“Love and Loss and Other Important Stuff” Jonathan Pinnock (Silhouette Press) – poetry review

The title suggests this is not a serious collection. It does, however, tackle serious subjects, e.g. “this Is just To be meta” could be filed under ‘love’ (complete poem):

“I have deleted
the William Carlos Williams parody
that was in
your Dropbox

and which
you were probably
saving
for somewhere literary

Forgive me
it was a bit crap
so hackneyed
and so cliched”

The irony is clearly intentional and the last stanza could apply to this poem as well as the deleted one. It has a satisfying completeness that is sometimes lacking in other humorous poems where the poet is so busy building towards the punchline that, once the reader’s got the joke, there’s no need to read the poem again. Like other initial poems, it plays on the limitations of poetic forms and those restrictions are as much part of the joke as the words employed.

Naturally the other big topic for poetry is ‘loss’, frequently through bereavement. “Imitation of a Suicide” relies on readers knowing that Millais’ painting “Ophelia” (from “Hamlet”) was based on model Lizzie Siddal lying in a bath. Millais wasn’t aware that the heating lamps had gone out and Lizzie suffered a bout of pneumonia as a result. Lizzie was Rosetti’s lover and, scandalously for the time, he refused to marry her. The poem begins,

“Lizzie floats in the freezing bath,
dreaming of slippery tadpoles,
carried home in a jar
to upset her little brothers.”

Tadpoles grow into frogs that Lizzie has to kiss to find her prince and the poem ends,

“Now she finds herself
in the midst of veritable royalty:
artists like this man Millais.
Such talent they all have,
such skill, such genius.

Such carelessness.

And too late she will realise,
like Ophelia herself,
that a prince can let you down
the same as any other man.”

So that’s ‘love’ and ‘loss’ covered. ‘Other important stuff’? How about Philosophy? In “The Orange Girl and the Philosopher,” the philosopher asks the girl what she does and she reels off a list: singer, model, perfumer, fashion designer, charity work, two children’s books, three autobiographies, working on a novel and thinking of scriptwriting while,

“The old man looked at her, marvelling at
her orange skin tones, and wondering what
you could fill three autobiographies with. Then
he tore a hunk of bread off his roll, and ate it
in silence.

‘So what do you do?’ she said, eventually.

‘I’m a philosopher,’ he said, in a tired, old voice.
‘I look at the world and try to understand how
it works, so we can use that information to lead
better lives.’

‘Oh,’ said the girl. ‘I did that once.

.                                                          Didn’t like it.'”

The humour throughout is underpinned by an intelligent playfulness reminiscent of Tom Lehrer’s songs which also played with forms of expression and common phrases. Like those songs, Jonathan Pinnock’s poems allow readers to laugh along or recognise the underlying serious point being made. That’s the strength of these poems: they have something to say which gives them a depth beyond simply making the audience laugh.

“Love and Loss and Other Important Stuff” by Jonathan Pinnock is published by Silhouette Press.

How Not to Organise a Book Launch

Close and Lock the Venue

Nothing says “Go Away!” more than a venue that’s not only closed (lights off, no signs of movement inside) but locked shut, unless you also:

Fail to Display Posters

Not only is the venue closed and locked shut but there’s no poster or sign on the door that the event is going ahead. In fact, the whole set-up screams “Cancelled!”

Even if warm and dry, it’s not a good idea to leave your audience hanging around outside, especially if there’s nowhere to sit because some people can’t stand for long.

Don’t tell the Audience which Entrance will be Open

For security or logistics, it might be that only one entrance will be used for the event. However, if the audience is used to all entrances being open or regularly use one of the entrances which will be shut on the night, a poster/sign would help.

It shouldn’t be left to audience members to suggest/tell event coordinators to check that no one’s been left standing outside a closed entrance either.

Don’t let the Audience know the Event’s Format

Will there be a reading? A speech? Or is the audience just supposed to stand around, mingle and hopefully buy a few books? Most of us don’t do telepathy and no one likes to be made to feel stupid and have to ask.

