“Party in the Diaryhouse” Chris Hemingway (Picaroon Poetry) – poetry review

party-in-the-diaryhouse-final“Party in the Diaryhouse” Chris Hemingway (Picaroon Poetry) – poetry review

“Party in the Diaryhouse” is split into four unnamed sections introduced with a couplet. The first, “There’s a party in the diaryhouse tonight./ Full of drunken words, and uninvited memories.” The poems that follow aren’t just personal recollections or an autobiographical journey because Chris Hemingway seems far too interested in other people, especially musicians, to focus solely on himself. In “Freezeframe” Manny is asked to describe three of his favourite movie scenes,

“’Interesting’ said Dr Richards,
‘All three feature characters
who have passed through,
or are about to pass through
violent thresholds.
Is that important to you?’

‘Maybe’ said Manny
‘But I see film as a series of still,
not moving, images.
It’s why I don’t like animation,
the maths scare me.’”

It’s a reflection on how we all see memories as snapshots of significant incidents rather than a continuous rolling scroll. It enables us to lift a scene out of context and become aware of what formed us and what matters to us. It’s also about control. When things move independently of us, we’re not in control of them. The language might be casual, but the ideas it expresses are thought-provoking.

The second section, “If I had my time again tonight,/ I’d still be wasting moments, as if there still were centuries,” picks up on the theme of whether we would change our lives even with the benefit of hindsight. “You Cry Out in Your Sleep” is addressed to Ian Curtis, the late lead singer/songwriter of Joy Division whose affair with a music journalist broke his marriage to Deborah, the mother of his daughter,

“Annik murmurs by your side.
You’re glad she’s here but,
even when there’s no trust left
something still feels like betrayal.

Glimpsed, speeding
as if in the rear view mirror.
Responsibilities beyond your wildest dreams
however far you stretch.”

The poem captures the dilemma Ian Curtis felt he couldn’t face: he couldn’t move forward but couldn’t go back either. His epilepsy medication contributed to his sense of stasis. The contradiction in the penultimate line is very apt: wildest dreams don’t usually encompass responsibilities.

The third section, “There was a universe alone tonight./ Free of fallen stars, and other people’s galaxies” turns its focus to musicians, notably Bowie and The Beatles, in “Looking for Echoes”

“The music came from America.
In a steamer port it lands.
Amplified in pawnshop electric.
Smoothed by variety hands.
Jesus limelight bullets.
Postcards from Paris or Spain.
Alone on the roof of the city,
a blind man sits painting the rain.

Echoes in the dockwind,
as it blows down Matthew Street.
Echoes in the reverb
rumbling round our feet.”

The fourth section, “If you hadn’t telephoned tonight/ I’d still be finding fear, in temporary families,” explores the meeting of past and potential future, a pause to take stock. In “After the Blues”

“The tokens of our journey
sit behind glass,
or as if behind glass.
The hallway littered with tambourines
and xylophones.
Now we’ve stepped on
from every blues song we sung.
We woke up one morning
not quite believing
we could be getting it right.”

“Party in the Diaryhouse” contains compassionate poems that use conversational language to communicate poignant, nuanced ideas without being didactic. It doesn’t matter if the readers aren’t familiar with the musicians, the poems still convey the character and ideas with precision and rhythm.

“Party in the Diaryhouse” is available from Picaroon Poetry


“Unable Mother” Helen Calcutt (V Press) – poetry review

Unable Mother Helen CalcuttThe poems in “Unable Mother” focus on the not-so-rosy notions of motherhood: the doubts, fears, questioning and sense of failures. The language is precise and allows the poems to build layers of insight. The second poem, “God”, starts with the image of planting a tulip bulb and watching it grow (much of the growing happening underground and out of sight),

“as the suckle of sleep, as a child warms
to the yolk of a breast,
it warmed to the air it repeated.

It comes back, year on year.”

The poem ends,

“Even when I sit in the shadows
of the house
and the trees are looping through

with not a single path that’s lit to see you –
it’s the promise of what you are,
what you will become.”

The shadows suggest uncertainty and the sense that no mother knows what her baby will become. Much of motherhood is about nudging and steering a child in the right direction. A moral compass can be passed on but no one knows in advance where a child’s strengths and talents lie. The metaphor of a gardener planting a bulb with the faith that it will flower but also the doubt and uncertainty that it will is very apt.

