Kick-starting New Poems

In the post-holiday, January gloom (it’s been foggy every morning this week so far) and lousy weather, it can be difficult to find inspiration to start new writing projects and easy to sink into despondency. Here’s some ideas that might trigger new poems:

  • Pick a colour and write down images or themes associated with that colour, eg green is suggestive of new beginnings, red suggests passion (love or anger), blue is calming. If you walked into a room decorated primarily with that colour, what would it tell you about the person who lives or works there?
  • List your previous addresses – if you’re a frequent mover, stick to half a dozen – pick one address and random and chose an event unique to that address – perhaps you celebrated a milestone birthday or a new job, heard a piece of significant news – and write about it.
  • Pick one of your songs at random and write down what images or themes come to mind when you listen to it. Does a particular fragment of lyric stick in your mind? Is there a particular memory associated with that song?
  • Try re-writing a story from the viewpoint of a minor character or an inanimate object. Either chose an episode from a favourite book or film or a well-known tale. Sometimes changing the point of view can add a new perspective to the original.
  • Dig out the recipe for your favourite winter comfort food and think about the smells, tastes and textures of the individual ingredients and the final dish. Does it conjure up any particular memories or sensations? At what occasions have you cooked/eaten that dish? Is there a story linked to it?
  • Without staring or making someone feel uncomfortable, notice someone on your next journey or daily commute. Briefly, mentally note what they’re wearing and carrying. Later write down what you remember (what you remember doesn’t have to be accurate: you’re not writing about the person you saw, you’re creating fiction) and create a back-story for them, showing their character through their choice of clothes.
  • Small Stones: each day take a few moments to write down an observation. It might be nature-based, noticing snowdrops in the January sun, or a small act of kindness. Whether you polish your small stone into a pebble or leave it as a rough-hewn chunk is up to you, but collect enough of them and you might see a theme developing or at least have some notes ready for NaPoWriMo in April.
  • Get up from your desk and get some exercise. Sometimes doing something rhythmic such as walking, riding a bike or swimming, takes you away from the pressure to write. Sitting looking at a blank screen or blank piece of paper is the worst place to look for inspiration.
  • Read. If inspiration still seems slow, pick a poem from a book and magazine and either note its themes or an image to write a new poem of your own or write a response to the poem you’ve selected.

What do you find a useful source of ideas?

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How to Submit Poems to Poetry Magazines

If one of your New Year’s Resolutions was to submit more poems to magazines (or start submitting poems to magazines), here’s how:

Check for submission guidelines

These might be on the magazine’s website or in the magazine itself. If there aren’t any guidelines, use a standard submission format (keep reading).

Select your Poems carefully

It might feel like you’re making progress as a writer if you send out several batches of poems to a list of magazines, however, if you’re sending formal poems to magazines that prefer experimental poems, you’re wasting not only your time but the editors’ too.

At least try to read a copy of the magazine you want to submit too and not only get a feel for what poems they publish, but also the style, length and any preferences for formats. Ideally you’d subscribe to a few magazines so you can keep up to date with what’s getting published.

If there are no submission guidelines, choose three to six suitable poems for submission.

Presentation Matters

You want to look professional. Any elaborate fonts, images imbedded in documents or pretty-coloured paper will mark you out as an amateur. Editors would like to read your poems so keep the presentation plain and simple and let the poems speak for themselves.

