Saturday 6 July 2024

The value of writing workshops and courses

I have heard a lot of criticism levelled at writing workshops and courses and I would like to set out my case in their defence - and not because I run workshops, but because as a writer I find them invaluable.

I have spent the last couple of years (well longer really) working on a collection loosely themed around grief and loss. I was lucky enough to get an Arts Council DYCP grant last year which enabled me to take valuable time away from earning a living to write, to travel to Wiltshire to revisit where my mum is buried and I was also able to participate in two different Arvon at Home weeks.

Sometimes my students and mentees are surprised when I tell them that I feel it is important that I still attend workshops and writing weeks. I think they imagine that by book four you will magically have the formula for a good collection at your fingertips. Not so. The truth is that despite doing research - reading around my subject area (loss/grief themed poetry, fiction and non fiction) and attending a course about grief - I was still left with myself and my own style of writing, my own preoccupations. Although I had written some poems I was happy with I had come to a point where anything new I was writing felt a bit samey. and there were also one or two events that I wanted to write about but hadn't managed too. One of these was my mum's funeral and the other was the trip I had made to where she was buried - when there my friend and I had immediately seen an enormous hare followed by deer - this had felt like some kind of sign, but for the life of me I couldn't write about it. What I needed was for someone to rattle my cage, to jolt me out of my comfortable writing rut.

The bones of the title sequence 'Grey Time', came out a zoom prose poem workshop with Carrie Etter. I started writing it in the workshop and just couldn't stop writing for about an hour afterwards. Sometimes an exercise, a poem, or something someone says can just unlock something in your head. 

What those two Arvon weeks did was to give me me new ways to approach my subject matter - new ways into writing. In the first of the weeks Rebecca Goss introduced us to a recent form called the centena - a poem of exactly 100 words (excluding the title) opening and ending with the same three words. This tiny form proved to be exactly the kind of container I need to talk about my mum's funeral. It might sound counterintuitive but sometimes a tight writing constraint can actually be freeing. I surprised myself!

The second of the two courses was with Tara Bergin and Yomi Sode and was looking at ways of using research in poetry. This course yielded a massive harvest for me in terms of moving my book forward. Tara's writing exercises are very complicated, but precise, and this somehow opened up mind to possibilities and ways of writing. I was able to bring to the table things that I might never have considered using - map references, references to art works etc. I did a lot of research and reading that week - none of it specifically about grief, but all connected to things I was trying to write about. I wrote a lot that week - all of it surprising, and several of the poems have become the backbone of the collection. One of the components of an Arvon course is that you get a tutorial with each of the tutors and this was really fruitful for me too. Yomi offered me some excellent editing advice on the poem that now opens the collection and Tara made a suggestion that changed how I thought about the collection entirely. I had a sequence of prose poems that ran over two or three pages - just a couple of line breaks between each one. Tara suggested that they each needed to be on a page of their own. This blew my mind - I knew immediately that she was right, but it meant that the sequence would run over nine or ten pages rather than two. This meant I would need to take  more poems out. I was reluctant to do this at first, but realised as I was editing that I needed to take out everything that felt that didn't feel like it fitted with my main themes - loss/grief/, violence, motherhood and neurodivergence. This sounds like a wide remit but actually the themes really feed into one another - the main thrust of the collection being different types of loss. I took out a lot of poems but the result is a collection that feels much more coherent. 

I want to say here that workshops and courses aren't always entirely pleasurable. Sometimes they push you into uncomfortable territory. Sometimes exercises seem pointless or you feel resistance to them (the ones I resist most usually yield the best results), sometime they make my head hurt - but in a good way - because I am learning and being pushed out of my comfort zone. As a writer I feel I need this otherwise I would just write the same book over and over again. Yes, my preoccupations may be the same but challenging myself gives me new ways to come at them, new insights, new ways of working. Hopefully the results are worth it.

Wednesday 19 July 2023

Writerly Preoccupations

When I was batting around ideas for a workshop one of the exercises I came up with was getting the participants to look at what preoccupies them as a writer - what interests them and inspires them, what themes they keep coming back to. As always I did the exercise myself to see what happened and it turned out to be a really useful and productive thing to do. 

