Poem or Photograph, is there a best response?

A friend commented that he struggled to write a poem in response to an event that he was able to photograph (and here photography is used as a documentary witness, not a deliberately staged photograph such as a model’s photoshoot or promotional photography). It prompted me to think about an occasion where I wanted to take a photograph of a scene but my camera was at the bottom of a rucksack so I committed the scene to memory and wrote “Sunlight: North Dublin” based on the scene instead. I suspect the choice between taking a photograph or writing a poem will be influence by personal preference and whether an individual feels more comfortable/skilled at photography or poetry, but either approach has advantages and disadvantages.

Immediacy

A photograph is contemporary to an event, making it an immediate response. A series of photographs can follow the unfolding of an event. A poet can scribble observational notes, but writing a good poem takes time, so a poem can lack the immediacy offered by a photograph.

Context

A photograph offers a limited view. It is dependent on the stance of the photographer in relation to the event and the limitations of the camera. Does the photograph choose a wide angle to capture a whole crowd, thus losing some of the detail, or zoom in to a specific person or group and lose the sense of scale? A poem can do both. A poem can also move backwards and forwards in time, mentioning what happened before and after a photograph was taken.

Colour

A photograph’s colour can be enhanced or subdued, reduced to monochrome, filtered or given a sepia tint, thus influencing how a viewer sees the event. A poet also acts as an editor, guiding a reader towards a specific response to the event. But when a poet says “cobalt” you know exactly which shade of blue to visualise. Getting two viewers to agree on what specific shade of blue the sky in a photograph is will be a harder task.

Memory

A photograph is both a creator and trigger of memories. It records a scene and later acts as a reminder. A poem is written from memory (whether notes scribbled at the scene or images remembered afterwards) and in creating the poem, some elements of the scene may be omitted or the centre of focus shifts to the sidelines in order to make the poem.

Here’s my poem (from “Yellow Torchlight and the Blues”):

Sunlight: North Dublin

Squint-inducing sunlight
stops me here momentarily
looking up at a tenement block.
Damp babygros, teenagers’ jeans,
mums’ skirts hang on improvised
washing lines on thin balconies.
Each floor sinks into the one below.
Each wall home to graffiti tags.
Rubbish stirs in the breeze.
The sunlight seems stronger
for being squeezed in the gap
between this block and a stark silhouette
of a city-grime encrusted church
putting these lives in shadow.

Would you have preferred the photograph?

“Over Land Over Sea poems for those seeking refuge” launch 7 December 2015

The launch took place on 7 December at the Secular Hall in Leicester from 6.30pm. This event was part of the Human Rights Film Festival. Ambrose Musiyiwa, one of the festival coordinators, started the launch by talking briefly about the festival, one of the highlights of which had been the previous day’s Music Without Borders that had raised funds for MSF.

Rather than give a lengthy introduction to “Over Land Over Sea poems for those seeking refuge,” I began with a selection of the poems because that’s what everyone had come to hear. Poems read (I read for those who weren’t able to be there on the night):

“Song for Guests” Carol Leeming
“Come In” Lydia Towsey
“My Neighbour” Richard Byrt
“What’s in a name?” Penny Jones
“We Walk Together” Sally Jack
“Children of War” Malka al-Haddad

I wanted to start with these poems because the first two were about welcoming. One of the key themes we found with many of the poems submitted was neighbourliness, reaching out to meet refugees as fellow humans. Malka al-Haddad’s poem is a powerful reminder of why people are leaving their homelands.

After this poem, I read an extract from Sir Martyn Poliakoff’s introduction, “…most of my adult life has been spent living in Beeston and being part of the community. So it is hard to ignore the plight of families who are going through traumas today similar to those experienced by my father and grandparents nearly a hundred years ago. This book is a really impressive collection of poetry and prose put together by a group of East Midlanders who care passionately about the lives of others and who are determined to help those less fortunate than themselves. Everyone who has contributed has done so free of charge and all of the proceeds from the sales are intended to help refugees. It is a great demonstration of the spirit which exists in our region. It also shows that compassion is still alive in the UK and that we are willing to welcome new families into our country so that they too can contribute to our communities as soon as they have overcome their dreadful experiences. Until then, we need to help them.”

