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.


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.


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…


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.


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.


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.


  • 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 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.

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 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.

Questions and Answers from “Ghosts in the Desert” Launch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which poets influenced you or got you into writing?

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

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

How do you define your style or poetic voice?

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

Do you find reviews of your work useful?

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

Ghosts in the Desert is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing

Ghosts in the Desert book launch

Your Poetry Collection’s been Published – what now?

Getting a poetry collection published isn’t the end of a journey, but a transitionary stage. It marks the transition from writing a book to selling and promoting the book (and starting on the next). It’s not usual for writers to have mixed feelings when they finally get to hold a copy of their book in their hands. It’s a celebration but can also feel disappointing as a poet shifts from one stage in the journey (getting published) to the next stage (promotion) and the promotional stage is a long haul as I’ve previously written about in “Selling Poetry”.

Most poets prefer the first stage of writing a collection: writing and editing the poems, arranging the poems and seeing how they work alongside neighbouring poems, discussions with editors with the goal of publication. Once published, poets learn that:

“Writer writes book” is not news

The gloss of a new, shiny book can soon dull if you bore everyone you meet by talking about it, a little like new parents constantly talking about their new baby and nothing else. Be prepared to talk about the themes you explore in your book, select a particular poem to talk about or the reviews and reactions you’ve had. Vary your story.

Reviews take time

Even if you’ve been able to send out advance copies, reviews won’t necessarily appear on the publication date and may not appear for months afterwards. Check with your publisher before sending out review copies so you don’t send books to the same magazine. Bloggers may be able to review your book quicker, but always ask before sending an unsolicited book for review.

Arrange Readings

Most poetry books are sold at readings so arrange a launch reading and look out for other readings and local festivals you could read at. These are often booked long in advance so it’s best to get in touch with organisers as soon as you know you’re going to be published. Don’t overlook local open mic evenings and events. You may only be able to read one or two poems but you can read directly from your book and may have the opportunity to sell books on the night.

At a launch, you are in control and can talk about your book and read your favourite poems from it. At other readings, focus on reading selected poems rather than talking about your book. It’s the poems that will sell the book, not your brilliant, witty, engaging talk.

Change which poems you read or which order you read them in when doing different readings. If you start to sound bored, your audience may become bored too. There’s no reason not to intersperse poems from your book with newer poems.

Approach local radio stations too, particularly ones that feature talk shows and interviews. If news is a bit slow or a guest drops out, they may invite you in to talk about your book and read a poem. However, don’t turn an interview into an advert. Constantly urging listeners to “buy my book” will encourage them to do the opposite and some non commercial radio stations will drop your interview. If in doubt about what you can say, ask the producer before you go on air.

Social Media

Social media is an indirect way of selling books. It’s more of a networking medium than a selling medium. Don’t become a “buy my book!” bore. Offer information about forthcoming readings, post blog articles on what your book is about, do blog tours featuring articles on a poem or a specific group of poems or article about a topic or issue or theme featured in your book, include links to where your book’s available or post links to reviews.

Make sure you update your profiles to include your new book. If you use an email signature, does it need updating?


Being asked for Discounts

It will happen. Everyone loves to feel they are getting a bargain or a special offer and there is a minority who think they have to negotiate over everything. Practice saying “no”.

You do not need to offer an explanation for refusing a discount because the person asking will not appreciate that your book took you ages to write, you sweated blood over the comma at the end of stanza two in the title poem or even that writers deserve to be paid for writing. The discount request isn’t personal, haggling is just a habit.

If you know someone’s personal circumstances because they are family or a friend and you’re aware they genuinely can’t afford to pay for a copy of your book but would read it if you gave them a copy, why not consider giving them a copy in return for a review (on a site like Good Reads or Amazon)? That way you are still getting a payment for your book even if it’s not a monetary one.

Be aware that once you allow one person a discount, you will open yourself up to further requests.

Beware Special Offers and Discounts

Offering a time limited special offer or discount, e.g. a discount at a launch reading, a discount on one day only to mark an occasion, is fine. However, if you offer a discount that isn’t time limited, you are effectively devaluing your own work.

Promotional Items

Consider the return on investment before paying for any promotional items. Leaflets and post cards for use as book marks can be produced reasonably cheaply.


Ghosts in the Desert from Indigo Dreams Publishing

Ghosts in the Desert from Indigo Dreams Publishing



Emma Lee’s “Ghosts is the Desert” is available for pre-order from Indigo Dreams Publishing and the launch will be held on Saturday 4 July in Leicester. Her previous collections “Mimicking a Snowdrop” and “Yellow Torchlight and the Blues” are still available.

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