Instapoetry – is the bubble about to burst?

Extract from Emma Lee's poem A Peacock's Display, The sun shone on St Basils this morning. This evening I'll be in St Petersburg in a hotel lobby rolling my eyes as a human peacock says he has a yacht and gives me his room number.

Extract from my poem A Peacock’s Display published in Foreign Literary Journal https://foreignlit.com/

Instapoets, who post their usually short poems often on an accompanying image, account for more than 12% of the £12 million poetry book market in the UK according to Neilsen BookScan. That doesn’t seem like a huge portion, however, with most book stores offering a poor poetry selection, poetry sales generally happen at readings with poets expected to get heavily involved in promoting their book(s). Poets have a strong incentive to find ways to get their poems in front of readers. Is Instagram a genuine medium or is its bubble about to burst?

Most are aware of Rupi Kaur’s story: the writer who posted her work on Instagram, gained and kept followers and got a book deal with Simon & Schuster – not a notable poetry publisher. S A Leavesley (Sarah James), poet and a founding editor at V. Press, has written several articles about her photo-poetry. As a reviewer, I’ve seen a slight increase in the number of poetry books with illustrations and I’ve had to consider whether the illustrations enhance or detract from the poems as part of my review. I’m not considering quality as part of this article: self-published poems on one platform are no different from self-published poems in other media; the occasional fleck of genuine gold amongst a lot of pyrite.

One of the key advantages of instapoems is the instant feedback. A poet posts and gets likes and comments directly from readers within minutes. A poet giving a reading also gets instant feedback from the audience but the audience doesn’t get to see the layout of the poem so the feedback can say more about the performance than the poem. Some online magazines allow readers’ comments but there’s a gatekeeping editor who gets to choose which poems are published.

Instagram allows a poet to directly engage with readers and find readers who wouldn’t pick up a poetry book or go to a reading. A popular instapoet can acquire millions more followers than poetry magazines. More followers creates pressure to produce more instapoems since followers and algorithms favour new content and it takes discipline to manage followers’ expectations without losing them and dropping popularity status. Newer poets can copy the tried and tested routes of established insapoets and build their own platforms of readers.

Who needs a publisher when they’ve thousands of followers? Why go through the angst of submitting work to editors and the disappointment of rejections when a poet can post directly for readers’ attention? No poet earns enough to live on through publishing their poems in whatever medium. Most income for poets comes from readings or teaching, not publishing.

However, instapoets are vulnerable to Instagram’s support. When you’re playing in someone else’s sandpit, they get to set the rules. When you’re playing for free, you don’t have any leverage. Instagram want users to have followers and want users to have social engagement, to draw advertising, as well as users who are going to pay for promotions because running a social media platform isn’t free.

Instagram fairly recently changed its algorithm so it prioritises posts with user engagement, not necessarily showing posts in chronological order. That means, for instapoets, that followers may not see new poems but keep seeing older posts with more comments. Instapoets are finding their audience is falling as a result.

To counter this, poets can promote their posts, which then mostly appear to readers already following the poet rather than potential new readers, and that feels close to paying to be published. It also has an impact on publishers’ interest since publishers base their decisions on the number of followers. Those with established followers may just take the hit of paying for promoted posts. Those with 1 million or more followers often have their own range of merchandise to subsidise and promote their original Instagram posts. Poets new to Instagram face a long road of persistence to promote themselves and gain followers. Instagram is behaving like a publisher who prioritises their duty to book buyers and readers over a duty to writers. That’s where instapoets come unstuck because Instagram isn’t obliged to tweak their algorithm to favour instapoets’ interests.

Instapoets’ vulnerability is not Instagram’s fault. Many instapoets created their own vulnerability by becoming reliant on one platform. Those who survive algorithm tweaks will be those who saw Instagram as one of several possible platforms and built an audience through publishing and readings alongside publishing on Instagram or monetised their instapoetry with merchandise. Those whose sole route to a readership was Instagram will fall by the wayside.

Poets need to be alert to new opportunities, but also need to be alert to vulnerabilities. Social media’s great, but if you only publish on social media, you are vulnerable to businesses whose priority is profit, not poetry.

TL;DR: always have a Plan B.

#StoryCities #Market image shows woman in red jacket in front of a market stall. Quote in image, Tomorrow she might be back. The red jacket swapped for a beige trench coat.