It is often the case that small kindesses are more memorable than grand gestures, which introduced the second set of poetry readings:

“Blue Folder” Lily Silverman
“Birthdays, May 2015” Merrill Clarke
“The Whiteness” Mariya Pervez
“The Humans are Coming” Siobhan Logan
“What we know” Kerry Featherstone
“Hayride” Roy Marshall
“Yalla” Trevor Wright
“Stories from the Jungle” Emma Lee
“The Man Who Ran Through The Tunnel” Ambrose Musiyiwa

Some of the poems in “Over Land Over Sea” contrast our relative privilege with the little the refugees had and what they’d left behind. Space was also a recurring theme in submissions. Some used the idea of exploring space and alien lands as a metaphor for refugees arriving in foreign lands and being regarded as different. Siobhan Logan’s poem was based on a story of a teenaged refugee who dreamt of becoming an astronaut. Another theme was the journeys undertaken by refugees, and understanding how it must feel to make that journey and the motivation to keep going.

I paused here to talk about editing the anthology which I’ve already blogged about. The poetry readings continued:

“Waiting” Kathleen Bell
“Through the Lens” Liz Byfield
“The Devil and the Deep” Diane Pinnock
“In a small boat” Louisa Humphreys
“Outside the Photograph” Emma Lee
“but one country” Rod Duncan.

Rod Duncan’s poem is a wonderful unifying poem which uses a verbal mirror image to transform a negative view into a postive one. That’s primarily what we were looking for in “Over Land Over Sea poems for those seeking refuge,” a sense of connection, an acknowledgement of tragedy and trauma but without unremitting doom and gloom and a note of hope.

Thanks to all the poets who came along and read their poems and to Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves who helped run a bookstall on the evening.

“Over Land Over Sea poems for those seeking refuge” is available from Five Leaves Bookshop. The proceeds of sales will go to MSF, Leicester City of Sanctuary and Nottingham Refugee Forum, charities working with refugees. Printing and distributions costs have been paid via a crowdfunding project before publication.

Listening to Music and Writing Poems

Someone recently asked if I listen to music when writing. They knew I used to write music reviews and were looking at a poem called “Analysis of a radio song”. It’s certainly not the only poem I’ve written influenced in some way by music. I’m still in the habit of listening to what I’d told is a lot of music.

However, I prefer not to play music when I’m writing:

Poems have a rhythm and musicality of their own

It’s hard to pay attention to that when you’re listening to another piece of music. It takes a fair amount of discipline and practice to tune out the influence of the music in the background and let the poem find the rhythm that’s right for it.

If I’m reading poems that are not sufficiently engaging and music is being played in the background, I find I end up trying to read the poems to the rhythm of the music. If the poems engage me, the background music is tuned out.

Poems have their own vocabulary

If you’re listening to music with lyrics, it’s not easy not to absorb a word or a phrase from the song you’re listening to. I have very few instrumental pieces. But even an instrumental piece can suggest imagery, which writers instinctively convert to words, and rhythm which might influence a poet to choose a short, staccato word when a longer, smoother one is needed.

Music influences mood

It might help playing the right kind of music to set an ambience before you write, but it’s not sustainable while you write. You might be trying to write a fast-paced thrilling chase, but you need to slow down and get the wording, rhythm and sound-patterning right. Loud, repetitive noise can induce stress: no one writes well under stress.

Repetition

Poems are rarely dashed down in ten minutes flat. Repeatedly playing the one track or album on a loop that suits the mood, rhythm and even vocabulary of the poem will bore you, frustrate the poem and you’ll never finish it.

Distraction

The second stanza’s tying itself in knots, you can’t think of an alternative description for “orange” that would give you a rhyme and the next track’s your favourite…. Or if you’re listening on shuffle, trying to anticpate the next track might become more interesting…

Familiarity

Even favourite tracks can get boring if played on a continuous loop and bored minds wander… This can be a good thing on a first draft but not when you’re editing. If you’re bored of your poem, your readers will be bored too.

Some circumstances where music can be useful:

Setting the mood

Some writers need a buffer between everyday living and time allocated for writing. Some achieve this with a favourite pen/notebook, getting a desk in order before turning on a computer, a few moments’ quiet to create a break between chores and time to write. For some, it might be playing a track or two to focus. It can be hard writing an autumn poem in midsummer or a love poem when you’re anxiously waiting for news or constantly glancing at a to-do list.

Tuning out distraction

Distracting noises are unpredictable interruptions: a ringing phone, the neighbour’s DIY, an unevenly dripping tap, someone alternating periods of silence and whistling with no consistent duration. These can be soothed out by a constant noise which can be tuned out. Workplaces with a radio constantly playing in the background can be more productive than a ‘silent’ workplace with unpredictable interruptions such as a printer starting, a phone call, someone tapping their fingers, a noisy typist.