  • Use a plain white or off-white background or paper
  • Use a true-type font such as Verdana, Times New Roman or Arial
  • Type each poem on a new page (use the Ctrl and Enter function in Word)
  • Avoid typing two spaces after a full stop or period. Touch typists might have to unlearn this habit
  • Unless you use an initial capital at the beginning of each line, turn off the ‘start each sentence with a capital’ function on your word processor and double check your word processor hasn’t defaulted to copying the format of the previous line and inserted an initial or lower case capital contrary to your intention
  • If you’ve used a letter with an accent, umlaut, etc, search for ‘Character Map’ and copy and paste the required letter from there if you’re using Word because Word uses its own special characters which don’t always copy and paste into an email and may not show up properly on an editor’s screen – this is particularly important if you are copying and pasting your poems into the body of an email rather than sending in an attachment
  • Poems are generally single-spaced with a double space between stanza unless the format of the poem itself calls for a different layout
  • Put your name, address and email address on each page even if submitting electronically. Some editors may still print off your submission and pages will get separated
  • Double check and correct any spelling or typing errors
  • Save your document in the right format – most magazines will take Word Documents (use .doc extension) but check the guidelines

Covering Letter/Email

Always send a covering letter. It need not say more than, “Please find attached/below poems for consideration for publication,” but it’s better than a bunch of poems turning up in an editor’s inbox with no indication that they were a submission for their magazine. Double check you’ve got the name of the magazine and the editor(s) right before hitting send.

Including a list of publication successes is not necessary, but if you do include one, keep it brief and to the most important or most recent.

If the submission guidelines ask for a writer’s biography, keep within the guideline word count. If a word count is not given, keep your writer’s biography to a 50 maximum. Reading previous issues of a magazine will give you an idea of how long and what format you biography should be in.

If a biography is not asked for in the submission guidelines or there were no guidelines, you don’t need to include one.

Before Sending

  • Give your submission a final proof read, check you’ve got the email address, magazine name and editors’ names correct
  • Double check you’ve complied with any submission guidelines, especially note if the editor takes attachments or wants poems in the body of an email – you don’t want a rejection simply because an editor doesn’t open attachments
  • Make a note of what poems you’re sending where
  • If you’re posting your poems, enclose an SAE with sufficient postage for your submission to be returned and a big enough envelope for your submission to be folded no more than twice to fit (the editor may simply not bother replying rather than using their origami skills to let you know their response)
  • Send and good luck!

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A Poem a Day in September 2013

September was also a month for writing a poem a day, although via a closed poetry group on Facebook, unlike the international NaPoWriMo in April. I took the challenge on and have listed the titles of my poems drafted during the month below.

Do any of the titles grab attention?

01 Soar Valley Way
02 I’m tired of the colour orange
03 Stationary Transports
04 Why schedule road works for the school holidays?
05 Anniversary by an Oak
06 Querying a Birthmother’s Catechism [nothing to do with Carrie Etter’s similarly titled poem]
07 [Untitled] – this won’t be its final title, just an indication this poem is still a very rough draft and so doesn’t have a title yet
08 It’s a café window with frosted glass
09 I won’t do the interview you requested
10 I am developing an envy of the doormat
11 Sunburn on an Overcast Day
12 Things I learnt on Pinterest
13 Movements in Scarborough
14 Narrow Gauge
15 So an American singer bought a ring belonging to Jane Austen
16 Exhaust
17 She’s published her story
18 Smile, Baby
19 A Blackwork Heart in Coral
20 On hearing the theme tune to “Dallas”
21 Approaching a Second Anniversary
22 In a conservative meeting room
23 The Replacement Sofa (working title, likely to change)
24 At Scarborough Castle
25 I woke up in someone else’s life
26 The Magpies Lied
27 Ghost Dance
28 She hated talking about the old days
29 Mark Darcy had to Die
30 The Rabbit Hole, wherever I find it

Now I have a pile of poems to edit… and my blog posting schedule might become more regular.

The advantage of doing this as a closed poetry group was the opportunity to workshop the poems without the poems being considered published (and therefore not eligible for submission to poetry magazines or entry to competitions).

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Poets and Recognition through Publishing

Salt’s announcement that it’s no longer publishing single poet collections but focusing on its anthologies, came with a press quote: “There’s never been a better time for poets to write”. Note the emphasis on “to write”, not “to find an audience” or “for poetry to be read” or “for poets to find readers.”

