Archive for September, 2009

Just add originality.

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

It seems that recently, there’s been a lot of talk in the literary blogosphere about “overdone ideas” — topics that keep on popping up in poems and novels to the point where it all becomes rather same-y. Rob A Mackenzie recently wrote an article for Magma entitled “Are you bored with the default poem?” (The default poem is, according to critic John Redmond, “an ‘I-persona’ describing its state of mind and feeling as though chatting with the reader across a coffee-table.” Think of pretty much any poem by Billy Collins, and you get the gist.) The Rejectionist also recently posted a list of ideas for novels which “require some effort” to do well. (If you’re wondering what I’m on about, read it. You’ll know exactly what they mean.)

All this — and another blogpost (which I won’t link) in which a rejected writer gets personal about an editor who objected to the clichéd subject matter of their poem — got me thinking… are there some topics in poetry which, if we want them to impress, need extra legwork? I’d never go so far as to say there are topics which should be avoided because they’re “clichéd”… but are there subjects that require extra originality in order to catch an editor’s eye? I think there are. As an editor myself I can tell you that when you get to the 99th poem about X fashionable topic, it does start to grate. It’s not that you don’t want to see a poem on that subject ever again… in fact, what you really, really want is for someone to come along and write about that subject in a way that’s mind-blowingly original, rather than just saying what everyone else is saying. So what are the trendy topics du jour? What do you need to invest a bit more time in in order to pull it off? Here are my thoughts…

Bird poems.
Bird poems are so common that they’ve even become a little bit of a joke, I think… and yet dozens of them land in Read This‘ inbox every month. Thanks to Ted Hughes, Wallace Stevens and Edgar Allen Poe, crows, blackbirds and ravens are particularly popular, followed closely by rooks, jackdaws, pigeons and magpies. You’re all totally correct, birds are absolutely awesome… but for the sake of originality you might want to avoid giving them human voices, human characteristics, or going for the ‘birds are like the thoughts of trees’ analogy.

Reworkings of fairy tales.
I strongly believe that we have Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife to thank for this particular trend… or perhaps it was Shrek, who knows? All I know for certain is this is something that’s done a hell of a lot, and sadly, 99% of the time it’s done badly, or there’s just no originality there. Cinderella from the point of view of the misunderstood Stepmother? Snow White as a hilarious dwarf orgy? Rapunzel as a metaphor for a downtrodden wife in a present-day high rise? Sorry, they’ve all been done. That doesn’t mean they can’t be done again… they just need to be done really, really well.

Odes to Sylvia Plath.
Can you think of any other poet who polarizes opinion quite like Sylvia? Maybe Charles Bukowski. Basically, she’s a marmite poet… you love her or you hate her, no middle ground. But one thing unites both the Plath fanclub and Sylvia’s greatest critics: they all like to write poems about her, for her, to her, from her point of view etc etc etc.
I can’t count the number of submissions I’ve seen to Read This which were essentially one reader’s love letter to this tragic lady… and there are nearly as many “I hope you rot in hell, Sylvia Plath!”-style offerings out there. The vast majority of them seem to use/borrow/steal her “I eat men like air” line in some way. Beware the ghost of Sylvia, people!

“You and me” poems.
Incredibly common among just-starting-out writers… the RT editorial team also refer to “you and me” poems as “therapy poems,” as they generally seem to have been written in an attempt to exorcise an emotional demon or two. We call them “you and me” poems, because they generally consist of a first-person narrative voice (the “me”) speaking to a nameless second person (the “you”) about a happening or issue into which the reader has absolutely no insight whatsoever. These poems often include lines like “how dare you?”, or “if only you knew…”
Please don’t start thinking that you can’t use “you” or “me” in your poems now… but please, if you’re going to give a poem to other people to read, don’t make it so insular that we have no idea what’s going on! Who are you? Who is this person you’re lecturing? What the hell happened? Show me!

“Poems about what it is to write a poem, or worse, what it is NOT to be able to write one.”
The above is a snippet from Ambit’s list of stuff they really don’t want to be sent, and I agree… writing a poem that essentially says “HERE I AM WRITING A POEM” or “shit, I can’t write anything, I have writer’s block, doesn’t that suck?” generally leave me cold. There’s nothing worse than the aren’t-I-clever-ness of a poem that begins “I pick up my pen to write a poem…” and ends “I put down my pen and I’ve written a poem!”, with a blow-by-blow account of the composing of this work of genius in between. Billy Collins (king of the “default” poem!) did that already, and chances are, he did it with more humour. Basically, if you can’t think of anything better to write about than “look, I’m writing a poem,” then you probably need to get out more.

