Working towards a collection of poems

Someone asked me last weekend if I was thinking of putting a selection of poems on a specific theme together as a pamphlet/collection or whether I would slot the poems amongst others instead. The poems weren’t written as a sequence or written together around a theme but as individual poems.

With my reviewer’s hat on, the advantages of a themed collection are

  • It gives a sense of unity to the poems
  • It can offer differing viewpoints or issues within the theme
  • It gives the poet space to present an argument and support it without becoming didactic or losing reader’s comprehension by becoming too compressed
  • It shifts the reading focus from ‘what’s this poem about?’ to how the poem is written
  • It tests poetic skill and craft as the poet varies the tone and voice of the poems
  • A shorter or pamphlet-length collection can be more effective if there is clear theme to the poems

There are disadvantages too

  • There are no surprises: I know what the next poem’s about before I read it
  • The poems become predictable and too similar to each other
  • Some poems might feel like slight ‘filler’ pieces rather than a poem that had to be written
  • Instead of the theme emerging organically from the poems, the poems can feel as if they’ve been written to order
  • A full collection can lose effectiveness if there is a clear theme and poems don’t vary from it
  • Depending on the theme, the poems might feel as if the poet is virtue-signalling or preaching to the converted instead of saying something new
  • The theme becomes restrictive so the poet gets labeled and boxed in as the poet who writes about this theme and this theme only

It’s worth exploring that last point in more detail. Labels can be restrictive and a way of dismissing a writer, “oh, she only writes about x.” Once the expectation that a writer only tackles a specific theme is created, it can lead to rejection of poems that aren’t on that theme. Locking writers into a ghetto doesn’t allow them to develop but traps them into going over the same ground repeatedly. Most writers start because they wanted to explore a theme or issue (even if they didn’t know it when starting out) and go onto to grow into exploring other themes or issues. Many may return to their original theme once knowledge, experience or perspective have grown and this will be an organic growth or a deliberate choice on the writer’s part. Where external forces, e.g. readers, demand a writer stays in their ghetto, it’s very difficult for the writer to move out without fear of losing readers or starting again from scratch possibly under a pseudonym.

Returning to the original question, my answer was that I would slot the poems on a specific theme amongst others rather than pulling them altogether in one pamphlet/collection. I couldn’t quite explain why my instinct was pushing me in that direction. I think I know now. I don’t want to be known as someone who writes on that specific theme. I don’t want to be labelled by that particular theme and if there are future poems on that theme, I want them to be on my terms, not from an external demand.



Leicester Writers’ Club hosts Carys Davies, short story writer and novelist from 7-9pm on Thursday 21 June 2018 at Phoenix Square 4 Midland Street Leicester LE1 1TG. £5 on the door for non-members. More details at Leicester Writers’ Club hosts Carys Davies.







What do to with those NaPoWriMo Poems

April’s not over yet and even if you don’t reach the 30 poems target, you may still have built up a body of work since the beginning of the month.

Do not rush to submit your NaPoWriMo poems

Editors don’t like receiving drafts and no matter how wonderful you think that poem you drafted on 2 April is, now is not the time to submit it. Read over your drafts and decide which ones you feel are nearly ready to publish, which ones need re-writing and which ones you will keep in your files (this isn’t necessary to do with the quality of your poems, but it might be that they’re too personal or were exercises). Now take a break: do some reading, write some prose, go for a long walk.

Edit, Read and Edit again

Start with the poems you feel are the better ones. Is this the best you can do? What happens if you re-write a first person poem in the third person? Is the narrating voice the best choice? What happens if you re-write the poem from a different viewpoint? Cut the first stanza – does the poem still work without it? What happens if you swap the first and final stanzas? Will those sixteen lines work if you cut them into a sonnet? Do you prefer your re-write or your original?

By changing the form, narrative voice or layout, you test your poem and discover which voice it works best in, whether it works better as a straightforward narrative or whether it’s more interesting told in non-chronological order and whether it works best in a traditional form or as free verse. Re-working the poem will also weed out unnecessary words and descriptive padding.

