Writers and Email Marketing

You have an email address book full of friends, family and contacts. It’s tempting to send them all an email to tell them about your latest book or forthcoming event. But you shouldn’t. Unsolicited marketing emails are against the law and, under English law, ignorance is no defence.

What is an unsolicited marketing email?

An unsolicited marketing email is one that is sent to people who have not subscribed to an email list and/or have not given permission to be sent marketing emails.

An unsolicited marketing email is not when you reply to a friend or family member and let them know about your book or event as part of the conversation. It is not when you list your publications in your email signature. It is not an email sent in response to someone giving your their business card and inviting you to get in touch.

As a general rule, if you are sending one email to one person which you’ve personalised or tailored to the recipent, it’s not a marketing email. If you are sending one email to a group of people in response to a group chat and mention your book or event because it’s relevant to the discussion, it’s not a marketing email. If you send the same email all about your book or event to a group of people, it’s marketing.

So how can writers use email marketing without falling foul of the law or gaining a reputation for being a spammer?

Collecting Email Addresses

Essentially any personal email addresses collected for the purposes of marketing should be collected on the basis of opt-in consent, e.g.

  • through a website contact form or web subscriber service where users send an email address on the understanding they are subscribing to an email marketing list or newsletter;
  • through a competition where entrants give consent to further mailings;
  • where an email contact is an existing customer (although it’s better from a customer relations viewpoint to check the customer is happy to receive newsletters and/or marketing material first).

If a reader sends you a query or tells you they enjoyed your last book or event, they are not giving consent to be marketed. Reply to their email thanking them and ask permission to add their details to your mailing list.

Corporate or commercial email address holders do not need to give consent, but that doesn’t mean you can spam them or fail to unsubscribe them if asked to do so.

Sending Emails

  • Check you have news to send – don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need to send an email newsletter according to a fixed timescale or that you will lose subscribers if you don’t keep in touch;
  • Ensure your news is useful – a writer writing is book is no more news than a plumber fixing a leak: your subscribers need to know when and how to order the book;
  • Don’t send embargoed news – your subscribers are your ambassadors, they will naturally want to recommend your new book or tell others about your event, so don’t prevent them;
  • Don’t tease – don’t send an email saying details of your new book will be in the next email or tell subscribers you have a new event but details will follow. Frustrating subscribers means they will stop reading and may unsubscribe;
  • Check your email has unsubscribe information on (each email needs this information, not just emails to new subscribers);
  • Check your email has a bricks-and-mortar address on – this can be a publisher’s or business address – if sending from within the European Union (not necessary if you use a web service based outside Europe). The UK has not left the EU yet and if (some of) your subscribers live in EU countries, you still need to comply;
    Don’t include unnecessary links – ‘click here to order’ is fine, summarising an article and including a link to the full article is fine if you’re including more than one, linking to your website or blog in the main body of your email because you’ve been told it’s “beneficial for search engine optimisation” is not (it’s not beneficial for search engine optimisation and although it may drive some extra traffic to your website or blog, it will increase your bounce rate if readers clicking through can’t find anything of interest, which will have a detrimental effect on your search engine optimisation.)

Maintenance of your Email Address List

  • If someone on your address list unsubscribes, actually unsubscribe them. A confirmation is polite, but not necessary;
  • If someone changes their email address and notifies you, change their details as soon as possible;
  • Don’t take email addresses from websites of people whom you think might be interested in your news;
  • Don’t automatically add email addresses from people who contact you – check they are happy to subscribe first;
  • Don’t allow a publisher access to your email address list – take the information the publisher would like to send and include it in your own emails by all means, but the marketing mail must come from you, not your publisher as subscribers have signed up to your list;
  • Don’t allow others to access your email address list – you might think your subscribers will be interested in another writer or a writing course or writers’ group, but don’t let that writer, course organiser or group have your list. Include details about the writer/course/group in your next email with relevant contact details and let your subscribers decide;
  • Don’t sell your list on – you may make a quick buck, but it will be at the expense of your longer term marketing strategy as people will unsubscribe and tell others not to subscribe.

A Brief Guide to Email Marketing for Writers Summarised:

  • Have a strict opt-in only policy on collecting email addresses;
  • Ensure your emails are useful and contain information subscribers need to know;
  • Action updates and changes to email addresses or contact details as soon as possible;
  • Ensure you include unsubscribe and clear identification on every email.

