Archive for the ‘Being A Writer’ Category

Dear Poetry Newbies: read more poetry.

Monday, July 1st, 2013

A previous version of this post first appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008.

“People who never read poetry don’t write poems that are worth reading,” says Wendy Cope in this article about the importance of reading. I daresay that a lot of you will resent this statement, but I’m afraid it’s absolutely 100% true.

In 2007 I set up a teeny tiny little DIY literature zine called Read This Magazine. Although our print run was only 150 copies per month, as ed-in-chief of RT, I saw thousands and thousands of poems by young and emerging writers. When it came to picking out the best work for publication, about 80% of everything went immediately onto what the industry calls “the slush pile” - in other words, the “definitely no” pile.

This may seem incredibly harsh - particularly as so many of these submissions were accompanied by cover letters which stated “I’ve never had my poems accepted and I don’t know why” or “I want to know how to make my poems better.” Was I just rejecting them out of hand? Did my editorial team and I not read them with as much care as the other 20%? Basically, the truth is painful: you can tell immediately, sometimes from the very first line of the very first poem in a submission, whether or not the poet in question reads poetry. And if it’s clear that they don’t, you can basically guarantee that none of their poems will be good enough for publication.

You can leap down my throat if you like - because yes, sometimes, rarely, a poet who doesn’t read anything does get lucky, and writes something insightful or interesting which deserves a closer look. However, bear this in mind: Read This was a lot more accomodating than most magazines… we did read everything through at least once before consigning it to the slush pile (just in case), and we responded personally to everyone - particularly those people who’ve asked for help and advice in their cover letters. Furthermore, giving 80% of submissions an “immediate rejection” is nowhere near the 95%-97% mark of most major magazines and publishing houses - you think we were harsh? Try Poetry Review!

You can dress it up any way you like, but as Wendy Cope says: if you don’t read, you are not going to be a successful poet, and the earlier you allow yourself to accept that fact, the better! Defiantly refusing to read other poets’ works will not endear you to the poetry community (as Kenneth Patchen said, “people who say they love poetry but then never buy any are cheap sons-of-bitches”), and chances are your work will remain stagnant and always sound, look and read in the same old way (so if it aint getting published now, the future doesnt look good). However, if you open your eyes to the great wealth of poetic material around you, and start taking it in, then you’ll soon begin to see and feel the benefits. It’s like the old adage ‘you are what you eat’ - you are also what you read.

But I hate reading!
OK, that’s fine. Some people will say “well, why are you a poet?”, but I understand. My sister is an artist, but finds many art shows and galleries a total snooze-fest. Forget what you learned in school - poetry is doesn’t have to be boring, and it does’t have to be difficult. I genuinely believe there’s a poem out there for absolutely everyone.

Read as much or as little as you want. Break yourself in gently. If you’re really struggling, try to read just one poem per day (there are heaps of resources out there to help you with this). Buy yourself a book of haikus and absorb one or two in a spare five minutes. Check out Poetry Archive and listen to a poem. Ask other people what their favourite poem is, and start a to-read list. Soon enough, you’ll find that you feel inspired; you might notice that you’re writing more, or that your writing looks and sounds different. This is poetic influence at work - embrace it!

What should I read?
Read what you enjoy. If you check Paradise Lost out of the library, get three lines in and want to kill yourself, stop reading. Read something that excites you, that inspires you, that makes you think “I want to write like this.” It doesn’t matter whether that’s The Waste Land or Tom Leonard’s This Is The Six O Clock News. There is poetry out there that you’ll love - but it might not be what you think. Keep reading until you find it.

What shouldn’t I read?
Basically, any reading is good reading - if you prefer novels to poetry, read novels: they can help you to write better poetry, too. Read anything; stage plays, memoirs, the phone book. Immerse yourself in words and look at how they’re put together. Absorb ideas.

(The only thing I would advise against is reading the poetry of other poets who don’t read. This will get you nowhere. It may be cheap and convenient, but avoid reading amateur poetry and try to read people who are published in some form or another. This may sound like snobbery, but it isn’t: if you want to get published, reading published poetry is the best way to understand what “makes it”, and the best way to turn your own poetry into something publishable.)

But if I read other people’s work and then start writing like them, isn’t that copying?
This is a tricky issue, and one that comes up a lot. As Wendy Cope says, a lot of non-reading poets claim that they don’t read “because they don’t want to be influenced.” However, these people are missing a massive trick: all poetry is, at least in part, stolen. Frank Zappa once said, “Adam and Eve made all the great records: everyone else just copied,” and that really applies to poetry. Every successful poet is influenced by someone - usually by a huge variety of other poets who came before him or her. Being influenced is a good thing… and it is totally possible to read and still be original. Try reading a few poems. Read until you come to a line, a stanza or a whole poem that makes you think “I could have done that better,” or “I’d have examined that idea differently” (it’s OK, you’re allowed to think this, even if the poet you’re reading is Whitman or someone equally famous and revered). When that thought arises, act on it: go away and write that line, stanza or poem the way you’d like to see it written. I bet it comes out looking nothing like the original.
You’re not copying, you’re borrowing; you’re sharing. Try it: it’s what poets do.

But there’s so much poetry out there. Where do I start?
Wherever you like. If you’re totally clueless, go to a bookshop or library, find the poetry section, and pick out a book with a cover that catches your eye. Go for a cool title, or a poet with an unusual name. Search the net for poems in a style you like or on a subject that interests you - science fiction, for example - and take note of the published authors who write in that style or genre… then hunt them down in a bookstore.
Just read any poetry you can get your hands on: if you like it, find out what’s similar to it, and read that too. If you hate it, find out what the opposite is, and try that. Dabble, mess around, feel free to loathe some poets and love others. Just read as much as you can, as often as you can. Then write.


