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 For example, I’ve just been writer-in-residence at a local festival, where their usual public parade has been replaced by a COVID-safe self-guided trail of art in people’s house windows.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

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!

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

 

Join our film-poetry renga

Friends, I am delighted to invite you to contribute to a new digital project while we are all in lockdown, and hopefully beyond.

I have been asked by the wonderful poet Jo Colley to work with her on some activities to launch her fourth collection, Sleeper from Smokestack Books. It’s a glorious book full of double lives, Cold War spies, masked relationships, and emotional distances.

While we can’t bring you a physical launch (yet), we would very much like you to take part in a film renga. A renga is a long poem of linked verses that are created by several poets in collaboration,  under the guidance of a renga master. The renga master directs the flow of the chain, and will select each verse in turn from the selection put forward by the poets.

In our renga, we are providing you with a weekly prompt, which is a short verse from a long poem in the Sleeper collection. We are asking for a 20 second video clip that complements the text rather than directly illustrating it, and which also responds to the images already accrued. Each time we release a new prompt, we will also show you the film so far.

Here is your first prompt:

the table in your house
dim light on a glass of brandy
incoherent babble, justifications

And here are the instructions:

  1. Read the prompt
  2. Watch the film so far (applicable from week 2 onwards)
  3. Take a 20 second piece of footage (to allow for editing)
  4. Your video should contain images that complement the text, but not necessarily be a direct illustration of the images in the text
  5. Your video should be responsive to the feel of the composite film so far
  6. Please hold your device in landscape orientation when filming (like a TV screen)
  7. Please email your video to sleeperpoems@gmail.com
  8. Prompts and the film so far will be released every Monday for 11 weeks, and deadline for each week’s submission is 5pm every Friday

 

Get That Balance

We’ve reached the last Strange Prompt! Thirty whole new pieces of writing from me, with multiple contributions from 24 other poets and flash-fiction writers. It’s been a very satisfying outcome from my writing residency, and not at all what I expected. I’ve played with some fun techniques and poetic forms. I’ve written more flash fiction prose than I would ever normally do. I’ve been delighted by the quality of the shared writing, and very much enjoyed seeing some writers become slightly addicted to the prompts (Ann Cuthbert, I’m looking at you!). So thank you to everyone who has contributed, read, shared, commented and enjoyed this little project – I’ll see if I can come up with something great to follow.

Here’s my last one – just a little mesostic

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Thanks to Esther Bonner for this meditation on time…

Time passes..
Tick tock.
Seconds, minutes, hours.
Tick tock.
Birthdays, anniversaries,
work, pleasure.
Life never stops.
Tick tock.

The beating heart, like a clock.
Tick tock.
Life slips away.
So STOP!

Grab a moment to lift your face to the sun, let its warmth caress you.
Blow on a pearly white feather, watch it float idly on.
Rest your weary eyes.
Listen to the wind sigh on an Autumn breeze.
Trail your hand though a cool, fresh mountain stream.
Let your senses be cossetted and renewed by life.

Time passes..
Tick tock

Julie Easley has a great take on the subject, fierce and feminist as usual!

 

she was adorned with bruises

ornaments of torture bejewelled about her body

but it was her poise that goaded him

her sealed room approaches

 

The doll, she said,

won’t dress herself, won’t sit to attention,

the doll won’t respond

if you tell her she’s miserable

 

 

Infinite gratitude to Tony Gadd, martial art guru and spoken word powerhouse, who sends us this wisdom from the depths of his own current, very serious, health struggles…

Walking the tightrope of an ECG

An emotional and bodily state

Balance in life

Like balancing stones

A lifetimes work

Practice the key

Physical and mental equilibrium

Unsettled by other

Forces and influences

Rebalance essential

Eyes closed, breathe and just be…

 

The Last House Of The Last Passenger

I had a vibe in mind for this prompt, an atmosphere, a sort of fin-de-Anthropocene gloom that I wanted to evoke with my deathless prose. Then I read this incredible flash fiction by Sharon Telfer, realised I could never do any better, and took to my fainting couch for a week.

