Questions and Answers from “Ghosts in the Desert” Launch

These were some of the questions (which may be paraphrased – I wasn’t taking notes when being asked) I was asked after my book launch for “Ghosts in the Desert” on 4 July. I have expanded on some of the answers below.

How do you know when a poem is finished or is there always another edit?

I think a poem is finished when the edits I’m making are not beneficial to the poem. For instance if I change a word and end up going back to the word I had previously or take out a comma only to put it back in again, when I feel as if I’m tinkering rather than achieving anything. It’s always possible to edit further but there’s also a point when editing looks suspiciously like procrastination.

How do you collect poems around a theme and does that theme inform new work?

Putting a collection together, for me, is a retrospective act. When I can collect together around 80 poems, I start to look for a common theme or anything that suggests the poems are interlinked and can form a body of work. If I can find sufficient poems I will start thinking of them as a collection rather than individual poems. If I can find a substantial number of poems but not enough for a collection, then I simply don’t have a collection. I don’t set myself the task of writing new poems on the theme because I find such new poems are often derivative or repetitive, saying what I’ve already said in a different format.

It’s fair to say, though, that common themes do tend to emerge in writing poems. So, whilst I wouldn’t consciously decide I’m going to write poems on theme x, I may well find that of the last dozen poems I’ve written, eight will be about theme x.

How did you start writing or have you always been writing?

I have always told stories. Even before I could pick up a pen, I used to build houses from play bricks and create stories for the people who might have lived there. At some point stories gave way to poems.

Which poets influenced you or got you into writing?

At school, we only studied male poets. I didn’t believe that female poets didn’t write poems that weren’t worth studying, but figured out I wasn’t going to find them through school or in book stores that seemed to concentrate on dead, white, male poets or anthologies. A friend sent me a copy of the Ted Hughes poem “You Hated Spain” and I identified with the “you” of the poem. That “you” was Sylvia Plath and through her, and her contemporaries such as Anne Sexton and Anne Stevenson, I found female poets worth reading and studying.

More recently I’ve enjoyed reading: Carrie Etter – I loved “Imagined Sons”, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Helen Ivory, D A Prince, Kei Miller, Daniel Sluman, Sheenagh Pugh, Ros Barber’s “The Marlowe Papers”, and I’m looking forward to the publication of Lydia Towsey’s “The Venus Papers” due from Hearing Eye. I enjoyed reviewing Mandy Kahn’s debut.

How do you define your style or poetic voice?

That’s a tricky question to answer without dropping into vague phrases or sounding horribly pretentious. Defining a poet’s style is often best done by others. A voice emerges when you’ve tried writing like other poets or tried writing on themes other poets have written about and you’ve found an approach and vocabulary you’ve comfort with and confident in. Voice comes when others read a poem and identify it as yours or conclude that no one else could have written that particular poem.

Do you find reviews of your work useful?

Yes. Sometimes you know instinctively that something is working but you don’t always analyse why and a review can provide that analysis. Reviews can also confirm that you were communicating what you wanted to communicate with the reader because the reviewer has interpreted the poem the way you intended it to be. Bad reviews can be helpful too: they either suggest the interpretation you intended wasn’t communicated fully so the poem needs another edit or a lazy reviewer’s interpretation is so far off the mark that it reinforces the intention of the poem.

Ghosts in the Desert is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing

Ghosts in the Desert book launch

Supreme Court lifts injunction on Autobiography

Legal matters normally fall outside the scope of this blog, except for a brief guide to copyright, however, this particular case is of interest to writers, particularly those who base their poems on personal experience, autobiography or memoir.

In the case [2015] UKSC 32 concerning James Rhodes v OPO and another, the Supreme Court had to consider an appeal against an injunction which prevented the publication of an autobiography in the form it had been written. The full judgement and press summary are here.