It’s not just about keeping within the law, but also showing your subscribers the courtesy you’d like from email lists to which you subscribe.

“Mimicking a Snowdrop” Launch Reading

A really delightful book launch for Emma Lee’s new chapbook ‘Mimicking a Snowdrop‘. The most exquisitely presented launch, including snowdrop napkins and 3 huge home-baked cakes.

The cakes may have been more of a hit than the poems… There were silk snowdrops too.

One of the advantages of hearing a poet read their own poems it that you’re hearing the poem in the voice it was written for. This isn’t necessary the poet’s own voice. Poetry (fiction) gives the writer the opportunity to try out another’s voice, to explore a situation from differing perspectives or bring a historical voice to life. You can also hear the intended rhythm of the poem. Some poets read over every line break as if it were an enjambment, others make a slight, deliberate pause. A poet may emphasise words or use stress patterns differently from a reader; accents play a part too. A relaxed drawl gives a poem a different rhythm to a rapid-fire splatter of words.

Another advantage is that there’s an opportunity to hear more about the background to some of the poems. Whilst poems need to be able to stand alone without copious notes and/or an introduction, a reading, rather than an open mic slot or a slam, can offer space for a poet to talk about the inspiration behind a poem. I’ve blogged about the background to the title poem, “Mimicking a Snowdrop” before and it was good to have the opportunity to talk about it at my reading.

At the launch, I read (where the poems are available on-line in a single click without scrolling, I’ve linked to them):

“Convalescence 1914”

A Poet rehearses her rejection of a novelist’s proposal”

Photo Cotswolds 1935

“Bow Road London’s East End”

“Before and After at Gower’s Walk”

“Billy’s Sunflower”

“Mimicking a Snowdrop”

“Night Fever”

“Put the baby in the filing cabinet”

“Still life with a Static Matrix Screen Saver”

“Bolero to ‘She’s Like the Wind’”

One audience member offered to write a review so I’ll post a link when it’s available.

Thynks Publications have described “Mimicking a Snowdrop” as like “Moving through a picture gallery with paintings packed with detail. At the same time the movement is one of listening to a story teller who shifts from story to story leaving the listener with a desire to know more.”

Friends (Quaker) Meeting House in Leicester is a lovely venue to read in. The hall was designed with making it easy to hear speakers in mind and so it’s possible to read without using a microphone. There are no awkward echoes either. The seating layout can be altered to suit.

This is likely to be the last blog post of 2014. 2015 will kick off with more reviews.

A Reminder

I’ll be reading poems from “Mimicking a Snowdrop” at Friends (Quakers) Meeting House on Queens Road in Leicester from 3.30pm on Saturday 13 December. Entry is free and refreshments will be provided. Books will be available to purchase.

Mimicking a Snowdrop by Emma Lee forthcoming reading in Leicester in December 2014

Why Blog Post Titles make Lousy Poem Titles

When looking for a non fiction book or article, clear, descriptive titles that reassure people (and search engines) they’ve found the right place will help get the book or article read. However, descriptive,  explanatory titles don’t work for fiction. Fiction titles need to grab the reader and novelists know the importance of that opening paragraph.

With poems, the title is of utmost importance. Not only can it make an editor snowed under with submissions stop and read your poem but it can draw a reader in. Most poems are published in an anthology format: either in a magazine or book or listed on a search engine results page if someone is searching for  poems on X. Someone scanning down a list of titles or skimming through a pile of poems isn’t going to stop and read “untitled”. After all if you can’t be bothered to title your poem, why would anyone read it?

What makes a good title? It’s easier to give examples rather than checklists. There’s no magic formula (nor should there be) as the title is dependent on the poem.

What’s the poem about, specifically? A title that encourages a reader to ask questions can compel the reader to read on and find out the answers. Eg “The Phone Call” won’t encourage readers. It’s too commonplace and doesn’t prompt the “why?” question. If you give your poem a commonplace title, you signal to potential readers that the poem itself is probably commonplace and ordinary.

What specific details can be added to the title to encourage questions? Time, place, type of phone, person?

