Poets and Pay

  • Would you enter a competition where the entry rules required you to product a work of art using considerable skill to meet a detailed specification where the prize was to see stonemasons carve your words in stone, something they would be paid for but you would not be?
  • Would you undertake a three hour journey to give a half hour reading and hang around for a question and answer session for the privilege of appearing at the event (and no expenses)?
  • Would you allow a publisher to have an original, unpublished piece of work for exposure (i.e. no pay)?
  • Would you be prepared to read at a festival which attracts generous sponsorship, where the organisers, marketing staff and people serving coffee are on a salary but you are expected to receive nothing?
  • Would you agree to be a poet in residence where you had to produce a predetermined number of poems and your pay would be free entry to the place you were doing the residency which has an entrance fee?
  • Would you agree to take part in a cultural event to raise awareness and funds for a charity, not one you normally support, when the organiser assumes you would want to donate your fee to the charity, i.e. this donation is their decision, not yours?

How many questions did you answer “yes”? How many did you answer “It depends…”?

Few poets earn money directly from writing and publishing poems. Most earn money through commissions, tutoring, lectures, giving readings and performances or through a secondary job. Therefore reducing the opportunity to earn money through commissions, workshops and performances affects poets. More time spent doing secondary activities means less time available to actually write poems, this impoverishes us all.

  • It might feel good to see your work permanently on display somewhere, particularly if the place is local or has special meaning to you, but your poem is your work. You may generate some local publicity on the back of your poem appearing, but you should also be paid. Without your poem, the stonemasons wouldn’t have work and it’s highly unlikely they’re working for free.
  • If you are reading as part of a book launch or doing a book signing, you won’t get paid because the purpose is to sell books. If you have been asked to appear at an event run by unpaid volunteers and no one is being paid, then you have to consider whether the benefits of appearing outweigh the costs – if a local event where your travel expenses are minimal and it offers an opportunity to network with other poets or publishers and sell your book it may be worthwhile doing. If you have to incur travel expenses, prepare a reading and for a session afterwards it’s not unreasonable to ask for payment.
  • Never fall into the trap of thinking exposure for your poem is worth donating an original, unpublished poem to a magazine/fanzine/anthology without payment, especially if the editor has a salary. If the magazine is being run on a shoestring with an unpaid editor, then a complimentary copy or a token payment will be all you can expect. But steer clear of publications which expect poets to work for free or expect poets to buy copies of publications their work appears in without payment for their published poem: your own reputation may be harmed by association.
  • Similarly don’t bother doing a reading where everyone involved is getting paid except you. It might feel good being able to say that you read at this festival, but feeling good and getting a bit of local publicity won’t pay any bills.
  • Always check the terms of any commission before undertaking to do it. In principle if you produce a poem or poems, you should be paid. A waiver of the admission fee isn’t payment, especially if all it’s doing is allowing you access to the place you need to visit to inspire the commissioned poems. You may be willing to accept a lower fee if the residency is in a place that has a special meaning for you or is connected to a charity or voluntary organisation, but take care not to devalue your work by becoming an unpaid intern.
  • If you are approached to work for a charity, be wary of those who assume you don’t want a fee. If it’s a charity you do support and are happy to work for without a fee, still produce an invoice but mark it ‘donated to charity’ or ‘waived in favour of the charity’. Whether you donate your poet’s fee or not is your decision, not theirs. Remember a not for profit or no profit organisation is not necessarily a charity, just an organisation that reinvests any profit back into the organisation’s work. This does not exclude them from paying for poems or readings. Again, reinvestment of your fee is your decision, the organisation should not assume you are willing to work for free.
  • Two more crucial factors in whether you accept a commission or agree to do a reading are a) copyright and b) publicity.

Does the copyright of any commissioned work remain with the poet or is it bought by the commissioner? Ideally you would retain copyright (or copyright would transfer back to the poet after a set time) so that you can use the commissioned poem(s) elsewhere e.g. in a collection or recording of a performance. If you do not retain copyright, the commissioner should pay you for buying those rights.