Assume the Audience are Alcoholic

Some of them will be designated drivers, some don’t like wine, may be recovering alcoholics or simply not feel like drinking. When alcohol drinkers have choice, but the non-drinkers are offered that one jug of warm water that only fills four wine glasses, it’s a good way of making them feel alien.

Only Allow the Audience to Buy Copies of One Book

Book launch audiences tend to be avid readers and book buyers. Why would anyone want to limit their choice to only buying copies of the book being launched, particularly when the launch is happening in a book store? A click or two on a smartphone app, they’ve bought those books from an online retailer, most likely while standing in the store (so they don’t forget which books caught their eye when they get home), and those sales are lost.

The actual book launch was brilliant. The venue… well I won’t be encouraged to hold a launch there.

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“Elsewhere” Jack Little (Eyewear) – poetry review

Jack Little Elsewhere book coverJack Little left England in 2010 to live in Mexico City. He arrived speaking little Spanish and little knowledge of the country he is now a citizen of, having made it his home. His Spanish is now fluent. “Elsewhere” explores some of that transition from England to Mexico: the title poem starts “Searching his pockets/ he left and learnt new languages/ in a city with a name he could/ not pronounce” and ends,

“and when purple night sank her boats
and the lights went out with rain,
he withdrew himself from the magic of elsewhere
and rejoined the boys of home –
the language of his father crisp and warm,

but of another time.”

It captures that limbo state of still being an outsider in his new home, but still having links to family in England with regular Skyped conversations. The shortened vowels in the first three lines give way to the longer vowels in the last three with “elsewhere” effectively acting as a pivot, signaling the change in rhythm. “Magic” suggests enchantment and a sense of welcome in this new land whilst “of another time” suggests a loosening of family ties which could be as much to do with growing up as geographical distance. “Night Sky” explores his associations with his new land, rooted his desire to travel and explore in childhood,

“my mind awaits them all, the visits of feather capped
gods of heavy ancientness, the smell of other
worlds that cling to my bedclothes: the heat of night
and journeys to far away temples of unknown sun people….

.                I await Bogotá
.                I await Lima
.                Barranquilla, Brasilia, Managua, Burcaramanga….

Asunción… and on and on – all memories learnt
from news stories, a crack of light breaking the sky
and reminding me of the classroom globes of childhood.”

Not all the poems are about an Englishman abroad. “Russian Doll Falling” (complete poem),

A Russian doll is an easy metaphor,
.             in its death dance
spinning on cold wooden edges
.             ’til tipping point

Until you break, until you crack in twos, fours…
.             smooth and lipstick red, matryoshka doll:
coffee cool wooden carvings on the inside
.             a chrysalis, a surprise of nesting air.”

The cool, carefully kept exterior breaks into emptiness underneath. In “The Last Train to London” two people are waiting on the platform and indulging in the English custom of avoiding eye contact,

“I am an extra in the movie of his life, a biopic of one
of the greats, and I play ‘man on platform’.

I count grey floor tiles to make up seconds
until the final scene when the fat fall moon
will reflect from the gentleman’s lenses
and he will glance at me before checking his watch

and I will be validated.”

The final poem, “Swimming Lessons” looks at the contrasts of England and Mexico and ends,

“and what if the rooftop was not not keep
rain out? But to be bathed on, sum bathed
washed in light, watch the ants float by
I swear this is an ocean and I am learning to swim.”

The different purposes of rooftops might have been a more interesting title but would miss the key point of the poem, that “learning to swim”. Swimming isn’t just about the coordination of limbs and the mechanics of strokes, but also being able to read the water and trust that the water will support the swimming. It’s an apt metaphor. You can live in a country by learning its language, but to really immerse yourself in it enough to want to make it a home, you have to learn its cultures, customs and routines. Jack Little’s immersion in Mexico has strengthened his poems.

“Elsewhere” is available from Eyewear.


Jazz-inspired poetry at Leicester Central Library to celebrate what would have been Ella Fitzgeralds 100th birthday

Writing Genres – an indicator of Writing Talent?