One morning I had a poem competing with a pneumatic drill from workmen in the street. I was also waiting for a delivery so couldn’t go and write elsewhere. Music helped poetry win.

 

Extended Play short stories from Elastic Press

(“Extended Play” includes one of my stories)

Poets in Solidarity with Refugees: selecting anthology poems

The task was to select around 100 poems from 204 submitted. The poems that didn’t qualify because they were too long or submitted after the deadline had already been eliminated. It really does pay to read submission guidelines and, no, you don’t get round them by saying “I know my poem’s too long or too late but I thought I’d send it anyway.”

The first part of that task was straightforward: read each poem and select the best. There were three of us on an editorial panel and we each read through all the poems and made a selection independently of each other. The best poems generally selected themselves.

  • They had something to say without preaching.
  • They said it without telling the reader what to think.
  • They said it in an engaging way that demonstrated the writers’ understanding of poetic craft and form and it was hard to take anything out or put anything in without substantially changing the poem.
  • They were also poems that hadn’t jumped on the first, obvious response to the topic.
  • They were poems where the poet had thought around the subject and picked a fresh approach.

We had a remit to select poems that shed new light on the refugee experience, writing that was specific rather than general and which was not unremittingly gloomy, harrowing or preachy. We wanted a variety of work to produce an anthology which would interest, engage and surprise readers.

To ensure that variety, we didn’t impose any arbitrary limits, but to include a second or third poem by the same poet, those second or third poems would really have to work to justify their place. This meant some good poems were excluded simply because their author had entered more than one poem and we were trying to ensure a variety of voices, viewpoints and topics.

Selecting the best was the easy part. As the best were selected, they were grouped by theme and an order of contents began to emerge. There was a core of around 90 poems which all three of us had independently agreed on. When we met we discussed the poems that at least one editor had selected that the other(s) hadn’t. We read poems aloud as well as silently from the page. After discussion, some of these were selected. If we were putting together a magazine or blog, we could have stopped there.

However, we wanted a coherent anthology where poems covered all aspects of the refugee experience: their journey, why they’d left, where they were hoping to go and why, compassion and the media reaction, and the poems worked well alongside each other. Some good poems didn’t fit with others selected. There are times when a brilliant soloist has a voice that doesn’t blend with a choir. Without deliberate intention to stand out, when the choir sings, the soloist’s voice can still be heard and it doesn’t feel to the listener as if the choir is singing with one voice. I know I’ve had some poems published in magazines that don’t fit easily into a collection unless I create a separate section just for one poem which undermines the intention of a collection. Again, some good poems got put aside.

At this stage, we’d selected 101 poems. We went back through the ones we’d put aside to check we hadn’t overlooked a poem that was worthy of inclusion and to ensure that we hadn’t excluded one that we could have made fit. We were happy with our initial choice and went back through our selection to check we were happy with the order. We then gave ourselves a couple of days to independently read through our selections again and check we were happy with the order.

We’d met on a Tuesday evening and by Thursday were in complete agreement over our choices. Emails and letters informing those who’d submitted poems were sent out on Friday evening so that everyone would hear at more or less the same time. The anthology is currently being typeset in preparation for printing.

Things learnt while Editing a Poetry Anthology

I’m on the editorial panel for the Poems for People Anthology in Solidarity with Refugees. The submission guidelines are here and the crowdfunding project to raise printing costs is here. The anthology will be printed by Five Leaves Publishing and is looking for poems and micro-fiction that sheds new light on the refugee experience, is specific rather than general and isn’t unremittingly gloomy, harrowing or preachy. The closing date is 28 September. Writers can submit up to 3 pieces as a Word attachment and pasted in to the body of an email with a writer’s biography of 50-100 words. Postal entries are also accepted.

Entries started arriving from 2 September, when the project was launched and the following observations have been made:

Submission Guidelines

  • Not everyone reads them. If there’s anything in the guidelines you’re not sure about, by all means query it, but the guidelines are provided for a reason. If you don’t follow them your work may be rejected unread.
  • Fortunately, no one has sent too many pieces (so far).
  • A number of people sent only one piece, which implies the poet has the excellent discipline and sense of discrimination to send the one best poem on the theme that they had. Either that or there are plans to send further submissions nearer the deadline and hope the editors aren’t able to count the total number of pieces submitted over several submissions so won’t notice that someone’s sent a total of six pieces over three submissions. My previous experience in organising and/or judging competitions tells me this does happen.
  • Some writers have included their name on their attached documents, some haven’t. The guidelines didn’t ask for anonymous submissions so individual pieces should have been named. It’s a good idea to do this because individual documents can get separated from the email/covering letter they were sent with and, without a name, it’s difficult to trace the poem back to the poet. However, no one’s entry will be rejected just because they didn’t put their name on it.