Budding writer? Creative person in need of a fun job? Check out the various resources and services at Bookworm Tutors. Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo by Emchy)

Dear Poetry Newbies: feeling the stage fright and doing it anyway

Monday, April 8th, 2013

Stage Fright [EXPLORE]

An earlier version of this post appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008

If you’ve read What’s The Deal With Poetry Readings?, then you know that I encourage people to read their poetry aloud at every possible opportunity (audience or no audience)! But I also appreciate that getting up in front of a load of strangers and reading your poetic creations can be pretty nerve-wracking, so I have a few words of advice to anyone who’s thinking about embarking on their first ever reading…

1. Say yes.
If you spot a poster advertising a local open mic, or if someone approaches you to read at their event, grab the opportunity with both hands! As I’ve already explained in What’s The Deal With Poetry Readings?, you should aim to begin reading your poetry as soon as you feel even semi-confident, because it’s such a helpful and empowering exercise. Of course, if the idea petrifies you, the urge to say “I can’t, I’m busy that night,” or “I think I’ll just go along and watch” will be very strong… but you have to fight your fears! Make yourself say yes! Commit yourself, and don’t back out. You’ll be glad you kept your nerve afterwards.

2. Be prepared.
Please don’t get onto the stage with your notebook and then just turn to a random page. While this can work for more established readers, it’s not a good idea for a first-time gig! Find a handful of poems you love. Practice on your own, then in front of your parents/siblings/partner/someone you trust, then in front of a bigger group of family or friends. Get really familiar with the stuff you want to read — this will make mistakes and blushes much less likely!

3. Put yourself first.
Negotiate with the event organiser, if you can, about where you go in the line-up. I would actually advise you to try for an early spot — first, even, if you can bear it. OK, so opening the show might be your worst nightmare, but think: you get the audience at its best, before they’ve had time to get tired, bored or drunk, and before they’ve started thinking about going out for a cigarette or nipping to the loo. You have their full attention, and they have no expectations of you — plus, if you go first, everyone will think you’re incredibly brave and be in awe!

4. Enjoy yourself.
You’ll be surprised: reading your work to an audience is actually a really, really fun experience. Acknowledge that! Don’t get up on stage with a frown and spend the whole time panicking about the slight quiver in your voice. If your knees are knocking or you’re blushing furiously, crack a joke about first-time nerves and just carry on. Getting a reaction from the audience is incredibly rewarding, so make sure you perform for them — don’t just hide behind the mic or stare at your feet the whole time. Make eye contact — I normally pick out my friends in the audience and glance up at them from time to time, or focus on the bar staff or the guys at the sound desk (they’re normally far too busy to see you looking at them!). And smile! Flash the audience a big smile whenever they react to you, and you’ll be guaranteed a huge round of applause at the end.

5. Love your audience.
No matter what your irrational brain thinks, your audience is not the enemy. They are not there to laugh, throw rotten tomatoes or judge you harshly — people who go to poetry readings are generally people who really like poetry! Your audience will know how hard it is to a) write a poem and b) get up and read it to strangers, so chances are they will admire you for what you‘re doing. You really should love and appreciate your audience. In some cases, they’ve paid money to see you (money which may well come back to you at the end of the night!) and they’ll often come up to you after the reading to offer advice and encouragement. Don’t be afraid to chat to your audience members; their reactions can be really helpful, and I guarantee that no one will come up and say “you were rubbish, give up,” or anything along those lines. They may say things like “I couldn’t hear you very well,” or “that one poem was a bit long,” but don’t be disheartened by these comments! They can be really useful, and they’re almost always accompanied by something like “but it didn’t matter, because you were awesome!”

6. Look forward.
Everyone is nervous before their first ever reading — but I have good news for you! No other reading you do in the future will be anywhere near as nerve-wracking as the first. Many people told me this as I was preparing for my first reading — that every reading thereafter is a piece of cake — and in my freaked-out state of mind I thought, “yeah right!” However, when I got onto the stage at my second ever reading, all the problems that had plagued me at my first reading — blushing, quivering voice, being unable to make eye-contact with my audience — disappeared. I was playing to a much bigger crowd second time around, but none of it fazed me — I loved every second. So look forward! The thought of your first reading may keep you awake at night, but it’s a big milestone, and once you pass it, it’s plain sailing.

Any seasoned readers want to offer any other pointers? Tell me about your first ever poetry-reading experience. How did it go?

Check out the other articles in the Dear Poetry Newbies… series!


You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

Dear Poetry Newbies: do you need a creative writing qualification?

Monday, February 11th, 2013

The World Is Your Oyster Now

A previous version of this post appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008.

There are a lot of people out there who will tell you that in order to become a successful writer, you will definitely need some kind of creative-writing-specific qualification. However, there are also a lot of people out there who will tell you that you should avoid creative writing qualifications like the plague. Personally, I decided to go down the qualification route: I have a MSc in Creative Writing and I’m soon to complete a Creative Writing PhD. In light of this, I thought I’d stick my oar in on the subject.
I’m not going to say a definite yes or no either way — you may or may not want or need a creative writing qualification. You may not know right now. You may have people telling you what you should or shouldn’t do on all sides. At the end of the day, the ‘to study or not to study?’ question is yours to answer… but I can offer some pros and cons, dos and don’ts to help you.

Creative writing courses: Pros

- Courses provide opportunities for quality workshopping and mentoring.

- Seminars and tutorials are often run by experienced writers (or former writers).

- You learn about writing, editing, drafting and publishing processes… on some courses you can also learn about how writing is marketed, distributed and sold.

- Opportunities for publication may well be open to you.

- You’re surrounded by other writers like yourself who understand your ambition and won’t try to discourage you.