Read Aloud

Some poets record their readings and listen to them. You needn’t go that far, but reading aloud will force your focus onto the poem’s rhythm. You’ll discover that tongue-twister in line four or the awkward sentence structure in stanza three or how you ran out of breath in the final stanza, you’ll probably hear assonance, consonance, alliteration or repetitions that you don’t hear when reading silently from the page.


A second opinion, even if you disagree with it, its always a good thing. If you’re not already part of a writers’ group or workshop, search social media for one that suits you. Some are ideal for beginners who are looking to build confidence and want reassurance, others are more robust and a better fit for writers serious about sending work to editors.

Be wary of groups that seem to want exclusive membership: if you’re being discouraged from joining other groups, you’ll get limited feedback and will find you’ll end up writing for that particular group rather than a wider readership. Take care not to end up joining so many groups you’re overwhelmed with advice.

Try out your poem at a local open mic event too. You’ll get pretty immediate feedback (Did you stun the audience into silence? Did they laugh at the joke? Did they laugh when you were trying to make a serious point?) but bear in mind it won’t be as in-depth or critical as a workshop where participants get to see your poem on the page or screen.

Don’t just take critical feedback on board and try and re-write your poem to suit. Filter the feedback through the lens of what you were trying to achieve with your poem and consider the feedback that aligns itself with your aims.

You’re still not ready to submit

Read the magazines you’re considering submitting your poems to and consider whether your poems are likely to be a good fit.

Don’t sabotage your submission by failing to follow the submission guidelines.

The Art of Showing Up

There are few things more frustrating than setting time aside for someone or a group of people who then fail to show up. You may have prepared work or rehearsed for a performance in advance and you spend your time when you should be meeting them in a curious limbo with one eye on the clock. You daren’t start anything that requires focused concentration in case they do actually turn up and interrupt what you’re doing. If you’ve prepared work, it sits there without comment and unfinished. If you’ve rehearsed for a performance, it’s demoralising facing a reduced audience because people who promised to show didn’t turn up. When the no-shows fail to send apologies afterwards, it feels like a double blow: not only did they not turn up but they didn’t value your time enough to acknowledge it had been wasted.

Naturally emergencies occur or transport breaks down and, individually, some no-shows have good reasons for not being there and an after-the-event apology isn’t just a courtesy, it’s an acknowledgement someone was inconvenienced. No-shows don’t include those who signed up for an event or agreed to a meeting but warned the organiser that due to disabilities/health issues/transport/caring responsibilities, they may not be able to be there, because the organiser has been given chance to make contingency arrangements.

When one or two individuals become a group of no-shows who can’t be bothered to send apologies either, they need to bear in mind:

  • They are now labelled as time-wasters and will be treated accordingly
  • If someone has prepared work in advance of a meeting, they won’t be inclined to do such a good job or dedicate as much time to preparation if another meeting is arranged
  • If an event organiser has to deal with performers who are no-shows, those won’t be asked to perform again
  • If a workshop organiser is left hurriedly finding stand ins, you can bet the people who didn’t show up won’t be asked again
  • If the no-shows are members of a club or group and other club/group members managed to turn up, the no-shows are embarrassments and may harm the reputation of the club/group concerned
  • If someone regularly organises opportunities for other writers to perform or showcase their work, the no-shows are limiting their chances of taking up those opportunities
  • If someone organises opportunities for other writers puts on their own performance but then finds that people who promised to show up don’t, the organiser is less likely to bother with further events
  • Most local live literature events are organised by a volunteer or team of volunteers who will be less willing to give their time if their events are unsupported.

I regularly attend several writers’ groups and spoken work nights and also organise events both as myself and on behalf of other groups. There are some writers I know who enthusiastically sign up for performances or make promises to attend and I don’t believe them because, from experience, they won’t show up (this excludes those who say they may be there but can’t guarantee attendance). I also know when other organisers have been inconvenienced by no-shows. I have also been embarrassed when an organiser who knows I represent a writers’ group asks me where members of that group who’d signed up to perform don’t show up.