Unfortunately, it’s true. There’s never been a better time to start writing poetry. There’s been an expansion in creating writing courses from one-off workshops to postgraduate courses in Creative Writing, an increase in mentoring programmes, arts organisations are offering conferences in how to market using social media or how to be a writer in residence (for those who can find both the funds and time to attend) and more of a poetry presence in healthcare settings as well as more poetry prizes, particularly in regional and local competitions. The writer Blake Morrison recently observed that “there are still writers who make their way without ever having gone on a creative writing course. But whereas once they were the majority, now they’re becoming the exception. That’s in part because literary agents and publishers have begun looking to creative writing programmes to find new talent.”

In its last round of funding decisions, Arts Council England scrapped annual funding for poetry presses such as Arc, Enitharmon and Flambard and made a huge increase in funding support for writer development schemes. That’s writer development schemes, not reader development schemes.

Competition for the few publishing slots there are is fierce, which in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but where are all these creative writing graduates and emergent writers going to find their audiences?

There’s a difference between writing and getting published. One doesn’t, and shouldn’t, necessarily follow the other. Writing something doesn’t entitle the writer to see that something published. Writing a poem is about creating the best poem. Publishing is about attracting a readership or selling books. It doesn’t just consider the merits of the poems themselves, but also whether the poet can do publicity and do so without any support from a publisher with a zero marketing budget. It doesn’t help that poetry review outlets are diminishing as well: those that are left receiving far more poetry books, pamphlets and magazines than they can review.

So if poets need a form of recognition other than getting published, what form should that recognition take?

Not all poets are natural performers or teachers. Not earning money from poetry means earning money elsewhere which means less time writing and editing poems. For those that say poetry is a vocation, do it as a hobby without the expectation of earnings: fine, just don’t expect very good poems to result. Brilliant writing doesn’t happen overnight, if poets can’t find time to practise, they can’t improve. If you spend eight hours a day in a job to pay the bills, eight hours sleeping plus time on family and other commitments, time on the administration side of being a poet (accounting, sending out poems to editors, dealing with editors’ responses, etc) that doesn’t leave much time to actually write, practise and improve.

Not all writers will want to undertake a postgraduate creative writing course either, whether through lack of time, lack of funds or knowing that an academic course isn’t the best way of learning for them. What about those exceptions, now a minority, who made their way as poets without attending a creative writing course? The merry-go-round of attending a course and earning by teaching and/or performing doesn’t leave much time to write let alone develop a readership. Poets need readers and, if established poetry presses can’t find readers, how will individual poets?

Currently a single poet collection will sell less than a thousand copies. Bricks-and-mortar shops rarely stock single author collections beyond the bigger names from larger publishers. Book sellers, suspicious of vanity and self-published books, are very reluctant to even take books by local poets. Online ordering is relatively easy, but wholly reliant on the buyer knowing the book exists. It’s very difficult for a casual browser to discover a poetry book.

Salt’s decision is not surprising and it should act as a wake-up call to those who think developing writers without developing a readership is a good thing.

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Who do you write for?

Do you write for yourself or for readers?

Purely in terms of writing, there’s nothing wrong with either approach. When considering publishing the piece of writing you’ve been working on, there’s a big difference. Two things have prompted me to think about this question recently. Firstly writing thirty draft poems during April. Secondly a long comment made on one of my reviews.

To comply with NaPoWriMo’s target of 30 draft poems in 30 days, the focus has been solely on getting a draft written free of concerns about whether the result, after editing, would be publishable or not. The task now is a sifting through of these drafts and deciding which ones do offer a reader something and which are more personal and not worth trying to get published.

In the comment on my review, the writer explained what she was trying to achieve with her poems and wrote about what she was doing and why she’d chosen the approach she’d taken. What puzzled me was that I stopped reading her comment part-way through and had to go back and read it again to try and understand why I found it difficult to read.