You might want to try it - think about what interests you as a writer or artist? What are your preoccupations? What subjects or themes interest you? What things do you find yourself coming back to? Don't just limit yourself to things you have written about - I am interested in many different things that directly, but sometimes indirectly into my work. I found I learnt things about myself by doing this exercise.

Here are mine:

Human relationships place; the intersection between the human world, the natural world and the mystical realm; how events changes us - especially loss and grief; family dynamics; how place affects us and/or shapes us; psychology and counselling; music and lyrics; the past and how we repeat behaviour patterns; cruelty and violence (and the reasons for it); myth and fairytale; parallel universes; a Utopian future; the disintegration of a caring democratic society; repetition and internal rhyme; other worlds; art house film; stories where the ending is ambiguous or left open; other species; where wildness encroaches on order; edges and borders; otherness; the the physical body (and how it ages); being a parent - and how that changes over time; loss and grief; the stories and lies we tell ourselves (and others); memory; collective memory; the way memory changes over time; trauma and how its passed down through families.

Saturday 28 January 2023

girl was born - an exploration of a poem

I was recently asked to write some background to one of my poems and explain why I used a particular form for it. It is interesting going back to a poem and trying to remember the intention behind it. I couldn't remember when I wrote the poem - except I knew it was before I moved house in 2021. The intentions were clearer to me and the reasons I laid it out as prose poem with slashes. I will share the poem and what I wrote. The poem is from my book The Telling.

girl was born

girl was in the world / her mother was a horse / and her father was a pony / or was it the other way round / girl never knew when a day would turn sour / the world was a farmyard full of plastic animals / the houses were wooden / tiny painted rectangles for windows / nothing to look out from / girl looked out of her rectangular eyes with longing / girl reached for quiet / she reached for making sense / the words danced themselves up and down on the page / until finally she understood them / girl was born too late / or too early / she became a sister / then she became a sister again / she ran up the slippery stairs two at time / she jumped down them / girl was a ratty tennis ball / somewhere along the way she lost her bounce / girl was born a second time / girl was born of the woods / her father was a pine tree / her mother was a bramble / the house was full of midges / there was no way of returning to where she had come from / she picked up a twig shaped like a gun and aimed it

I wrote this as a stream of consciousness piece. I was thinking about how it felt like I had two different lives as a child. The first life from birth to three years old where we lived in a bedsit in my mum's friend's house in London (Ealing) - the friend had three kids, a dog and was a dress maker, the house was always busy. And then the second life when we moved to Thetford, a small town in Norfolk. There we had a two bedroom council house and I was the only child until my sister was born two years later. In Thetford the house was quiet. During the day it was just me and my mum. We lived opposite a pine wood - that wood was a big part of my childhood and often creeps into my poems, as does the pine forest that Thetford was surrounded by. I was a bright (some might say precocious) child (I was also neuro-divergent but we didn't know that then). I refused to go to nursery and also insisted on learning to read when I was 3 or 4. I learned using the Dr Seuss books. I was also a tomboy - preferring cars and guns to dolls. 

The poem is about a girl trying to make sense of the world around her. The objects (such as toys) become anchors or signs to steer by. Sometimes the separation between the girl and the object becomes blurred. I have always imagined people as different types of animal and object and vice versa. It helps me to make sense of things and is probably heavily influenced by the types of book I read as a child - fairytales, Tolkien and Enid Blyton - books where animals and trees talk and the most surprising and surreal things can happen. 

The order of the poem is not logical, it is not a linear chronologically ordered narrative. Memories are generally not linear - one memory can spark another and another. I knew it would probably be a prose poem as I was writing it. I like the density of a prose poem and the way it can keep that stream of consciousness feel. When it came to editing it, using conventional punctuation like full stops and commas felt wrong. Commas and full stops made each thought (each segment) feel too final, too separate somehow, but I still felt like I needed to break up the text with more than just a simple space. The use of the space in place of punctuation feels (to me) like it slows down the speed at which one reads the text. I like the use of slashes in poems - it feels like each slash is a momentary pause in thought - but exactly that - momentary, the eye moves on fairly quickly as the text feels more cohesive than if it had gaps and line breaks. It also means that you can break the syntax of the poem in unexpected places (a little like enjambement I suppose). I like this and when I read the poem out loud, I do read it with these tiny breaks. It might sound a little jarring at first, but I like this - it feels right for the voice of the poem.  Natalie Diaz says of her slashed poems "I hope they make the readers’ eyes uncomfortable, that they physically and musically express the disjointed, jagged experience explored in the poem."