Be professional, be courteous and don’t underestimate the power of an apology, even after the event. If you find spoken word nights stop running, you don’t get invitations to perform or there are fewer opportunities for you to perform in your locality, ask if you contributed to that situation.

NaPoWriMo 2018

April in the US is National Poetry Month which also means it’s National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo although there’s also a #GloPoWriMo hashtag this year for Global Poetry Writing Month). The aim is to draft or write notes for 30 poems by the end of the month, an average of a poem a day although there is no obligation to write every day and it’s possible to have some non-writing days and catch up on others.

Benefits of NaPoWriMo

  • It can kick start creativity – gives you chance to access how you write and what inspires you.
  • Gets you thinking about poems, poetic forms and approaches to writing, perhaps offering chance to have a go at a form you’ve not tried before.
  • Discipline – sitting around waiting for the muse to strike is a lousy way of writing, the practice of setting time aside on a regular basis to write, even if only for a month, shows that writing, like most things, takes discipline and practice.
  • Reasons to prioritise writing that might otherwise get left on the To Do List or procrastinated away.

Risks with NaPoWriMo

  • Writing begins to feel like a chore if the focus is on getting 30 poems and it becomes about the numbers.
  • The temptation to compare how you’re doing with others – others might find the writing every day goal easy whereas you’re the sort who does a lot of reading and thinking before drafting a group of poems. The point is to focus on what you’re doing, it’s not a race and there’s no trophy at the end of the month.
  • If you’re not goal-orientated because you write for enjoyment and don’t particularly seek publication, it can feel a bit pointless.
  • Weaker poems can get written to meet targets. However, this misses the point: those weaker poems are still practice and can still teach you a lot about your own writing.

Personally, NaPoWriMo falls at a good time so I benefit from it. I start with the loose aim of writing a draft of a poem each day, but don’t get stressed if I don’t meet a daily target because the real focus is on the month end. I know I will have 30 drafts by the end of the month and I know there’s a point, generally around two-thirds of the way through, where inspiration dips: you’re over half-way but the end isn’t is sight. That’s when it’s useful to have some prompts or just take a day or two off and read to keep you inspired.  I also know that not all of those 30 drafts will make it into poems. Some will be too personal, some will re-explore a topic covered elsewhere and that’s worth bearing in mind if you’re watching others flag up their daily totals and you’re not taking part. NaPoWriMo isn’t for every poet: it might fall at the wrong time or not fit with your approach to writing so you shouldn’t feel you’re missing out if you don’t take part.

Periodically, I’ll update my NaPoWriMo page with titles of poems drafted and whether any get accepted for publication.

Journeys in Translation now live

but one country Rod Duncan showing English original and Shona translation by Ambrose MusiyiwaThe Journeys in Translation blog is now live. This was the project that took some poems from “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” (Five Leaves, 2015) and translated them into languages other than their original English. Visitors can look up poems and translations by language, poem (from the main menu) or translator. The initial selection of poems was not meant to be restrictive, but a means to keep the project manageable (project coordinators and translators all worked on a voluntary basis). The blog is flexible and other poems/translations can be added.

On 30 September 2017, we held the Journeys in Translation event on International Translation Day and during Everybody’s Reading, where poems were read in English and one translation and posters were on display showing further translations. There was also a discussion about some of the challenges and discoveries in translating the poems. Some translators chose to do a literal translation, others chose to make their translations more poetic. It was intriguing to see, where two people had translated one poem into the same language, the differences and similarities in the choices of phrasing because not all translators were translating into their mother tongue. Some differences were down to colloquial choices or regional variances in the translated language.