A father had written his autobiography which graphically detailed extensive abuse (including rape) he’d been subjected to as a child. Knowledge of this abuse was already in the public domain because the father, a concert pianist, author and film maker, had referred to it in interviews which were widely available and could be easily found through internet searches. The autobiography was dedicated to his son and would be available as an ebook and printed book in the father’s resident country. The son lived with his mother in a different country and the father didn’t intend the son to read it until he was old enough to understand it. The son has diagnosed disabilities in processing information and a consultant child psychologist concluded he would suffer psychological harm and emotional distress if he saw the content of the book. An interim injunction was granted so that the claim that publication of the book in its current form would intentionally cause harm to the son.

The Supreme Court allowed the injunction to be lifted. The essential grounds for this were that the father had the right to tell his story in his own words so publication of the book was justified providing it complied with laws concerning for example confidentiality. However, there was no law preventing the publication of factual material, even if it was graphic and distressing. The book was intended for a general audience, not just the son. Consideration was also given to the wording of the injunction which was found not to be specific enough. It is worth reading the judgement for the full conclusion. I’ve only mentioned the aspects that are of wider interest.

This is a welcome judgement. It acknowledges that where a writer seeks to publish a poem, story or memoir based on autobiographical facts, the writer is free to do so providing laws on confidentiality and non-provocation of hatred are respected. Another party will not succeed in obtaining an injunction to prevent publication on the basis that someone who is not the intended audience could suffer psychological harm or severe emotional distress (here that means a recognised psychological illness resulting from emotional distress; not just a one-off emotive reaction).

Reviewing what gets Reviewed: why it matters

Recently someone asked me why a poet who’d published most of her poetry collections during the 1930s had been largely forgotten. I reflexively gave the answer: despite her poems being widely published and anthologised, despite her collections being published by a reputable publisher, she was not widely reviewed or studied so dropped off the literary radar. I thought this was obvious, but the questioner did not. Getting published is a foot in the door, if writers want to keep that door open, they need to be reviewed.

 

This is why the VIDA count is so important. It reports on the number of reviews by male reviewers and female reviewers and the number of reviews of books by female writers and books by male writers and the most recent count audits reviews by and of books by women of colour. In a world where more women buy and read books than men, statistically it would seem logical that more books by women get reviewed and more women write those reviews. Actually, in most cases, the opposite is true: there are more male reviewers and books written by men get more reviews. This means that the writers who don’t drop off the literary radar are more likely to be male.

 

Progress is being made, generally in newer magazines who don’t have a history of using male reviewers to review books by men to overcome. But there’s still work to be done. I’m not arguing that books for review should be selected by who wrote them rather than the merit of the writing or that reviewers should be selected on who they are rather than how well they review, but that editors should be aware of lingering bias and accept the challenge of finding new reviewers rather than relying on a stable of existing reviewers.

 

Previous counts have shocked editors, who were working on the assumption of gender-neutrality, into realising that there was a bias. Some editors have found that publishers and agents tend to send more books by men for review and have countered this by asking publishers for lists of forthcoming publications and requesting specific books for review rather than relying on unsolicited submissions. Similarly, some editors have found that men tend to volunteer to review and put forward ideas more than women so they’ve relied less on unsolicited submissions and approached reviewers (and potential reviewers) directly. Some editors found that if they return an idea with a note “This idea isn’t quite right, please try us again,” male writers would try again but female writers were less likely to try again. It’s easy to say women should volunteer more but when you see a magazine full of male names, you get the impression it’s not open to you. You decide to try anyway and your first submission comes back with a “not quite right for us”, it tends to reinforce the impression the magazine doesn’t want you so you’re less likely to try again: it becomes a vicious circle. The door looks closed when it’s actually ajar, although doorbell’s broken and the ‘welcome’ mat appears to be missing.

 

Writers can only get so far by making review copies available and contacting reviewers and/or editors to get their book reviewed. Readers can assist by writing and posting their own reviews or suggesting books they’d like to see reviewed. If you want to keep your favourite poet in print, post your recommendations and reviews, nominate and vote in the Saboteur Awards.

 

One commenter on VIDA’s statistics argued that there was no bias towards male writers in the literary establishment because publishers employed more women than men. The commenter thought that VIDA’s count was too narrow and seemed to be looking at the reviews rather than books published. The commenter spectacularly misses the point: VIDA’s remit is purely about reviews because what gets reviewed matters.