You can buy my book The Telling from Nine Arches Press -

Monday 4 July 2022

Books Read in 2021


  • 1) The Actual - Inua Ellams (poetry)
  • 2) The Air Year - Caroline Bird (poetry, re read)
  • 3) Antiemetic for Homesickness - Romalyn Ante (poetry, re read)
  • 4) How to Wash a Heart - Bhanu Kapil (poetry, Re read)
  • 5) The Coming-Down Time - Robert Selby (poetry)
  • 6) Love and Other Thought Experiments - Sophie Ward (fiction)
  • 7) Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng (fiction)
  • 8) Floating, Brilliant, Gone - Franny Choi (poetry)
  • 9) The Book of Jobs: Poems - Kathryn Maris (poetry)
  • 10) I Want! I Want! - Vicki Feaver (poetry)
  • 11) My Year of Rest and Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh (fiction)
  • 12) How to Change Your Life in 7 Steps - John Bird (non fiction)
  • 13) A Song For Dark Times - Ian Rankin (fiction)
  • 14) Pepper Seed - Malika Booker (poetry)
  • 15) Widowish - Melissa Gould (non fiction)
  • 16) Pocket Bowie Wisdom (non fiction)
  • 17) Lifted - Bill Manhire (poetry)
  • 18) Another Planet - Tracey Thorn (non fiction)
  • 19) Self Portrait in Green - Marie NDiaye (non fiction/fiction)
  • 20) Juul Kraijer - Ina Fuchs (non Fiction, art)
  • 21) The Night Watchman - Louise Erdrich (fiction)
  • 22) The School on Heart's Content Road - Carolyn Chute (fiction)
  • 23) Lumen - Tiffany Atkinson (poetry)
  • 24) Lifted - Bill Manhire (poetry, re read)
  • 25) The Windows of Graceland - Martina Evans (poetry)
  • 26) Cut the Black Rabbit - Benjamin Cusden (poetry)
  • 27) We Swim to the Shark - Georgie Codd (non fiction)
  • 28) Eat or We Both Starve - Victoria Kennefick (poetry)
  • 29) Beautiful Nowhere - Louisa Campbell (poetry)
  • 30) When I Think of My Body as a Horse - Wendy Pratt (poetry)
  • 31) Back When We Were Grownups - Anne Tyler (fiction)
  • 32) The Atlas of Lost Beliefs - Ranjit Hoskote (poetry)
  • 33) Inmates - Sean Borodale (poetry)
  • 34) Wasted Rainbow - Caleb Parkin (poetry)
  • 35) The Impossible Dead - Ian Rankin (fiction)
  • 36) The Secrets of Us - Lucinda Berry (fiction)
  • 37) These Queer Merboys - Serge Neptune (poetry)
  • 38) The Attitudes - Katie Griffiths (poetry)
  • 39) Pandemonium - Andrew McMillan (poetry)
  • 40) The Neighbourhood - Hannah Lowe (poetry)
  • 41) Say Cucumber - Lucia Dove (poetry)
  • 42) Negative Space - Lilly Dancyger (non fiction)
  • 43) Yield - Claire Dyer (poetry)
  • 44) The Chronology of Water - Lidia Yuknavitch (non fiction)
  • 45) Beautiful Nowhere - Louisa Campbell (poetry, re read)
  • 46) Her Lost Language - Jenny Mitchell (poetry)
  • 47) A Bright Ray of Darkness - Ethan Hawke (fiction)
  • 48) Wishful Drinking - Carrie Fisher (non fiction)
  • 49) Poor - Caleb Femi (poetry)
  • 50) Boy in Various Poses - Lewis Buxton (poetry)
  • 51) My Mother Was an Upright Piano - Tania Hershman (fiction)
  • 52) Museum of Ice Cream - Jenna Clake (poetry)
  • 53) Honorifics - Cynthia Miller (poetry)
  • 54) How to Carry a Fire - Christina Thatcher (poetry)
  • 55) A - Sophie Robinson (poetry)
  • 56) The Wolf Road - Richard Lambert (YA fiction)
  • 57) Comic Timing - Holly Pester (poetry)
  • 58) The Burgess Boys - Elizabeth Strout (fiction)