Personally, I’ve found being involved in “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” and its offshoot projects worthwhile. I contributed and co-edited the anthology, was involved in organising readings and launch events in Leicester and beyond, did a several radio interviews, designed and arranging for printing postcards to be given out at the Journeys Poem Pop-up Library at Leicester Railway Station during Everybody’s Reading 2016, coordinated the Journeys in Translation main event and blog as well as doing some of the translations. I will be happy to be involved in any future events or activities linked to these projects, but I will not be initiating any further events or activities. I wear several literary hats and for the foreseeable future, I’m hanging up my co-editor of “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” one.

Rod Duncan launches Queen of All Crows at Leicester Writers' Showcase

Looking forward rather than back

I don’t do ‘books of the year’ round ups: after all the selection process is subjective and a different mood or change in circumstances will influence choices. I do keep a rough tally of achievements though and my 2017 in numbers: 45 poems accepted for publication, I wrote 42 reviews and was longlisted for the Saboteur Reviewer of the Year Award, 36 blog articles (including 2 guest posts). Last year I had 44 poems accepted for publication and wrote 55 reviews. Reviews fluctuate according to requests and I don’t want to review every book I read otherwise reading will become a chore. The level of poetry publications is more consistent. But I did two things in 2017 that I’d not done before. I presented a paper, “Poetry and ‘the Jungle'” at the Jungle Factory Symposium at Leicester University in March and I have an essay, “Spoken Word as a Way of Dismantling Barriers and Creating Space for Healing” forthcoming in “Verbs that Move Mountains” (Sabotage, 2018).

So I don’t look backward, but I do look forward, which means making plans or resolutions. Here are some general guidelines I always use:

Don’t start resolutions in January

The mornings are still dark, the weather’s usually damp and, even if you’ve dodged the post-Christmas lethargy, it’s not an ideal circumstance to create a fresh, new you. Instead use January to plan and prepare for when the mornings are lighter and it feels more natural to start new resolutions. Instead, jot down ideas or try and note one observation each day and keep these notes to one side to use as ideas to kickstart poems during NaPoWriMo in April. Winter nights are more conducive to reading and editing.

Ensure you are in control

“Get more poems published” might seem like a great resolution, but you don’t get to decide whether your poems are published or not. What you can do is submit more poems for publication or better research poetry magazines so you don’t send your sonnets to an editor who is looking for sestinas.

Embrace Rejection

Rejections are part of being a writer, but there are ways of mitigating them. You can thoroughly research poetry magazines and submission call-outs to check that you are sending your work to the most appropriate outlets. You can join a workshop or writers’ group to ensure you’re sending out the best version of your poem. And you can ensure you are sending out more than one submission at a time. If you send out one batch of poems to one editor, a rejection means 100% of your poems have been rejected. If you send out 12 submissions and 1 is rejected, there are another 11 with a chance of acceptance so that 1 rejection doesn’t sting as much.

Be Flexible

Rigid resolutions are less likely to be kept and may prevent you exploring new opportunities that may arise. Be realistic in your time scales too. If you plan to write more each day, don’t beat yourself up if a family emergency prevents you from writing.

Keep an eye on trends, rather than exact numbers. I know I’m likely to write approximately as many new poems this year as last year. I don’t know if I will get more poems or fewer poems accepted, but I know I’m going to try just as often.

Read More

You can’t be a writer if you don’t read and don’t just read in your genre. Occasionally pick up a book out of your comfort zone. Staying within your comfort zone means you won’t develop as a writer. Getting out to readings also means you’re supporting your local literary scene (and if you think your local literary scene isn’t worth supporting, perhaps you could do something about that).

Writing is Not Lonely unless you make it so

There are two myths in writing that are not true. The first is “write what you know” which is limiting, restrictive and should be “know what you write about”, i.e. do your research. The second is that writing is a lonely business.

It isn’t. Sure, you have to actually have to put the words on the page yourself and that’s generally done when you’re alone. But “alone” is not necessarily “lonely”. Even when alone you write with the knowledge of what you’ve read, you turn to other writers for inspiration, suggestions and advice. You join writers’ groups, either online or IRL. You don’t have to be alone when you write either. You can write surrounded by people (providing they don’t become a distraction), e.g. in a cafe.