- You get honest, useful feedback on your work, and help to implement changes.

- More and more courses are springing up all the time, and more and more people are taking them - this means more choice when it comes to where and when you study, how you study and with whom.

- Being part of a course-group often provides opportunities to attend writing-related events, and to meet people in the writing business.

Creative writing courses: Cons

- Creative writing is a very specialised field and you may find yourself with limited career options when your course has finished.

- Creative writing is sometimes looked down upon, or not always well-respected - by businesses and even by some academics.

- There is a common belief that creative writing cannot actually be “taught” and so courses are a waste of time.

- Courses of all kinds can be very costly, particularly if you enroll at a prestigious institution.

- Some courses are run and taught by individuals who do not have sufficient knowledge or experience of the field.

- Workshops can often be less constructive in a long-term course situation, because cliques and animosities can develop between classmates.

- Some writers (even some editors) reserve a certain kind of snobbery for those with creative writing qualifications.

- Because more and more people are studying creative writing, qualifications of this kind are becoming less unique and as a result, less respected.

Dos and don’ts.

DO find a highly-rated course at a good institution. Yes, it’s expensive to go to a good Uni or college, but you generally do get what you pay for. Make sure the qualification you get is going to be legitimate and useful.

DON’T take online creative writing “Masters” or “Degree”, particularly if you have to pay for them. They are generally worthless on paper. (Some online short courses are good, but generally aren’t accredited — so you don’t end up with an actual qualification at the end.)

Probably DON’T take creative writing as your first University degree. By doing so you may back yourself into a corner when it comes to career options. Take a more open-ended degree and specialise in creative writing later, or take a creative writing module or postgraduate course.

DON’T feel that you have to rush into taking a course. If you finish high school or graduate from your degree and you want to do other things first, do by all means. If you want to produce some more writing first, do. No hurry.

DO make sure you can afford your chosen course. If you can’t, look around at other courses - but DON’T just enrol “because it’s cheap”. There may be a reason for that. At the same time, DON’T assume a course is really good because it’s expensive. Do your research.

DO make sure that, if you’re required to have “writing experience,” you have some. You may well be in a class with people who have a fair few publications and projects under their belt. If you’ve only ever written three poems, look for a course designed for beginners.

DO vet the course-organisers and tutors before you apply. Do they sound like they have the right experience/type of writing/research interests to teach you?

DO vet the course, too. Does it go in the direction you want? Does it look unprofessional, or too academic? Trust your instincts, get on a course that will benefit you personally.

DO search around for funding, from student loans, grants, bursaries and scholarships. DON’T run up your course bill on a credit card or via a personal loan unless you’re sure you can manage it.

DON’T take the word of people who say you must or must not study creative writing. Listen to their advice, but DON’T feel obliged to act on it.

DON’T start a course if you already think you might find it too hard, or you might drop out. It can be really costly.

DO vet “free” courses very, very carefully.

DON’T assume that taking a course will make you a writing superstar… but also DON’T assume that, just because it won’t, it’s worthless.

I’d love to hear what you think about the benefits and disadvantages of creative writing courses. Have you done one? Give me your feedback!


You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

The Next Big Thing: my first collection

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013


You’ve probably seen this meme/questionnaire thingy doing the rounds of literary blogs lately? I have, and was kind of dreading my inevitable tagging. However, I found that filling in the answers below actually made me feel quite uplifted and hopeful about the scattered, half-finished MS that is my forthcoming first collection of poems (it has a working title, but it has a kind-of rude word in it. I’m not sure if I’ll have the bottle to keep it, or if a publisher could stomach it, so I’ll keep it secret for now). Thanks very much to Andy Philip for the nudge! You can see his answers here, at his blog Tonguefire.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
It’ll be my first full-length collection, so I feel a bit like I’ve been working towards it ever since I began writing. However, the central themes that are coming to define the working MS really started to emerge last summer, when I did a writer’s retreat on the Greek island of Hydra. It was July, and much too hot for me to be outside between the hours of about 10am and 5pm, so I was almost literally walled inside this one-room cottage with the Selected Poems of Adrienne Rich, and a notebook. I think it’s the most productive I’ve ever been.

What genre is the book?
Poetry. I’ve been experimenting, writing much longer poems than my usual, but I’m still not sure of them. They may yet end up on the cutting room floor.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I’d love to see a poetry collection — though not necessarily mine! — become a series-of-vignettes movie, like Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, one of my favourite movies ever. Like The Mermaid and the Sailors, this book is going to contain a lot of strong women. I can totally see Annette Bening “playing” one of these poems, she’d be great.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Oh dear, I’m really crap at this. I remember people sending blurbs for The Mermaid and the Sailors that said things like, “these are poems about x, y and z,” and I thought, “are they? Oh yes, I suppose they are.” So you may have to wait until the book exists properly, and ask someone who’s read it. The closest I can get right now is, “a collection of poems about women… and maybe anger.”

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
See my first answer! There are some poems going in here from as long ago as 2010. But there are also still some to write. I never, ever think anything’s finished. I’ll probably need someone to prize it out of my hands at some point and say, “for goodness sakes, it’s done.”

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
In the past two or three years, I’ve widened the focus of my life. I’ve forced myself to get out of my comfort zone in my work, in my slowly-growing activism, and also in my cultural intake: what I read, watch and attend. I always used to tell my own stories — old family anecodotes nicked and turned into poems, experiences I’d personally had. Now I want to tell stories about bigger things. I’m really interested in class now, and privilege. I feel a real desire to write more about those things.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
The MS isn’t finished yet… I’m still not sure what’s definitely staying in, and what’s going. But there might be a poem about donkeys. There’s a poem about Allen Ginsberg’s mum. There’s a poem where I answer back, quite cheekily, to Carol Ann Duffy. I’ve also written a series of haiku set in the knicker department of Marks & Spencers in Carlisle… but I’m pretty sure I’ll chicken out with that one!