“Melon Picker” starts “Death touched your feet/ with its wing.” and continues

“Could I ever
understand the pain
of broken feet? Where you knelt

under the night’s drunken expanse,
bleeding the lines

you walked, you wept…
sheer tiredness
was the thing that killed us

as it killed you then.
Seeing the same sun

bloat gold,
over black boulder seeds,
knocking like enormous breasts.

To greet the toll
that carried the dawn,

lifting your song-lines
and you
back, to the barren harvest.”

It explores the physicality of grief and loss, and the exhaustion that goes beyond a broken night’s sleep. The images carry a weight of tragedy and aloneness, ending on the emptiness of a “barren harvest”.

The title poem explores longing and disappointment,

“I’m unable to feel
I’m creating a daughter.
In my head,
this thing is a boy,

it sits on a throne,
and like a thrush sings
about the spittle of its bones.
It’s like squeezing
flesh and fruit from the bone,
this terrible love.”

Like planting a bulb, a pregnant woman is never sure that the baby will be as she imagines as she prepares for its arrival. For fathers, the baby is still a fairly abstract notion before the birth, but a mother can feel the baby moving, stretching and hiccupping. If image and reality clash, there’s a sense of bereavement. The language is spare and unflinching but not judgmental.

“Anvil” touches on the ultimate unable mother, who suffers a miscarriage,

“into the blow of the smite
that buried you like winter.

In my bed,
skin-clots furred.

throat, and lip. My mother’s shadow
danced on the wall. “

The poems are intimate in their offerings of insights and draw from considered experience using precise, spare language to explore vulnerability and to seek clarity. It’s good to see the less-explored side of motherhood expressed with compassion and intelligence.

“Unable Mother” is available from V Press.

Poet Voice

Poet voice is loosely defined as when a poet adopts a lilting cadence, mostly end lines on down-notes and introduce pauses within sentences where they aren’t necessary. The affect is that, to listeners, the poet’s voice is flattened so listeners can’t use the poet’s rhythm and tone to identify the more dramatic parts of the poem and the poem loses its musicality. Frequently it turns audiences off because it makes the poems harder to hear.

How can poets avoid using poet voice?

  • Don’t copy other poets. Do go to readings for inspiration and to listen to how other poets deliver their poems, but think about what made a good reading, what made a boring reading and what elements are worth adapting for you.
  • Focus on each individual poem and what story it tells or what emotions it evokes or which images you particularly want to draw attention to. How will you convey this for each poem you read?
  • Select your poems carefully: if you use a humorous poem after a few serious ones, you will change the tone and rhythm of your reading. Intersperse some newer poems amongst a group of themed poems.
  • Don’t put up barriers between you and your audience. You may be up on stage, but your audience want to feel engaged rather than patronised. They want you to succeed by using your voice to invite them on stage with you (not literally, but by treating them as friends rather than patronising them).
  • Does it help you to think you are performing your poems or reading them? For some, adopting a persona and performing each poem helps when giving a poetry reading. For others, focusing on reading the poems and not trying to perform eases that self-conscious feeling when reading to a group. Know which works for you and make it work for your audience.
  • Avoid comparing yourself to or trying to sound like other poets. Your comparison should be the last reading you did and making improvements for the next. There’s little point in putting all that effort into creating a unique voice for your poem and then flattening it with poet voice.
  • Always rehearse before a reading, even if speaking aloud is part of your writing process. Rehearsals force you to think about the pace of the reading both for individual poems and as a whole, you have to think about where you’re going to pause to breathe and for effect and the order of the poems you’re reading. How are you going to hold your interest? If you can’t, your audience will get bored too.

Our City or An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Leicestershire.