Once you’ve got the words on the page, formed them into a poem and edited it as far as you can, you start thinking about beta readers, workshops, editors. You might take your work in progress to a writers’ group or post it in an online forum for comments. When you’re ready to submit, you read magazines and try and find the right place to place your poems.

Writers now are expected to get involved in promoting their work, particularly poets. Most poetry books are sold at readings rather than in bookshops. That means getting out and giving readings. A local open mic slot is a great way of meeting other poets and getting feedback on your work. But if you just turn up, read your work and leave afterwards, you might find that slots become unavailable because no one wants to listen to your performances if you won’t stop and listen to others. If you turn up unprepared, either mumble or shout into the microphone and make your audience uncomfortable, you’ll also find you’re not invited back. By all means, tackle uncomfortable subjects but poor presentation can ruin the best of poems.

But what if you want to set up your own events? You book the venue, do your own publicity, figure out your own set list and turn up hoping for an audience. But you don’t do that in isolation from others. If you want your event to be a success, you check local listings to ensure you don’t clash with a similar event. After all, giving an audience a choice of two events on the same date and time usually means they won’t go to either. You liaise with the venue to get the booking that suits you and to get the equipment you need. Obviously having the venue staff on your side by being polite and clearly communicating what you want gives you a better chance of a successful event. Being bullish and making unreasonable demands risks loss of cooperation and assistance, which will negatively impact on your event. When you do your own publicity, you rely on others to use your press releases, display your leaflets, share your event on social media and tell others about it. They will only do this if you have written your press release professionally, your leaflets are attractive, you have made it easy to share on social media (and not guilt-tripped people into sharing) and your reputation is such that people are willing to tell their friends and contacts about your event. The audience will only turn up if they’ve enjoyed previous readings by you or they trust the venue or they trust the person who shared your event. If you’re unrehearsed or show your audience contempt, they won’t be back.

What if you decide you want to do a reading with other poets, e.g. a festival event, a reading with a group with the same publisher or a themed event, e.g. to raise funds for a cause or to draw attention to a campaign? You can’t do it alone. You need to see who is available to read with you (reputation will take you a long way here), check availability of venues, check what other events are taking place, be sure who is doing what to avoid duplication or worse that some key task is not undertaken because everyone thought someone else was doing it, be clear about who is doing what publicity and whether there are any restraints on publicity (some venues will insist they do the publicity for certain channels, if you use a venue owned by a local authority you may need to do publicity through their press office). When deciding on a reading order, it’s best done collaboratively. A reader might need to leave early, another reader might prefer to read later in the order. If one person dictates the reading order without reference to others and hasn’t taken into account readers’ needs, upset and friction occur. A good team works towards a consensus with sensitivity towards the needs and approaches of individual members. If one team member assembles publicity material, they should check with other team members that the material is agreed by all and be prepared to make amendments. If two team members simultaneously produce material, a positive team will work to merge the best ideas from both. If a team is already discussing material produced by one member and, during the discussion, another member produces new material, suggests this new material is an alternative and is not talking about merging ideas, this member is not working collaboratively. When team members are asked to choose between material A and material B, they should refuse because they are actually being asked to choose sides, which divides a team.

For the event itself, everyone needs to be clear about the part they play. Someone running late without notifying or apologising (or having a good reason to be late) or someone failing do to what they’d agreed to do (without good reason; emergencies occur) puts stress and pressure on the remaining team members who may still be able to put on a smooth event or may find it impossible to put on the planned event. The disruptive team member(s) will find themselves isolated.

That isolation will come about through lack of invitations to join readings, other poets declining to join events organised by someone with a reputation for being disruptive or showing a lack of respect for others, audiences staying away and people no longer making recommendations and shares on social media. That’s when a writer becomes lonely.