Will your book be self-published or represented by a publisher?
That remains to be seen! To be honest, getting a first collection placed at the moment seems to be a bit of a nightmare, so I’m not really thinking about it too much. I’m keener to end up with a collection I can be really proud of.

The writers I have tagged are:
Colin McGuire
Helen McClory
Char Runcie


You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

Dear Poetry Newbies: 10 Poetry Myths You’ll Probably Have Heard

Monday, January 7th, 2013

An earlier version of this post appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008.

When I was a just-starting-out poet, I used to avoid telling anyone what my hobby was. Why? Well, because whenever I told anyone, all I ever seemed to get was negativity and disbelief. (”You write poetry?! Why?!”) Later, I realised that people react this way because over the years, they have come to believe in a whole load of poetic untruths… strange myths that have built up around the craft of creative writing, and poetry in particular. You’ve probably encountered some of the poetry myths below, so read on to see how you can beat them.

1: All poetry is boring.
You hear this all the time, and OK, it’s partly right - yes, some poetry is boring. I mean, I’m of the view that even the most notoriously “dull” poets (even my less-than-favourite, Mr Keats) were and are still capable of producing brilliant work, but that’s beside the point. The point is that most poems - and I mean at least 85% of all published poems - are far from boring. Some poetry is interesting because it addresses an issue, some because it uses language, form, rhythm etc in original and fascinating ways. Some poetry is interesting because it’s funny, some because it’s experimental. Some poetry is interesting because it’s just plain bad (check out William McGonagall’s greatest work, for example - it’s gained a reputation for being a really good bad poem… if that makes sense). But no one will ever know how interesting poetry really is unless they get out there and read it. So here’s a challenge: go forth and read poems, until you find one - any one - that you think is really interesting, for whatever reason. Buy the book, copy the poem out, or print it. Next time someone says to you “why do you like poetry? It’s boring!”, show them your ‘interesting’ poem, and explain why you think it’s awesome. Hopefully, it’ll open their eyes a bit!

2: Poetry is difficult.
When people say this, what they generally mean is that they’ve found a lot of the poetry they’ve encountered hard to understand. This may well relate back to their English class experiences, where pupils are generally taught to break down and analyse a poem, rather than just enjoy it. When people don’t know any better, they assume all poetry has hidden layers which need to be ‘de-coded,’ and that poems are designed to be a challenge. I like to point the ‘poetry is difficult’ crowd in the direction of Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse” (warning: strong language!), because it’s one of the most plain-speaking poems I’ve ever come across… I mean, what’s difficult to understand about that?! You might also want to keep a straightforward, what-you-see-is-what-you-get poem to hand, so you can easily bust this myth when you hear it!

3: Poetry is full of “deep meanings” and stuff.
This one is really popular, and can be tricky to bust. Because poems are so strongly associated with this process of studying and analysing, people don’t realise that, when they’re written, they’re supposed to be like any other piece of art - something for the reader to enjoy, essentially. There are a lot of poets around today who deliberately write poems that require no ‘analysis’ whatsoever - ‘accessible’ poems, where you can take just about everything at face-value. (The most high-profile writer and promoter of ‘accessible’ verse is probably Billy Collins, who writes poems about smoking cigarettes, forgetting things and listening to “Three Blind Mice”, among other things!) But you don’t necessarily need to hunt out a simplistic, accessible poem in order to bust this myth - any poem can be interesting and enjoyable, whether you know its deeper meanings or not. T S Eliot’s epic The Waste Land is stuffed with weird references and metaphors. If you don’t know what some of them are, that certainly doesn’t make you stupid… but it also doesn’t make the poem a total dead loss either. It is fine to read poems simply in order to enjoy the weird and wonderful sounds, words and phrases they make (”The corpse you planted last year in your garden, / has it begun to sprout?” or “at the violet hour” or “what the thunder said”, for example), even if you have no idea about the meaning. A poem is supposed to be enjoyed, so don’t sweat it!

4: Poems aren’t relevant these days.
I’ll admit that when people say this, I generally want to stamp my feet and yell ‘no no no no no!’ at them. This is a blinding untruth - there are heaps of poems which are so relevant to today. In fact, there are poems which even transcend time and space (no, really) - they’ll still be relevant in a million years time!
Firstly, there are loads of poets out there who write about our world and its happenings as they are right now - even as they happen. There are hundreds of poems about major recent events, and loads of poets inventing new styles for the 21st century (how about poetry based on Google searches?!). There are also poems out there which have been around for decades or even centuries, and which can still speak for all of us when we need them to. The film Four Weddings and a Funeral used a poem by WH Auden (written in 1938) to express grief at a modern-day funeral, for example (simultaneously making it one of the most popular funeral poems around), and that’s only one example of thousands and thousands of poems that can still communicate with a 21st century audience, regardless of when they were written. And thanks to the internet and other resources, poetry is more accessible, experimental and relevant than ever before… fact!

5: Writing poetry is a waste of time, because you can’t make a career out of it.
Er… what? Yes you can make a career out of it… people do. OK, not millions of people, but still, it’s not impossible. And not many people make a career out of, say, playing hockey, or knitting, or skydiving… but some people do. And we still play hockey, knit, skydive, and do a million other things, even though we know we may not make a career out of any of them. Would you tell a bunch of guys playing football at the park that they should stop doing it because they’ll never make a career out of it? No - so why is poetry different? Why is poetry only worthwhile if it generates income?!
I can’t answer this question - but I can tell you that it is 100% OK to write poetry, regardless of your reasons. Maybe you need a theraputic outlet for your feelings; maybe, like many people, you just can’t not write. Maybe it’s just a hobby you have… or maybe you do eventually want to try and make a career out of writing. As long as you set realistic goals for yourself and don’t allow other people to pressure or distract you, writing poetry is as natural an activity as playing sport or driving a car or being a compulsive shopaholic. It is never a waste of time. Ever.