“Phone Call at 3am” It’s an unusual time to make/take a call so readers might be asking “why then?” Night calls generally contain important family news or are made by insomniacs. “Phone Call at 11am” becomes more commonplace and less intriguing.

“Phone Call from Ecuador at 3 am” only works if readers expect the poet or poem’s narrator to be based somewhere not in Ecuador and if the readership are likely to see Ecuador as someone exotic or unlikely. The location has to be reasonably well-known – no one’s going to consult an atlas or search engine to find out where Lushanta is if they don’t already know and readers don’t like to feel stupid. It needn’t be a specific location either, “Phone Call from the Waste Land”, “Phone Call from the Bar at the End of the World” might intrigue.

Here, the time doesn’t add any intrigue at all because it’s not clear whether it’s 3 am for the call recipient or for the person making the call so it loses significance. Telephone calls from points of arrival or departure such as airports or train stations such as “Telephone Call from Ecuador Airport at 3 am” raises questions about whether someone’s arriving or leaving and why.

“The Phone in the Call Box Rang” creates an unexpected scenario – will the poem’s narrator answer the phone, who’s calling, why? Would have made a better title for a certain Hollywood film too, but also might put the film’s plot in the mind of potential readers and risks their disappointment if the poem doesn’t live up to its title.

“The Red Phone Rang” leads to the question “why is it red?” or a sense of urgency, a red phone could represent a hotline. Similarly unexpected people using a type of phone creates curiosity, eg “The Android-freak called on an iPhone”, “An Acid Attack Victim phones on Skype.”

How about the person making or receiving the call? “Phone Call from My Ex-Lover at 3am from Ecuador” raises several “why?” questions.

What none of these suggestions do is come at the poem’s subject obliquely. It’s possible to be too clever. Any poem with “phone call” in the title will set up the reasonable expectation that a phone call will feature somewhere in the poem and frustrating a reader’s expectations will discourage them from reading anymore of your poems.

Whereas a blog post title needs to be descriptive and predictable, such qualities in a poem’s title will kill it.

You are Not Wordsworth

Being able to quote “I wondered lonely as a cloud” and wanting to be a poet, doesn’t make you a poet. Wordsworth wrote some wonderful poems and time has filtered out the also-rans, leaving an impressive  body of work, but that does not make him a suitable mentor for someone writing now.

Yet, when judging poetry competitions, I often find myself weeding out the poems that clearly used Wordsworth as a mentor or template for what makes a good poem. These entries are generally on love or nature use archaisms, and invariably are arranged in four line stanzas with clunking end of line rhymes on lines two and four.

What these entrants have failed to appreciate is that we are now in the twenty-first century and writing as if the twentieth century had never happened won’t win prizes or get published. There are good reasons for this:-

The world is now a global village

Wordsworth walked around the Lake District. Travelling poets usually only got as far as Europe. Today not only have poets travelled further but films and the internet means poetry readers are much more aware of what far-flung places look like, sound like, the tastes of the local food and local customs. Therefore, less description is required. More attention needs to be paid to ensuring a poem is not a travelogue or slice of botany.

Drop the Didact

Poetry readers get their reading fix from a variety of sources and have grown up watching films, TV, YouTube clips so expect to be shown a story and expect a poem to allow them space to draw their own  conclusions. Poems that tell the reader what to think or preach to the converted (eg by telling us victims are innocent, criminals are bad and painting the world as black and white) will turn readers off.

It’s harder to shock or surprise readers

Even bookshops stock volumes of anthologies of love poems and why should readers pick up your nature poems instead of John Clare’s? Can you find an original angle or contemporary twist on either subject?

People and Language Evolve

Literate women don’t bustle about in voluminous petticoats learning how to run a house and make an advantageous marriage anymore. Modern poetry readers want poems that reflect their own lives and speak in their language. Archaisms create a barrier between poem and reader and if the effort required to read isn’t rewarded by the poem, readers will move on.

Respond to what readers want

Nineteenth century audiences have passed on. You need to write for today’s audience if you want your poetry to be read and today’s poetry readers want poetry that tackles contemporary subjects and concerns.

If I want to read Wordsworth, I’ll read Wordsworth himself, not a pale imitation. When I’m judging a competition I’m not going to award a prize to a poem not written for the twenty-first century.