Responding to Reviews

A writer’s job is to communicate. That communication is likely to be with a target market simply because writing a poem that will please everyone is impossible. Trying to accommodate everyone’s tastes and views on what a poem should be is likely to result in something rhyming and bland, that is something that looks like a poem but isn’t a poem. You may think you’re writing for the general poetry reader, someone reasonably intelligent, well-read and up to date on current affairs but then be surprised because someone who looks and behaves like a general poetry reader did not understand the metaphor you used in stanza three. Or took the opposite view to the one you intended. Or thought you were being patronising or an autodidact.

Sending a book out for review always carries the risk that the reviewer simply isn’t a member of your target market. A reviewer’s job is to give the review’s readers enough information to decide whether or not they want to buy the book under review. It is not a reviewer’s job to offer an in-depth critique of every poem in the book.

Whenever I comment on a poem, in a review or at a workshop or because I’ve agreed to do a critique, I don’t expect the poet to immediately and unquestioningly re-write their poem according to my comments. It’s not my poem. I do not have the right to re-write it the way I would have written it if it had been my poem. I do expect the poet to read my review or comments before deciding whether to consider them or not.

When someone comments on a review and I receive that comment via the editor before I’ve even seen my copy of the magazine where the review appeared, I’m suspicious of the amount of time the commenter spent reading my review.

The comment thanked me for my review, but made the point that I’d only commented on a small number of poems from the collection, expressed a regret that I’d come to the conclusion I did and hoped I’d found something in the poems I’d hadn’t commented on to like.

There are some classic mistakes here:

  • That regret is not a regret. It’s phrased in such a way as to imply I’m the one that should have regrets in my apparent failure to appreciate the poetic talent within the collection.
  • In a review, I don’t have space to comment on every poem individually so I select a representative sample. How I feel about the representative sample is how I feel about the collection as a whole. If I do like one poem in particular but dislike the rest, I will say so (although I’ve yet to read a collection where I only liked one individual poem). The reference to only commenting on a small number of poems suggests that either the commenter doesn’t understand how reviews work or is implying I haven’t read the other poems properly. Insulting your reviewer is not a good idea.
  • I have read the poems I didn’t comment on so sending me back to read them in hope I find something to like is guaranteed to put me off them altogether, and potentially put me off reviewing any subsequent collections.
  • The comment doesn’t ask for or give space for a response: it’s intended to be the final say on the matter and naturally the poet wants the final word.
  • The speed at which it was sent implies the commenter didn’t spend long reading my review, probably didn’t read any of the other reviews I’d written for that particular issue of the magazine and didn’t try to put my review in context of whether I was the target market or not.
  • I’m not the target market: that’s not my problem. That’s not necessarily the poet’s problem either: it depends on whom he was writing for.
  • The commenter should have pressed ‘delete’ rather than ‘send’.

What the comment does tell me is that if I’m sent another book by this particular author to review, I can write whatever I want as he won’t bother to take any notice of my comments anyway.

I don’t think that was his intention. But that’s the tricky thing with communication: what you meant to say may not be how the reader interprets your work. If you are not prepared for a reader to interpret your work in a different way from your intention, think very carefully about putting your work in the public arena and publishing it.

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Writers and Resolutions

A week into the New Year and how many resolutions have fallen by the wayside already? Did you, like most writers, resolve to write more or publish more? How do you keep you motivated when the mornings are still dark and the weather’s dull, grey and wet?

Don’t make general “Write More” Resolutions

Sitting staring at a blank screen or with a notebook and pen handy is presenteeism, not writing. If you write more, you also need to edit more because you’ve have more material to work with.

Read More

Reading isn’t just about research but also about learning to write. If you don’t read, you’re not a writer.

Focus on what you can control

“Get more poems/stories/articles published” sounds like good resolution, but it’s not you who decides what gets published. You could find yourself sending out more work to editors, but the extra submissions not getting published. Keep in mind that poems and stories accepted this year might not be published this year.

Instead, focus on what work you are sending where and resolve to improve your targeting of submissions to increase your chances of getting published.

Don’t start all your Resolutions in January

It’s more logical to use January to continue with existing projects and start new projects when the season turns to Spring. Rather than focus on competitions or publications with an end of January deadline, look to planning ahead for deadlines later in the year as well.