Genres are useful to readers. A reader interested in thrillers is likely to be delighted in finding new thriller writers. A reader that likes experimental poetry is unlikely to be interested in an anthology of poems about nature inspired by Wordsworth. A reader that likes poet A may like poet B who writes in a similar style or on similar topics. A reader who likes a poetry book from a certain publisher would do well to explore the either books from that publisher since poetry publishers are either sole proprietors or a small team of editors with similar tastes. That won’t hold true for someone buying a novel from Penguin Random House. Categorising writing by genre is a useful signpost for readers who want to browse a book shop without checking every book on the (virtual) shelves.

Genres work less well when the categorisation is done by the writer, not the writing. A reader interested in one women writer won’t necessarily like all women writers. A reader interested in books set in South Africa won’t want to restrict themselves to reading only books set in South Africa written by South African writers since that would exclude books by writers set in South Africa who don’t identify as South African but may be living there and/or writing from extensive knowledge and research.

It can also trap writers into writing what’s expected of them or feeling straitjacketed into a specific genre. Some writers don’t want to experiment with genre, just like a pop princess isn’t going to write a death metal classic. But others do and it isn’t always sensible or practical to invent another identity just because book 2 is in a different genre to book 1. Sometimes what initially looked like a great idea for a romance turns into a psychological thriller on execution. It’s not a failure to admit your latest sonnet actually works better as a sestina or that your habit of writing free verse occasionally gets interrupted by a villanelle.

Genres stop being useful when they stop guiding readers to books they will enjoy and become a way of restricting writers. It’s even less useful to pretend there is a hierarchy of genres, as if writing in one genre is more difficult to achieve than writing in another or one genre is superior to another. This pretence of superiority allows writers to be sidelined because writers whose books are not considered literary fiction are assumed to be inferior. It allows poets to be asked when they are going to write a “proper book”, i.e. a novel. This hierarchy dismisses readers who don’t want their next choice of a book to be a challenging read but want to be entertained, terrified, swept away, taken to new worlds or discover a great new poet from the safety of their beach holiday.

What makes writing talent is a combination of two things: gift and craft. An innate love of words and desire to communicate stories will get you started but will only get you so far. A writer needs to learn their craft: how to shape a story or poem and how to develop their writing skills. A singer may have perfect pitch but they still need to learn the lyrics, how to regulate their breathing so they don’t run out of breath mid-way through a song and project their voice. The gift needs to be supported by technical ability. Craft is about cutting superfluity, honing the story or poem back to its essentials, allowing poem or story to find its form, creating fully dimensional characters and keeping a reader hooked. It is possible to write a technically perfect poem or story that’s boring to read because it’s too predictable or it tells us what we already know. A person who wants to write can learn the mechanics of writing but without the talent to explore divergent ways of thinking will fail to give their writing the spark to hook and keep a reader’s interest. Just as the best figure skaters combine artistic impression and technical merit, the best writers combine talent and craft.

No one genre is superior to another. Different genres have different purposes and place different demands on writers, but readers don’t read books for the same reason. Some want the writer to focus on the story and don’t care too much about the elegance of the prose. Some want the writer to focus on the scientific details and don’t care too much about the characters. Some want elegant, experimental prose and don’t care too much about the story. Some only want to see poems written in traditional forms and will reject anything that doesn’t rhyme.

Dismissing one genre as inferior to another is like dismissing someone else’s choice of an apple instead of an orange. Maybe they don’t like oranges. Maybe they’ll choose an orange tomorrow. If you plant an orange seed alongside an apple seed outdoors in the English climate, only one will grow. That doesn’t mean the orange seed lacked the potential to grow. It means that the conditions weren’t right for the orange seed. The conditions of a genre may suit one writer but not another, that does not indicate a lack of talent.