What do you think? Is it difficult to write on an ‘overdone’ subject, or does it just make it easier to stand out? Are there other subjects like this that need extra work in order to catch the eye? Or am I wrong? You know where the comments box is!

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“I could do better than that”: great works of literature and their hilarious Amazon reviews

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Pretty much everyone I know has issues with Amazon — its ethics, its practices, its attempts at world domination one book at a time… there’s a lot to get upset about. However, if you’re into your literature and you like a good laugh, there’s nothing like it. Read on for 16-year-olds trashing Hamlet and then hailing JK Rowling as our “best literary talent”; a guy who reckons he could write a better poem than Ginsberg’s Howl by pounding his head on a keyboard (oh please, please try!), and an American who thinks that Scots is nothing more than “insincere gimmickry.” Hooray for teh internets!

“xxsarahxx” on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
If it didnt [sic] hav [sic] Shakespeare on the front, i wudnt[sic] look twice: I read Macbeth not too long ago, i [sic] really enjoyed it. It was clever, intelligent, thought provoking but a really good story too. So perhaps my expectations were too high, when i [sic] came to study Hamlet as a text for GCSE.
It’s dull, monotinous [sic], boring. The only way you can get anything out of it is if you over-analyse to such a level that you change the plot of the play completely! I apologise to all Hamlet fans out there, but i [sic] really dont see why this play demonstrates Shakespeare as a great British writer.
The soliloquies are perhaps why the play is most famous, and i [sic] had to write a 3000 word essay on how they connect Hamlet to the audience. But they don’t. Apart from one, “tis now the very witching time of night…” they are all bland and show nothing but Hamlet’s idiocy, stupidity, and cowardice.
So there you go, read it if you will. Who knows, it may be a question in a pub quiz, but i [sic] just want to warn you that compared to a lot of Shakespeare’s other work, this just isnt up to scratch. sorry xxx
(Just for fun, here’s another of xxsarahxx’s reviews… of Harry Potter!: “its [sic] not just a lot of codswallop okay - it is amazing, and if u [sic] dont believe me then read it agen [sic], and agen [sic] until you realise just how good this book is!…
The characters are, dare i use the cliche [sic], ‘’so real i feel like i’ve known them my whole life” hehe. The plot is engaging, and immense!! I just hope that people arent [sic] put off by the media frenzy and Daniel Radcliff; and take opeertunity [sic] of one of Britains [sic] betsliterary [sic] talents.”)

“James Murdoch” on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
This book is incredibly boring.

This Shakespeare guy is way over-rated.

Iit is written in old English so you need an other [sic] book to simply translate it’s [sic] text. In this day and age you would be insane to read this for fun. Rent a blu-ray disc or go to the cinema or something.

On the other hand if you are doing it for school then I guess you have to buy it.

“A Customer” on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:
Mary Shelley wrote this book when she was 18 and it really shows. This was the one of the worst books I have ever read, seriously I would rather read the berstein bears. Mary Shelley uses a lot of fancy words and complicated sentence stucture but the book really doesn’t say anything. There is no underlying message, it seems that she creates scenes to move her plot along, for instance the monster must learn how to talk and read so he camps out in someones [sic] shed and observes them for months without detection, it just so happens that there is a foreign woman at the house learning how to speak French. What a coincidence. The plot is not justified, Victor hates the monster because …. I don’t know he isn’t the evil spawn of satan or anything, and then there is the monster drove [sic] to kill because he was lonely? Come on now. Shelley tries to reach emotional climaxes and moving passages but she didn’t have anything to say. The book was boring, it had a bland and combined a very vague writing style full of tautology with not much content, and a “sissy” plot, not at all scary or even plausible

“Dr. Joey Raymoss” on James Joyce’s Ulysses:
My goodness, I honestly pity those unfortunately pretentious people that claim this is a good, let alone great, piece of literature.
The reality is, Joyce wrote this book knowing that the psudo-intellectuals [sic] would read into it in the fear of being regarded as less intellectual than their piers [sic].
Let me set the record straight, I have an official Mensa IQ of 169, and i [sic] studied this book at university. Do you know what I thought?
This book is useless. It’s nonesense [sic]… and it’s meant to be. The joke is on you people that actually buy into the lie and hype of this work. It is nothing but random clip bits of a meaningless bunch of boring characters.
Those who haven’t read it: you gain more from not doing so, because reading this book will do nothing but depress you!