  • 59) There's a Hole in My Bucket - Royd Tolkien (non fiction)
  • 60) Tennis Lessons - Susannah Dickey (fiction)
  • 61) Ponti - Sharlene Teo (fiction)
  • 62) Play Lists - Jessica Mookherjee (poetry)
  • 63) Max Porter - The Death of Francis Bacon
  • 64) Fathom - Rebecca Gethin (poetry)
  • 65) Hydra - Molly Ellen Pearson (poetry)
  • 66) ┼átupartsk├í’s Daughter - Elizabeth Jane Timms (poetry)
  • 67) The Beauty of Living Twice - Sharon Stone (non fiction)
  • 68) Soft Science - Franny Choi (poetry)
  • 69) NR30 - Doug Jones (poetry)
  • 70) Knowing This Has Changed My Ending - Alex MacDonald (poetry)
  • 71) Where I'd Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow - Hannah Hodgson (poetry)
  • 72) One Hundred Lockdown Sonnets - Jacqueline Saphra (poetry)
  • 73) Terminarchy - Angela France (poetry0
  • 74) Volcano - Elosham Vog (poetry)
  • 75) Rotten days in Late Summer - Ralf Webb (poetry)
  • 76) A God at the Door - Tishani Doshi (poetry)
  • 77) Materials for Building a City - Elliot C. Mason (poetry)
  • 78) Anchorage - Lorraine Marriner (poetry)
  • 79) Gaps - Jenny Danes (poetry)
  • 80) Spacecraft - John McCullough (poetry)
  • 81) Meanwhile, Trees - Mark Waldron (poetry)
  • 82) On Narrowness - Claire Crowther (poetry)
  • 83) The Frost Fairs - John McCullough (poetry)
  • 84) Ephybos - Kostya Tsloakis (poetry)
  • 85) Lung Iron - Daniel Fraser (poetry)
  • 86) and they are covered in gold light - Amy Acre (poetry)
  • 87) C+nto and Othered Poems - Joelle Taylor (poetry)
  • 88) Songs My Enemy Taught Me - Joelle Taylor (poetry)
  • 89) Ripe - Isabelle Baafi (poetry)
  • 90) Feverfew - Anna Saunders (poetry)
  • 91) Fleet - Jane Burn (poetry)
  • 92) The Story of No - Emma Hammond (poetry)
  • 93) A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering - Dawn Lundy Martin (poetry)
  • 94) The Family Upstairs - Lisa Jewell (fiction)
  • 95) My Tin Watermelon - Peter Daniels (poetry)
  • 96) physis - Nicolas Pesques (poetry)
  • 97) A Year in the New Life - Jack Underwood (poetry)
  • 98) The Book of Orgasms - Nin Andrews (poetry)
  • 99) Olive Again - Elizabeth Strout (poetry)
  • 100) Distance Writing - Margaret Seymour (poetry)
  • 101) I Think I Might be Autistic - Cynthia Kim (non fiction)
  • 102) All the Names Given - Raymond Antrobus (poetry)
  • 103) Strangers - Rebecca Tamas (non fiction)
  • 104) The Continued Clsure of the Blue Door - Vik Shirley (poetry)
  • 105) Glass - Emily Cooper (poetry)
  • 106) The Oscillations - Kate Fox (poetry)
  • 107) Single Window - Daniel Sluman (poetry)
  • 108) The Gold Rush - Craig Martin Getz (poetry)
  • 109) Wow - Bill Manhire (poetry)
  • 110) Cosmonaut - A.E. De Vaul (poetry)
  • 111) The Sun is Open - Gail McConnell (poetry)
  • 112) All the Men I Never Married - Kim Moore (poetry)
  • 113) The Kids - Hannah Lowe (poetry)
  • 114) Atlantis - Mark Doty (poetry)
  • 115) How to Think Like David Bowie - Jonathan Tindale (non fiction)
  • 116) Hera Lindsay Bird - Hera Lindsay Bird (poetry)

How I didn’t become a short story writer

First I was a novel writer (aged five).
Then I was a poet.
Then I was a short story writer.
Then I was a poet again.
Then I was a short story writer.
Now I am a poet.