Be Wary of Writing Advice that begins “Don’t”

We all have our bugbears and prejudices. Most of us are aware of what works in our own writing. Those writers who read widely have the advantage of knowing what’s currently trendy/frowned upon and can tailor our writing to suit. Reviewers have the advantage of knowing that what’s trendy now won’t be in five years’ time and what’s frowned upon now may well become trendy in five years’ time. The rhymed/free verse, page/performance debates have circled inconclusively numerous times.

But most writing advice given on this blog has been done so in terms of how to do something. When I use ‘don’t’ it’s in the context of ‘don’t disadvantage your poems by not following guidelines’ or ‘don’t turn up at an open mic with an armful of bangles which will bang against each other and drown out your reading’.

What I do not do is dictate how you should write or how you should perform your poems. I do not recommend you follow exactly what I say. I do recommend you read my advice and follow your own instinct.

When a writer says “Don’t use these words” or “Don’t use this device”, it’s time to evaluate what’s actually being said.

  • Often it points to reader fatigue: the writer is simply tired of reading over-used words or the same plot devices occurring again and again.
  • Sometimes a writer is urging others to avoid one of their bugbears.
  • Sometimes a writer wants others to pander to their prejudices.
  • Sometimes a writer can be quoted out of context.
  • Sometimes a writer has developed ‘big fish in a small pond’ syndrome.

It’s good to avoid cliches and it’s generally good to stick to the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule but there are occasions when the word ‘shard’ is not only the best fit but also the most appropriate word, where ‘medicated sweet for sore throats’ is too clumsy when ‘lozenge’ conveys it better, where telling the reader doesn’t hold up the plot (particularly in a fast-paced fight scene). But it’s also good to examine the words you are using to ensure they are the best ones in the context of your poem. It’s good to examine if the plot device you’re using is the best one available or whether you’re just introducing it because your favourite author uses it.

Be wary of altering your writing to fit someone else’s preconceptions. Writers do tailor what they write for the market they have in mind, but a writer’s job is to communicate and you can’t do that if you take out a stanza that’s crucial to your poem or you give a minor character too much significance. Do listen to advice from writers you trust or advice offered by editors, but pick your battles, and don’t alter anything major.

Writers have to be aware of their own prejudices and limitations. You may be an expert on the 18th century, but that doesn’t qualify you to write about the 10th century. You may be biased towards nature poetry but don’t ignore urban poetry. When your characters speak, do they speak in character or do they become ciphers for your own views? When someone else comments on your work, do they do so from an open mind or a closed one?

Media reports are often second hand and deadlines can often get in the way of research. If you read an article about a lecture a writer has given, be aware the article’s aim is to draw a reader’s interest, probably with a clickbait headline. Where possible, put the article in context. Look at the examples the writer used. Was the writer giving an lecture on a specific topic to general students or was the lecture on a specific aspect of a writers’ publications to a special interest group. Was the writer actually saying “don’t do this” or “don’t do this unless you’ve carefully thought about why you’re using this device and it is in fact the most appropriate device to use.”

Some writers are reluctant to stray out of their comfort zones. They like teaching a group of students or they like running an open mic night or like chairing a workshop. Some don’t like going to groups organised by others or discussing work outside of a classroom, preferring instead to guide small groups towards a set way of thinking or critiquing work. They often become defensive if a newcomer asks questions or challenges a viewpoint. If you attend a group, course or workshop and feel you are being constrained or pushed towards writing in a certain style, it may not be a good idea to stay.

It’s always worth remembering words fall in and out of fashion, writing devices similarly become trendy and then overused, people have prejudices and bugbears, not all writers are media experts and some writers allow their own preconceived ideas about what a poem should be to influence the criticism and feedback they give to others. So, if another writer is saying ‘don’t’, evaluate what’s being said and decide on its relevance to your writing.