“DARREN “Big Nose” WALKER Darren” (really) on JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye
As this is viewed as a 20th Century classic I thought I might give it a read. Oh dear, thats [sic] a few hours of my life I’ve wasted and will never get back again. This is almost 200 pages of drivel. It tells the inane story of a youth who finds everything he sees and does boring and because he has no enthusiasm for anything I found it impossible to find anything he did of any interest. Plus the 1940’s jargon has not aged well and got on my nerves.

“A Customer” on Allen Ginsberg’s Howl
Trite and undecypherable [sic], this is muck from the human demon that brought us NAMBLA*.

Filks [sic], I could pound on my keyboard randomly and come up with content equally meaningless. However, I doubt it would be accepted by so-called poetry fans with equal rabid enthusiasm.

*NB: Allen Ginsberg did not create the NAMBLA.

“J. Roberts “Jinny” (Maryland)” on Carol Ann Duffy’s Selected Poems
One particularly tired technique used is writing in Scottish dialect. Janet Paisley also uses this technique, achieving a similarly dull and infuriating result. If she had written her poetry in Gaelic, I would have admired her more, even though I cannot understand Gaelic. I would have admired her more because Gaelic is an actual language, whereas ‘Scottish’ is not. ‘Scottish’ is a dialect, and not even a particularly attractive one at that. It sounds unrefined, and frankly, ugly - and this is coming from a person who has lived in Scotland for 20 odd years. This doesn’t even touch on the fact that it limits the readership of her poetry. Anyone other than a Scottish person simply won’t understand words like ‘dug’ (dog), or ‘kenned’ (knew). Besides which, the use of these words doesn’t ring particularly ring true [sic]. People don’t even use words like ‘kenned’ in Scotland. All this serves to do is highlight the contrivance and lack of sincerity in Duffy’s writing. She has probably never spoken in Scottish slang in her life. She is merely using it to marginalise her poetry and give a small-time publisher something ‘local’ to market. Such insincere gimmickry is infuriating.

OK… when you’ve got over the feeling of wanting to repeatedly slap “J. Roberts “Jinny” (Maryland)” in the face, see what you can find. I bet you can dig up a gem to better this lot… anyone who does will win a prize (for reals!).

(Photo by Soozika)

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Procrastination Station #55

Friday, September 25th, 2009

It’s suddenly Friday again! Hello weekend!

The Booker Prize: same old same old // Poem of the week // The lost art of handwriting (Definatalie’s talking about this too!) // Happy Birthday, HG Wells! // The Picture of Dorian Gray = awesome // Quiz: how well do you know your weird words? // & hooray!

I’ve been seeing this image all over the blogosphere this week!

Next week is Banned Books Week. Start planning your celebrations!

I loved Fiona’s blogpost on “Scrumptious Words.”

Lovely hand-drawn typography and design.

Rejected recently?

When one of your wedding guests is a typewriter…

Found online this week: Former Featured Poet Wendy Kwok at Bolts of Silk // Last week’s FP Matt gave me a mention // More cool vispo from Stephen Nelson // Another lovely poem from Regina — the girl’s prolific! // Howie Good at a handful of stones

I want this man to illustrate my bookcover…

…or this man!

I loves a good rant.

The most controversial magazine covers of all time.


Twisted Sister: Cinderella & friends just got ugly (NB: don’t show this to your six year old!)

Unspeakable cuteness.

Tattoo overload: Paris Tattoo Art Fest (Facebook) // The Hell City Tattoo Fest // Geeky physics tattoos // The Heart vs The Head /It’s Medusa! // A TS Eliot tattoo // & people always ask me “what will you do about your tattoos when you’ve grown up?” …my new response will be: “I hope I’ll still be rocking them with all the style of this lady!”

& finally… hilarious mobile phone drama!

& shock revelation: Lady Gaga used to make great music!

(Photo by Bob.Fornal)

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5 awkward questions I’ve been asked about poetry.

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

A while ago I told you about my five most awkward poetry reading experiences, and how I dealt with them. It got me thinking about other weird and awkward poetry-related stuff I’ve encountered to date… and the first thing that sprang to mind was the many weird and wonderful questions people have asked me over the years. Here are perhaps the five most awkward questions I’ve ever been asked… and how I answered them.