If you are expected to be available for interviews or for publicity events connected with the commission, beyond a mention in your newsletter or on social media, this should be taken into consideration.

All writers should be expected to get involved in publicity and help promote their own books and any events they are involved with, however, poets also have be on their guard against not being paid.

 

Introducing Poems

I was reading Sally Jack’s review of Word! in Leicester and wanted to pick up on a couple of things she mentioned. I agree with her on both points.

Firstly I’m pleased that Sally Jack picked up on Word!’s strengths: that it represents different genres of poetry as if they are on a spectrum rather than adding to the false page/stage divide and that exposure to different genres and standards (from newcomer to established poet/performer) encourages and provides inspiration to do better. She makes the point that the imagery used by some of the poets demanded the poems be read as well as listened to and the best poems work both read aloud and silently.

Secondly I agree with her comment, “It does not always instil me with confidence to hear in an intro that the poem was just written that afternoon.” It may be true, but it leaves your audience thinking:

  • It can’t be very good.
  • The poet is trying to head off critical listening by saying in advance that the poem’s not very good.
  • How much respect for the audience does the poet have?
  • Knowing that Word! has no difficulty in filling the open mic spots, why does this poet feel obliged to read something dashed off this afternoon which may not yet be ready for a wider audience?
  • Why should I pay attention to a poem dashed off in a hurry rather than doing something more useful such as finding the right money for buying a drink, checking my phone for messages, drafting a poem of my own?
  • It may be one of those extremely rare poems that went through numerous drafts over a lengthy period of time in the writer’s head before it got put down on paper so it arrived fully formed and polished, but why mention it was only written that afternoon?
  • Why be apologetic about a poem about to be read?
  • Surely when it was written is totally irrelevant to the poem?

The last question gets to the heart of the problem: the poet has taken attention away from the poem and focused it on the poet. It may be that poet was the only poet who could have written that particular poem in that way, but Word! isn’t about poets; it’s about poems.

Word! runs at the Y Theatre, Leicester on the first Tuesday of every month:

3 February – Penelope Shuttle with Kathleen Bell
3 March – Rosie Garland with support from Pam Thompson
7 April – Adam Horovitz with support from Sole2Soul
5 May – ‘Jarman in Pieces’ by Project Adorno
2 June – Salena Godden with support from Bobba Cass

#OnWriting: Read

Don’t have time to read? You’re not going to be a writer.

You might feel like a writer, you might put words on a page, read them back, edit them, take them to workshops or open mic slots for feedback, you might edit them again. But you won’t develop your writing skills. You’ll find yourself circling around the same material, writing in the same style and polishing your work to the point where not only has it lost its shine but also any spark or sense of energy that prompted you to write it in the first place.

Writers need to read:

  • Reading is the key way of learning writing craft. You can go on creative writing courses and attend workshops which will bring the learning aspects of reading to the fore and give you a deeper understanding of a writer’s craft, but you still need to do the actual reading.
  • Reading exposes writers to new ideas, new ways of approaching a topic or experimental ways of writing.
  • Reading exposes writers to failure: reading a poem that doesn’t work for you gives you the opportunity to unpick where it went wrong and avoid those errors in your own work.
  • Reading’s easy: books and e-readers are portable and audio books are a good alternative.
  • Reading doesn’t need a huge time commitment. Those minutes when you’re stuck in a waiting room, sitting on public transport, in traffic or develop the habit of reading a poem last thing at night or first thing in the morning.
  • Reading needn’t just be about works on a page. Next time you’re watching a film or your favourite soap opera, listen to the dialogue, think about the scenery and camera work. Would you have shot that scene from that angle? Would you have taken that indoor scene outside? How did the dialogue convey the information the viewer needed to follow the plot?
  • It stops you being that loser who gets muted on social media, who becomes the poet open mic organisers struggle to find a slot for or who doesn’t get invited for drinks after workshop simply because constant self-promotion and failure to engage with or support other writers signal that you’re a writer with no interest in developing craft.