Call for submissions in a book about Leicestershire

Editor: Jon Wilkins
Publishers: Dahlia
Deadline for abstracts: 31 January 2019

It’s so strange how words affect us. I was reading my favourite Francophile crime writer, Cara Black’s latest paperback, “Murder in Saint Germain”. Her hero Aimee Leduc scoots around Paris solving crimes. Paris is the key, the second most important character in her books, but I digress. As background in the story, Aimee’s partner Rene, mentioned Georges Perec and his writing. Apparently, Perec spent three days in St Sulphice, Paris, watching and recording. From that came “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris” which is an amazing piece of work. Which is where you come in I would like to invite Leicester related topics to appear in “Our City or An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Leicestershire” They can be pieces on:

* The City
* The County
* The People
* Places
* Ideas
* Past
* Future
* Fantasy
* Social history
* Sport
* Food

Or anything else you can think of. It can be a ghost story set in the city, a short story about your love of Leicester City FC, a poem about one of the green spaces, there are no hard and fast rules, but it must be PASSIONATE about Leicester or Leicestershire. It should show your LOVE of the city, so I invite submissions from writers in any of the following forms:

* Fiction 2,000-4,000 words
* Poetry 50 lines maximum
* Short Story 2,000-4,000 words
* Flash fiction 100-500 words
* Creative non-fiction 2,000-4,000 words
* Essay 2,000-4,000 words

Contributions in your native tongue are welcome alongside a translation.

* There is NO publication fee. Each contributor will be provided two complimentary copies of “Our City or An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Leicestershire” in 2019.
* You retain the copyright in your Contribution.
Please send completed submissions, along with a short bio-sketch to leicesterstories@btinternet.com You will be given the opportunity to read your work at the launch event in October 2019.

Deadline for abstracts: 31 January, 2019.


I’m not going to share mine. Rejections are boring. I don’t think it’s helpful to hear that a published poet got so many rejections for her first book but kept going because:

  • Success isn’t just about persistence and tenacity
  • The try again and keep going message can give false hope
  • It implies rejections stop when you reach a certain level of success

Persistence and Tenacity

  • Some editors simply don’t like your poems. It’s possible to appreciate the craft and technical skills in a poem but not actually like it. Don’t give up at the first rejection, but if a magazine invariably rejects your work, move on and find an editor that likes your work.
  • Sometimes poets send out their poems too early which is why it’s worth finding a beta reader, workshop or writers’ group so you can get feedback on your work before you send it out to editors.
  • Editors don’t have time to give feedback on poems. It’s frustrating not knowing why you’ve been rejected but it’s more likely to be that your poems weren’t the right fit or too similar to work already accepted or the editor gets more poems in a week than she can publish in a year.
  • Do your research: find magazines that you like reading and that publish poems by poets you like and try them first. Check you’re not sending your traditional sonnets to a magazine that prefers prose poems. Continually sending prose poems to a magazine that only publishes villanelles wastes your time and irritates the magazine editor.
  • Don’t compare your failures with others’ successes. You don’t know how many times that poem was rejected before it was accepted. You don’t know how many rejections they got that week they posted about an acceptance on social media.
  • There are more poets than places to get published.

The False Hope of Try Again and Keep Going

  • It’s worth trying again if you’ve only had one rejection from a magazine and if you’ve done your research and think your poems are a good fit for the magazine.
  • It’s not worth trying again if there’s a mismatch between your poetry style and the magazine’s poetry style. Don’t get trapped into thinking you’re not a poet if you’ve not been published by The New Yorker or Poetry Review.
  • When you get a rejection, always re-read the poems that have been rejected. A fresh look might help you notice the awkward phrase in the second stanza or that the last line isn’t necessary. Edit and submit to another magazine.
  • If an editor doesn’t like your poems, they aren’t going to change their mind on the twentieth submission. Try another magazine.
  • If you’re getting good feedback when you perform your work but get rejected by magazines, chances are your performance is bringing something to your poems that’s absent on the page. Consider how to represent the missing element or consider recording your performances instead.
  • One rejection of a poem doesn’t imply there’s anything wrong with the poem. Multiple rejections of the same poem imply that it might be unfinished. Consider an edit or seek feedback before trying again.
  • Are you really a prose writer who wants to be a poet? Someone with amusia will never be a successful singer no matter how much they want to be, how many times they try, how frequently they change vocal style in the hope that their failure at opera will turn to success in pop, their failure at pop will turn to success in punk, how many hours of practice they do, how adept they get at using auto tune on their vocals or if they stalk the record label owner. However, there’s nothing to stop them becoming a successful drummer. You don’t have to stop writing poems just because your stories are more successful, but, when it comes to getting published, focus on where your talent actually lies.