Quote from flash fiction “The City’s Heartbeat” in Story Cities from Arachne Press.


 

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To Read or Not to Read

Reviews, that is. All writers should be reading. I’m biased but I thoroughly recommend reading reviews too. However, should authors read reviews of their own work?

Yes, because

  • A good reviewer will pinpoint strengths and weaknesses whilst remaining respect and constructive to what the author was trying to achieve
  • Reviews can be useful sources for marketing blurb
  • Reviews can be an ego boost or at least a fairly permanent record that an author’s book was read at least once
  • A review may detect a trend or unintended consequence, in a good way, that an author wasn’t aware of in writing and editing their book.

No, because

  • A reviewer may take their role as critic too literally and not say anything positive
  • A reviewer may not be the author’s target market so may not understand the book.
  • Although that’s not a bad thing – the book was not intended for this particular reviewer – it feels like a negative
  • An author’s ego can take a battering
  • Unintended consequences identified by a reviewer may undermine what the author was trying to achieve
  • If an author struggles to separate themselves from their work, any negative comment may feel like a personal attack if when the reviewer only commented on the work. A personal attack that insults the author as a person and is not focused on the book is not a review.

Reading reviews of your own work is an individual choice. There’s no right or wrong answer, only the answer that’s right for you. I recommend writers find their own community, a writers’ group (on or off line), a mentor, an editor, a workshop, who can provide feedback and constructive criticism before publication who can take the sting out of reviewers’ comments, especially if carpingly critical or a reader is using a review as a platform to complain about the writer’s work rather than engage with it.

Should a reviewer tag an author when sharing a review on social media?

Some authors have asked on social media not to be tagged in bad reviews. But what is a ‘bad review’? A badly written one? A negative one? Is a review where the reviewer didn’t like the book but wrote engagingly and constructively a bad review? How does a reviewer decide whether their review matches the author’s definition of a bad review?

Should a reviewer play it safe and never tag an author at all?

I will always tag both author and publisher so at least the publisher will see the review. An author has the choice of clicking and reading or ignoring. A tag isn’t the same as forcing you to read the review. I don’t think that “authors shouldn’t respond to reviews” is an absolute rule: more a guidance that authors shouldn’t engage in a public argument with a reviewer. A “Thanks” or “Thanks but I don’t read reviews” is a good neutral response.

I’m also a writer and I do read reviews. I’ve thanked reviewers directly or via the publication, never on social media where a share does a similar job. I understand that social media makes it easier for readers to directly engage or try to engage with writers and, when you’re tagged, it’s difficult to know to whether the review is written by an experienced reviewer or an amateur who just wants to make a personal attack. On a bad day, it can feel as if you are being goaded or baited into a one-sided attack where you cannot mount a defence. But you are not obliged to respond or click through. A bad review often says more about the reviewer than the writer under review.

However, you can be a writer and keep everything in a journal or you can be a published writer which means accepting that once your work is in the public domain, readers will react to it. Some will write reviews and you have no control over how people will react.


 

“Demise of the Undertaker’s Wife” Anne Walsh Donnelly (The Blue Nib)

Anne Walsh Donnelly Demise of the Undertakers Wife cover“Demise of the Undertaker’s Wife” is Anne Walsh Donnelly’s debut short story collection due from The Blue Nib in September 2019. Some of the stories previously appeared in Cránnog, Henshaw Two Anthology, Ireland’s Own Anthology, Creative Writing Ink Journal, Writers’ Forum and The Blue Nib.

Each story features characters facing an issue, such as loss of their home or a long term partner, that, in some cases, leads to a desperate solution. The stories explore themes of anger, betrayal, death and loneliness. Some characters reach redemption when they reach out to others for support to conquer their demons. A secondary theme that runs throughout is sexuality and the appalling effects of societal and religious pressure to conform and repress in favour of maintaining the status quo. The characters put their stories in their own words.

The title story starts with a father about to bury his adult son and a request for a larger coffin so the son’s dogs, poisoned by bullies, can be buried with him. The undertaker has his own problems: a spendthrift wife and his own son had left to live and work aboard, plus he’s haunted by an image of his wife in a black Audi with another man. The undertaker has gone as far as getting solicitor’s advice as to where he’d stand should his wife leave him but he doesn’t know whether she’s actually planning to leave. So far, the undertaker has turned a blind eye but when he remembers his son telling him about the black Audi just before he goes abroad, he resolves to do something to shock his wife into realising she can’t take him for granted anymore.