Reading differentiates the writer from the wannabe. I’ve seen the excuse from someone that they didn’t have time to read because they had a full time job, time spent reading was time not spent writing and they were not a full time writer. Very few writers are full time writers. Income from writing and publishing has dropped and most writers have a secondary job to supplement their writing income and not all those secondary jobs are part-time.

But reading isn’t about the number of books read. Skimming 40 poems a week won’t make you a better writer. Taking one poem, reading it carefully, thinking about why you like/don’t like it, working out why a particular phrase or image stuck with you after that first reading, returning to it, working out why the less memorable sections weren’t as memorable, looking at the marriage between form and content, is what will make you a better writer.

“In the Cinema” Stephen Bone (Playdead Press) – poetry review

Image of In The Cinema
The ending of the title poem, “don’t tell me how it ends/ don’t spoil it for me,” echoes through this collection. Stephen Bone is good at giving readers the telling detail and leaving them to work out the ending. In “Unmendable”, a potentially valuable glass is dropped on the floor

“with a rich percussion,

a jigsaw of glass
at our feet.

For a moment like haruspices
we studied the red remains;

then the word arrived,
reached you first;

unmendable, you said.”

The word could be just as much about the relationship as the glass. The tone changes as the couple survey the broken glass and the “s” assonances stop and give way to the short ‘i’ vowels and ‘d’ endings. The pared-down, minimalist style continues throughout. One effect of this is to drawn attention to each word because, the fewer words there are, the more significance each one has. In “78s”, the narrator comes across a gramophone in a loft with collection of vinyl records and naturally tries it out:

“Their voices

now and slurring
under the drag of the needle
as the turntable slowed. Like
grotesque recordings from their
deathbeds.”

This seems uncharacteristically overwrought until the final stanza (over the other side of the page),

“Until, with a few turns
of my arm – as if cranking up
a vintage car – their lungs filled
again with thirties’ air. Resurrected
to the prime of your life.”

Although the poem names some of the artists, I’d have liked a little more context, more detail on music style or the significance to the previous owner who is not named and simply addressed in the second person. Did they dance to the records or sit in still reverence when listening? Did they openly talk about how the music made them feel or was coming across them more like uncovering a spider-webbed photo album of people whose names have been lost in the mists of time? The reader doesn’t know if “you” is a distant relative or a mother. It’s definitely a different “you” to the one with the broken vase.

Not all poems are in second person however and one of the most moving is “A New Kind Of Rain”, where a boy calls his grandmother to be picked up after a game is rained off (presumably football but not specified).

“not hearing the flatness
in her voice, the intake
of breath, on the edge
of saying something
but didn’t.

Her eyes were red
and she was wearing
more powder than usual.
He could smell its rose-like
scent as she gently pulled
him to her, before
he heard the slow, quiet
sentences…

On the journey home
he sat silently beside her,
digging a fingernail deep
into his thumb;
watching the wipers
frantic
to keep up
with a new kind
of rain.”

It captures that teenaged self-centredness that fails to notice the grandmother’s grief until she tells him and his concerns pale against hers. Again the end is not spoiled for the reader. Occasionally I’d have liked a change in tone, but these poems are written with care and appreciation of detail. The poet clearly understands how to choose details to focus on and allow to accumulate into a story.

“In the Cinema” is available from Playdead Press.

Guest Post: Writing about home

The Widows Confession Sophia Tobin book cover “The Widow’s Confession”, my second book, is a murder mystery set in 1851. Thanks to my madcap writing process, the plot has gone through various twists, turns and changes, but the setting has remained constant: Broadstairs in Kent, the seaside town where I grew up.

Writing about a place I know so well was initially daunting. I thought that being so familiar with a town would make it hard for me to reinterpret it and see it through Victorian eyes. But it wasn’t difficult to edit out modern buildings in my mind, and see the traces of the past: the grey flint cottages, Holy Trinity church, and the pubs, like Neptune’s Hall and the Tartar Frigate. A scan through Victorian directories shows they were there in 1851, and the names of those who lived there. I used the places, but I left the real people in peace – only one character in “The Widow’s Confession” bears the name of a real person, and I hope I have treated him well.

