Ella@100 jazz-inspired poetry in Leicester

Ella Fitzgerald would have enjoyeJazz-inspired poetry at Leicester Central Library to celebrate what would have been Ella Fitzgeralds 100th birthdayd her 100th birthday today. My poem, “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me” has been published in “Ella @ 100”, an anthology celebrating Ella Fitzgerald in her birthplace of Newport News, Virginia.

This led to a discussion about celebrating her talent and achievements in Leicester. Leicester Libraries’ Leicester Writers’ Showcase combined with Black History Month seemed a perfect way to do this. Leicester has many talented poems and spoken word artists who have been influenced by jazz and this event will showcase those talents.

If you are in or able to get to Leicester on the evening of 18 October and would like to take part, please let me know.

 

NaPoWriMo 2017

Just over the half-way mark in National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) 2017. The aim is to write drafts or notes towards 30 poems during the month, which averages at one a day (although participants don’t have to stick to one a day). Obviously, it’s impossible to write a complete poem in 24 hours – it doesn’t give you enough space to put a poem to one side and review it with fresh eyes – but it is possible to draft a poem a day over month. But by the end of the month, participants will have enough poems to create a body of work which can be edited and will have practiced the discipline of not waiting for inspiration but actively seeking out inspiration and writing.

I’ve done NaPoWriMo before and generally found that it starts well because I’ve been preparing and have ideas in hand to start writing, the momentum carries you over the half-way mark but it starts to stall at around two-thirds of the way through the month. This is generally because you’ve got past the half-way mark but the finish line’s not yet in sight. This is where having some reserve sources of inspiration come in handy. There are blogs with writing exercise suggestions and reading call-outs for submissions on themed poems can be useful (even if you don’t write your themed poem in time for the deadline, if it’s good enough to be published, you can still submit it elsewhere).

Personally, I find news stories a large source of inspiration, particularly if you try to re-tell the story from a different viewpoint. Something I’ve found useful in the past is to pick a song at random – it’s best if you don’t use a song you are overly familiar with such as the first song you hear as you switch the radio on or if you overhear someone else’s radio/playlist, but don’t pick an instrumental. From the random song, pick a snatch of lyric such as a phrase or chorus and it doesn’t matter how accurately you’ve heard the lyric. Spend a few minutes writing down ideas or associations you make with the snatch of lyric and use that for the basis of a poem. You might find  yourself writing about the scenario described in the song, about the mood evoked by the song, about when you previously heard the song, writing about how the songwriter may have come to write the song, the effect the song has on you or an event where playing the song might be appropriate.

Do any of you have useful sources of inspiration or tips for keeping the momentum going? My list of titles so far is here: NaPoWriMo. Do any titles grab your attention?


Readings from “Welcome to Leicester” will be featured at the World Book Night event on 23 April from 7.45pm (doors open at 7.30pm) at the Donkey on Welford Road, Leicester with live music afterwards. “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” has now sold out and raised £3000 for three refugee charities.

World Book Night event 23 April 2017

Asking for feedback on your writing: watch your approach

There’s a theme emerging here:

  • Someone waved a sheath of papers in my face at a poetry reading (I was a featured reader) and talked about his inspirations, interrupting only to ask if I would read his poems. He didn’t make one comment on my reading or my poems.
  • Someone emailed me with a link to a forum, explaining that I could search for his poems, all twenty of them, and he wanted to know what I thought of them.
  • Someone posted on social media that writers who had ‘made it’ should nurture and provide help to emerging writers.
  • At a spoken word evening someone asked where he could get the poem he’d dashed off that afternoon published.
  • Someone went to a writing conference and complained that the literary agents all “hid” in the breaks between sessions (including sessions where attendees could make their pitches) so they didn’t get chance to speak to one.

I get it: you desperately want feedback on your brilliant manuscript and you’re too broke to pay for professional critiques, can’t travel to workshops (but can turn up at readings, spoken word events and conferences), urgently want to see your work in print, feel that those already published have somehow shut the door on your burgeoning career and feel that literary agents and other gatekeepers aren’t human enough to need comfort breaks or simply a break.