Anne Walsh Donnelly describes writing as “it is my playground. I experiment, take risks, run wild on the page, always hoping my work will resonate with the reader. I write my emotional truth and bring my whole self to my writing.”

Kevin Higgins describes Anne Walsh Donnelly as “by far the most daring poet to emerge in Ireland of late. The starkly honest and overt sexuality which pervades Anne’s poetry make the work of pretty much all her contemporaries appear repressed and backward looking in comparison. This publication would certainly have been banned in the Ireland of the past. Indeed, she is one of the few poets around whose work has the glorious ability to get moralistic, supposedly liberal eyebrows twitching. Anne’s poems are pretty perfectly formed hand grenades which she tosses about the place with abandon while maintaining a deadpan face. I think this publication is the beginning of something great.”

Anne Walsh Donnelly’s poetry chapbook “The Woman With The Owl Tattoo” (Fly On The Wall) was published in June 2019.

“Demise of the Undertaker’s Wife” is available for pre-order from The Blue Nib.

Why I don’t post my Reviews to Good Reads or Amazon or any other site

Whilst it’s great you like my review of your book and you want good reviews to appear everywhere, please be aware that asking a blogger to also post their review on places like Good Reads or Amazon or other review sites, doesn’t do you or the blogger any favours.

My first priority is my readers

I want them to enjoy my posts and come back and read or subscribe to my future posts. They won’t do that if they can read my content elsewhere.

My next priority is to attract more readers

The more readers I have, the more readers there are for the review I wrote of your book. There are two ways of attracting more blog readers:

Link to and share posts on social media

And encourage readers to click through and read my reviews. It’s fabulous when readers of my review, authors I’ve reviewed and publishers of books I’ve reviewed also link and share: wins all round.

Search engine optimisation

To make my blog attractive enough to rank highly in the search engine page results so that potential readers looking for book reviews find mine. For search engines duplicated content – content that appears on the internet in more than one place – is an issue, particularly if the search engine cannot identify which version should rank and if a search engine ranks another site more highly than mine, I potentially lose readers. Duplicate content created by scrapers isn’t generally an issue, but my review appearing on many sites at the same time begins to look like spam.

You, author of the book I reviewed, are also a priority

I’ve won awards for reviewing. I always aim to write a good review (even if I don’t like your book) and I know publishers have used quotes from my reviews to sell books.

However, if my review is published here, repeated on Good Reads, reposted on Amazon and appears on a couple of other review sites, readers are only seeing one review. No matter how brilliant that review is, it is still the same review duplicated to other sites. Readers will start to suspect you only got one review so your book isn’t worth reading or that there are other reviews but you’re hiding them so they must have slated your book. Bored of reading that one review, readers aren’t going to look at your book.

How about publishing an Extract and Linking Back to the original review?

Some sites don’t take links so all that will appear is the extract. Out of context, the extract is incomplete and may look odd. It could compromise search engine optimisation.

How about writing different versions of the review for other sites?

I review an average of 55 books, pamphlets or chapbooks a year, although not all of them for my blog because I also write for poetry magazines. I only have a finite amount of time to write reviews. If I had write one review for my blog and then two different version for two other sites, it would take away time from writing new reviews. I’m not prepared to do that.

The Blue Nib Chapbook 4

The Blue Nib Chapbook Contest 4 CoverThis chapbook features the three winning poem sequences chosen by Judge Helen Mort. Entries are open to new, emerging and established poets and consist of eight poems not previously published in The Blue Nib.

Helen Mort writes in the introduction, “Trying to choose between poetry pamphlets is very different from choosing between individual poems… Judging pamphlets feels like a much slower, fuller process – to extend my tortuous and inappropriate analogy, it’s the fifth or sixth or seventh date. As I read and re-read these submissions, I found I was getting to know them like characters, like people. It’s a cliché to say it, but this was a difficult task. All the entries felt substantive and engaged with an impressive breadth of material. I was stuck by how outward-looking all the collections of poems were, how they refused insularity, self-pity and narrow focus. The entries which I gravitated to all had a searching intelligence to them, all showed a commitment to using poetry as a way of interrogating and understanding the world.”

Pat Anthony took First Prize, “Place and people are inextricably linked in this evocative collection of poems. They bristle with observational details that a less skillful writer might miss – a man pedals night into day, the moon is scrawled with the arpeggios of an accordion player. Each voice here is convincing and urgent. Memorable, exact and compelling.”