It wasn’t the writing, the style or the vocabulary she used: it was the focus.

Writers talking about their own writing often do sound pretentious or precious. All artists do, simply because the finished piece has to stand on its own merit. To an audience it doesn’t matter if you dashed off a poem in ten minutes or spent months agonising about the comma in line three. What matters to them is whether the poem’s any good. Talking about how you wrote your poem is irrelevant and doesn’t act as a guide to whether it’s any good. The method might be interesting to other writer or to someone who wants to learn to write, but to a reader it’s meaningless. Some writers will happily talk about their methods, but most know that such a conversation isn’t going to add anything to the finished poem so they find it awkward.

This was why I had to read the comment on my review again. I’d switched off because it was all about the writer, what she’d tried to achieve and how she’d tried to achieve it. Not once did she mention the reader or give any indication that a reader might be involved in her work. I’d stopped reading because I’d felt excluded.

Once a piece of work is published, readers are definitely involved. Readers are individuals with their own emotional baggage, their own ideas and their own responses to what they are reading. If your poem mentions a swan, some will see a swan on a lake, some will see images from the ballet Swan Lake, some might think of Leda’s story, some might think of Proust and at least one will remember the time they were attacked and chased because they got too close to a nest. Whatever it was your swan was to represent, it needs you to communicate that so your reader is guided towards your intentions because if you don’t, the person remembering being attacked is not thinking about a swan’s grace and about to think your poem’s failed. It takes a writer’s skill to guide and communicate to a reader.

When I look through my NaPoWriMo drafts, I won’t just be looking for poems that are technically competent or that carry an important message, but for poems that can reach out and draw a reader in. They’ll be the ones I’ll be working on to bring up to a publishable standard. I know before I look that there are three that are only written for me. They will be edited, but they won’t be published. I’m the sole reader; they won’t appeal to a wider audience so I won’t seek to get them a wider audience.

That’s the difference. There’s nothing wrong with writing for yourself, but if you aren’t writing for readers, there’s little point in trying to publish that work. When seeking to get work published and reviewed, you need to ask who you’re writing for and whether your writing involves readers.

Most writers start by writing for themselves whether that’s the book they wanted to read or because a poem won’t leave them alone. But when the editing process begins, that’s when most writers start looking at markets and readers and begin looking at what they’ve written with a readership in mind.

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Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel”

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

This year the 11 February saw both the 50th anniversary of the publication of “The Bell Jar” and the 50th anniversary of the death of its author, Sylvia Plath. Whilst her death was undeniably tragic, I can’t see Sylvia Plath’s life as one of tragedy. In my review of the film “Sylvia” I argued that her life was not foreshadowed by her death. Even “Ariel”, the collection she was working on just before her death, contains moments of joy. The first poem, “Morning Song” ends, “Your handful of notes/ The clear vowels rise like balloons.”

I was introduced to Sylvia Plath’s work by a Ted Hughes poem, “You hated Spain”. School taught me that men wrote poems about war. Either women didn’t write poems or women’s poems weren’t worth studying. I didn’t believe either option. When I read “You hated Spain”, I wanted to find out more about this woman whose poems were yet to be written. I started with “Ariel” and worked backwards. Finally: proof that not only could a woman write poetry but also that she was worth studying.

I don’t believe you either have to be “pro Sylvia” or “pro Ted”, I enjoy poetry by both poets and don’t blame Ted Hughes for Sylvia Plath’s death. She’d left the manuscript for her “Ariel” poems carefully organised so the first poem started with the word “love” and the last ended on “Spring”.

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Ted Hughes faced a difficult task. Unable to see into the future and predict if there would be enough demand for him to be able to persuade a publisher to publish any further posthumous books by his late, estranged wife, did he alter her manuscript to include her most recent poems or did he go with her original order and risk the most recent poems being left unpublished? With hindsight, it’s easy to say he should have left her manuscript alone. But now both versions are in print: Ted Hughes’s arrangement and Sylvia Plath’s original. Readers can make their own minds up.