Perhaps you could try this approach:

  • “Loved your reading. Do you know of any local workshops I could go to get feedback on my work?”
  • “I saw your poems in…/heard you read at… Do you give critiques? I could put my poems in a document and forward them to you if you do.”
  • “Writers aren’t gatekeepers. Publishers and editors are. Workshops and writing groups are part of the literary eco-system, can anyone suggest some good online or offline groups local to me?”
  • “I’m going to read some poetry magazines and find out which might be the best fit for my poems. Any recommendations?”
  • “I got loads of good advice from the writers’ conference. I listened to all the sessions and now think I’ve got two or three agents that would be a good fit for my work. Now I’m going to polish my submission to give it the best chance.”

Any half-decent salesperson will tell you that you can have the best product in the world, but no one’s going to buy it if you can’t present it in a way that’s welcoming and relevant to your potential customer. If your potential customer is another writer or agent and your product is your manuscript or poem, consider:

  • Approaching a poet when they are about to give a reading is bad timing. The poet is preparing for their reading, checking everything is in place and getting ready to go on stage. Interrupting this process makes you at best an irritation.
  • Making it all about you and what you want without acknowledging the poet you’re approaching isn’t just bad manners, it tells the poet that their opinion and thoughts don’t matter, which undermines your purpose of getting feedback.
  • Allow the poet their personal space, particularly if there is a significant size difference between you and the poet. I doubt the man waving his papers in front of my nose realised that he was perilously close to hitting me in the face with them and that his height meant he was actually talking over the top of my head.
  • If you contact someone by email/post, at least have the courtesy of mentioning where you got their address from or how you heard of them. If you don’t it makes you look like a potential stalker.
  • If you want someone to do you a favour, don’t create work for them. If I agree to critique your poems (and there will be a cost involved), I don’t want to search for them and I will not go to an unfamiliar website that I don’t know I can trust.
  • It is the editors of poetry magazines you need to impress: they’re the ones who decide which poems get published.
  • Agents, publishers and writers who speak at or take part in panel events at writers’ conferences may simply want a break between sessions. They are not obliged to hear your unsolicited pitch. It may even be to your advantage to write to them afterwards, saying you were at the conference and heard them speak (mention the topic or briefly quote to prove it) and why you think that, as a result of that conference, your work is a good fit for them.

Writers have no obligation to help others. In fact if they’re already juggling writing around a day-job and other commitments, they may not have time. They may also not be best placed to give you feedback: writers aren’t the gatekeepers. Join a writers’ group, go to workshops and consider paying for critiques if you want feedback on your work.

Journeys in Translation – update

but one country Rod Duncan showing English original and Shona translation by Ambrose MusiyiwaJourneys in Translation is seeking translators to help translate 13 poems from “Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” (Five Leaves, 2015) from English into other languages for an event being held in Leicester on International Translation Day, 30 September 2017, as part of Everybody’s Reading. During the event the original poems and translations will be read and displayed.

So far the 13 poems have been translated into Bengali, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Shona, Spanish, Turkish and Welsh with assistance from 16 translators (translators working in a group have been counted as one translator) who have translated at least one poem each. The most popular poems to be translated have been Pam Thompson’s “Dislocation” and Rod Duncan’s “but one country”. Translators have said they picked these because they felt it would be challenge, particularly because “but one country” is a verbal mirror image poem and, like the original, translators have been ensuring their translations also work in a mirror image.

One translator has commented, “The process of translation always involves a certain degree of what is known as ‘translation loss’. There are certain ideas, objects or experiences that can never be satisfactorily translated because they simply do not exist in the target language’s culture. For example, the phrase ‘a present from Skegness’ in the poem ‘Framed’ by Marilyn Ricci carries connotations for the UK-based reader, but will be lost in translation for the German reader. I imagine that sometimes when refugees try to describe the lives they left behind, the equivalent words are simply not available, which therefore means that on top of all the others losses there is a further loss on a linguistic level… this sense of powerlessness through the loss of communication tools can feel extremely uncomfortable. I found that when focusing on the words and stories within the poems I started to really focus on the human aspect of the refugee crisis, which I had not perhaps really appreciated until this point. Suddenly all those news images and statistics took on a more personal meaning.”

At the start of the project, coordinator Ambrose Musiyiwa held a workshop in Leicester with further workshops planned at the Soundcafe and local community centres.

We look forward to more translations into more languages and to working with people from everywhere.

Anyone who would like to have a go at translating the poems can join the Journeys in Translation Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/316952552020172/) or contact one of the organisers.

“Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” is being sold to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Leicester City of Sanctuary and Nottingham Refugee Forum. Copies of the anthology are available from De Montfort University Bookshop (Leicester) and Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham).

A Poet’s Biography

Following my article on dealing with rejection, you decided that sending out some poems (after following submission guidelines) was a good idea and managed to get some accepted. Now you’re been asked for a writer’s biography…

  • Check any word count you’ve been given. If there isn’t a word count, use 50 words as a guideline (that’s 50 words maximum)
  • It’s worth having a look at the publication’s current ‘notes on contributors’ to see if there’s a general format followed (that doesn’t mean you have to follow it but it gives you a starting point)
  • Always write in the third person so that your name appears in your biography (“I” could be any of the contributors and editors don’t have time to rewrite your biography)
  • Mention your best achievements to date: these could be your most recent collection, a reading, an award and your blog. A list of magazines is repetitive so stick to one or two and mention other things you’ve done.
  • A year of birth is better than your current age (which may be out of date by the time the magazine appears), but bear in mind that age is only interesting if you’re very young or very old and often best left out.
  • Take care when mentioning personal details. You may love your children to bits but they aren’t going to be taking a copy of the poetry magazine to school boasting about how their parent named them in the biography so stick to “has two children” or leave them out.
  • You need not mention your cat/dog/goldfish either, unless they happen to be relevant to the accepted poem.
  • Be wary of giving an exact location. Lives in City A is fine but if you mention a specific district, people may recognise where you live or combine with other information you’ve posted online or elsewhere and figure out where you live. It’s unlikely you’ll get fans camping on your doorstep, but exercise a bit of caution as to how much information you give out.
  • Quirky hobbies can add interest, but keep it relevant and make sure it’s not something you’re going to be embarrassed by in 10 years’ time.
  • Humour is difficult to carry off successfully. It works in a poem because the poem has its own context. A funny phrase or joke in a biography can just look odd.
  • If you stick to a format of name, a couple of publication credits, blog/website address, notable writing achievements, location and any interesting/quirky information chances are you’ll have met the word count before giving anything potentially embarrassing away.
  • Do tailor your writer’s biography to the publication you’re appearing in. It is easy to use the same wording each time you’re asked for a biography, but that gets very boring for readers.

A writer’s biography is a way of giving readers a chance to find out more about you and your work so one that points readers in the direction of your publications or where to find your blog/website is going to be more successful than one that tells readers when you were born, where you live, contains a joke and fails to mention anything else.

Combining Writing and a Day Job

The clickbait headline, “As celebrity books boom, professional authors are driven out of full time work“, isn’t an accurate portrayal of the article where novelist Donal Ryan explains why he is returning to a day job in the Irish Civil Service despite having three bestselling novels in five years. It’s not actually the fault of celebrities and the article does point out that the average earnings for writers is polarising – as with with most wages – the gap between the high earners and lower earners is getting wider. Nearly 10% of writers earn as much as an MP (£74692) and 50% earn less than £10500 (the average wage in the UK is £26500 to put those figures in context). In a world where celebrities can fall out of favour quickly, it’s hardly surprising that agents urge them to make money while they can and I’ve not seen anyone suggest that celebrity perfumes are putting perfumers out of business.

Consequently Donal Ryan isn’t the only writer with a day job. Ultimately, does it matter?

T S Eliot and Wallace Stevens are frequently trotted out as poets who held down day jobs whilst writing. Search engines will find reams of articles on “good” day jobs for writers. Some argue for a writing-related job such as teaching creative writing or working in advertising. Others suggest jobs should have as little to do with writing as possible but offer life experience such as customer-facing jobs (although most customer-facing jobs offer little time to interact with customers and, in some cases, penalise workers who deviate from a standard script). Others suggest physical work as a counter to time spent sitting and writing. Some writers like the structure offered by having to work around a day job. Others point out that applying for bursaries, grants, funding and writers-in-residence opportunities is almost a full-time job.