1. “Why isn’t your poetry more scholarly? All you ever write are safe little narratives.”
This is a direct quote, and shockingly, it fell from the lips of a fairly good friend of mine. Fortunately for him, we were in a busy coffee shop and he was quite a long way away on the other side of a sturdy table, so I couldn’t smack him in the mouth, which was my gut reaction. Instead, I had to formulate a proper answer made of words, and since so many people were around, I felt it wasn’t really appropriate for any of those words to be expletives.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve had to “defend” my poetry, and it probably won’t be the last. If you’re in the business of sending your poems out into the world, chances are you’ll also have to do this at some point, too — perhaps you’ve already had to. It’s sad, but so many people in the poetry world are fiercely competitive and will always compare your work to their own, to the work of your collective peers, to the folks who get their stuff in the big journals. It’s very easy to feel undermined, particularly if the person who’s questioning your abilities as a writer also happens to be someone you like, respect or look up to — but the best response is to stick to your guns. I like to point out that, in order to succeed, grow and evolve, the poetry world should incorporate all manner of styles and voices, including mine thankyouverymuch. It’s also pretty tricky to argue with “so you don’t like what I do? No worries — no one’s making you read it!” I have a friend whose favourite response to criticism of his work is, “welcome to Postmodernism, baby.” Sure, maybe your poetry sucks — but some cynic coming along and being deliberately derogatory about it isn’t going to change that any. People who can’t be constructive aren’t worth your time.

2. “Why the hell do I have to read other people’s poetry to be a good poet?!”
This is perhaps the most awkward writing-related question you can really be asked. Why? Well, chances are, the asker’s poems are fairly terrible… and it’s very hard to answer without having to say that. My horrible ex boyfriend once asked me this question — he never read poetry, and his main inspiration came from Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana lyrics. Needless to say, his works were somewhat lacking in… well, most of the things poetry needs in order to be called poetry. We broke up soon after.
It’s a common question — weird as it may seem, so many just-starting-out poets are non-poetry-readers. When faced with this particular query, one of the best things to do is ask “why don’t you read poetry?” Some people will say they don’t want to be influenced by others or are worried about “copying”; some genuinely think that poetry stopped happening sometime around William Wordsworth and that they’re some kind of trailblazer. Then there’ll be people like my ex boyfriend who think that Kurt Cobain provides all the “poetry” they’ll ever need… and some people are just damn lazy. Unfortunately, these are all misconceptions and lame excuses. Writing good poetry is a fine and subtle art, like throwing a pot or tiling a roof or writing a symphony. Could you do any of those things without first seeing someone else do it, reading up on it, practicing? You could, but the results would probably suck. It’s the same with poetry… and the sooner your non-reading friend realises it, the better!

3. “When are you going to get a real job?”
If I had a penny for every time someone’s flung the “writing is a naive activity and you need to get a grip” argument at me… well, I’d have a freaking big handful of change to pelt the ignorant weirdos with. It seems that the standard response to “I write poetry” these days is “oh my GOD what is wrong with you?!” Everyone’s so keen to point out that it’s a pointless exercise, that it’s embarrassing, that it’s a waste of time, and most importantly… it doesn’t make any money.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — why does this only seem to apply to writing and writers? Why does everyone seem to think we’re all ethereal weirdos who float around totally detached from reality assuming that some day we’re going to write the next “If…” and make a million off it? For most of us, writing is a hobby. Sure, we’d all love to win heaps of literary prizes and give up the day job to live off our five-figure advances, but we know that’s probably not going to happen (and if we don’t, we’ll get there eventually). Heaps of people play football on a Saturday afternoon or go running every day… but chances are none of these people believe they’re going to become the next David Beckham or Usain Bolt. Personally, I rather like to string the “get a real job” crowd along a bit — “I’m waiting for the Poet Laureateship to come vacant again” always works a treat.

4. “How can I make it big as a poet?”
Perhaps the only people more awkward than the “poetry is totally pointless” crowd are the “I’m going to make a living off writing poetry!” crowd. “How can I make a living writing poetry?” and “how can I make my poetry famous?” are by far the most common questions I get asked — they arrive in my inbox from writers of all ages and backgrounds, and they pop up with alarming regularity on Yahoo! Answers and such (here, here, here, here, here, here… though perhaps more alarming are the responses… “try”?! Argh!).
It’s easy to be angry and frustrated with these people. Firstly, they’re clearly not writing poetry because they love it — or if they are, that’s not enough incentive for them, what they really want is cash. Secondly, they’re obviously about as involved with the poetry community as I’m involved with NASA’s latest misson — they have no idea what’s going on or what contemporary poetry really is. Thirdly, a lot of them seem really very stupid indeed — anyone who can’t tell that a site claiming “YOU CAN MAKE $1000 PER LINE OF VERSE!” = huge con is surely a moron, no? And fourthly, their poems usually suck.
However, you need to be gentle. I always find responding to “how can I make it big?” emails very tricky, but honesty is the best policy. I tend to take the “here are some things you can do to make your poems better, but you should know that you’ll probably never make any cash out of them anyway” line… so at least I’m helping these people improve, even if I am crushing their million-dollar writing dreams. Be constructive all the way… even if it’s hard.