I think I was probably a bad short story writer. 

The first time I was a short story writer I wrote in an experimental style. At that time U.K. publishers did not publish many books of short stories, and certainly not ones by unknown writers. They were definitely not interested in publishing experimental short stories by a young unknown writer who hadn't even been to university. At that time I read a lot of American short story collections which were a huge influence on my work - Jayne Ann Philips, Ellen Gilchrist, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff., Louise Erdrich. I think now that what I wrote back then sits somewhere between flash fiction and prose poetry. It rarely had a narrative arc. It was often just sniffing around the edges of something.

I was a kid from a council estate who left school at sixteen and went to live in a hippy commune. But as a kid I virtually lived in the local library, and while I lived in the commune I continued hitchhiking into town to use the library. 

You could say the library saved me. 
You could say the library made me. 

I wasn't educated back then. I didn't know about literary journals. I didn't know much at all really. I loved to read and I loved to write. I wrote in those small reporter's notebooks with the metal spiral at the top and I typed my work up on an electronic typewriter. When I look at those old short stories now, I think that maybe I was ahead of my time. They might have been ahead of their time but they're still not very good. But there's something about them that stops me throwing them out. Repeated words and phrases, poetic rhythms, the kind of surrealism that still appeals to me in writing.

When I have tried to write short stories in recent years they have felt stilted and unimaginative in comparison to those early works. I have become a slave to plot but somehow the plots are never good ones. Either the stories are boring and unoriginal or they don't make sense. It seems I have given over my original thinking to the poet in me and I don't know how to become a short story writer again.

Monday 16 August 2021

Books that shaped me as a writer


It would be nigh on impossible or would take weeks and a lot of deep thinking and memory trawling to list all the books that have shaped me or had a direct or indirect influence on my writing. I have, however, been reflecting recently on books I read as a child and a young adult and I will try and cover at least some of them here. 

Let’s get this straight. I come from a working-class family. We lived in a two-up-two down council house on an estate in a rural Norfolk town which was known for being a ‘London Overspill’ town. We were London overspill. Neither of my parents had degrees. My mum left secondary modern at 15 with no qualifications. My dad fared a little better and went to technical college where he trained as an engineering draftsman. My parents were young when they had me – 21 and 20 respectively. One thing my parents did have though was a love for books and music. My mum was a member of various book clubs and throughout my early childhood we had a fortnightly family pilgrimage to the local library – a tradition I kept up through my teens and well into adulthood. I firmly believe that libraries are essential, a necessity. Without the library I would have been lost. I read everything I could get my hands on – well except romance, I was never a fan of Mills and Boon. 

Let’s start at the beginning. The first books I remember were Doctor Seuss and the other books in the American ‘I can read it myself’ series. I have no idea where those books came from – perhaps my mum got them from a book club. I learnt to read with them before I went to school and I can see now that the surrealness and sense of loneliness and unfairness of some of the characters in the stories experience has certainly pervaded my own writing, and, perhaps, my view of the world. The Cat in the Hat books are the obvious ones but the books I remember most were: One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish; Green Eggs and Ham; Are You My Mother?; The King, the Mice and the Cheese; and The Diggingest Dog. I will never forget the thing in a giant bottle in the park in the dark or the little bird standing on top of a giant digger asking ‘Are you my mother?’. I am sure learning to read with these books instilled a love of reading that I would have never have got from Peter and Jane. 

There may have been other books from this time but if so, I have no memory of them. The next book I really remember with any clarity is The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton. I was a massive Blyton fan as a child often asking for her books for Christmas and birthday presents and also buying them in the second-hand bookshop on our rare visits to the nearest city. My love affair with her began with The Enchanted Wood. I must have been five or six and it is the first time I can remember a book making me want to write something myself. That book was a revelation to me as a child. I loved all the fantasy elements but also that it was rooted in the kind of everyday world I could relate to. I lived in a poor family. We had moved from the city and lived opposite a wood. I longed to find my own Faraway Tree and escape from my mundane existence to other exciting lands – I think it was my first sense that you could use imagination and reading/writing as an escape route from the everyday dysfunction of your family. Other Blyton books I loved were The Naughtiest Girl in the School series – what child from a noisy argumentative family doesn’t fantasise about escape to a boarding school; the Adventure series (Castle of Adventure, Sea of Adventure etc) – I wanted to be Barney, the boy who had no family and hitchhiked around the country with his pet monkey; and the Famous Five books. I did read the Secret Seven series but found them a bit tame and too Just Williamish. 