Let’s not forget that Wallace Stevens got his secretary to type out poems that were either dictated or scribbled on scraps of paper. T S Eliot had lengthy lunch breaks where he could organise literary meetings and didn’t have to work in an open plan office. These points are not insignificant. Writers who successfully combine day jobs and writing do so because:

  • They have some control over the hours they work. Those who write in the morning negotiate a later start or pick a job that starts in the afternoon/evening. Those who write in the evening do the opposite.
  • The job offers space to think either in breaks where a writer can find a quiet spot or in the commute.
  • The job offers a regular salary that covers the bills. Freelancing or applying for frequent short-term jobs with all the associated insecurity creates stress and anxiety which are not conductive to writing. Short term stress, such as meeting a deadline, can be a useful counter to procrastination and help get the writing done, but prolonged, ongoing stress isn’t just bad to writing it creates ill-health.
  • Their jobs offer the chance to meet people without having to stick to a script who might provide inspiration for writing.
  • They operate strong boundaries between work and writing, albeit with some flexibility, so that one doesn’t overlap with or interfere with the other. That might still mean sacrificing some writing time to meet a work project deadline or being able to book time off work to attend a literature event.

The obvious disadvantage combining a day job and writing is less time to write, less time to research and less time to practice writing skills. There’s no time to spend an afternoon writing a sestina just so a poet can really understand the form. Research has to be disciplined and focused so there’s less time for interesting side lines and diversions. Time spent writing really has to be spent writing and not frittered away on cat videos (although cat videos are useful if they are a way of breaking through a tricky plot issue or figuring out whether the third stanza should really be the fourth stanza. Social media is not evil.)

When you’re juggling a day job and writing or struggling to make enough from writing to pay the bills, it’s easy to become envious of celebrities who have no writing experience yet manage to pick a book deal. But they are the wrong target. J K Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (UK title) was published in 1997 alongside Philip Pullman’s “The Subtle Knife”, Jacqueline Wilson’s “Girls in Love”, Rick Riordan’s “Big Red Tequila” and Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York’s “Budgie the Little Helicopter”. Guess which of those writers isn’t writing today?


Write On a Leicester Writers Showcase February 2017 Lost and Found

Dealing with Rejection for Poets

All writers get rejections, even Pulitzer Prize winners. The reasons for rejection vary, but they should be worn as a badge of honour. You don’t get rejections unless you’ve taken yourself seriously enough as a writer to submit your work.

Rejections are rarely about the quality of work submitted

Unless the editor has specifically said so, rejections aren’t about the quality of your work. Often they’re because the editor already had 10 cat poems that week and yours was the 11th, or the editor receives more poems in a week than they can publish in a year or because the editor liked your subject but not the way you wrote about it or liked your style but not the subject.

Rejections can help you as a writer

If an editor’s taken the trouble to handwrite a rejection slip, no matter how illegibly, take note. Give it a few days and then try and decipher the writing. Editors only bother giving a handwritten note for writing that nearly made it into the acceptance pile. It is worth editing your poem and trying again (but give it a couple of months at the very least).

Editors don’t owe you an explanation for a rejection

Don’t be tempted to write back and ask the editor why they rejected you or for clarification and definitely do not reduce yourself to the level of insulting the editor. Stay professional.

Don’t self-publish on the rebound from a rejection

There are valid reasons for considering self-publishing. A very good one is when editors or agents are rejecting your work because it’s good “but not quite right for them” or they “can’t see a market for it” (and you can). But before you self-publish, take time out to draw up your marketing plan otherwise your self-published work will sink without trace.

Did you self-sabotage and cause your own rejection?

Read the submission guidelines, follow the submission guidelines, double check your submission conforms to the submissions guidelines before sending. If you don’t follow the submission guidelines, rejection will automatically follow and it will be your fault.

Don’t send all your poems to one editor

If you only send out one submission at time, then one rejection is 100%. Send out 12 submissions and one rejection is 8%. Don’t increase your rejection rate by shooting out submissions randomly to editors, but do have several submissions out at any one time. That way one rejection is tempered by 11 potential acceptances.

Have a plan B

When you send a batch of poems to magazine A, have in mind a back-up that you can submit them to if they are rejected. If you don’t need Plan B, write more poems that you can send to magazine B anyway.

Write more Poems

Don’t wait around for rejections, always be working on another project. Writers write and you don’t need the validation of publication to keep writing. If you can’t face writing another poem yet, write reviews, blog articles, attend open mic evenings and develop an audience for your work.

Accept you cannot control rejections

You don’t get to chose whether an editor selects your poems or not.

Focus on the parts of the process you can control: write, read, improve your writing, read submission guidelines, present your poems professionally, keep submitting.

If you’re thinking of writing some New Year’s Resolutions: see New Year’s Resolutions for writers.