In this 50th anniversary year, I’d strongly recommend readers do read the original Sylvia Plath. It’s what I’ll be doing.

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Write a Sonnet

Go on: look out of your window and set the scene. Don’t worry about iambic pentameters yet, just write what you see: you can shape it later. Now pick a specific object, a bird, an animal, a car, and write the scene from their viewpoint. Use this as the basis for your volta, the turn that lies at the heart of the sonnet, and draw a conclusion. Now you’ve notes for your sonnet, shape it.

Decide on your rhyme scheme, look at your stress patterns, shape them into iambic pentameters and read it aloud. Does it scan? Can it be read without your tongue twisting? Look at the logic, does it make sense? Check the grammar and punctuation. Double-check the spelling.

You have completed a useful creative writing exercise, but do you have a poem?

Paul Lee once commented, “sound and syntax are every bit as important as sense. More so, I would say, otherwise how is poetry different from prose? I read a lot of poetry that is prose masquerading as poetry. It’s like throwing the potato out with the peelings. And I hear so few writers saying how much they enjoy writing. I can only remember Simon Armitage saying how much he loved writing, and he meant that word ‘loved’. He also said how much he hated being a writer. Usually I hear what a pain it is. Well, why bother then? Is it because you want to be a writer, rather than write?

“Can creativity, can this sense of joy, be taught? I’m not sure ‘taught’ is the right word. I think you can try to awaken it, and that it’s never too late. I know of poets who did not start until late into their fifties or sixties, and who were published. The oldest I know is into her nineties, and still writing.

“I didn’t start to get published until I’d re-united the two halves of my brain. That’s the other lesson for writers, I think. You have to learn to sweat, you have to learn the craft, poets just as much as other writers. There’s more to poetry than just the line. Otherwise, again, how is it different to prose? And craft can be taught.

“In this process, I learned that I am predominantly a poet who employs stress, rhythm, and rhyme. I like structure, I like regular stanzas. I’m concerned about the shape and appearance of the poem on the page. I’m decidedly on the side of form, and like writing villanelles, sonnets, triolets, pantoum and haiku. I’ve written a sestina, and won’t for a long time again. I’m currently playing around with the rondeau form. I admire poets who write in rhyming tercets, terza rima, but haven’t yet myself, simply because I’ve not yet written a poem that called for that form. BUT, I don’t force them. I let the poem dictate its own form. If it insists on writing itself as prose, I let it, so long as it’s poetic. I indulge in pure wordplay.”

Look at your sonnet again. It may technically be a sonnet with its fourteen lines, volta, iambic pentameters and rhymes. It was a useful exercise as the best way to understand the sonnet form is to write sonnets. Even poets who predominately use free verse benefit from understanding the foundations of a recognised form and developing an appreciation for the technical side of poetry.

But I doubt very much your sonnet (no matter how accomplished it is as a sonnet) is a poem. Chances are your sonnet was rather flat and observational. Your window-view is similar to a million other window-views so, unless you teased out that detail that makes your street scene so vividly memorable, it’s unlikely you have a poem.

A poem is not simply the sum of its parts. Adding rhythm, rhyme, assonance, alliteration and/or other poetic devices to prose and subtracting padding, ornate descriptions, consciously poetic phrases won’t equal a poem. Underlying a poem is a desire to communicate, a need to say something. Without that, it’s just an exercise in technical skill.

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About a Deer: Poetry and Plagiarism

Write a poem about deer.