Extract from “Along the Manzanares”,

“the night air of Madrid wrapping
around our shoulders with
dusky blues until we are

that lover caught up in his
serenade, singing his adoration
to the Lady of Spain even as
he contends with the bowing
and scraping of violins
across the water

where orchestras play a cadence
to his pining accordion and
notes lodge in the diamonds
of the hurricane fence hanging
bubbles too delicate to pop”

Mike Farren took Second Prize, “From the first poem in this collection, I was intrigued and hooked by the strange confidence of the work… The pieces that follow are richly sensory – ‘summer smells of money’, the body is a quarry. Alert and attentive writing, poems suffused with an original language for memory.”

Extract from “Antlers”,
have the equipment

“Find them on the forest floor:
they are necessary,
they are sufficient,
they are yours.

Clamp them to your temples.
Then speak.”

Sharon Flynn took Third Prize, “From the first, these poems feel like recipes, full of rich details and imperatives. In one piece, surgery before pain relief is described with a clarity that makes the reader shudder. Visceral and haunting, unabashed and sharply observed, full of found material curated with skill and emotion, which is no mean feat.”

Extract from “Recipe for the Somniferous Sponge of Ugone de Lucca”

.“                                   Mix in a brazen vessel.
Place in it a sponge, seized from the ocean,
and boil the whole as long as the sun shines
in the dog-star-days or until the sponge
hath consumed it all.
.                                       Make the sea-sponge damp
and hot. Apply to the nostrils. When sleep
has been inhaled, let surgery commence.”

The Blue Nib Chapbook Contest 4 is available from The Blue Nib


 

“Morning Walk with Dead Possum, Breakfast and Parallel Universe” Beth Gordon (Animal Heart Press) – poetry review

Beth Gordon Morning Walk book coverThe possum is roadkill, the poem’s narrator arrived too late to save it. The discursive, stream-of-consciousness style poems concern themselves with what is and what might be. Their starting point is often a news item. “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning” starts with the news of the drowning of a toddler while her parents were distracted, believing that if their daughter fell into a pool, she’d shout out and thrash but instead she sunk. The poem then widens its scope and ends,

“That children born on the shredded edges of this planet will find within
their necessary lives the whispered footsteps
of dragonflies in half-morning rooms, the underbellies of rocks, an unearthly
blue, thick with consecrated salt, the chime
of pebbles in water that carries them into the afterlife or submersion:
arrhythmic, dripping, newly divine and silent.”

It considers human interaction with nature, the small details that can shift perspective, the sense that our lives on this planet in the grip of climate change might be borrowed time and our children will adapt or drown.

A sequence, “While You Are In Iceland”, sees a temporary separation for a couple when one travels while the other stays home, dealing with the shifts in being alone while on “Day 2: The News”,

“The television says that more students are dead in Texas, gunned down while mixing paint and imagining their summer vacations, of stripping to near naked for sun, for water, for love. You send me photos of ice sculpted by the old Gods that they will never see or maybe have already seen in the instant of their slaughter. Outside my window honeysuckle is dying on the vine, sweetness turned to rot, the rain continues, I envy your escape”

The sender of images from Iceland doesn’t yet know the news. The narrator considers the loss of students, not just of their lives but also their potential. It affects the way she sees the landscape. The wet weather suggests sorrow. The honeysuckle, something nurtured, is rotting. The narrator does not suggest it could be rescued with appropriate treatment; she has absorbed the news of children’s deaths and despairs over taking action or fixing it. The sequence ends with “Day 10: Homecoming” where the narrator begs her partner not to return,

“Do not exchange magical incantations for sirens, for shrieking and gnashing of teeth, for countless bloody corpses. I will miss every moment of you: our morning eggs, the way we trade words like lemon drops on the tongue”

But’s not just in America where deaths occur. “Day 9: Seal Pup” sees the partner tell the narrator about an incident where a man ignorantly smeared a seal pup with human scent, setting of a fatal chain of events where the mother will reject it. However, the narrator only seems to be concerned with student deaths and the resulting anguish of being unable to prevent them.