Writers’ Biographies

  • Performance poets don’t like writing biographies. Poets who write primarily for magazines are used to writing a short biography which gets published in the magazine along with their poem. It’s a valuable habit for performance poets to acquire so that they have something handy when a compere asks how to introduce them or wants something written down to use for publicity. In this case, poets whose work is accepted and who haven’t sent a biography will get chance to send one, but not all editors will do this.
  • Check the guidelines and, if given a word count, stick to it. It’s fairly easy to cut a handful of words from a piece that’s a couple of words too long and shorter biographies are fine. But if you’ve sent a biography that’s ten times longer than everyone else’s you look a) greedy b) arrogant c) risk the editor ignoring your biography altogether.

Presentation

So far all submitters have stuck to using black type on a white background in a standard font. This makes it very easy to read the poems and see the poet’s intent on how the poem is laid out.

Length

The editors asked for poems of up to 42 lines or micro-fiction up to 100 words.

  • On a couple of occasions, poets had sent a poem over 42 lines long, apparently unaware that they had done so. With the deadline still over a week away, it was possible to return the submission and ask the poet to edit their poem or send another. With entries close to the deadline, it won’t be possible to do this. This is why it’s a good idea to check the guidelines.
  • A couple of writers were guilty of “this piece is over the length. I can cut it if accepted,” i.e. knowingly breaking the rules. An editor can’t accept a piece of work that’s going to be changed before publication and it’s not fair on the other submitters for the editors to consider work that’s not followed the guidelines. It’s the writer’s job to ensure their work conforms to the guidelines, not the editor’s.

Theme

  • In the very early stages, most poems were ones that the poets had already written (and in some cases were already published) that the poets felt fitted the theme.
  • New poems written to the theme are also being submitted. There is a mix here of poems which have been written by poets who’ve been thinking around the theme and found a new angle, taken a specific approach and taken a compassionate view. There are some pieces written from first thoughts on seeing some of the media reports and pictures and as a result some don’t feel as if they are fully-realised poems yet.
  • All pieces submitted have loosely kept to the theme of refugees.

Poets in Solidarity BookThinking of Submitting?

  • This is an opportunity to have your work read by an experienced editorial panel and, if accepted, published by a highly regarded independent press, Five Leaves Publishing and to help raise money for registered charities working in support of refugees.
  • Read the guidelines: up to three poems of 42 lines or under or micro-fictions up to 100 words submitted as a Word (.doc) attachment and pasted into the body of your email along with a writer’s biography of 50-100 words on the theme of solidarity with refugees.
  • Submit by midnight on 28 September to poetsinsolidarity101@gmail.com. Entries after the closing date will be ignored.
  • Postal entries to be sent to arrive by 28 September to Poets in Solidarity, 36 Leybury Way, Scraptoft, Leicestershire LE7 9UB. An extra day will be allowed for receipt of postal entries.
  • Check length of work and biographies before submitting.
  • If you can, please pledge to the crowdfunding project too.
  • All contributors will get a complimentary copy.
  • All funds raised above printing costs will go to registered charities working in support of refugees.

Why following Submission Guidelines is a Good Idea

Imagine you are an employer. You have a vacancy. You don’t need to advertise to fill your vacancy because you get hundreds of unsolicited applications every day. But how do you decide who to recruit? Some of the applications are obviously unsuitable, but the bulk of them will be from experienced, qualified candidates who are all suitable for shortlisting?

At this stage, employers start looking for reasons to reject candidates, rather than reasons to accept them. That typo will put an application in the reject pile, so will that coffee stain as will that application using capitals, an irregular font and that application where the crucial information’s not in the order the employer expected. The employer hasn’t time to figure out how the skills an applicant has in their current role will transfer to the vacant role so the candidate who hasn’t bothered to spell that out will end up in the reject pile.

An employer looking for reasons to accept a candidate might overlook these factors or take the time to read between the lines and tease out the information they want. An employer looking for reasons to reject an candidate will not.

This is the position most poetry editors find themselves in. They have an overwhelming pile of poems to choose from so they start looking for reasons to reject poems.

An easy way of finding reasons to reject poems is to publish submission guidelines and ensure those guidelines are widely published. Poems sent outside the submission window or after the deadline: reject. Poems rendered almost illegible by an elaborate font or being printed on a patterned background: reject. Poems without contact details: reject. That sequence of traditional sonnets sent to a magazine that’s asked for experimental forms: reject. Poems that are not written to the requested theme: reject. Poems that are longer than the advised line length: reject.