6: Writing poetry is “emo.”
Personally, I don’t tend to dignify this kind of thing with a response. It comes in two forms from two different types of people. One: those who reckon that anyone (of any age) who writes poetry must also be histrionic and hyper-sensitive, and two: those who think that any young person who writes poetry is a nitwit, because “youth poetry” is for some reason associated with sobbing goths writing in their journals. Both of these standpoints are equally ignorant and ill-informed.
Basically, saying all poetry is “emo” (whether you mean “emotional” or “to do with emo pop-culture”) is a massive generalisation… and it’s a meaningless one, too. It’s like saying writing poetry is “gay” (even more ignorant!) or, I don’t know… “tall.” Does everyone who falls into a certain category write poetry? Nope. Does everyone who writes poetry fall into the same category? Er, nope. Is applying daft made-up categories to poetry something only done by idiots? You decide.

7: All poems are about love or death.
Or nature. Or war. Or space travel. Or animals. Or ghosts. Or crazy made-up creatures in their own fantastical world. Busted? I think so!

8: Poetry is for old people.
I’ve had cheeky students say this to me a time or two, and, although it’s not quite what they meant, they are sort of right. Sadly, there are people out there in the poetry community who don’t see younger poets as ‘real’ poets… TS Eliot once said that you can’t be a serious writer until you are at least 25, and lot of people believed him.
Viewing age as a deciding factor in how good someone’s poems are is prejudice, plain and simple… it is NOT something you should pay attention to. Poetry is an artform that’s open to everyone - regardless of age, gender, sexuality, nationality or anything else. You do NOT need to be on the planet a quarter of a century before you can write a poem (or understand one). Anyone can write poetry and anyone can read it, and I’m convinced that there’s a poem out there to suit everyone… not just old people!

9: All poetry has to rhyme.
I think this myth is less common than it used to be, but you do still encounter people who genuinely believe that if it don’t rhyme, it aint poetry. People who say this are similar to those who say things like “poetry is just prose with line breaks” (though a bit less annoying), and, as with the “poetry is difficult” myth, the best way to bust this one is just to produce some examples. Find a poem you love that does not rhyme. Tell the myth-confused person in question why it’s a great piece of literature. If you have to, find a dictionary definition of ‘poetry‘ for them to go with it!

10: No one reads poetry anymore.
OK, I saved the best til last. People LOVE to do this whole “poetry is dead” speech. Martin Amis even went so far as to say that poetry had died, been buried and had its obituary written. It’s probably the most common myth you’ll encounter on your poetic travels - it’s all over the press, and spun out by just about every miserable, procrastinating writer under the sun at some point. But guess what… it’s not true!
Heaps of people still read poetry. People still buy it, listen to it, go and see it live. And I mean thousands of people. Problem is, a lot of them are all the same kind of people…
Poetry has not died, but it has become a bit enclosed. The people who still take an interest in it tend to be poets, editors or publishers themselves, or people involved with academia - students, tutors and other scholars. Your average bricklayer or bank manager or nurse doesn’t tend to read poetry too often… and why? Because of the other nine myths, of course! People really do believe them!
But it is possible to get more people reading poetry. One: read poetry yourself. Buy poetry books, go to poetry readings. It helps the poets, the publishers, and your own writing, so what’s to lose? Two: keep writing. The more poetry there is, the more choice there is; the more evidence to contradict the myths that poetry is difficult, limited, boring, etc. And three: introduce people you know to poetry. Got a friend who’s fed up at work? Find a short, funny poem and text it to them with a quick ’saw this and thought of you.’ Email your partner a daft love poem. Make up a print-out of a load of your favourite poems as a present for someone you know. Write a poem to scribble in your granny’s birthday card. Hold a poetry reading in your living room and get all your friends to bring a poem each - be it one they wrote, or just one they like. Test people - ask them if they think these myths are true, and be prepared to bust any they say ‘yes’ to. You have the power to poem-ify people’s lives… just squash the myths!


You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!

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Guest post: why I don’t give in to submission by Mark Antony Owen

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

pile of magazines

The other day on Twitter I was chatting with Mark about a poem he’s written recently, and he happened to mention that it’s his policy never to send his poems out for publication in magazines. As this is a bit of a break from the usual poetrythink, I was intrigued to find out why… and thought you might be, too. So I invited Mark to write a guest post! Enjoy…


The thinking goes like this: if you write, you write to be read. And as a poet, I certainly want to be read. So why don’t I submit my work to respected journals and sites? Or rather, having had five poems accepted for publication and only one rejection, why did I stop submitting? My thinking goes like this …

Poetry journals, in print or online, can be a great way for readers to discover new writing, new poets. At their best, they’re a platform for excellence – a filtration system that keeps the ‘bad’ writing from the ‘good’.

But journals can also skew one’s view of a poet or their work – as I discovered by accident.

Having read some print and online journals, I found several poets whose work I admired and whose collections I went on to buy. What was shown of their work was, I found, representative of their style and subject matter. Bottom line? One happy reader/customer. But there were also poets whose output I initially rejected as a result of seeing their work, in isolation, in journals. Poets whose collections I later dipped into in bookshops, only to find I actually quite liked other of their poems.

Frankly, I felt a little bit misled.

