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 For example, I’ve just been writer-in-residence at a local festival, where their usual public parade has been replaced by a COVID-safe self-guided trail of art in people’s house windows.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