There were advantages to the familiarity. I know what it feels like to live by the seaside: its bleakness in winter, its intense vivacity in summer. I knew I could distill something out of those feelings, and see if I could make them correspond, even a little, with the thoughts of those who lived there 150 years ago. I well remember the jolt, each year, when our empty town suddenly filled with holidaymakers, and took the seeds of that to imagine the attitude of Broadstairs folk in 1851 when the Londoners arrived by the carriage-load and made the town their own.

There are also places in Broadstairs which have an extra potency for me. The driveway leading up to the Rectory of Holy Trinity is one such place. Looking up that shadowy, winding driveway as a teenager always stirred my imagination. Rather than delving into its past, I drew upon its significance to me as a psychological space, and the ominous, complex feeling it provokes in me. For me, those memories are as valid a source as all my research.

I had, at least, a little distance: I left Broadstairs in my twenties to work in London. My relationship with London is entirely different: its liveliness, endless variety and freedom has been hugely important to me as a writer, and as a result I set my debut novel there. But writing about my first home means drawing on layers of memories and experiences, from the sound of the sea on rough winter nights, to the sight of a beach full of tourists. If my relationship with London has been a rollercoaster of an affair, my relationship with Broadstairs has been one of quiet solidarity and friendship. We know each other well: in happiness and sadness, through all the seasons. And I hope that intimacy lends depth and colour to the portrait of it in “The Widow’s Confession.”

Sophia Tobin By Sophia Tobin

“The Widow’s Confession” is published by Simon & Schuster

“The Widow’s Confession” Sophia Tobin (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

The Widows Confession Sophia Tobin book coverThe confession is split into sections and a chapter built around each section so readers can see the back story to the confession and draw their own conclusions to what happened as the story unfolds. It’s set in Broadstairs, Kent in 1850 and the writer of the confession is Delphine Beck (although readers later learn that’s not her real name). Delphine has come to Broadstairs to paint and escape attention after leaving New York, where she was born and grew up, in mysterious circumstances. She has travelled with her sister Julia. Locals are suspicious of the widow, thinking her unconventional ways – walking about the town without a companion and painting – will bring bad luck and some look at her suspiciously when the body of a girl washes up on the beach. Delphine and Julia are not the only strangers in town though. The vicar, Theo Hallam, has a guest, Edmund Steele who later meets his aunt at the local hotel. She befriends two ladies, an aunt and a niece and their circle is joined by Mr Benedict, another painter, who is in Broadstairs to indulgence his artistic temperament, temporarily away from his wife and children, as much as paint. The group come together for excursions, beach walks and picnics, visits to almshouses and other local attractions. Delphine watches Mr Benedict’s efforts to separate aunt and niece and assumes he has designs on the niece, whom she gently tries to warn. The niece reveals she is adopted and has to look to marriage to secure her future. She is worldly enough to know there’s no future in Mr Benedict’s efforts, which are not aimed at the extramarital affair that everyone assumes. Delphine also watches a gentle romance develop between Julia and Edmund Steele which she fears will result in her having to reveal her own secrets. She also puzzles over Theo Hallam’s reaction to her which seems to veer between hatred and tenderness with no apparent cause.

The local doctor and police are content to write the girl’s death off as accidental drowning. To other otherwise would mean spending scarce resources or funding an investigation from their own pockets. Even two further deaths fail to provoke a reaction: the bodies of a couple were found in a chalk pit and it’s assumed they fell in after drinking too much at a nearby tavern. Without the resources to investigate or families to demand action, it’s down to the group of visitors and vicar to try and uncover the truth, limited by the lack of forensic data available and the reluctance from townsfolk to talk about the deaths.

From Delphine’s confession, readers learn she’s been disowned by her family by an act of teenage rebellion which brought unintentional disgrace on her. This led her to travel to England with her sister – also disowned – to forge a new life and new identity. So far the pair have been careful not to forge friendships or set down roots in any of the places they’ve visited. When Mr Benedict discovers Delphine’s true name via an art dealer with a loose tongue, Delphine makes plans to move to London. A move that might be scuppered by Julia’s desires for Edmund Steele.

