Working towards a collection of poems

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

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

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

There are disadvantages too

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

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

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


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

 

 

 

 


 

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“Dip Flash” Jonathan Pinnock (Cultured Llama) – book review

Dip Flash Jonathan PinnockIf you’re looking for quirky, humorous flash fiction to dip in and out of, “Dip Flash” fits the bill. Stories feature disappearing houses, a bull in a china shop, live meat in a butcher’s shop, a wife who morphs into a cat, a granny equity scheme… all told economically and credibly with more than a dash of wit. Each story is focused and holds its own logic and even the more surreal ones contain a kernel of truth to get the reader thinking. The opening story, “The Picture of Mrs Tandoğan”, has a house that disappears but the story’s heart is about how we create memories in relationships through a compare and contrast between a selfie-snapping millennial couple and an elderly man who only has one picture of his wife.

The weaker stories feel as if there are merely a scene to build to a punchline. In “Rare Meat”, a butcher who has a crush on his customer agrees to source a piece of rare meat for her without knowing why she wants this particular meat. Problem is, the reader doesn’t get let in on her motive either: is she trying to impress someone, is she setting a test for the butcher, how does she feel about the butcher? She is reduced to a cipher.

Most of the stories don’t reduce their characters to ciphers and their motivations create credibility. Jonathan Pinnock’s strength lies in taking an idea, which might be an image, a proverb, a common phrase, and exploring its limits, often with humour. The compact nature of flash fiction is a perfect vehicle for this approach. There is much to enjoy in “Dip Flash”.

“Dip Flash” is available from Cultured Llama

“Always Another Twist” Sarah Leavesley (Mantle Lane Press) – book review

Always Another Twist Sarah LeavesleyJulie’s reaction to a betrayal at work is to plot revenge. Most would leave this as fantasy but Julie tests the robustness of her plan and puts it into action. It succeeds but she realises that working for a company more concerned with politics than talent isn’t for her and she moves on to a new job and new romance. So far, so good, but Julie’s life is complicated by her older sister Claire. Julie stepped up and helped care for her niece when Claire suffered undiagnosed post-natal depression which became a breakdown when her baby was lost to a cot death. Both sisters have also had to face the sudden death of their much-loved, widowed father. When Julie discovers she is pregnant, she has to face whether her new partner will support her, how her sister will react and deal with the resurfacing of past trauma. Initially chapters follow the nursery rhyme “Ten Green Bottles” with each chapter presenting a new break, a new problem for Julie to solve. Some are simple: you lose a job, find another. Others more complex, discovering her father’s diary, whether to face up to or walk away from a new experience, how to speak to Claire. The bottles start increasing when Julie discovers her pregnancy, implying what is broken can be rebuilt, but a rebuilt bottle carries its fault line.

Although the older sister, Claire was the baby of the family leaving Julie feeling she had to protect and carry. But she also knows that trying to shield Claire from the truth is not helpful, even if news of a new baby isn’t going to be welcome. Claire had discovered an old kaleidoscope from their childhood that she kept for her own baby. Julie remembers how every twist in the kaleidoscope changes the view of the objects within. At the heart of the story is how we allow the views of others to distort the view we have of ourselves. This can be positive when we question decisions and check we’re on the right path. However, it can be negative when we prioritise how our decisions affect others and change them based on unchecked information which may be false.

Julie is easy to sympathise with: the independent sister prepared to take responsibility and do the right thing, even at personal cost. It’s easy to see her reflected in her father who rose to the challenge of allowing two sisters to be themselves and adjust to the loss of their mother without burdening them with his grief. Claire’s husband seems adrift but steps up when it matters. Claire feels a bit of a mystery, a space in the novel where others project onto her. However, we got Claire’s story in “Kaleidoscope”.

“Always Another Twist” is a companion to the earlier “Kaleidoscope” which was told from Claire’s viewpoint. Claire was an unreliable narrator and Julie’s story doesn’t faithfully follow Claire’s. The stories are complementary, however, readers don’t need to read both books together. Each sister’s story stands on its own.

“Always Another Twist” is available from Mantle Lane Press

My review of “Kaleidoscope”

My review of S A Leavesley’s “How to Grow Matches” (poetry)

How do you Rehearse for this?

Poems for Grenfell TowerSadly one minute silences are becoming increasingly common. What marked the one minute vigil for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire was how unnecessary it was. On 24 June 2017, fire broke out in the 24 storey block of 129 flats. The cladding used on the building helped the fire spread and occupants of 23 of the flats lost their lives. The death toll reached over 70. A criminal investigation is still ongoing and not all those who were made homeless have been re-homed. The current Home Secretary has admitted that it is unlikely that all those made homeless will be re-homed by the anniversary of the fire. The one minute vigil was a mark of shame but also vital to keep the victims in the public eye and to help remind authorities of their responsibilities, particularly in one of the wealthiest London boroughs.