Fantasy and fairytale played a big part in my childhood reading habits. My mum had an old battered copy of Perrault’s Fairy Tales (illustrated by Edmond Du Lac) that I was obsessed with. I used to nag my mum to read me ‘Bluebeard’ over and over, thrilling at the point when it is unclear whether the brothers will be in time to save poor nosey Fatima. I used to regularly get massive books of fairy tales from the library – The Red Fairy Book, The Yellow Fairy Book, The Green Fairy book and so on. My mum read to me a lot – my sister and brother weren’t really interested. She read me The Hobbit, which I loved and she read me The Lord of the Rings – twice. It was enthralling and terrifying. She also read me some more adult books – The Thirty-Nine Steps, Jamaica Inn, the Boney books by Arthur Upfield, Day of the Triffids, Oliver Twist. I kept this tradition with my own son – though I have to confess I only read him Lord of the Rings once! 

We had the odd teacher at school who read to us too. One year I had a particularly literary teacher who read us Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Borrowers, as well as some books that TV series had been based on - Heartsease by Peter Dickinson (The Changes) and The Diddikoi by Rumer Godden (Kizzy). Some of my relatives bought me books as presents too – James and the Giant Peach, Edward Lear’s The Quangle Wangle Quee, Irish Fairytales and - quite randomly a book about Muhammad and one about Alfred the Great. My sister had a ton of Ladybird books too. The school also had a book club and occasionally I was allowed to buy a book from there – the most memorable of these was Stig of the Dump. 

As a teen I was still reading avidly. I read most of the adult books in the house – John Wyndham, Dennis Wheatley, H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I had also graduated to the adult library and was thrilled by the likes of Sax Rohmer and the Doctor Syn books by Russell Thorndike. The high school library was a little tamer in comparison but I borrowed religiously none the less – though the only book I remember borrowing from there is a book called Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer – about a troubled teen. I also bought books from the secondhand book stall on the market – typically I wanted to read books my parents wouldn’t approve of and I read most of a (terrible but thrilling) series of novels about Hell’s Angels published by New English Library. They published a series about skinheads too but I was anti-racist and left wing even as a teen so I avoided them. 

By my teen’s I had developed a love affair with poetry and was writing some terrible poetry in the back of my English book. I had three poetry collections as a child (and still have all of them): Hilda Boswell’s Treasury of Poetry, The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse and my favourite Louis Untermeyer’s Golden Treasury of Poetry, which I read over and over – my favourite poem being the haunting ‘Highwayman’ by Alfred Noyes. My mum also had The Oxford Book of Poetry which I dipped into regularly – my preference being for the narrative poems of Tennyson like ‘The Lady of Shallot’. She also had a book of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics and drawings and a collection of John Betjeman’s poems. School did me no favours where poetry was concerned – the only poems I remember studying were John Masefield’s ‘Cargoes’ and a poem about ducks that I was made to learn as a punishment. 

I left home at sixteen and went to live in a commune but I continued my love affair with the library, finally graduating onto modern short stories and American novels – Jane Anne Phillips, Louise Erdrich and Ellen Gilchrist were great favourites in my early 20s and it was at this time that I started seriously writing short stories. At the commune there was a massive library with a really eclectic collection of books. I read about Manson’s family, The Grateful Dead, and Drop City – a commune in America in the sixties. I also read Dickens, Hardy, Lawrence, Laurie Lee, Carlos Casteneda, Joan Collins, Colleen McCullough, William Burroughs, Angie Bowie, Angela Carter and Richard Brautigan. 