“The Institute” Vincent Bijlo (Holland Park Press) – novel review

34552597A novel from Dutch stand-up comedian and columnist translated by Susan Ridder, where readers meet Otto Iking, aged eleven, wannabee radio show host, who provides a droll look at life in an institute for blind children during the 1970s. Alongside the usual school lessons, the children are given instructions in how to use a white stick and read braille. Some children get transferred to mainstream schools, something Otto is ambivalent about: on one hand it’s something his parents would welcome, on the other he’s currently in a place where the children are more or less equally disadvantaged. With the exception of Edwin who has partial sight and likes kicking other children. Otto and Harry spend time planning all sorts of revenge schemes to deal with Edwin’s bullying, but, ironically, Otto deals with the Edwin problem by accident with better results than either he or Harry could have anticipated.

Other plots go wrong too. Otto denies buying cigarettes when accused by a member of staff because he’s not realised that the petrol station assistant put them in a clear plastic bag (the staff member lets him off though). He and Harry plan to be heroes in an elaborate plan involving a catering trolley, a moped (both stolen from staff) and a gun only to find the compass they thought they had was actually a thermometer and when they get to the petrol station to fill up the moped, they discover the problem they wanted to solve has already been solved. There’s also a disastrous camping trip…

The humour is interlaced with a poignant coming of age story. Returning home to recover from a fever, Otto discovers his parents’ marriage has become strained due to his mother’s increased drinking after losing her job due to substandard work which has further eroded what already seemed to be a precarious self-esteem. His mother talks of going on holiday on her own. His father hints that the holiday is a stint in rehab. While his mother is quick to dismiss a girl at the institute as “that podgy thing”, Otto’s crush on the girl, Sonja, seems to be reciprocated.

Throughout, Otto manages to keep up almost daily broadcasts on Radio Fed-Up, a one boy radio channel exclusively starring Otto. Otto never asks if any of the children listen to it, but, when a local TV station visits the institute to film a documentary about life there and Harry is selected for interview, Otto finds that not being a TV star gives him a chance to get involved in the broadcaster’s radio channel. The irony of being “a good voice for radio” isn’t lost on the readers but it is on Otto. In the end, Otto is forced to test his ambivalence when he’s given a choice to stay with his dysfunctional family and, most probably, ending up stuck at the institute or rejecting his family and taking responsibility for his future by allowing his move to a mainstream school.

“The Institute” is a bittersweet coming of age story, demonstrating that despite being institutionalised, the children adapt and generally turn out OK. Otto, in needing material for Radio Fed-Up sets himself up as a natural outsider and observer, recording the conversations, situations and rough-and-tumble of pre-teen life. Through Otto’s eyes, the staff seem like two-dimensional dimwits for the children to pit their wits against and win, but that’s entirely in keeping with the narrator’s viewpoint, which is credibly that of an eleven year old boy. The only character who is allowed to wallow in self-pity is Otto’s mother and even that doesn’t last long. The humour is balanced with tragedy so it doesn’t become relentless and readers find themselves rooting for Otto.

“The Institute” is available from Holland Park Press.

Too Many Poets, Too Few Readers

Or why some magazines have started charging submission or reading fees. Most poetry magazines have two main problems: an overload of submissions and a scarcity of subscribers. The latter means most editors are working for free because the magazine only brings in enough income to print the current or next issue. In some cases, the editor is also putting their own money in to fund the magazine as well. The former means that editors are keen to reduce the level of submissions coming in. Ideally everyone submitting to a magazine would at least buy a copy and preferably subscribe to help keep it afloat, but that doesn’t happen.

A submission fee is a quick fix: if writers have to pay to submit, maybe they’d ensure they only submit their best work to magazines that are the best fit for that work.

However, submission or reading fees are a problem

  • They exclude writers who can’t afford to pay. Even though reading fees might seem a small amount, writers don’t submit once to one editor, they submit several times to different editors so even small fees can add up.
  • Not all magazines charging fees pay for acceptances so the reading fee is not recovered by the writer.
  • Writers who can afford to pay may decide not to submit on principle.
  • It deters writers from becoming subscribers. Most writers who subscribe to magazines do so because they are planning to submit to that magazine at some point and given a choice between paying a submission fee or a subscription, most will choose the former over the latter because writers only have a finite disposable income and it makes more sense to use that to work towards publication than reading.
  • The magazine restricts its pool of contributors to those who can both afford to pay and are willing to pay submission fees.
  • Since magazines typically accept only 1-2% of submissions, the writers whose work isn’t selected are subsidising the writers whose work is accepted.