Now of course, it would be terribly unfair to journal editors to castigate them for having their own literary preferences and choosing to publish only those works which they deem to have merit. And anyone who reads a particular journal for long enough will surely get to know an editor’s tastes and can then decide whether or not these match their own. But the fact remains that journals can only showcase a poet’s work as a ‘slice’ – at first, anyway. And that slice may not cut it for everyone.

So we come to my reason for not submitting. Is it fear of rejection? Is it fear of the agonising wait for a response that might be a rejection? Is it artistic arrogance? It’s none of these. It’s simply that I don’t believe my own poems stand up well individually. By which, I don’t mean each poem isn’t readable or even rewarding in its own way. I mean that I conceive my poems as details in a larger canvas. Yes, you can appreciate them close up. But I prefer them to be seen within the context of a collection. I just think they work better that way; and it’s completely unreasonable of me to expect them to be seen this way if they’re being published in ones and twos across various journals.

Let me be clear – I’m not knocking (or rejecting) journals. I’m simply saying they’re not for me or my work. At least, not now I’ve found my style and have a broad creative vision for my writing. You might think: ‘If you don’t submit, how will you be read?’ Good question – and one to which I don’t have a good answer. All I know is that I’m not about to give in.


Mark Antony Owen is a poet who writes exclusively in syllabic metre. His poetry draws on that world where the English countryside bleeds into ordinary suburban living – a world he refers to as ‘subrural’.

Mark builds around details of subrural life to create economical poems; each obeying one of nine self-developed forms or variations on these – his subjects often painted a little darker than they really are.

From autumn 2013, Mark will self-publish ‘Subruria’: a multi-volume collection he describes as part sketchbook, part journal, part memoir.

You can find out more at Mark’s website or follow him on Twitter.


Want to write a guest post for One Night Stanzas? Email me a short, informal pitch to claire [at] and we’ll talk!

You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

Dear Poetry Newbies: how to write a poem RIGHT NOW

Monday, December 17th, 2012

At the rehearsal 02

An earlier version of this post appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008.

Writer’s Block is every poet’s worst nightmare. It takes advantage of the times you’re too busy or happy or miserable to think about sitting down to write, and then it digs its claws in. Sometimes, it only lasts a week or so before it gets bored and wanders off to find another victim – other times it sticks around for months, preventing you from putting pen to paper in any kind of meaningful way.
As you can probably tell, I like to visualise Writer’s Block as a small, annoying, fanged, furry creature. Why? Because that way, I feel more like I can beat it, squash it, call in my imaginary pest-control. I can get rid of it any time I want – and so can you. In fact, if you want to, you can write a poem – and a good poem – RIGHT NOW.

Read poetry.
I say this all the time – in fact, everyone says this all the time – and it may sound like a cliché, but it is the most important thing you can possibly do as a poet. Reading other people’s poetry teaches you to write better stuff, but it also gets you fired up and gives you inspiration when you need it. When I want to write but can’t find the ideas, I read other people’s poems until I find a line that makes me think “I could expand on that,” or even “I could’ve worded that better.” When I want to write but nothing sounds any good, I turn to poems I really enjoy and admire, to ‘remind’ me how it’s done. Using other people’s poetry as a jumping-off point for an original work is not plagiarism, and poets do it all the time. Can’t find a poem that inspires you? Get to a library, bookshop or thrift store and look around until something leaps off a page at you (it will, eventually, honest). You can even try looking online – check out this page for some great online poetry sites.

Read poetry you don’t like.
I got this one from a former creative writing tutor, and funnily enough, it works. Everyone has a poet they really, really hate – often one whose work they’ve been forced to analyse in school. Who’s yours? Maybe you have a few? And probably the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling creatively challenged is look at the poetry of someone whose very name gets you foaming at the mouth with loathing. Well, try it. Drag out Wordsworth’s Daffodils or Keats’ Grecian Urn or whatever your least-favourite poem happens to be, and read it over once again. This time, ask yourself: why do I hate this poem? Is it because it’s actually a bad poem, or is there another reason? Do I hate it because I don’t fully understand it? Because I associate it with something negative? Or is it just not to my taste? Think about what puts this particular poet on your personal blacklist… and then do the opposite. Try to find good bits in the poem – is there a particular line that stands out from the rest? Does the basic idea of the poem appeal to you? Has the poet used any unusual words or created an interesting metaphor? Analyse the poem fairly – and from a personal point of view (none of this textbook-style, “what are the hidden meanings?” stuff). Once you’ve worked out why you can’t stand this poet – or once you’ve realised that actually, maybe they’re not a total imbecile – you can start to think about your own work. Write the antithesis of a Wordsworth poem, or try putting yourself in Keats’ shoes and writing in his style. Reading your most hated author really can inspire you, honest. Try it!

Read absolutely ANYTHING.

Noticing a pattern here? That’s because reading = writing: fact. The more you read, the better you write, and although obviously poetry is the best thing to get you into a poetry-writing frame of mind, just about anything that involves the written word can inspire you. I once wrote a poem inspired by a Louise Welsh novel, and another inspired by a newspaper cutting about a grassfire. Hundreds of people have written poems inspired by letters they’ve read, sent, received. I know one poet who wrote an ode to her telephone directory when she realised it was out of date, and started reading through it. Reading other people’s words can be really inspiring – no matter what they are. Try grabbing whatever written thing is nearest to you – be it a novel, a how-to book, a pamphlet or an instruction manual. Read it over, pick a line you like, and imagine it is the title of a poem. Write that poem.