I am not sure that there is a point to this other than it being a loose collection of my reading up until my early twenties – and I am already aware that there are things I missed out. Peter Puffer’s Fun Book for instance (do look it up – it was definitely illustrated by someone who has done drugs) or a book that I took out repeatedly from the library as a child that I can’t remember the name of – about two children who find a disused station. I was also obsessed with Roald Dahl’s The Magic Finger – where a hunting family wake up to find they have duck wings and the ducks have arms and start shooting them. A novel called Princess Anne that I bought at the guide jumble sale and from which I learned what lumbago was. I also bought a copy of Gulliver’s Travels at the same jumble sale and I did try and read it umpteen times as a child and a teen but never got very far. 

I suppose my conclusion is that I was drawn to books where there was another world waiting beyond this one or where things were not as they seemed. Magical realism I suppose. I was also drawn to bleak stories and gritty realism. My favourite Hardy novels is Tess which has to be one of the most depressing novels ever written – and yet there is something utterly compelling about it. Perhaps that Hardy wrote non judgementally about the real lives of the working classes and his descriptions of a British countryside we will never see again are sublime. I think that all these passions and preoccupations are reflected in my own writing. I love the surreal. People transformed into animals or inanimate objects, metaphors, fairytale-ish scenarios, the lure and threat of the woods.

Tuesday 15 June 2021

Poetry Competitions - some hints and tips

As a freelancer and believer in the written word I have many hats - some I wear for money and some I wear for the simple love of the hat. Two of these hats involve poetry competitions - one I sift for (for money), the other I print all the poems for and send them to the judge (for love). I have been donning these hats for several years and am frustrated by how many people shoot themselves in the foot when entering poetry competitions. 

I thought it might be helpful to list some dos and don'ts. I am not an expert. Like you I enter many competitions and don't get anywhere. I have won a couple of competitions and both times I thought the poems unlikely to win. This list is by no means exhaustive.

1) Difficult and emotive content

It is painful reading poetry competition entries - not because the entries are bad (although inevitably some are) but because people are baring their souls and telling you their deepest (and darkest) secrets. There are many poems that move me with their content but will never make the shortlist because they are not doing enough as a poem, or are too oblique, or are simply prose broken into lines to look like a poem. This is sad for a reader - some of those poems have important things to say. Some feel like a cathartic exercise for the writer but are not offering much to reader. A poem about trauma (or loss) needs to offer something to the reader too. A poem is not a misery memoir - though it can touch on the same subjects. I actually find poems more powerful if they are less explicit in their content (I like this in films too) - something alluded to but not explicitly spelt out - a good example of this is the poem 'The Bicycle' by Katrina Naomi from her book What the Crocodile Taught Me. 

Another way into difficult subject matter is to use metaphor.

2) Size isn't everything

Short poems are good, they can be very powerful - but it's unlikely that a haiku will win a major poetry competition - they just don't stand a chance against those poems that have more space to make their point. Save them for short poem competitions - Magma has a short poem category in its annual competition. Of course, there is every chance that I may be proved wrong one day.

Similarly there are poems that feel way too long. Some of these go off at odd tangents (this may work in a prose poem but works less well in a conventional one). Some say the same thing over and over in a variety of ways. Some poems feel like they need the ending and beginnings lopped off - the introduction and the explanation. A good poem feels tight and not baggy. Frisk your poems thoroughly for superfluous weight - you should be doing this anyway, but it's even more important for a competition poem.

tip: One technique I use is to take longer poem and make it shorter to fit the competition guidelines. Sometimes it can't be done, but often it can - and usually the poem is better for it.

3) Write like you live in the twenty-first century

It's as simple as that. I see many poems that read as if they were penned in the 1800's - loaded with words like 'hast', 'thou' and 'whence'. The only time this is acceptable is if you are writing a pastiche - but it's dubious even then. If you are writing like that because all the poetry you read looks like that, then you need to start reading modern poetry. If you don't know where to start get in contact with me and I will send you a reading list. 

tip: Don't expect to love all modern poetry - you need to find the poets that speak to you. You wouldn't expect to go into a library and like the first novel you pick up. Poetry is the same.

Syntax is important too. Beginning poets often think that poetry is some kind of special code and this leads to poems that sometimes don't make grammatical sense - sentences without clauses, sentences that are broken up in odd ways. A poem should be written the way we speak. Try reading your poem out loud and you will soon hear if the sentence structures are odd or unnatural.