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Poetry Readings: respect your audience

Even if there’s only three of them, or four if you counted the Jack Russell.

The best way of drumming up sales for poetry books and pamphlets or chapbooks at the moment is through poetry readings. Hearing a poem read brings out the rhythm and musicality that aren’t always apparent from reading a poem silently from the page. Moreover those audience members who do buy poetry books at the reading are more likely to read their purchased books while the poet’s voice is still fresh in the purchaser’s mind. Poetry books bought online or through shops can often end up on the ‘to read’ pile and gather dust.

Open mic events are the best way to start out giving poetry readings. There are usually several performers so less pressure on each individual (it can be reassuring for the audience to know that each poet only has a limited slot too). They’re often fairly informal so poets get chance to get feedback from the audience rather than just a round of polite applause at the end of the reading.

Here’s some tips to make performing at an Open Mic Poetry event work for you:

  • Try and attend as an audience member first to get a feel for how the evening works. Some open mic events are open to a range of poetry, others more narrow in scope. Get a feel for what type of poetry is more appreciated;
  • Check the ratio of audience to performers – a group of poets all waiting their turn to read aren’t likely to be as responsive to a mixed audience of listeners and performers;
  • Find out how much advance notice is needed if you want to read at the event – do you arrive early on the night or do you have to sign up in advance?
  • Find out how long each slot is – don’t rely on measuring performance times on the night as there are invariably performers who over-run;
  • Find out how the organisers deal with book sales and whether individual performers can bring publicity material: some events may only want to display publicity for the event itself and not individual performers;
  • Do spread the word about the open mic event if you know in advance you’ll be reading , but check with the organisers before doing any publicity as you will not be the only performer and they will want the whole event publicised, not just your reading;
  • Select your poems in advance and check they fit the permitted slot, including short introductions to each poem (as general rule make sure your introduction is shorter than the poem). There are more tips here on how to choose poems for a reading;
  • Rehearse – recording and playing back your readings is a good way of doing this;
  • Arrive early, even if you’ve already put your name down in advance, and introduce yourself to the organisers and whoever’s introducing each performer;
  • Try and look at the audience during your introductions. If you’re reading from a page, it can be difficult to look up during your reading as well, but your introductions should reach out and engage the audience otherwise they will switch off because you appear to be reading to yourself;
  • Try and listen to feedback. Don’t react immediately but make a note and focus on the constructive comments. You won’t please everyone and don’t let an audience member write your poem for you, but if someone’s taken the trouble to single you out afterwards to comment directly, then that comment’s worth considering;
  • Don’t rush home as soon as you’ve finished your performance. You are unlikely to be invited back. Unless you were the last performer of the night, then some of the audience will have listened to your performance while waiting their turn so it’s only a courtesy to listen to theirs.

While you’re in the audience:

  • Resist the temptation to rehearse your reading; even silently. Other performers will know you’re not paying attention to them and will not bother paying attention when it’s your turn;
  • Resist noisy distractions, put your phone on silent and save the crunchy nibbles for the interval or while one performer is leaving the stage and the next is preparing to start;
  • Friends may be great morale support but if your friend isn’t a fan of poetry, you won’t relax knowing they’re not enjoying themselves;
  • Don’t heckle: you’re inviting people to heckle you;
  • Don’t assume a small audience is a reflection of the quality of the performances. It may just be that the local football team’s got an important derby match or 1 Direction are appearing at the local stadium or the organisers aren’t too good at publicity.

Some organisers are sloppy but that doesn’t give you the excuse to be less than professional. The poet who turns up late, forgets their reading glasses, imbibes too much wine, shuffles onstage with a small pile of slim volumes and then asks “What shall I read?”, who refuses to use the microphone (even if you’ve a booming bass voice, use the microphone as it’s usually there for the benefit of sound loop users not for ensuring the back row can hear you) or who sits down behind a table to read will be the poet who won’t sell any books that evening.

Sloppy organisation led to me being part of poetry reading where the audience were three people and a Jack Russell. But we were all paid the fee agreed in advance, read as agreed and the Jack Russell remained asleep throughout. For the non canine members of the audience, it was one of the most memorable readings they’d attended.