Rejections Don’t Stop

Most of the magazines that accepted my poems in my first years of trying to get published no longer exist. The publishing landscape is forever changing: existing magazines change editors or fold and new magazines start. Being a published writer means being alert and open to new opportunities and that means potential rejection. Rejection can be minimised by doing your research, only submitting to markets where you know your work’s a good fit and knowing that you’re sending off the best versions of your poems, but it can’t be entirely eliminated.

To Publish or Not to Publish?

In a recent conversation on EAVA FM, I was asked for tips for aspiring writers:

  • Read, you can’t be a writer unless you read.
  • Guard your writing time – you may need to negotiate with family members or partners but if you don’t give your writing time priority, it won’t be important to them either.
  • It’s writing that makes you a writer, not being published.

Writing is the process through which ideas, characters, themes, issues, plots emerge from your thoughts and/or dreams in a way that enables you to write them down or type them. The process then extends to editing and polishing until you have a poem or story. It may be that you leave the new piece aside and come back to it at a later date so you can look at it with fresh eyes or you take it to a workshop or writers’ group or get a beta reader to look over it for constructive criticism to improve it further.

No piece of writing is wasted, even if it ends up binned or deleted, it’s all practice. Understanding how a story failed makes you better able to tackle a fresh story. Trying and failing to write a villanelle will give you a better understanding and appreciation of the form and there’s no reason to try and rewrite the failed villanelle in a different form or take one of the stanzas and start a new poem based on the extract.

Whether you show your writing to others is entirely up to you. If you want the external validation of publication, consider whether you are seeking that validation to confirm you are a writer or whether you want to share and communicate your work with others. If it’s all about you, it’s unlikely to appeal to readers. If it’s about sharing, publication is one of the routes to a readership. If others are pressurising you to get published, what are their motives? Do they need you to be published to call you a writer or do they think your writing should be shared with others? It is about you or your work?

Should you publish?

  • If it’s a shiny badge stating ‘writer’ that you’re after, make your own. The validation feels great, but publication is about reaching out to readers, not primarily to make you feel good
  • If you want to share and communicate to readers, you need a form of publication to make that happen
  • If you’re under pressure to publish, don’t. It has to be something you want, not something you do to please others.
  • Are you prepared to promote your publications on social media and market your publications? If you can’t engage with the process, it’s not worth doing and publishers, especially poetry publishers, need engaged writers.
  • Are you ready to accept that once out in the public domain, you have very little control over how readers react to your work? There will be critics and detractors as well as readers. Readers will filter your work through their lenses and may misunderstand your intentions or add baggage that you didn’t consider.
  • How will you handle reviews? Don’t read them is easier said than done. Reading, doing your research and approaching the right reviewers for your work takes time, but you won’t have control over what reviewers say.

Routes to Publication

  • Magazines and publishers – the obvious route but not the only one.
  • Competitions – many poetry competitions publish winning and short listed entries in an anthology or on a website
  • Blogs – some bloggers will publish poems but check the standard of poems (would you be happy for your work to be in the company of poems already posted?) and check guest post guidelines. You could create your own blog but be prepared to spend time promoting it. Also be aware that poems uploaded to a blog will be considered published and that will limit your options for getting blogged poems published elsewhere.
  • Performance – read at open mic slots or organise your own readings
  • Recordings – free software, e.g. Audacity, make it easy to record and upload readings of your poems. If your strength is in performance, burning a collection of recordings to a CD can be an alternative to book publication or a complement to a printed collection.

Why Woman’s Weekly contract changes matter even to poets

I’m a poet so news of the Woman’s Weekly contract changes for short stories was slow to come to the surface. It’s a useful illustration of why all writers (including poets) need to care about their rights and be cautious about what terms are in the contracts they sign.

Woman’s Weekly parent group has recently rebranded as TI Media and part of the rebrand seems to be changes to the short story contracts.

Generally if you sell a poem or short story to a magazine, it is on the understanding that you sell either first publication or one-time publication rights so the magazine can publish the poem or story. You are not selling any other rights and retain copyright so that you can publish your story or poem elsewhere, include it in a collection, have it translated or have your work adapted for another medium (e.g. film or an app). Regardless whether you were paid in cash or by complimentary copy for the sale to the magazine, you can still make money on your poem or story elsewhere.