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Guideline Rules for Poetry Competitions

It is not desirable to standardise poetry competitions because it risks a curious beast known as a poetry competition winning poem developing in isolation from trends in poetry magazines and poetry criticism.

In fact most poetry competition judges start judging the same way: they read the poems, sift out a shortlist and re-read the poems. Most poetry competition judges would probably pick out the same shortlist too. What differentiates one competition from another is which poems are selected as winners.

Drawing up the rules can be problematic, especially with regard to copyright, so below are guidelines to creating rules for a poetry competition. These allow organisers to cover all bases whilst allowing flexibility. Not all points will be relevant to every competition and there is a summary checklist too.

Poem Entries

  • Typewritten entries eliminate the risk of a judge misinterpreting a poet’s handwriting. Some competitions specify a font and point size
  • Although not particularly environmentally-friendly, keeping entries single-sided eliminates the risk of a judge not noticing the poem has continued on the back of the sheet
  • Keeping any identifying marks off the poems themselves eliminates any accusations of favouritism/ nepotism from non winning entrants and hence reduces any potential negative publicity about the competition
  • If no identifying marks are to be put on the poem, should entrants enclose a covering sheet with poem title and name and address or use an entry form?
  • As a minimum you will need entrants to list their name (including courtesy title), postal address (particularly if offering a local prize or restricting entry to a geographical location), phone number or email address for notifying winners, titles of poems entered, entry fee sent
  • If you insist entrants use an entry form, how do they obtain one?
  • If you allow email entries, what document format will you use (copy and pasting a poem into an email may lose formatting, which will corrupt the poem and disadvantage the entry)
  • If you use a web form for entry, can entrants attach a document (in what format?) to the entry form or will the web form retain the poet’s formatting?
  • Poetry magazines generally limit the length of poems to 40 lines. Putting a limit on the number of lines helps the judge avoid having to judge the merits of a haiku against a 6000 line epic
  • Consider if you will require entrants or prize winners to participate in publicity for the competition or attend any prize-winning events (insisting on attendance at prize-winning events may restrict your entries unless you can offer travel expenses). Outline any publicity participation requirements on the entry form so potential entrants know what is expected and do not withdraw their entries later as they did not appreciate they would have to do any publicity
  • Make it clear that no correspondence regarding the results will be entered into.

Translations

  • Even bilingual judges would struggle to judge entries in more than one language – even Shakespeare changed the rules for sonnets because Italian has more rhyming words than English, so unless you are judging translations, it’s simpler to stick to judging entries in one language only
  • If you do allow translations, ensure the entrant is responsible for any subsequent copyright disputes
  • Where a poet has translated their own work, both pieces are their own work so there are no copyright or rights issues
  • Will any prizes be for the translation alone or be split between translator and original poet?

Entry Fees and Prizes

  • The entry fee should be relative to the prizes on offer so charging £10 per entry but only offering £100 first prize will attract few, if any, entries
  • If the prizes on offer are a percentage of the total entry fees, the level of entries should be externally adjudicated
  • Consider offering more than one prize, some competitions have a local category for people living in a certain postcode(s), others might have a themed category, others offer first, second and third prizes plus runners-up or highly commended prizes. If separate categories are used, are entrants expected to send in one copy for each category entered (eg one copy for the main competition and a separate copy for the local prize). Will there be separate judges for each category or one overall judge for all categories?
  • For entrants the offer of feedback and publication is also valuable so a £100 first prize plus publication in an anthology and feedback from the judge is more attractive than just a £100 prize. Entrants can be charged an extra fee for a copy of the anthology
  • If feedback is offered, will this be just a judge’s report or will the judge provide a tick-box critique or in-depth critique? Entrants may pay extra fees for critiques with the level of fee determined to the depth of the critique.
  • Consider limiting prizes so that any one entrant can only win one prize – if an entrant sends in five poems and the judge is a big fan of the entrant’s work and wants to award first, second, third and other prizes to the entrant, the other entrants are unlikely to perceive this as fair. In this scenario, award the first prize to the entrant and allow the judge to name the remaining four poems as commended but award the remaining prizes to different poets
  • How do entrants pay an entry fee and in what currency? Can entrants pay on-line or should they send a cheque? If entrants are restricted by geographical location, a cheque is simplest to administer. If you wish to attract international entries than an on-line payment system such as PayPal or Google checkout makes it easier for entrants to pay in the right currency and avoids bank charges.