Like the employer, editors are not going to look kindly on a poem that’s almost there if only the poet would drop the cliché from line two. Editors do not have time to help you rewrite your sonnet into a concrete poem. Editors don’t have time to look at your poem that’s six lines too long and tell you which lines should go. Equally they don’t have time to ask you to cut six lines and re-submit only to find that the six lines you cut were the exact same six lines that got them interested in the poem in the first place. They certainly don’t have time to tell you to reinstate the cut six lines and drop the fourth stanza instead. Much easier, and time saving, to automatically reject anything that doesn’t conform to the guidelines without even reading it and turn their attention to those poems which do meet the guidelines. After all, how fair is it for an editor to waste time on poems that don’t meet the guidelines to the detriment of the poems where the poet has taken the trouble to follow the guidelines?

What, then, does a poetry editor do with a submission where the covering letter states “my poem is x lines over the maximum stated in the guidelines. If accepted for publication, I can shorten it to the correct amount.”?

How can an editor accept a poem that will be changed before it’s published? What if the editor doesn’t like the changes the poet makes in taking lines out and decides to reject it after all? When would an editor enter into correspondence with one poet when they’ve an abundant choice of poems that do conform to the guidelines to select from?

Why deliberately make a submission that you know does not conform to the guidelines? The odds of publication are not in your favour so why create your own additional obstacles to getting published? Why would an editor work with a poet who has deliberately flouted the guidelines? Would a poet, who thinks the rules don’t apply to them, be more likely to have a professional attitude towards being edited or more likely to be difficult to work with?

At a time when editors are looking for reasons to reject submissions, make sure you don’t give them a reason to reject your poems. In some blog articles, I feel as if I’m stating the obvious but recent experience shows the obvious needs stating. Deliberately setting up your submission for rejection is a waste of time and could give you a reputation you don’t want.

Poems for People: an Anthology in Solidarity with Refugees

Poets in Solidarity Book

Poems for People: an anthology in solidarity with Refugees

Aim: To publish and promote an anthology of poems to raise awareness of issues faced by refugees and show solidarity. Funds raised over and above the anthology’s costs will go to charities supporting refugees. The anthology will be produced by an experienced editorial committee, typesetter and Five Leaves Publications who will not charge for their time and will be available in print and as an ebook. Proceeds from sales will go to registered charities supporting refugees both in the East Midlands and abroad.

Description
At the suggestion of Ambrose Musiyiwa, we plan an East Midlands anthology of a hundred poems and pieces of micro-fiction in solidarity with the refugees who are currently receiving so little welcome as they take to boats and rafts to cross the Mediterranean, make their way with difficulty through Europe and, in a small number of cases, arrive in Calais with the hope of reaching the U.K. The aim of the anthology is to enable readers to take a view of the situation which is not governed by the fear and hatred whipped up by the language of media and many politicians. The anthology will be produced by an editorial committee, typesetter and publisher who will work free of charge. The anthology will be published by Five Leaves Publications in Nottingham, and will be available both in print and as an ebook.

Submission Guidelines:

Please submit no more than three pieces of work. If you submit work which has previously been published, please give details of where it has appeared. The editors would particularly welcome writing which sheds a new light on the refugee experience in some way, writing which is specific rather than general, and writing which is not unremittingly gloomy, harrowing or preachy. We hope for a variety of work and an anthology which will interest, engage and surprise readers.

Poems should be no more than 42 lines (and much shorter work is welcome). Micro fictions should be no more than 100 words. All work should be single-spaced. Please include a biography of 50 – 100 words.

All submitted work should be in English. In the case of translated work, it is the translator’s responsibility to obtain permission from the copyright-holder of the original work.

Please send your submissions, preferably by email to poetsinsolidarity101@gmail.com by midnight on 28 September 2015. Send all material in a single word attachment AND in the body of the email. If you do not have access to email, you may submit by sending two copies of each piece of work by mail to: Poets in Solidarity with Refugees, 36 Leybury Way, Scraptoft, Leicestershire LE7 9UB. In either case, remember to include your contact details.

About: Poets in Solidarity with Refugees is a group of writers, artists and literature promoters mostly based in the East Midlands who want to share and welcome stories from refugees fleeing war-torn countries. Poems and fiction for the anthology will be selected by an experienced editorial panel and backed by a promotional campaign.

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