If a magazine asks for any other rights, double check you understand what you’re being asked to sign. You should not be giving a magazine the right to republish your story without permission or payment, adapt your story for other media without permission or payment to you, translate it into another language or sell foreign rights without payment to you, make your story into a film or app without permission or payment to you or leave you unable to publish your poem or story elsewhere unless you obtain permission from the magazine or award themselves the right to republish your poem or story without crediting you (moral rights). They didn’t write your piece, you did, therefore you should benefit from selling the rights to use your poem or story.

This is what TI Media are asking from short story writers. Moreover, not only are they asking for more rights, they have reduced the amount they pay writers. So writers are being asked to give up more for less.

Why should poets, or at least those who don’t also write short stories, care? It shows writers should be protective of their rights and not succumb to a perceived power imbalance between writer and publisher. It shows that writers desperate to get into print should pause and think through the consequences. It is not worth losing your story to see your name in Woman’s Weekly.

Are Free Downloads Worth the Cost?

Farewell and good riddance oceanofPDF. For those who somehow missed it, this site offered free pdf downloads of books regardless of whether the books were still in copyright or not. It was driven by user request and if a writer or publisher requested a book be removed, the website refused to do so.

The site’s founders appeared to be aware that they were not helping writers and urged users to “leave reviews so authors get something back” and use word of mouth to recommend books to others. Urging others to use free downloads does not help writers either.

I get that

In some places books are difficult to get hold of or heavily censored or prohibitively expensive, but that doesn’t give you a right to a free download

Books are viewed as expensive by the same people who will buy an ebook reader, spend money on tickets to a one-off event like a sports game or cinema visit when a book can be revisited many times

Sometimes your money just doesn’t stretch to accommodate a reading habit so why not take up reviewing and get free books in return for a review, or is that not a fair price (and why is it not a fair price)? Do you demand supermarkets give you groceries for free because you’re too busy buying books to afford food?

It’s too inconvenient to visit a library. Tough. Try Project Gutenburg or Google Books. In the UK, writers do get paid when books (print, audio or ebooks) are borrowed so borrowing from a library instead of freeloading does make a difference.

People who use free downloads aren’t necessarily going to buy the book so the download doesn’t represent a lost sale. That doesn’t give the freeloader the right to make the download available to readers who might have bought a copy and helped the writer.

What if I buy a book and loan it to my friends? Great. But you probably don’t have 10,000+ friends; free downloads are available worldwide on a larger scale.

Shouldn’t writers be glad they’re being read? Samples of my poems are available online. These are free to access because I have chosen to make them free to access. You can read my work without infringing my copyright.

From a writer’s viewpoint

Free downloads aren’t recorded as sales. If sales for a current book are low, publishers won’t risk taking on the next book. Lack of sales also impact the amount of marketing budget publishers are willing to spend on the next book.

Writers don’t usually set the prices for books. Even self-published books can be discounted by stores so giving writers little control over how much they earn since their earnings are usually a percentage of the (discounted) sale price. A percentage of nothing is nothing.

The Society of Authors’ earnings survey indicates writers in the UK earn an average of £10,000 (average wage in the UK is £26,000). Most writers already do full or part time jobs in addition to writing. Taking away chances to earn money from writing mean writers get to do less writing. This not only means fewer books but also impacts on a writer’s ability to experiment and develop their craft and talent.

Unless a writer signs their rights away, copyright is still owned by the writers. Infringing that copyright impacts the writers and has a negative and demotivating effect on them.

It’s relatively easy to take a document and convert it into a pdf, stick it on a site and let others download it. But you can only do that if the document exists in the first place. Writing a book takes work, effort, emotional labour and time. Writers deserve to be paid for that. Depriving a writer of the opportunity to be paid means depriving the writer of the means to produce future books. Do you want all your books to be written only by those who can afford to work for free?

I have a search engine alert that lets me find sites offering downloads of my book and I will request my books are taken off and report the site to Google. I am fed up of having to do this because it eats into my writing time.

I know that the model behind oceansofPDF will be replicated elsewhere. I know many oceansofPDF users were adamant they loved the site and want it back. But not one of those users was supporting the writers they purport to love. Every free download comes with costs, are those costs acceptable to you?