Copyright

  • Do not remove copyright from the entrants, but reserve the right to use entries in publicity for a set period, eg 12 months after closing date, instead. Only winning entrants will receive prizes so competition organisers who insist on having copyright transferred to them are effectively removing the ability of unsuccessful entrants to earn from their poems elsewhere and expecting entrants to pay for privilege and discouraging professional or semi-professional poets from entering
  • Ensure your rules state that entrants can only enter their own work or are responsible for seeking relevant permissions from the copyright owner if entries are translations or another’s work
  • Be clear about what rights you are reserving – typically these are to use entries for publicity purposes and/or publish selected entries in an anthology or on a website
  • If you are allowing entries that have been previously published, ensure the responsibility for seeking any relevant permissions lies with the entrant (if entries are restricted to previously unpublished original poems not submitted for publication or entered into another competition, then copyright rests with the entrant).

Pre-Competition Publicity

Consider

  • Print leaflets/entry forms and distribute locally in libraries or similar venues and through local writers’ groups
  • Approach poetry magazines and asking editors to insert a leaflet with the next issue (there will probably be a cost involved)
  • Approach local literature development officers, readers’ groups or arts administrators to let them know about the competition
  • Create a website or blog or update an existing website or blog with competition details
  • If the competition is sponsored or local organisations are providing prizes, get them involved in publicising the competition
  • Press releases to local media
  • Encourage word of mouth and consider social media
  • Do a ‘still time to enter’ press release.

Closing Date for Entries

  • Discuss the closing date with the competition judge(s) – there needs to be a reasonable period of time between the judges receiving the entries and when the results are expected. There also needs to be time between the competition’s launch and closing date for entries to give as many poets chance to enter as possible
  • Allow time to collate and gather the entries together – you may consider keeping photocopies if sending the entries to the judge via the post
  • Consider how you expect to get the entries to the judge and how the judge will get the results to you: two weeks might seem generous but if the judge has to wait five days (Royal Mail only guarantees first class post will arrive by the fifth working day) for the poems and then has to allow five working days to post the results back, that leaves a weekend to read and judge the entries
  • Be aware of public holidays and traditional holiday periods – if you are expecting schools to send entries from pupils, check term dates as a closing date during school holidays effectively puts schools under pressure to send entries by the end of term regardless of the actual closing date
  • Be clear about whether you expect entries to be actually received by the closing date or postmarked before the closing date, in the latter case allow time for postmarked entries to be received
  • Ensure the closing date is on the entry form and all publicity
  • Be strict: allowing a few days for entries postmarked before the closing date is fine, but allowing entries postmarked after the closing date may be seen as unfair by entrants who did manage to get their entries in before the deadline. In the real world, writers work to deadlines.

Competition Administration

  • Ensure that by entering the competition, entrants have agreed to comply with ALL competition rules. This avoids any disputes or misunderstandings later
  • Poetry competition entries follow the same pattern: a dribble as the competition is announced and then 90% of entries will be received in the days just before the closing date
  • From an entrant’s viewpoint it is easier to have one point of contact for entry – eg one email address and/or one postal address. Whichever address is used, ensure the competition administrator has access to collect entries throughout the duration of the competition
  • If entries are anonymous, use a numbering system to identify each poem (some poems may have the same or similar titles)
  • Incorporate a system for indicating where poems are by the same poet, eg allocate a number to each poet and a letter to each poem by that poet so 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d, are different poems by the same poet but 2a is a poem by a different poet
  • Allow for different poems by the same poet to arrive at separate times – some poets may send in an entry early on and then make a second entry of poems nearer the closing date
  • If a font is not specified, entrants may send in poems typed in different fonts, particularly if they send in more than one entry
  • Ensure the competition administrator has time to comply with the time scale for getting entries (or copies of entries) to the judge(s) and who will discard entries that don’t comply with the competition rules
  • Plan how prize-winning entrants will learn of the results – will there be a prize-giving ceremony or will the prize-winners be notified by post or will you simply post results on a website with publicity being sent to the media?
  • How will entrants find out about results – if they enclose an SAE or send an email address, will they receive individual notification? The competition administrator will need a system to record which entrant should be notified of results and how
  • If the judge is providing feedback or critiques, how will these be sent to the relevant entrants? The competition administrator will need to have a system of flagging which entrant is expecting what level of critique
  • If producing a competition anthology, decide in advance whether the anthology will just include prize-winning poems or prize-winning and shortlisted entries and whether it will include a judge’s report along with an introduction about the competition and how many entries there were. If producing an anthology, factor in production times to the competition timescale.