But I rallied! And did my best, with this COVID-19-inspired flash.

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Very happy to welcome a new contributor, Ann Whiting, with this short story:

The last house of the last passenger

He barricaded himself in, said it was his home and no one was going to take it from him; still strong enough to drag two-by-four wooden planks from the garden, he hammered six inch nails into their depths. Soon he would fly on angel’s wings to his beloved’s home and she’d greet him as she’d always had with a smile as alluring and warm as freshly baked bread. One hug from her and he was healed.

She’d died there, in his arms, and he needed to know she’d know where to find him when his time came. There was nowhere else he was going to die.He’d prepared his exit carefully, stopped the medication weeks ago. The cut backs in health care were a godsend to him. No one checked on  him daily anymore. He’d fallen through the net. 

His heart fluttered weakly now, the exertion had after all taken its toll so he rested in the chair, dreaming of her face lying close to his once more. This would be his last home and he would be the last passenger out of here. The last one to take flight on angel’s wings. He slept in his cosy armchair, dozing lightly. When  the angel came, it looked like her, so he flew away with her into the blue sky and never looked back. 

Beneath him, the authorities were breaking down his door to remove him to a ‘place of safety,’ also known as a Care Home, before the demolition men could be moved into the street, his street, where his children had played. 

They found him in his favourite chair as if asleep, smiling as if at some  private joke. He’d checked himself out, taken flight and evaded their control. The last passenger had departed his home on his own terms, not theirs, and there was a sense of triumph for him at least in that. 

Outside, the engines of the bull-dozers growled waiting to leap into action but  now there’d have to be an investigation into his death which would delay the demolition by months at least. Time enough for questions to be raised about the purchase of the land and their methods and perhaps for the truth to come to light…

The last passenger’s intentions began to immediately take flight. 

Please also enjoy this poem from Caroline Walling, in which the Earth speaks to the last human…

This it is.
Time to leave.

Could I not?

No 
I’m tired of you riding my back
Spinning my axis for you
Get off
This is your final time

               But my home is with you.
             It’s always been this way.

How your memory is thin!

                       But you are my world!

Not any more
    Please leave

                         But why?     

 I needed time
You wasted it
wasted me.
I’m no longer your prize
Your infinite  feast

        Please, get off.

                        Where shall I go?

Where they all go
         In the end,
  From where they came,
and I shall be the happier for it.

Now please
 it’s time to leave.

And I’m delighted to have a poem from Jane Burn too!

The poor, the sick and the needy are already dispersed, dissolved,
divided up or dead. They will not be going forward into our Pure New World.
Did you think those sci-fi films were wrong? They were premonitions.
We super-rich got our heads together many years ago to shield ourselves
from such what ifs. Put our money where our mouths were. Why d’you think
we never really seemed to care enough while the Earth blazed and water
reclaimed the land? Remember Noah? That big blot on the horizon is our Ark.
This is our Plan B and yet I cannot help but want this one last glance,
barren and blistered though this place be. So I took the last in a long line
of temporary tents, have watched the loading of our privileged exodus.
Survival of the fittest, you see. Fat Cats will always land upon their feet.
We will be angels, mounting a ramp that rests on the slain the ones
that tried, with their pauper’s hope and ruined bones, to join the Chosen Few
and now waste, with bullet addled skulls and bloody skins beneath our feet.

I walk away from the camp the last place I ever lived, on this planet,
at least. Wind snatches at silk like a lover gone wrong, snaps at the hold
of guy ropes, takes shreds of it into wasted air to remind the sky of birds.

O! Son Of Trauma

The mental image that inspired my poem for this prompt is a photograph taken at Bhopal, after the catastrophic chemical plant explosion. (The image I mean is number 7 in this article, but please be warned it is an image of a dead child and very upsetting, don’t go there if you don’t want that in your mind).