Mr Steele’s visit to Broadstairs isn’t entirely one of a tourist either. He and Theo Hallam have a mutual friend who is concerned about Theo’s wellbeing and had asked Edmund to spend time in Broadstairs to check on Theo. The vicar had previously been on a mission to Africa and is trying to conceal his guilt over a chain of events he set in motion before returning to England. Although not his fault, he carries the burden of a woman’s accidental death and has convinced himself that he is not worthy of another woman’s love. A problem that has parallels with Delphine’s secrets.

A third potential victim is rescued and the group’s attention turns back to the serial killer in their midst. The killer’s motives are very much in keeping with the social constraints and values of the period, making the historical setting justified. Similarly, Delphine’s and Theo’s secrets are very much of their time and their issues have echoes in the killer’s motives.

“The Widow’s Confession” is very much from Delphine’s viewpoint as she struggles to make sense of her situation and reflects on the situations of the group she finds herself in. She knows she cannot go back to her life with her family in New York but has to make sense of the past before she can live in her present. Fortunately she is an empathetic character, practical, down to earth and as observant as you would expect an artist to be. It is also easy to warm to Edmund Steele, the sensible friend, and Theo Hallam, a man struggling with his own past and desire to be helpful to his parishioners. Julia, the niece and her aunt seem to be hiding secrets under a veneer of manners and expected behaviour. The confession enhances the story behind the murders and the two are credibly woven together so both are integral to the story.

Overall “The Widow’s Confession” is engaging with both the historical and thriller elements carefully sown together.

Next week, there will be a guest post from author Sophia Tobin discussing why she set this novel in Broadstairs and the challenges involved in writing about a place that has a direct personal connection.

Sophia Tobin's Blog Tour appearing on 21 January 2015 at emmalee1.wodpress.com

“The Stray American” Wendy Brandmark (Holland Park Press) – novel review

The Stray American Wendy Brandmark book cover

Larry Greenberg teaches law at an American college in London, England. He signs a new contract each year and thinks of going home to Boston, USA. He vacillates between girlfriends, skeletal Carla and the Rubenesque Devorah. Carla is English: eccentric and blank and works as an illustrator for medical textbooks. She draws a picture of him naked with a wing in place of one arm, telling him a story about a girl whose brothers were turned into swans. The girl has a limited chance to turn them back into men but doesn’t do it quickly enough and the youngest is left with one wing.

Devorah is an exiled New Yorker with every intention of going back home. Through her, Larry meets the “Un-Americans”, a group he’d put off joining when a colleague invited him. Collectively the group want to fit in but their Britishness is worn like a new coat: it looks OK in the mirror but the shoulders are stiff and the arms not quite the right length. After a dismal bring-and-share Thanksgiving, the group begin to drift apart.

When a foreign student, who cannot return to his home country due to involvement in political activism, discovers he cannot stay in England either, he turns to Larry for help. Larry’s expertise is corporate law, so he refers the student to a colleague. This sets in motion a chain of events that force Larry to choose between Devorah (USA) or Carla (England).

Through Larry, a man who could pack up his office in ten minutes and fly, Wendy Brandmark explores themes of rootless and identity. At first Larry’s disengagement and knowledge that he can always return to Boston so has a safety net, seem like advantages. He has no urgency to make life in London work, unlike his student who has no safety net or Devorah who feels claustrophobic in London’s clutter and longs for her childhood spaces. But his safety net wraps around him and becomes a barrier. Keeping his options open prevents him from committing to any of them.

“The Stray American” is a novel where everything seems to happen but everything happens. Larry is both flawed and engaging. His desires for both Carla, a distant fluttering bird, and Devorah, homely and vibrant, are credibly drawn. While Larry sees himself as putting in his hours at a college where no one is allowed to fail, his students see a professor and at least one goes on to enter a prestigious US college. Similarly his colleagues ask advice and invite him to dinners, showing Larry is more substantial then he thinks he is. He makes “The Stray American” an engaging, inviting read.

“The Stray American” is available from Holland Park Press

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Sophia Tobin's Blog Tour appearing on 21 January 2015 at emmalee1.wodpress.com

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