OK, you don’t have to actually write a poem, but think about the processes involved in writing a poem on a specified topic. Brainstorm and scribble a few phrases about:

  • A deer’s appearance, its most striking features and colouring
  • Its habitat
  • Other wildlife that share a deer’s habitat
  • Personal memories of encountering deer or the management of deer herds
  • Using the deer or its habitat as a metaphor

First thoughts tend to focus on the immediately obvious. For a deer’s appearance that’s the fur, the soft eyes, hard hooves and possibly antlers with a colour palette based around brown. Its habitat is a forest where it lives alongside typical British wildlife. Personal memories might involve a walk through a forest, walking in the grounds of a stately home, witnessing or participating in a hunt or a childhood memory of watching an adult’s reaction to the deer. Perhaps you’ve scribbled some remembered phrases from reading about deer in the past.

All of these initial thoughts now require further exploration. This might involve researching images and facts about deer, reading up on British countryside and wildlife. Or scouring poetry collections, anthologies and magazines for poems about deer for inspiration.

Perhaps your keep copies of poems you particularly like and type them up so you can refer to them easily or to try to deconstruct successful poems to work out what makes them successful. If you are in the habit of doing this, include the poet’s name so you (and others looking through your notebooks and computer files) know who the original poet is.

It is entirely probable that among your notes you’ve included a line or phrase from someone else’s work. Even if you can’t place its source, you’ll know it’s not yours. Poets who read poetry will both consciously and sub-consciously pick up imagery and phrasing that strikes them and find themselves borrowing someone else’s phrase in the process of drafting a poem until a new, more personal image or phrase is found which does a better job.

Writing out someone else’s poem to use as source text for inspiration is not plagiarism, providing the resulting poem is new and recognisably in the voice of the poet writing the new poem. Taking a source text, making a few changes such as altering the location, changing the gender of a person mentioned within and altering a couple of phrases so the new poem is still recognisably based on the source text is plagiarism.

Recently the organisers of the Hope Bourne Poetry Prize found the poem their judges had selected as the prize-winner was in fact a close copy of a poem by Helen Mort, “The Deer”, which had won the Café Writers Open Poetry Competition in 2009. Both original poem and copy can be read on Matt Merritt’s blog (scroll down to the comments section). The copyist has apologised, but only after “This is Cornwall” published the story.

With plagiarism, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. Having your poem stolen by someone else is not flattering. Saying so is akin to telling a burglary victim they should be flattered someone thought their house was worth breaking into or that their possessions must have been worth stealing. That more people have now read the original poem isn’t much comfort either unless those people start buying books and magazines featuring the poet.

If anything positive has come from this situation, it’s the resulting discussion and awareness raised about the issue of plagiarism, both what it is and the fact that no one should benefit from it.

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Does Sentiment Make a Poem?

The Leicester Mercury published a poem, a very rare occurrence. The poem concerned was clearly heartfelt and of monumental importance to its author, Yvonne Clegg, in memory of her son Ashley.  She happened to show it to a police officer who asked if it could be used to use in schools as a warning. Mrs Clegg is aware that most children will ignore it, but thought if it encourages a few children to listen, it was worthwhile.

It is loaded with sentiment. However, sentiment alone does not make a good poem. No matter how heartfelt the subject, it still has to work as a poem.

As a reader who doesn’t know the family at all, but understands the tragic waste of a young life, I wanted a better feel for who Ashley was. In the poem he “enjoyed his young life going judo, Cubs. His life full of fun,/ had lots of friends and enjoyed the sun,” he grew up and “As time went on the girls would fall,/ for Ashley was now blond, blue-eyed and six foot tall./ He would be out clubbing with all his mates,/ having a good time on a few good dates.” His mother thought the world of him, but who was he? Did he give up judo and why? Which clubs did he go to? As they stand these are rather generic descriptions that don’t get to the heart of what made this man Ashley rather than one of his mates.

His mother’s bafflement at her son’s addiction and the isolation both she and he felt are captured. Readers don’t learn anymore about addiction itself: that’s beyond the scope of the poem.

The author’s chosen rhyming couplets but not all couplets rhyme and the rhythm is loose. It’s safe to say it won’t win any literary prizes.

Should it have been published? And should the police be using it?