4) Rhyming

Rhyming is fine - personally I like a bit of rhyme - but it has to be good. If you are rhyming because you think all poetry has to rhyme then please go back and read number three above. Good rhyme can be amazing - it doesn't whack you round the head shouting I am a rhyming poem - in fact sometimes you might not even notice the rhyme at first. Other times the rhymes want themselves to be noticed. Similar effects can be had from half rhymes, slant rhymes and repetition. A word should never feel like it's in the poem simply for the rhyme scheme - better to ditch the rhyme scheme or put the poem away for a while and hope the right word comes to you.

5) Angst and anger

In the course of sifting/printing and teaching I see many poems that express deep felt sorrow,  grief, angst or anger. While these poems may be cathartic to write - they offer little to the reader. If a poem's message is 'I am angry - really angry' - the reader is left with the question, why? If you need to write an angry poem tell us why you are angry or at least hint at it. 

If you are despairing and feel like the world hates you - please give us some clues as to why you feel like that (and see a counsellor). These kind of poems are frustrating to me as I feel the raw emotion of them but they also leave me a little cold - they don't let me into the world of the poem/writer. I think that's the difference between therapeutic writing and poetry for general consumption - my morning pages are not for anyone else's eyes. I can moan and rage in them and I don't have to explain myself. If I want to put those emotions into a poem I have to offer the reader a way into them too - they have to care about the narrator or feel like there is some kind of universal truth that they can relate to, an 'oh yes that bothers me in that way too'. 

Grief poems can be really difficult too. Sometimes we need a bit of distance from the loss. Sometimes we need a lot of distance. It has been more than ten years since my brother died and I still find it hard to write about. Some of the most successful poems relating to loss of a loved one are about the small things rather than directly about the loss itself. Penelope Shuttle's 'Peter's Shoes' is a great example of this. We all understand what that 'year' means - yet she hasn't felt the need to spell it out. The use of 'you' and 'your' in the poem is clever to - it addresses the dead person but allows the reader to bring their own meaning to the poem (their own lost or dead) in a way that using the specific name throughout wouldn't.

6) Subject matter

Pretty much anything goes in terms of subject matter these days but there are some things to be wary of (and, yes, I have definitely seen all of these):

a middle class white person writing of the black experience 

poems about murdering young women that read like a script for CSI

explicit sex for the sake of it

racist/homophobic/sexist poems

ekphrastic poems that describe the art work/painting that they are based on, but don't do much more than that

poems based on historic events that just describe the event and don't offer us anything new (be careful with this type of poem of overloading it with facts from all your research too)

anecdotes about something that happened and simply that - sometimes these are just prose chopped up to look like a poem

7) Form

Anything goes in term of form really - although as I said earlier a Haiku is unlikely to win a major competition. Poems in strict form can and do win as do poems in free verse. The trick is to do it well and for the form to fit the subject matter. Also check whether your poem is actually a poem and not just a piece of prose chopped up - could it be a prose poem, a bit of life writing or a short story?

8) The Title

You would be amazed looking through a mailbag for a competition or a journal at how many poems have the same title. I must have read a hundred poems in the last year called 'Lockdown' for instance. One line titles like'Lockdown', 'Snow' or 'Rain' are best avoided. I would also avoid titles that are a pun - especially if it's a serious poem. You also don't want a title that gives away the whole poem or a title that is a line of the poem (this takes the power away from the line in the poem). Titles are notoriously difficult. If you are having problems ask your workshopping group or a writer friend. Sometimes when I have been really stuck a friend or a tutor has immediately suggested a title that brings the poem alive.

9) The ending

I talked earlier about poems that feel like they should end sooner. Beware of over-blown or summing-up endings. Trust your reader - you really shouldn't need to spell it all out for us. I have noticed that some great poems go a bit weird towards the end - sometimes a really good poem will suddenly go all poetic, start using archaic words, or hit us round the head with a bit of moral guidance. Similarly some writers feel the end to end on a pun, a joke, or a punchline. Trust the poem to do the work. Endings are hard but there is shortcut to the perfect ending. Workshop your poem if you are having trouble, pay for a critique, or put the poem away for a while so you can come back to it with fresh eyes.