There is a second sequence interspersed with the other poems, a series of cropped sonnet crowns where each in the series features three linked sonnets (the final line in the first sonnet, becomes the first line in the second; the final line in the second becomes the first line in the third and the final line of the third is also the first line of the first sonnet). This framework gives a structure to what sees to be a loose, woolly gathering of thoughts and musings over different ways of making martinis, French toast, rehab and mortality. The juxtapositions between the trivial and serious take skill to achieve and Beth Gordon succeeds. Gathering of thoughts and the opportunities for misunderstandings feature in the final poem, “Dancing Barefoot in Mississippi”,

“.. as I dance to Led Zeppelin and you turn your attention back to Ireland with thick mutton gravy and potato-infused pies, this is what I will eat for my next meal, this is the brogue of my first husband, the way I followed his whiskey-ed voice into motherhood and tried for years to understand the mysteries of marriage, this is the sound of rain, of arctic circle, the sound of sobbing trains, and you tell me that I tell you that I love every song, this is the sound of my wandering feet, like ghosts of mice, the sound of floors, of days, this is what I’ve been singing all along.”

It takes a great deal of skill to make phrases look as if they’ve just been thrown on a page when they’ve actually been carefully selected to fit a casual speech pattern and still retain an internal logic, the next association following from the previous. The repetition of “sound” is a reminder that the narrator is listening and her thoughts flow from the song she is listening to, the memories associated with it and where she is in the present.

“Morning Walk with Dead Possum, Breakfast and Parallel Universe” examines the shifts between the present and the possible, the what ifs? What if the narrator had arrived in time to avert the possum from the road? What if the narrator’s partner had taken his walk two hours earlier and warned the man not to touch the seal pup? The poems explore the decisions we make, the paths taken to arrive at our present. The long lines and prose allow for expansion as one thought is pushed to see how far it will go. The casualness of language chosen by Beth Gordon belies the careful choices and construction underneath the poems.

“Morning Walk with Dead Possum, Breakfast and Parallel Universe” is available via Animal Heart Press


 

“True Freedom” Michael Dean (Holland Park Press) – book review

True Freedom Michael Dean book cover“True Freedom” is ambitious in scope, looking at the sixteen years leading up to the Bostonian Uprising in the eighteenth century, which was the beginning of America’s war of independence from Britain. It’s a fictional account following key characters, mainly politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic.These characters include Thomas Hutchinson, a wealthy Bostonian whose hands are tied by an ineffectual governor and lack of support from Parliament in London. Samuel Adams and Thomas Young, who try to unify and inspire the Sons of Liberty and Mohucks, rebels seeking to feed their families and angry at paying taxes to a British government they see as distant and irrelevant. The brothers, John and Thomas Pownall, on opposite sides of the Bostonian/British divide and their attempts to influence key figures in the British Parliament to their side.

At its heart is a power vacuum. King George III only appears briefly to snub Thomas Hutchinson; a useful illustration of his failure to see how British policy towards its American colony – the drive to raise taxes to fund foreign campaigns in Europe – would inflame sparks of rebellion. That vacuum allows British politicians to manoeuvre their own agendas to suit, to the horror of Bostonian experts, who know the rebels are unifying, gaining traction and building towards a launch for independence.

A novelist, telling a story where the ending is known, has set themselves a big challenge to keep readers hooked. Michael Dean tackles this by using meticulous attention to detail, recreating the atmosphere of the British Houses of Parliament, the tiny offices of civil servants work in, the contrasts between the opulent houses of wealthy Bostonian merchants and the ragged clothing of rebels meeting in a room above an inn. The machinations of power-plays, the point scoring and struggles of the characters draw focus to the micro-dramas, fears and motivations of the characters.

On the odd occasion the focus on details feels misplaced. The description of Thomas Hutchinson’s primary residence detracts from the impending visit of the governor. This detail would have been better saved for the incident where rebels break into the residence; they would have been seeing it with fresh eyes and the details relevant to a group deciding what to vandalise, what to leave and what to take, throwing the contrast between poverty and wealth into sharp relief.

“True Freedom” is not for those seeking fast-paced action and military drama. It is for those who love to linger over period detail and gain a thorough understanding of the political situation and how it led to the revolt. It is meticulously researched and some minor artistic licence has been taken with facts whilst remaining true to the events described. Its focus on interpersonal relationships of the key characters offer insight and readers see familiar events with a new understanding, enhanced by its tone of quiet commentary, which allows the drama to speak for itself.

“True Freedom” is available from Holland Park Press.