Funding for magazines has always been a problem.

  • It’s frustrating for editors to see submission after submission from poets who don’t subscribe, but poets can’t always afford subscriptions and some will subscribe after an acceptance. Some poets are subscribing to magazines but not necessarily every magazine they submit to.
  • Arts funding streams are usually focused on one-off projects or are not suited to repeat funding to subsidise an ongoing project, even during the start-up phase where a magazine is launched and seeking subscribers.
  • Crowd-funding too is fine for one-off projects e.g. setting up a new magazine but not designed to provide ongoing funds and it’s difficult to run a crowd-funder without a lengthy list of contacts who can be relied on to both contribute and spread the word. It also has the inbuilt complication that crowd-funders will expect rewards for their donation. A magazine that can only offer an issue or a subscription might attract lots of low-level donations with the risk of not hitting its target.
  • There’s also the age-old problem of wannabe writers who don’t read and don’t see why they need to support poetry magazines through buying copies, but are often first to complain when a magazine ceases publication.
  • Guilt-tripping submitters (whether successful or not) into subscribing (“the magazine won’t survive unless you subscribe”, etc) is rarely successful.

It’s easy to see why reading fees, which can be used towards publication costs, are seductive.

How can publications avoid charging for submissions or using reading fees?

  • Be ruthless in rejecting writers who don’t follow the submission guidelines.
  • Consider using reading windows so writers can only submit at certain times (and automatically reject writers who submit at the wrong time)
  • Place limitations on how often writers can submit e.g. only submit once during a reading window, do not submit for a year after publication, do not resubmit until the next reading window after a rejection.
  • Consider soliciting contributions as well as unsolicited submissions – this could help redress gender/racial balances too
  • Check that submission guidelines are clear about writers submitting work in the right format for the magazine so that less time is wasted typesetting and reformatting contributions.
  • Consider being more prescriptive in describing the type of work included in the magazine. Asking poets, who are not always the ideal judges of their own work, to “Send in your best work” is an invitation to being flooded with submissions.

How can Poets Help?

  • Do support publishers and magazines through subscribing and buying books, pamphlets and magazines when you can afford to.
  • Do share your publication successes on social media (with a link to the publication).
  • Consider reviewing and championing the work of others (you may get reciprocal shares and reviews in return).
  • Check submission guidelines and double-check your submission complies before submitting.
  • Resist the temptation to flood a publication with submissions. If an editor’s accepted a poem, they are unlikely to accept more until your poem’s been published and even then there may be a rule about not submitting for a year after publication. If an editor’s rejected your work, they might welcome further submissions, but not within five minutes of their rejection. Look at what’s been rejected and consider whether the poems you’d like to submit are the best fit for the magazine before pressing send.
  • Don’t submit outside submission windows.
  • Don’t think submission guidelines don’t apply to you.
  • Gain a beta-reader or join a workshop/online forum/spoken word evening where you can test your poems on readers and listeners before submitting to a magazine. Your latest poem may be the best thing you’ve ever written but a fresh pair of ears will notice the tongue-twister in line five and a fresh pair of eyes will notice the stray apostrophe in the first stanza.

Personally, I’m uncomfortable with reading/submission fees because good writing comes from talent, knowledge of writing craft and practice, not ability to pay. Putting up entry barriers in a field that’s already got issues with accessibility – unpaid internships in publishing, the VIDA Count’s demonstration that women writers are less likely to be reviewed, that most writers need a second job to compensate for the low income directly from writing, the lack of visibility for BAME writers, etc – I don’t think is helpful.

However, writers also need to acknowledge that they can’t expect to be published if they don’t buy books and magazines when they can afford to, don’t head out to spoken word nights and poetry readings where possible, and don’t help support publishers and magazine editors through reviewing (even a one line review on a seller’s website/online forum is useful) and publicity.