In the aftermath of a tragedy, what can poetry do?

“Poems for Grenfell Tower” has enabled victims, fire fighters and poets to tell their stories. Poems linger long after headlines have faded and enable the compassionate narratives that fill out the stark statistics in news reports. Proceeds from “Poems for Grenfell Tower” will go to a charity nominated by victims’ support groups to ensure that as far as possible the money goes directly to the victims themselves. Even for those who have been re-homed, ongoing support is needed with practical items, such as food, clothing and household furniture and goods, and access to support services.

I felt a huge sense of shame seeing the aftermath of the fire and it was an honour for my poem to be included in “Poems for Grenfell Tower.” A extract is below:

How do you rehearse for this?

Someone switches the warehouse radio off,
a signal for another one minute vigil
and the noisy office falls silent like an audience
sensing a show’s about to begin.
The ash and black tower block skeleton
could belong to a flickering war movie.
Critics shout who the murderer is before
a blaze of detectives secure the scene,
even before the victims are known.
In the interval, the audience donate
to crowdfunders and open homes…..

“Poems for Grenfell Tower” can be bought from Onslaught Press.

What do to with those NaPoWriMo Poems

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

Do not rush to submit your NaPoWriMo poems

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

Edit, Read and Edit again

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

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

Read Aloud

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

Workshop

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

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

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

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

You’re still not ready to submit

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

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

The Art of Showing Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Strange Fashion” Pam Thompson (Pindrop Press) – poetry review

Strange Fashion Pam ThompsonThe poems in “Strange Fashion” travel to Ireland, Scotland, Spain and America, moving back through history to a journalist trying to interview Virginia Woolf and Emilys Bronte and Dickinson browsing antiques in Church Stretton. The strangeness does not lie in the unfamiliar locations but in close observations of people’s behaviour when their guards are let down, when individuality shows. In “Gas Basin, 6pm” a woman kneels by the canal with a bag of fish food,

” She was just a woman with a few drinks inside her,
feeding fish, and if she felt like talking to them, waving even,
who were we to stop her, who were we to imagine
that our lives had bigger moments in them than hers?

We walked past on the other side, kept our eyes straight ahead,
carried on chatting until there was a safe enough distance
between that first sighting and the looking back.”

Despite the subject’s inhibitions being loosened enough to enable her to talk to the fish she’s feeding, the observers feel they can’t openly observe but look back from a safe distance. Partly this is down to the surprise of watching someone do something strange, but also the observers’ senses of decorum; they don’t want to be seen to be looking. There’s no judgment – the woman is not described as drunk and seems to be sufficiently in control to speak to and feed fish without the observers worrying she might fall in the water and the observers concede they have no right to intervene.

Thoughts are recorded “For Those Who Walk Pavements”,

“who walk, as if on air, or weighed down
by something shocking left over

from their dreams. Spare a thought for the wanderer,
meanderer, the blinkered, the lost.
Spare another thought, light a candle,

for those who travel without compass
or map, who leave the house with vague intentions,
an idea of destination, yet happily drift off course.”

For most pedestrians, the walkers mentioned are those who cause annoyance and are barely worth a second glance, much less a thought, as those with destinations and one eye on a clock hurry past. The poem is an invitation to slow down and observe. There are moments of tenderness too, in “Prisms”

“The frayed ends of what the rain left.
Red seeping into blue.

It doesn’t matter in what order the colours come,
as long as they do.

*

It takes me back to that other darkened room –
us, tethered by lust.

The way we sucked the breath
out of each other,
the colours streaming through us in any old order.”

A search for light and colour is echoed in “The Sun (her Ex) on the Shortest Day”

“A satellite tracking your temperature, weight and height,
wondered where you’d gone. Dirty stop-out, you crouched in a stairwell,
wasted from dog days. Even so, the sky danced itself into unseasonal blue.

You crouched. I watched scraps of cloud; people in flats hanging out washing,
moving through rooms; then later, car headlights, pretending to be you,
tiny white bulbs in the tree outside Matalan.

Faking it, window by window: the glint of your stalker attentions.
Black canal. Swans stamped with leaf shadows. Your kiss
on the back of my neck in the middle of my forgetting.”

“Strange Fashion” is an invitation to observe without prejudice or judgment. It offers compassionate attentiveness that comes from a poet willing to slow down and watch and record. The poems are crafted, giving readers enough details to complete their stories based on acute glimpses into others’ lives.

“Strange Fashion” is available from Pindrop Press.