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Poetry Publishers and Road Hogs

I’ve been away for a long weekend and two different events have dominated my thoughts since coming home. Firstly the two drivers who thought they were entitled not to be overtaken but were entitled to impose their view of the road on other drivers. Secondly the news that CB editions are folding. This follows Salt’s earlier decision to close their poetry list to single poet collections (although anthologies will continue). Both events seem to be disparate, but do have common threads.

In the case of the two (male) drivers, I’m trying to resist the easy conclusion that they resented a female driver overtaking them. Both drivers were ignorant of their less than competent driving (the driving that had me looking to overtake when it was safe to do so). If I assume their reactions – sounding their horns and one of those drivers attempted to accelerate then flashed his headlights until I was out of sight – were not deliberate attempts to cause accidents, then both drivers clearly thought they were entitled not to be overtaken and entitled to tell me how to drive. Where did that lack of consideration for other road users come from?

It’s always sad to see a poetry publisher close, but not surprising. Poetry publishing is not financially viable without subsidy (either from public subsidy, feeding profits from other business into the poetry arm or publishers using their own savings) because the low print runs generally involve higher costs and the low sales means there’s very little, if any, profit. But it’s hard to grow a readership for poetry with a zero marketing budget and not all poets are natural self-promoters. Delegating the job to teachers who don’t read poetry either isn’t a serious option. Even getting an individual poem in a high circulation newspaper doesn’t necessarily mean that the readers who read and liked the poem will go and buy the poet’s collection. Rob A Mackenzie’s article on getting a poem in The Guardian newspaper highlights this.

Elsewhere, Nicholas Murray predictably suggests improvements to the marketing and distribution of poetry. There are two strands to this, firstly that bookshops need to “wake up and start stocking small press poetry” and secondly that arts funding bodies set up a networking cooperative to help poets and readers get in touch with each other. The second is very unlikely to happen: funding bodies have a preference for developing practitioners rather than audiences.

The first suggestion assumes a sense of entitlement that bookshops, who need to stock books that the general public will buy, can be told to stock poetry. Supermarkets will happily stock the latest thriller because they know they can sell it, but won’t touch poetry because the sales figures are far too low. Bookshops are not charities and are not going to make any effort to sell poetry books without publicity from the publisher, which won’t happen on a zero marketing budget. Readers might help here by going to bookshops and requesting copies of poetry books but why would they bother when it’s quicker to find it online instead? Of course, before a book can be requested or ordered, readers have to know it exists. Poets are not entitled to tell bookshops how to behave any more than those two drivers were entitled to tell me how to drive.

Nicholas Murray’s main suggestion is that poetry lacks proper criticism. It probably does, but where is this criticism going to be published and who is going to write it? Newspaper book sections rarely cover poetry, poetry magazines are cutting space available for reviews and Nicholas Murray is dismissive of “eloquent puffs from poet’s friends masquerading as a book review”. The fact is most poetry reviewers are also poets who may know the poet they are reviewing and will also be aware that a writing a negative review may have an effect on their own ability to get published. Whilst most poetry reviews on this blog are positive (because I tend to review poetry books here that I enjoyed reading), Nicholas Murray’s clearly not a reader of my reviews elsewhere.

Perhaps the way forward for poets is to drop the sense of entitlement and lack of consideration for their readership. Encouraging poets to buy books by other poets or subscribe to the poetry magazines they submit poems to might seem like a good starting point, but it has obvious limitations and ignores a wider readership. A better starting point would be to encourage poets to write more reviews (some guidance on how to write a review here), join readers’ groups and recommend poetry and for workshop leaders and course tutors to talk about reading poetry as well as writing it. The biggest complaint I hear from poetry readers is that it’s too difficult to find out about new books or to find reviews written with a general reader in mind.

Poetry readers also want buying poetry books to be made easier. When it’s easy to find a video of a poetry performance on a video sharing site such as YouTube for free, why would a poetry reader bother to try and find an inaccessible book that has to be paid for? Can poetry readers and poets share the same road?

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