Judging

  • Ensure the judge or judges know what is expected of them before they agree to judge, ie:
    • The timescale of the competition
    • The absolute deadline for getting results back to the competition administrator
    • How many prizes to award and whether prizes are restricted to one per poet
    • Whether there are any separate categories to judge
    • When they will receive the entries
    • Whether they will receive all the entries or just a shortlist
    • Whether they will be expected to write a judge’s report
    • Will they be expected to write critiques on the entries
    • Payment for judging (do not expect judges to provide their services for free or for the privilege of judging your competition)
    • The competition rules and whether the judge is expected to weed out any disqualified entries or whether the competition administrator is expected to discard any entries that do not comply with the rules before sending entries to the judge
    • Whether they will be expected to attend any prize-giving events and whether there is a separate payment and what expenses (travel, overnight stay, etc) are available and if so when and where the prize-giving will be and whether they themselves will be handing prizes to the prize-winning poets or a representative of the administrators will do so
  • Will there be a filter judge or panel drawing up a shortlist. Discuss with the judge, some judges will prefer to read all entries, some prefer to have a shortlist of best entries drawn up. Ensure this is included in publicity and mentioned on any entry forms
  • Do not contact the judge in the period between confirming the judge has received the entries and the agreed deadline for delivering the results. The judge is likely to be doing other work and will not appreciate the interruption.

Results and Post Competition Publicity

  • Double check the names of prize-winners are correct before making any announcements – especially any live announcements at a prize-giving event
  • Ensure entrants who applied to be send the results get the results before any publicity is done
  • Let prize-winners (who may not have applied to be sent the results) know before any publicity is done. It is courteous and saves embarrassment and misunderstandings if prize-winners know before any publicity events
  • Check prize-winners can attend the prize-giving event (if there is one) and have a plan in place in case they can’t. Let prize-winners know if any expenses are available for travelling and accommodation (depending on how far they are travelling) and how formal an event it will be. Consider letting the prize-winners know they have won something (even if not which prize they have won) – they are not professional actors waiting to see if they have won a gold statuette but poets unaccustomed to goldfish bowls
  • When sending out invitations to any entrants, let them know whether they have won a prize or are just being invited – you don’t want to be mobbed at the event by entrants who thought because they were invited they’d won something only to discover they weren’t a prize-winner
  • Publicise the results
  • If there are any publications linked to the competition, publicise and distribute them.

Summary Checklist

  • Decide approximate timescale for publicising entry to competition, receiving entries, getting entries to the judge, getting results from the judge, getting results to entrants and post-competition publicity
  • Draw up a To Do list for the judge, approach potential judge(s) and agree both time scale and expectations
  • Draw up entry rules, including format of entries, fees, how fees are to be paid, copyright and rights, publicity expected, how results will be announced and create entry form if an entry form is to be used
  • Decide on Prizes and how prizes will be funded – by competition organisers or sponsors or as a percentage of entry fees paid
  • Appoint administrator and clarify how they should receive entries, competition rules, contact with judge and what to do with the results
  • Publicise competition
  • Expect 90% of entries in the final days, log entries and forward to judge
  • Do not contact the judge between confirmation of receipt of entries and deadline for passing back the results
  • Ensure entrants (especially prize-winners) get the results before post-competition publicity is done. Let any prize-winners know in advance of any prize-giving event.

Remember if entrants perceive the competition was run fairly and efficiently and they were treated with courtesy, they will be more likely to enter any subsequent competition.

If entrants perceive the competition was not run fairly, was inefficient, did not meet their expectations, they found the rules confusing, thought that an invitation to the prize-giving meant they had won a prize when they weren’t a prize-winner, thought the competition anthology would contain all entries and not just the shortlist or prize-winners, found out the results on social media ten days before receiving official notification from the competition administrator or discover their entry was disqualified because the judge had misinterpreted the rules, not only will the entrant not enter any subsequent competitions, they will tell friends, neighbours, family and anyone who will listen not to enter your competition either.