5. “How DARE you reject my INCREDIBLE poem you freakin’ moron?!”
Welcome to the wonderful world of Being An Editor. If you’ve ever had the unenviable task of making a value judgement about someone else’s work, you’ll probably know how it feels to be on the receiving end of a rejected poet’s wrathful scorn. If you’re thinking of taking up an editor-ing job at any point in the future, just bear in mind that this is what you get. Even the nicest “we’re really sorry, it just wasn’t quite right for us”-style letter can result in “OMG how dare you!” For my sins, I’ve been on both ends of the exchange. It is never, ever pretty.
Poets: to save the poor editors of this world from having to answer this particular awkward question, please just don’t do this. Yes, some editors are total dicks, and some of them really do ask for this kind of treatment. However, most of us really are doing our best — we really do have valid reasons for rejecting your poems and you’d do well to listen to them and make edits accordingly. Editors: when you’re on the receiving end of this particular awkward question, probably the best response is no response at all. However tempting it may be to a) grovel piteously to the poet in question to try and get them to see your point of view, OR b) tell them exactly what they can do with their god-awful little sonnet series in your opinion… just don’t. Chances are they just wanted to vent — we all know being rejected is never pleasant. Now they’ve done it, they can probably move on… and so should you!

A few more from my personal Archive of Awkward:
“How can I write poems just like yours?”
“Do you think your poems are male or female?”
“Can I borrow one of your poems to enter into a contest? It’s OK because it’s US residents only so you can’t enter yourself.”
“I got the impression from reading your poems that you’re in need of a mother figure in your life, is that true?”
“Will you write me a poem about my car?”

What’s the weirdest or most awkward poetry-related question you’ve ever been asked…?

(Photo by G-mark)

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Getting A Day Job: Teaching & Tutoring, Part 1.

Monday, September 21st, 2009

As most of you probably know, when I’m not working on writing-related stuff, I work as a teacher. Sadly, very few writers can rely on their art to pay the bills, so most of us need some kind of day job, and teaching is mine. To be precise, right now I am a Lecturer in Literature and Communications. I’ve been teaching in some form or another for several years now and I absolutely love it — I’m aware that I talk about it a lot here on ONS, so I wasn’t surprised when I received an email about it from a long-time ONS reader (they shall remain nameless!). Said reader asked me:

When did you initially get into tutoring? Was it before you started master’s study? Do you have a professional qualification or is it totally experience based?
I’m trying desperately to find some sort of tutoring work but I’m not getting very far!

This email couldn’t have come at a better time. I’d been deliberating whether or not to write a post or two on the topic, but I was unsure how interested you’d all be in hearing about it. However, it seems that at least some of you out there are considering teaching as a possible career option… and I know how hard it is for creative people to reconcile themselves to a 9-5. So if you’re thinking about teaching, here’s a bit more about what I do, and how I ended up doing it. Hopefully it’ll help you make up your mind, and maybe get started!

How did you get into teaching?
There are a lot of ways to get into teaching, but my personal trajectory so far goes thus. I spent the first three years of my four-year undergrad degree supporting myself through a series of terrible office jobs — legal secretary, market research telephonist, envelope-stuffer, social care support worker (sounds like more responsiblity than it is. I mostly filed confidential medical documents and took phone calls from angry GPs). I responded to these jobs the way most creative people do when they’re put behind a desk and told to get on with it: I hated, loathed and detested pretty much every waking second. I was constantly on the lookout for any new job that sounded even remotely more interesting than the last one, and one day I happened across an agency ad for one-to-one tutors. For years I’d avoided stuff like this, as ever since I decided to study English at Uni (I was about 12 at the time), I’d been taunted by adults who loved to tell me how “people who study English only ever become English teachers!” I had been determined to prove them all wrong, but boredom and desperation drove me to apply — plus, the pay was nearly twice what I earned per hour typing and filing.

