word ‘drown’?

Send your landscape-oriented footage to sleeperpoems@gmail.com by 5pm Friday 8 May!

Archive splices – filmpoem week 4

Our film-poem takes a new turn this week, as archive footage contributed by Wilf Wilson is spliced into the mix. When imagery of war appears inside the confines of what has so far been a domestic setting, what is the psychological impact? Where is this story going? Take a look at the film so far, and then read the verse for week five. We want your 20 second film clip to take us forwards!

Cherophobia: an Autumn Journal from Joanna on Vimeo.

Week 5 prompt is this –

Renga 5

We need 20 seconds of footage that reacts to this verse, but it doesn’t have to be a direct illustration of it. Bring us something that speaks of challenge, or bursting? Remember to film it in landscape orientation, and email it to sleeperpoems@gmail.com by 5pm on Friday 1st May.


How images and words collide – filmpoem week 3

This week’s clip is provided by Lilly Flypchuk, whose daily lockdown walk takes her along the banks of the upper Tyne.

Looking at how the film is progressing, it’s really interesting to notice how the mind forges links between the words of the text and images that may seem quite unconnected. In week one, there was a clear link between Ali’s film (light shining through a glass tumbler) and Jo’s words “dim light on a glass of brandy”, but also the way the light twisted and turned seemed to fit well with the text “incoherent babble”.

Natalie’s footage used spoons, which weren’t mentioned in Jo’s poem at all, but their silver shininess chimed with “kept for best”, the domestic nature of the object matched with “cupboarded”, and of course their Hall of Mirrors reflections gave us the “face…but folded”.

This week we see a river whilst reading “pond reeds” and our mind puts the sense impressions together. When the text gets to “fresh out of the cellophane” the transparent glisten of the water becomes the plastic wrapping – or it at least it did in my mind!

Have a look for yourself, and then please do spend 20 seconds this week recording a clip for verse 4, using these guidelines.

Week 4 prompt:

Renga 4

Finding the surreal in the domestic – filmpoem week 1

The collaboration continues with verse 2 of Jo Colley’s poem Cherophobia: An Autumn Journal (from her latest collection Sleeper) and a film clip supplied by Natalie Scott.

At the end of this 11-week renga, we will smooth out the final edit, record a definitive version of the vocal track, and add a unifying musical score. But for now, take a look at how the draft is developing…

…and then why not try your hand at a little phone-video-clip for the next verse? Read the full instructions for how to submit a piece of film, and the next verse awaiting your visual responses is right here.

Renga 3