Monthly Archives: December 2022

Shepherds at the gate

The journey to getting poetry published is hard enough as it is that to suggest there might be some benefit to having your work turned down may sound perverse. Increasingly, though, I feel as grateful to the editors who say no as I do to those who say yes.

That thought was initially prompted by something I read the other day and now can’t remember, but I was reminded of it by two recent blogs in which poets offer sideways looks at the poetry-publishing-machine. In Beyond Submissions, Naush Sabah questions just how much store poets should put in the validation of an acceptance from an editor they know little about. Some poems might be best shared by other means, without all the hassle and anxiety. Or not shared at all: it’s not an exact comparison, but think of the number of sketches a painter produces before the final picture.

In (Avoiding) Poetic Ecological Collapse, meanwhile, Jonathan Davidson suggests that a constant rush for publication may not only be unsustainable for our own writing but a distraction from all the other ways of engaging with words which the art needs to flourish. What happens when we see ourselves as custodians of the ‘commonwealth of poetry’, rather than toilers in our own private furlongs?

Writers sometimes see editors as gatekeepers and it is easy to see why. Rejections feel like being held back: if only they would let us through into the green pastures of publication! (You can blame Jonathan for the pastoral metaphors). But editors – and, increasingly, arts administrators, competition judges, mentors and funding bodies – also decide when to let the poet through, and in what form, and this inevitably shapes where they go next. Less gatekeepers, more shepherds. It is a big responsibility.

Sometimes I think it is a responsibility we don’t talk about enough. I have come across several books in the last few years – highly-acclaimed first or second collections from prestigious publishers – where I couldn’t understand why the editor hadn’t encouraged the poet to slim the collection down, or even wait until they had a stronger set of poems to work with. Perhaps they already had.

I doubt anyone reading this is going to feel sorry for poets sitting on the shelves in Waterstones (perhaps we should). My point is only that the rush to publication doesn’t even serve those who might appear to be benefiting from it. Few things are more important than affirmation, especially early on, but perhaps as important is being able to explore avenues you don’t end up going all the way down. Who knows what some writers might have gone on to if they had stayed in their chrysalises a little longer.1

There is an awkward tension here with the fact that so many poets (more and more, it seems to me) are also editors themselves. That DIY attitude goes back long before the internet. It is why poetry is so exciting and it helps keep it open. And the best editors, of course, take their pastoral responsibilities very seriously indeed. But magazines and small presses all need a steady stream of material to maintain their profile. And if we’re not editing, then we’re running workshops, or mentoring, and the end point of these schemes is often, implicity or explicitly, to speed up a poet’s ‘arrival’.

More and more of us, in short, are invested in saying ‘yes’, when the answer the poet really needs might be ‘later’. And yes, I’m aware of what a hostage to fortune that is…

1 I’m afraid I ran out of ovine metaphors.

Detail from ‘Strayed Sheep’ (also known as ‘Our English Coasts’) by William Holman Hunt, 1852.

The Quiet Part Loud

As far as I know Mark Antony Owen’s project iamb is one of a kind: an online journal which exclusively publishes poets reading their work. I was really glad to have three poems featured in the most recent edition. iamb was inspired by the Poetry Archive, but works like a magazine of new poetry. If I was the Poetry Archive (which is also a brilliant resource) I would be knocking on Mark’s door for help.

I think I have always had a funny relationship with the spoken word. I don’t, I tell myself, enjoy live readings: I’ve been writing poetry for over a decade and I can count the number I’ve been involved in on my fingers. The idea of an open mic, let alone a poetry ‘slam’, fills me with something like dread. Dread and, if I’m honest, a little distrust. There is a particular kind of poetry, written for performance, which has such a direct design on the listener that I’m suspicious of it. Perhaps too suspicious.

Poetry, after all, is impossible to detach from performance, on the page or off it. Perhaps what matters most is the environment in which the reading takes place. In poetry slams, which were popular when I was at university (I don’t know if they still are) the goal is to elicit the biggest immediate response. Hence pieces get written to manipulate the audience. But all art is a kind of manipulation. The question, surely is how provoke a reaction without treating your readers (or listeners) with contempt.

For me, reading poetry aloud rasies another occaisionally sensitive subject: memorability, whether it is increasingly rare in contemporary poetry (I think, on balance, it is), and whether that is something we should regret (I think we should). A common figure of fun for poets is the non-poetry reader who asks why the stuff doesn’t rhyme like the good old days. If only they knew better! Even mentioning rhyme is probably proof (so the exagerrated version of the argument goes) the person doesn’t understand what poetry’s about. We don’t have to worry about people like that.

But if you think of ‘rhyme’ as simply a word that stands, for the irregular reader, for every trick that makes a poem tick as a machine, then don’t they have a point? Memorability isn’t everything, and what I find memorable might not be what you find memorable. I don’t believe memorability is the same thing as form, either. Some of the most memorable poems break all the rules. All the same, I find it hard not to believe that a lack of interest in lodging lines into their readers heads from the very people who you might expect to care is one of the things that has contributed to poetry’s marginality over the years.

One of the most enjoyable part of the process with iamb was choosing the poems to include. Mark, very generously, gives you free reign. I found that invitation a powerful one. Suddenly the question wasn’t which were my ‘best’ poems – but which were the ones I most wanted to read. In doing so certain things came to the fore, none of which should really be a surprise – rhythm, rhyme and repetition (not just repetition within lines but across the poem).

I also took it as an opportunity to include an unpublished squib, ‘The Vandals Remove the Ark of the Covenant’, which (wrongly, perhaps) I hadn’t even thought of sending anywhere before, because it is a sort of so-called nonsense poem. Nonsense verse of course demands to be read aloud. A lot of my favourite poetry is nonsene verse – Edward Lear, Stevie Smith, Spike Milligan…

We live in a text-based world. When I read a book of poems it is usually in silence. But my interest in poetry has always had something to do with songs, with prayers, plays and children’s ryhmes. At some point those pleasures were sublimated almost entirely onto the page, but I don’t think, for me, the page makes much sense without them.