I had some childcare experience: I’d worked as a nanny for a year, done some babysitting, volunteered as a Young Leader with Girl Guiding UK and set up a drama group at my high school, which I ran for two full academic years. This, along with my in-progress degree, got me the job. I started out with just one student — a severely dyslexic public schoolboy in desperate need of help with his writing skills, which felt like being chucked in the deep end in itself. But then as the academic year progressed, I ended up with more and more students on my books. By the time the exams rolled around a year later, I was teaching ten kids, two one-hour sessions each per week. I taught English, English Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, and was totally responsible for planning the lessons and doing all the marking in my spare time; spare time not covered by my £9-per-session fee (less than a third what the agency charged the parents, naturally). It was loads of work and loads of responsibility and all still very new… but I freaking loved doing it.

Next, I had a bit of luck. I took about six months out to write my undergrad dissertation and by the time I started looking for jobs again the recession was beginning to really heat up and I was dreading the thought of ending up with another office job. Fortunately, Boy was working at Edinburgh’s Telford College, and spotted that they had an open supply list — you could just go online, stick your name on it, and if a job came up they might well get in touch. I didn’t reckon my one-to-one experience gave me much of a chance, but I stuck my name on the list and got ready to forget about it. Shockingly, the English & Communications Curriculum Manager called me the very next day, and asked me to get on a bus and go for an interview right then. They needed cover for a lecturer who was on long-term sick, and I was the first to get there. Four days later I taught my first class — a room full of 25 English students. Having never taught a class before, it scared me half to death… but I only had to teach five hours per week and it was always the same class, who thankfully turned out to be a really sweet group. A year later and I’m back for more, and I’ve upped my game — I’m now teaching Literature and Communications rather than English, which has meant learning a new subject, and teaching six different classes over fourteen hours per week — that doesn’t include marking or prep. I’m also soliciting private students at present who might be in need of one-to-one tuition. Suffice to say, all my detractors were correct: it seems I was destined to become an English teacher.

Do you have a professional qualification or is it totally experience based?
At present, I don’t have any kind of teaching certificate — it’s not a total necessity unless you want to become the typical primary or secondary school kind of teacher, though it always helps! I’ve got all my teaching jobs based on the fact that I have a degree in English Literature, and now an MSc in Creative Writing and a PhD in the works. I also have experience — running a drama group and supervising a crazy pack of Girl Guides showed I could hack the pressure when I applied for my first job; having taught students of all ages and abilities on a one-to-one basis — plus a knowledge of the curriculum — helped get me a place at Telford. Basically, when I started out, I was more interested in becoming an academic than a high school teacher — otherwise I’d have done a PGDE qualification. Now, however, a big ambition is to become a Head Teacher, so a PGDE may be in the offing once the PhD is out of the way (what’s a bit more student debt, eh?). In terms of qualifications, you need to think about what kind of teacher you want to be and what kind of institution you want to teach at (you don’t need Qualified Teacher Status to be a self-employed tutor for example, but it helps), and then act accordingly — if you fancy the traditional school teacher role, get a degree in Primary or Secondary Teaching, or specialise in a core subject (English, Maths, or a science or modern language) at degree level and then get a PGDE. If you fancy the academic route, my advice is to concentrate on gaining academic qualifications and working your way up. If the idea of qualifications scares the crap out of you generally, you can always start out working self-employed as a private tutor or as a classroom assistant, and work your way up based solely on experience — just bear in mind, it’ll be harder and probably take longer. But it is do-able. Technically the only piece of paper you absolutely need to have is a CRB or Advanced Disclosure check. If you’re safe to work with kids, you’re good to go.