Hearing Voices Poetry Magazine Launch

Hearing Voices Poetry Magazine coverFriday 4 March was the launch of “Hearing Voices” magazine, which included my poems “Opposing the line of least resistance” and “Filming in the Hindu Kush”, at De Montfort University.  It was well attended and smoothly organised – people had to put their names forward in advance to read and were told they would have 3 minutes to read (if you allow a minute a poem, which is fine for a standard magazine length poem of up to 40 lines, that’s two to three poems).  Cynics might suggest that having twenty-two readers would have guaranteed a minimum audience of 44, but the audience was larger and some in attendance weren’t readers or partners/friends of readers.  Crystal Clear Creators who publish “Hearing Voices” originally had funding for three issues but Jonathan Taylor, one of the directors, hinted there may be further issues forthcoming.

Jonathan Taylor started the evening with an introduction and read two poems, “Moving House”, predictably about moving house but not so predictably about moving into a house sold after an acrimonious divorce, and “Thermodynamic Equilibrium,” touching on the second law of thermodynamics.  He also acted as master of ceremonies throughout, briefly introducing each poet and keeping things moving. 

He was followed by Jayne Stanton with a poem with a provisional title of “I want to hear you say I am not like my mother”  which may be a mouthful but is very apt, “the oh, so constant slap-down/ disapproving glower/ spittle thrower/ finger pointer/ chip on her shoulder/ boulder-heavy baggage./ No,/ she is the carrier…”  David Bircumshaw started with a lengthy introduction to his “Fragments from a Chinese Diary,”  which contains the memorable imagery, “A woman is shouting at her own locked door./ I have counted khaki on the Great North Road./ A quartet crashes/ through the silence of my wall…” immediately identifiable to anyone who’s spent time in flimsy multi-occupancy housing.  Roy Marshall had been writing a sequence of poems about Wilfred Owen so read, “Volunteer” and “Wilfred Owen’s Last Letter Home” from the sequence.  The latter being especially poignant as it was written at a time when Owen and his soldiers relaxed and entertained themselves, aware, as they were every night, that tomorrow might be their last.  For Owen it was his last night.

Emma Lee reading her poem Opposing the Line of Least Resistance published in Hearing Voices Magazine

photo credit: Miranda Lee

A year ago on 4 March 2010, it was International Book Day and I found myself running poetry workshops at King Edward VII School in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire.  These inspired a poem, “Opposing the lines of least resistance” where one girl scribbled initial thoughts on paper, expecting praise but was given suggestions on how to turn the idea into a poem.  One boy decided he was not going to write a poem.  Until he got a drink and I got him thinking about water which triggered a poem about a river.  The girl’s second attempt later won a poetry competition so the effort was worthwhile.  My second poem was “Miranda’s Warning.”

Deborah Tyler-Bennett had done a residency at Brighton Pavilion which inspired a series of poems influenced by film noir and Brighton dandies, typified by “Heist”, in a bar with suitably black décor, “barman looking as though trouble/ could enter, kissing you on the lips, leaving/ incriminating scarlet, as if some lowlife punched you on the jaw.” and a companion piece, “Penny Falls” inspired by typical seaside resort slot machine arcade with observations from staff and players.  The detail-packed descriptions make you feel as if you’re there.

Graham Norman proceeded his poem by a short introduction, which felt like a lecture although was not intended to be, about Dutch Elm Disease (and ‘innocent insects’ carrying it).  The poem, “Daughters of the Elm”, funnily enough, is about Dutch Elm Disease and begins, “Octet of goldfinches, chromatic flash,/ here come and gone like charm, that faultless vice,/ the sun upon their wings, a splatterdash/ of black and dun and gold and liquid voice,..”  The collective noun for goldfinches is charm and I don’t accept that there can be a “faultless vice” or that charm can be a vice., but understand that “vice” is used for the part-rhyme with “voice.”  Some parts felt as if they were over-written to support the rhyme scheme.  Using Latin names for beetles and fungi (but not for elm) further points to someone who prioritises research over communication.  Kathy Bell read two poems, “Occupation” and “Painting at the Midi” about aspects of the German occupation of France during the Second World War and a third poem inspired by learning that Gerard Manley Hopkins had burnt some of his poems whilst at a Jesuit college in Roehampton.  From the enjoyment in talking about and reading her poems, Kathy had clearly enjoyed the research as much if not more than writing the poems.  Aly Stoneman’s research had taken her to Peru in 1781 where an Incan leader had been tied to four different horses so they’d pull him apart (a not a-typical method of dealing with opponents at the time), in “After the Battle”, “There were horses and rumour of horses;/ saddles and bridles hanging like shame, lop-sided and jangling./ Gashed and lame, they refused to be caught, shied sideways and/ lashed out, the agents of men no more.” 