I’m torn. Being able to share real-life experiences with children is a good thing, mainly because it not just another adult telling them not to do something. However, I wonder if Ashley wouldn’t have been better served by a good poem.

What are your thoughts?

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Why isn’t fiction tackling relevant, contemporary themes?

Or where are all the poems about Iraq or Afghanistan? Or why aren’t novelists writing about the Eurozone crisis? Or why has there only been only play (so far) about last summer’s riots?

I’ve heard various variations on these themes frequently recently. The fact is, writers are tackling and writing about these themes and other contemporary issues but readers aren’t able to read them yet because:

  • there’s a necessary time lag between writing and publication
  • publishers and editors can’t predict the future
  • the best writing doesn’t occur in either during the event or in its immediate aftermath
  • fiction is not journalism.

Let’s look at each in turn:

Time Lag between Writing and Publication

It’s impossible to be a writer and critic simultaneously. It takes time to polish and hone writing to the best possible standard. There needs to be a separation between writing a poem and editing the poem (and don’t even think that a first draft might be good enough: it never is). Therefore rushing off a first draft to an editor or publisher is a good way of guaranteeing rejection. You wouldn’t dash out for a job interview in the clothes you wear to do DIY without researching the job you’re being interviewed for, so don’t be unprofessional in approaching editors.

Editors and publishers often feel instinctively when a submitted piece is right for publication, but still may like to take time to think it over and check they are making the right decision. Even if an editor or publisher does make an instant decision, they can’t make an instant publication.

Editors have to wait for the next available issue of a poetry magazine. Even a quarterly magazine still might involve a three month wait and that assumes your relevant, contemporary poem will fit with the next issue and not be held over until the issue afterwards.

It generally takes at least two years to publish a novel. Publishers schedule that far in advance so that they are not launching books within days of each other, that a marketing plan can be put in place, publicity and review copies are sent out in advance and that staff have a flow of work. Priority will go to authors who the publisher has previously worked with and who can produce books with a proven track record. A first time novelist will go to the back of the queue, even for a novel on a big contemporary theme.

Publishers and Editors can’t predict the future

No one likes to look stupid and where there is no predictable outcome, there is also a natural hesitancy about committing to publishing a book about a current event that might turn out to be mistaken about cause and/or effect.

The best writing doesn’t occur either during the event or in its immediate aftermath

Wilfred Owen did most of his writing at Craiglockhart. He may have jotted down notes or lines of poems whilst at war, but the actual writing was done when recuperating in a convalescence home where he had time, space to consider what he was writing and a trusted reader to spur him to write better. Keith Douglas edited his poems went back in England, not at El Alamein.

Writing that gets under the skin of an event, gets to know it, gets to explore it and gets to examine cause and effect, will not be written in the immediate aftermath. It takes time and emotional distance to produce a piece of good writing.

Fiction is not journalism

Writing that reports what happens, no matter how eloquently or beautifully, is not fiction. A poem that merely describes an event is not a poem but a description of an event. A story that records an event as it happened is not fiction but reportage.

Fiction is not just inventing characters or a narrator and putting them in the thick of a significant, newsworthy event. Fiction enables readers to empathise with characters, to explore and understand why events happened the way they did and allows readers to explore their own feeling about those events and further their understanding.

Research has shown that reading fiction can foster empathy, equipping the reader with skills to understand real people around them by relating to and understanding perspective of fictional characters. Studies have been made at Washington and Lee University into whether fiction can provide prosocial models and influence behaviour in the short term. Mere reporting of facts can’t do this.

People caught up in events don’t have the gift of hindsight or the ability to separate and analyse their emotional response. A writer may know that they will write about an event they are experiencing, but they won’t know how. It takes emotional distance and time to be able to think through and around an event and reactions to it.

There are poems about Iraq and Afghanistan, there are stories about the Eurozone crisis and stories about last summer’s riots, but it’s unlikely you’ll be reading them in the near future.

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