I’m trying desperately to find some sort of tutoring work but I’m not getting very far!
I have a friend of a friend who’s just finished her Primary Teaching degree — she’s completed her probationary year and now she’s been looking for a job all summer… without any success. She’s been told that there are 300 applicants for every primary school post that comes up. This may be an exaggeration, but even so — times are a little bit bleak for teachers right now.
What to do? Well, firstly: live in a city. Sorry country-dwellers… cities have more schools, more kids in need of tutoring, more tutoring agencies and organisations and more opportunities. Sure, there’s also more competition, but I think the pros outweigh the cons here. Secondly: widen your search. Childcare and education jobs are advertised in a weird and wonderful way, and word of mouth is a big deal among parents, teachers and kids alike. If you’re currently only looking for jobs online, in your student careers office or in the education papers, you need to cast your net wider. Go round schools and check out their public noticeboards — make a note of the names of tutoring agencies and call them up to offer your services (yes, whether they say they’re hiring or not!). Make flyers to advertise your tutoring services and pin them to these aforementioned noticeboards. If you’re freelancing out of your own home (make sure you have a CRB or Disclosure check, though!), advertise in your local area, particularly around schools. Write to schools and inform them you’re seeking students. Go on supply lists. Make yourself visible.
Thirdly: If this doesn’t work, try getting some more experience, if you can. Find a way you can work with children through volunteering, or maybe doing something non-academic like working in a creche or babysitting. Yes, this seems a far cry from teaching, but by working with kids you’re getting to know parents and making contacts (word of mouth, remember). The little kids in your creche might have older siblings in desperate need of a tutor — their parents might have friends who are looking for someone who comes recommended. And fourthly: know the curriculum. As well as you can. This isn’t easy if you don’t work in education already, but check out the Scottish Qualification Authority — or your local equivalent — and find as many curriculum support materials and sample documents you can get your hands on. Knowing the curriculum means you’re equipped to start tomorrow (this can be a very attractive quality), and that you don’t just expect to rock up and get a teaching job — you know what’s involved.

Are you a teacher, or have you ever taught? If so, how did you get started, and what job-hunting tips do you have? Are you looking to start teaching but feeling lost — do you have questions? Get thee to the comments box!

Part II… coming soon!

(Phto by Coo)

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This week’s Featured Poet Matt Haigh interviewed.

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

Tell us about your poems.
A lot of people say they’re very visual, but all I can say right now is that they’re constantly evolving.

How long have you been writing?
Since I was 16. I started out with ambitions of writing an erotic cyberpunk novel about dysfunctional characters drifting in an imaginary dystopia. Poetry came along just over a year ago.

Do you have any publications to your name? What’s the next stage for your work?
My first poem was published in Poetry Wales earlier this year, but that feels a lifetime away from the style I inhabit now. Being creative is all that’s important for me, so I just want to keep pushing myself, and maybe pluck up the courage to read to an audience.

What do you think is your biggest poetic achievement to date?
The positive comments from editors, friends and family.

What’s the best thing about writing poetry? And the worst?
The best thing for me is using poetry as a device to get people looking at things in a way they hadn’t considered before. The worst thing is how writing it often feels like trying to hit a target while standing drunk in a pitch-black room.

Got any suggestions for young, upcoming poets?
Don’t hold yourself back. Try to avoid the fear of appearing “difficult.” Getting poetry out there is good, it should aim to be inclusive, but I don’t believe the art itself should be sacrificed for popularity. We are complex, we are difficult, and good poetry reflects this. There’s nothing wrong with challenging people and making them think a bit.

Who/what influences your poetry?
Most of the time it’s just these images popping into my head out of the blue, but also the struggle for something original. Worrying about whether the end result is good or complete rubbish doesn’t matter so much as long as I’m being different and experimental. I could try to play it safe and maybe it would get published, but I think that would be a pretty boring way to work.


Take your head, pick the lock with a knife,
or for that thick skull use a hatchet,
then with gloves (to avoid the stain)
methodically start to unpack it.

Crack apart the two halves
as you would an Easter egg, drain
all fluids, nostalgia’s pool,
and siphon off the memory dregs.

Remove with care those tricky parts -
the medulla oblongata -
neurons and chambers like greenhouses
growing buds of laughter.

Tip upside down this toolbox,
give the skull a pat and a shake:
dislodged, your dreams will clatter out
(they betrayed you anyway) and break.

Scoop out a handful of mossy veins:
unravel, stretch, press flat and bend
‘till you have a map of humankind
with tracks and roads that never end.

Once empty you’ll find the root cause
of those bad thoughts - the parasite
who crawled in through your ear, and shrunk
himself to an inch in height.

With thumb and forefinger, prise out the old flame
as you would the tail of a crayfish or
tarantula’s bite. Then, with head dismantled,
get on with your life.

Want to see your poems featured here? Drop me a line to!

(Photo by Lelyha)

Don’t forget The One Night Stanzas Store my Etsy store, and their little sister, Edinburgh Vintage!

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Procrastination Station #53 & #54

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Hey all — apologies again for the absence of this post last week. Normal service has now resumed, and this is a bumper edition to make up for last time! Here’smy pick of the last two weeks’ interwebs to amuse, enthrall and most importantly, inspire!