Robert Richardson provided some light relief and took his full three minutes for read four very short poems, one about Andy Warhol at a cricket match, “The English Philosopher”, “Revolving Door” and finished on “George Gershwin”, “…something we must sing// and, yes, enjoy as a part/ of what it means to be us,// yet he knew we are lovers/ and that is the place to start.” which perhaps needed more melody.  It’s difficult to hear a poem about a songwriter without looking for some of the songwriter’s techniques in the poem.  The first of the two co-editors, Sue Mackrell took us up to the interval with “Crossing the Bridge” in memory of her late father and incorporating London-based rhymes and references.  Her “The Unknown Warrior” took inspiration from the gold-coloured helmet that was part of the recent discovery of Middle Age treasure and tried to imagine who would have worn it.  Both poems were very evocative.

After the interval, first reader was the second co-editor, David McCormack with a low-key reading, “She Waits”.  Kate Ruse followed with “Songs” and “Choke” from “Hearing Voices”.  The first takes a woman asking a man how he writes his songs, he breathes looking out at albatrosses, blue and coal tits and a kestrel so, “She breathed in as if it was her last,/ searched the hill for a spill of shadows,/ set up wooden cages, doors flapping open,/ scattered sunflower seeds and dry crusts for luring/ then waited, the words already fluttering on her tongue.”  The extended metaphor very apt and very well sustained without labouring the point.

In contrast, Mark Mawson read “My Uncle Den”, a funny, nostalgic look at a favourite uncle, “This middle aged Bourneville salesman/ Carried the chocolate, the can// And the bottle of fizzy drink/ With a sweet tongue, a knowing wink,”   A poem portrait of someone who was clearly a bit of a charmer but still a family man and with more allure than Graham Norman’s goldfinches.

Maria Taylor read “Little Acheron” and “Topography” clearly and warmly.  Michael Martin seemed nervous but become more confident as he read “To Phil Dillon”, a former student at De Montfort University who had been reported missing and was later found to have accidently drowned in the River Soar, a sad loss.  A student, Clare Baldwin read “Misconception” about a child discovering it was born after its mother had suffered a miscarriage and felt very much like the second choice, the not-quite-wanted child, and a poem called “Home”.  Amanda Doran read, without introduction, “A Ballad of Larkhill Lane,” which was entertaining and warmly read but not particularly memorable. 

A change of tone with Philip Dobson’s “A Doctorate in Insanity”.  “Obsession was your spouse/ until the messy divorce. It got jealous/ and started arguments that didn’t make sense./ Now it hangs around your house. Sends you love letters/ made out of newspaper cuttings.// You went to a hospital. Possibly a penitentiary/ (The brochure was unclear.)”  The suitably wry reading matching the mood of the poem.  Rajvee Vyas read “Tied” which she’d written with her sister Sheetal, “Anorexic made;/ Sold for the price of/ A zamindaar’s soul./ Next truck goes, shedding salt…” (a zamindaar is a landlord).  She was followed by Caroline Cook who read “Red on Red” inspired by the artist Rothko and a second poem whose title I missed.  Simon Perril finished the evening off with “A Soft Rumination”.   Jonathan led a vote of thanks for the readers and students who’d organised the event.

It felt like an evening of two halves.  Although not rushed for time, the second half did feel hurried because some poets stuck to one poem and little in the way of introduction.  It’s a tricky balancing act: too long an introduction and your audience have fallen asleep, too short and the audience are still untangling the title when you’ve reached the last line.  However, no one mumbled, gabbled or made it awkward for the audience to listen so the evening felt relaxed and informal. A balance of readers of both genders too, although not alternating between a male and female voice so it didn’t feel as if the balance was obvious.