This is something I do with my students when they’re feeling at a loss for words. If you ask me, all words are good words, and just about anything can be a poem or story if you’re willing to shape it into one. Basically, you start with a blank sheet and a pencil, you count to three, and then you start writing. You write anything, and you keep writing without stopping until the page is full. No stopping to think, no trying to turn the writing into any kind of coherent shape – just write. One pupil of mine, a twelve-year-old boy who found creative writing “really hard,” started free-writing about what he’d been up to at the weekend (camping in the woods with his mates, apparently), and ended up with the first few paragraphs of a great adventure story. Another, Lisa – fourteen and very shy – was mad with her sister and free-wrote a letter to God asking why He’d decided to make the two sisters so different. It became a weird and wonderful poem for her school portfolio. Many students (me too) find it hard to stop at just one page. Freewriting is writing, after all, and when you’ve been struck by the pesky Writer’s Block, it feels brilliant to be putting pen to paper.
NB: Freewriting is NOT about trying to make ‘a poem’ or ‘a story’ or even a ‘good’ piece of writing. It could turn out to be garbage, and you have to let it, and not be annoyed with yourself if it does. But chances are, it won’t – I bet you find that something emerges.


You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

Dear Poetry Newbies: 10 Commandments! What to AVOID when sending your poetry to magazines.

Monday, December 10th, 2012


An earlier version of this post appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008.

1: Thou shalt not lie.
I know I keep banging on about “being yourself,” but it’s important! So when it comes to sending off your work, not lying means not pretending that you haven’t sent your work elsewhere if you have, not making up imaginary writing credits or other frillies to spice up your bio, and not using other people’s material without crediting them or asking their permission. OK?

2: Thou shalt not be rude.
Do you want these people to publish you or not?! Always be polite and respect magazine staff and eds.

3: Thou shalt not be lazy about your cover letter..
Any kind of correspondence that informs your editor that you “hav sum poems 4u guys 2 read” (or the like) is going to seriously damage your chances! And no cover letter is basically just rude.

4: Thou shalt not be negative.
Assuming that your poems will be rejected is not the way to go, and saying as much in your cover-letter (e.g. “I’m guessing you guys will just reject these”) is even worse! Don’t put the R-word in the editor’s mind… and better still, keep it out of yours, too.

5: Thou shalt not be boastful.
Whether it’s in your cover-letter, your bio or your writers’ group meeting… it doesn’t matter how many publications you have to your name. Nobody likes a show-off!

6: Thou shalt not enter into any nasty or aggressively competitive stuff with other poets.
Sadly, the poetry world contains a fair few people who like to see others fail. Please, please don’t be one of them.

7: Thou shalt not question the editor.
Unless they’re unnecessarily rude to you (unlikely, I hope) or you need clarification about something, do not try and question the editor’s decision. Pleading, arguing and mud-slinging are unlikely to change their mind… trust me, I’ve tried!

8: Thou shalt not listen to bad advice.
e.g. “you’re too young to be published” or “I never read the submission guidelines” or “why are you bothering with this? You’ll never get accepted!” People who say such things are best ignored!

9: Thou shalt not ignore feedback from magazine editors.
It’s a rare commodity - use it wisely!

10: Thou shalt not give up.
Don’t let rejection / submission fatigue / writer’s block / negative criticism get you down. Keep writing, editing, improving, submitting. You can do it!

Disagree? Think I’ve missed a commandment? Got your own ideas? Let me know!


You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

Dear Poetry Newbies: writing rules revisited

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Rules for the Teacher
^Because I just love these.

So, lately I’ve taken to digging up some old articles I wrote in the early days of One Night Stanzas and re-posting them here for your reading pleasure (mostly because I have a ton of new readers now who might not have the patience to trawl the archives. Also because — forgive the arrogance — I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised by the quality of some of the stuff I’ve got stowed back there, and reckon it deserves another look). (I’m calling this initiative “Dear Poetry Newbies” — click for all the series so far!) The other day, I went right back to the start and found this post from September 2008. In it, I wrote what my writing rules were… and was pretty shocked at myself, I must say! Some of them I still totally agree with, but others? Let’s just say I’ve learned a lot in four years!

3: No centre-justification, weird indents or funny formatting.
Centre-justification’s fine if it’s what you do, if you like it and reckon there’s a reason for it; I just don’t do it - no idea why. I have been known to use indents, but really not very often. Basically, I think I don’t use funny formatting for two reasons… one, because sometimes other people use it and ruin lovely poems by filling them with white spaces and making them impossible to read (this makes me sad). And two: because I’m too lazy - working out where an indent might ‘work’ is just too much effort, frankly!

OK… I am ashamed. I can’t quite believe I used to be One Of Those People. I’m fairly sure that much of what I meant by “funny formatting” might be better termed “concrete poetry,” a genre of which I am now a massive fan. Reading more widely — and also living with a concrete poet for two years — has taught me that actually, the white space of the page is there to be used. It isn’t just a passive background on which to hang a poem — if you want it to, the negative space around your words can be just as vital to their meaning as the words themselves. I think this “rule” was actually fatigue in disguise — running a tiny magazine, I was sick to death of reading poems where the space was used in all manner of weird ways, just not for any reason or to any particular effect. But note to self: your magazine’s slush pile does not the entire poetry world represent. Cheer up, emo kid!

4: Always ‘finish’ a poem in one sitting.
Obviously I don’t mean finish it - I edit and redraft afterwards. But I like to get the skeleton of a poem down all in one go… I’ve tried writing in ‘bits’ before, and the poems always sound disjointed. I probably should learn how to drop a poem and go back to it, it would save me a lot of anguish!

Nothing shameful about this rule, I’ve just stopped abiding by it. It used to be the only way I could work, but now — happily, I think — I’m getting much more chilled about allowing a piece of writing to shape itself at its own pace. I think that’s been one of the most important things I’ve learned in putting together the creative part of my PhD actually — poems are like people. They all have different personalities, wants, needs, and I should to respect those things.