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I’m extremely happy to be joined today by two more excellent poems. This one is by the wonderful Finola Scott:

He arrived late, but smelt so sweet
and forty years later he does it again
My bold boy, the Prodigal, I joke
to his sister. Her and I smile & sigh.

Today we high-wind hurtle city to city
across Scotland’s belted waist. He says
The Icelandic Symphony Orchestra play
capitally. As musician after musician
crowds the stage we giggle, so many tails.
Honey brass gleams, chestnut cellos wait
for sap-rise. He nudges, points at the timpani.

Then it soars, I’m swept into fiords, ice
melts, sea eagles swoop, glaciers calve.
Side by side we voyage out of ourselves
into each other.

And this one is donated by the equally wonderful Harry Gallagher:

The Sea

Today I almost gave my glasses to the sea
but the sea said no,
it could see where things were headed
and the ebb and the flow
hadn’t lost my address
it had just looked the other way
for a moment.

Today I tried to throw my stick into the sea
but the sea tossed it back
with a million tonnes of plastic,
said it was too full up for now
but if I stuck around
for at least another day
it could do with a hand itself.

Today I shot my slings at the sea wall
but all that came back
was an echo of a wave
as ancient as time,
a reminder that tomorrow is a choice
that will happen with or without
the sound of my voice.

Today I unloaded my woes to the sea.
The rage and the spray
of a world of injustice
was carried away on the westward wind
that battered and dropped me
then propped me back up
to await the turn of the tide.

 

Radical Handy-Arms

Oh this was one of my favourite mis-translations, from all the way back at the beginning of this project! Here’s my effort, a little complaint from a bloke with growing political anger issues.

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The prompt also inspired Jules Clare, who has donated this poem, also flavoured with politics:

DMs on hardy feet
White socks under Docs
Gathering in circles
Skin head flocks

We don’t need
this Facist Groove Thing
Crushed by the wheels
of British industry

A free trade deal
A Statute of Liberty
Dead in the water
Donald and The Peach

Lest we forget
Iranian arms widespread
A life in arms
Radical, handy and ultimately unseen

Resplendent Incisors

When I was writing to this prompt, I really wanted to do something about the tiger who broke her front tooth and had it replaced with a gold one, but everything I tried turned out a bit – dunno, but wrong. So I did what I often do when I feel lacking, I tried out a form, a set of rules to play by. In this case, a Terrance Hayes A Gram of &s-type exercise. 11 lines, last word of each line must be found anagrammatically within the words of the title, 4+ letter words only, no pluralisation. I’m not saying the resulting poem is any great shakes, but it did come together with the little click that says ‘poem’ to me.

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If you’d like to try your own A Gram of &s poem, or any sort of piece playing with anagrams of this title, here’s my most interesting word list so far – what others can you find?

INCITE   RILE  SLICE  SORREL  SPLEEN   SPLENETIC   RINSE   SCISSOR   CORPSE   ROOST   CREST   STRIPE   INCISE   SPINDLE   SPIRE   INSPIRE   SPINE   STELE   STEEL   TREND   REPENT   INDENT   SPITE   SPORT   PORTER   PRESENT   PINCER   PRINCE   INTERRED   RESPECT   TINDER   SCREED   SECRET   SECRETE   CREED   REPEL   RISEN   RENNET   CRISP   CREPE   ROPED   DINNER   DINE  DINER   TINE  SITE   TENSE   CREDIT   SEER

Update! Ann Cuthbert found some more anagrams, and wrote this superb Gram of &s with them, about Mayan jade teeth…

Lady of Teotihuacan, you rise,
bones stripped but breath not spent,
while Kukulkan writhes, peers
from your mouth, from green serpentine
tooth, tartared and worn before the cist
claimed your corpse. Jade priestess,
you are the passageway, you entice
the serpent-god to emerge, spirit
up a wind, conjure ancestor-gods in rite
of resurrection. Green in your jaw, he sleeps.
At your summoning, he stirs.