7: No writing in dialects other than my own.
I wrote a short story not so long ago that was in Scots. I live in Scotland and have done for almost all of my life - I think of myself as Scottish, but I’ve never actually picked up the accent. The story was apparently convincing enough to win quite a big prize, but when I thought I’d have to read it aloud at the prize-giving, I realised that writing in Scots had been a big mistake! Fortunately, I got out of reading it, but I have now learned, and will never write another piece using someone else’s accent!

I’ve come a long way in four years in terms of my attitude towards my own national identity. At the point where I wrote this “rule”, I desperately wanted to call myself a Scot, but felt like a fraud — people were still telling me I was English, I sounded English, I was born in England, shut up you’re English. I felt like I had a big red ‘E’ pinned to me, and I didn’t want it, it didn’t fit me. I hated my stupid turncoat accent. I was in a place where, if people asked me where I was from, I’d say “it’s complicated, don’t ask.”
Now, when people ask me where I’m from I say, Edinburgh (true). When people tell me I sound English, I say I lived down there as a small child and picked up the accent (true). When they point out I was born in England, I tell them that my great-grandmother was Amy Armstrong of theLiddesdale Armstrongs, directly related to Johnie and to Kinmont Willie. I tell them the Scottish/English border was, almost literally, drawn with my ancestors’ blood and entrails. And if that doesn’t work, I say f*ck you, I’m Scottish.
I’m still not sure I’d be 100% happy reading a short story in Teri to a roomful of people, but I feel a long way away from the frightened little poet who wrote this “rule” four years ago. Finding where you belong is no small thing, and re-reading this was a really amazing sign of how far I’ve come in that regard.

10: Do not participate in petty competition or snobbery.
I know a lot poetry-involved people, and I read a lot of the opinions of poetry-involved people, and sadly, some poetry-involved people aren’t very nice. There are a lot of individuals out there who like to bitch about other writers, put down certain types of poets (often young, inexperienced ones, which is horribly unfair), deliberately try to wreck other people’s chances of success and tout their own opinions of what’s “good” and “bad” as the last word in what poetry ought to be. My final - and biggest - rule is this: ignore these people. In fact, don’t just ignore them - boycott them. Don’t read their blogs, don’t buy their books, don’t listen to their rubbish. Don’t let them put you down, and don’t retaliate to them. Often they’re people whose own successes have disappointed them, so just move on and up, and concentrate on your own writing. Don’t fall into the trap of being like this yourself. Don’t speak or write ill of others — help them instead. Turn the poetry community back into a community!

I think I’ve become more chilled and accepting about this stuff — cronyism, snottiness towards newcomers, etc — and I’m now in a literary circle that I’ve carefully cultivated and consciously edited so I don’t have to deal with this sort of shit anymore. I still know of a lot of people in the poetry community who like to curate other people’s responses to poetry, who demand that others explain their opinions and choices to them, who dismiss certain ideas/styles/genres/types of people, who engage in obvious nepotism. I know of them, but I make it my business to not know them. I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as being A Big Cheese In The Poetry Community. People who think they are this, or who aspire to be this, are just kind of funny. I still agree with what I said in this “rule,” but I might re-write it now to put the emphasis less on raging against these people and more on just ignoring them (and maybe giggling at them behind your hands) and getting on with more important business: namely, putting words onto a page. And I mean the page of your personal notebook, not the page of some prestigious journal. It’s the writing that’s the most important thing, not what happens to it after. That stuff’s all just window-dressing.

What are YOUR unwritten poetry rules?


You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

More words of wisdom: Douglas Maxwell on the writing process

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

Stage mic

Roughly two years ago I posted here about my first ever encounter with the incredible Scottish playwright Douglas Maxwell. He gave a great masterclass on theatre writing — and just on writing in general — for the Scottish Universities International Summerschool, and I was blown away. Since then, I’ve got to know Douglas’ work much better — most recently, I’ve bought his new book, Plays for Young People (psst, it’s awesome), and this Festival I went to see his Dream Play at the Traverse (it was called A Respectable Widow Takes To Vulgarity. Needless to say, it was excellent). But best of all, he was back at SUISS again this year with more words of wisdom for our young writers. Here are just a few I wanted to share with you…

“[Writing] isn’t craft. This is art. There is no rule you must always follow, no matter what all those books say… and you will learn more from just doing your own work than from anything beardy fools like myself say.”

“The temptation for a writer to give up is probably the most constant temptation you’ll face — and you’ll never really break through to a time when everything you write is classic. But you must not give up.”

“You’re writing for a small audience of people like you, not Lord and Lady Such-and-Such. It all works better when you think of the audience as us. Not them — not, I’m going to shock them, or, I’m going to educate them. That’s not the way to go.”

“It’s subterranean autobiography. We’re writing about us. You can write about a world event, but what does it mean to you? Start with real life, and then drop a storybomb in there.”

“There’s nothing wrong with writing as a hobby, but if you really want to really do it you have to finish. You have to write ‘The End’, and send it out there. Otherwise it doesn’t count.”

“Who wants to read a writer who’s got a thick skin? Who says, ‘I love his writing — he’s completely oblivious to the thoughts and feelings of others’? Writers have to have thin skins, they have to be sensitive people.”

“Emotional writing is where it’s at. But when it goes badly, the blood gets everywhere.”

“You’ve got to remove guesswork — either by writing about your own life, or through research. But never guess.”

“It’s hard, because how do you find a voice? It’s a bad phrase, it’s the wrong way around. You’re not trying to find your voice, you’re trying to find a song to sing that suits your voice.”

“If you’re doing it for the money, don’t do it. It’ll kill you… you write it first and then you try to find a home for it. That’s how it really works.”

You can read more of Douglas’ tips for writers in his Playwright’s Guide To Being A Playwright.


You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)