Going back to school: literature quiz! // The poem of last week! // Nick Hornby is actually rather good // Poster poems: rock // Caring poets // Poem of this week! // Quiz: how well do you know Agatha Christie? // No one likes Dan Brown // What’s the use of erotic poetry? // & a new Guardian poetry workshop to enter!

Rachel McKibbens has a freaking cool new site.

A lovely poem by Lorine Niedecker, thanks to Swiss.

A nostalgic look back at the recent history of publishing.

Welcome to the Weird Book Room!

Let’s go to art camp.

Get well soon, Garrison Keillor.

Some amazing typography.

Hilarious dark secrets of the publishing industry — revealed!

A poem from the great Ted Kooser.

One Night Stanzas is one of the Writing White Papers Top 27 writing blogs!

How cool is this journal?!

All submission guidelines should read like this.

When is a phonebox like a library?


Found online this week: A new poem from Regina // ONS poets Asmara Malik and Amy Blakemore at a handful of stones // Cool concrete poetry from Stephen Nelson // A short and sweet new piece from former FP Kerri Ni Dochartaigh // Col on Nina Simone // A brilliant writing prompt at project:transparence // Howie Good’s new book is out! // & Fiona needs your help!

An inspiring message from Kind Over Matter

I absolutely love the In The Booth blog.

Eye candy: Awesome art/typography by Fiodor Sumkin // ARMOgeddon // cool photos of lightning strikes // a lifesize knitted Ferrari — for real! // Phillipa’s Green Ink Flickrspiration // Subversive street sculpture // & Rare and amazing footage of Pablo Picasso painting live.

Reviving Polaroid: project impossible?

Did we need any more proof that Damien Hirst is a talentless, humourless ****? Oh well, here’s some anyway.

Is the concept of Body Mass Index totally flawed? This suggests it is.

What are the most annoying fonts?

Geek stuff: Nerdcake! // Predator immortalised // Footnotes are great. I like them. // Someone has too much time on their hands… but the result is incredible. // Hell yes! // a geek’s tribute to Patrick Swayze // Go ask Alice // Sweet Beat tees.

Need some early Halloween inspiration?

I actually think this is a “win” rather than a “fail,” but hey…

Amazing Woodstock-inspired wedding

Come on, what’s cuter than a crochet shark?

& speaking of cute…

Wear your love for Edgar Allen Poe!

& I really want one of these.

Finally… ethical wrapping:

& a great short film made by my baby sister!

Have a great weekend!

(Photo by Eric van der Meer)

Don’t forget The One Night Stanzas Store my Etsy store, and their little sister, Edinburgh Vintage!

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This week’s Featured Poet is Matt Haigh

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Matthew Haigh is a 24 year old published poet, arts graduate, graphic designer and critic based in Cardiff. He strays between the default mode of quiet confidence, and erratic bouts of anxiety. He has a fondness for Japan, cyberpunk and vintage horror films. Most of these topics get discussed sometimes on his blog:

Fight Or Flight

My brother’s head is a church whose windows
bulge with black glass.
Engravings wrought upon the stone are strangers’
heads growing horns.
He says my head is filled with dreams
that bubble quartz crystal bright.

He says my thoughts spring white and clean
inside a placid pool.
Brother’s wild, volcanic springs
are shot with octopus ink.
Logic and reason puzzled themselves into Rubik’s Cubes
and sank to the bottom.

He’s hunched in front of the television,
hooked on Space Invaders. “Look how those coloured polygons
drop in droves like scorpions.
My doubts cluster just the same and sting
with equal precision.”

That he could communicate, not through a screen
but face to face - I hear a click -
his words are locked inside a skeleton ship.

I’ve seen his secrets go down
in a pixelated mushroom cloud.

Want to see your poems featured here? Drop me a line to!

(Photo by jami.carlson)

Don’t forget The One Night Stanzas Store my Etsy store, and their little sister, Edinburgh Vintage!

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New slang.

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

A quick apology for the lack of Featured Poet or Procrastination Station last week — it was the first week of term so I was absolutely snowed under, and ONS had to take a little bit of a back-seat while things settled down. However, I am really, really happy to be back teaching — I love doing it, and with every new class that walks through my door, I start a new learning curve.

One thing I’ve learned this week is that slang is a crazy but fascinating beast, a rapidly evolving and essential part of our language. Listening to my new students talk is mind-blowing — most of them are school leavers, so 16 or so — when I was their age the terms du jour were things like “epic,” and “legend” for good, and “shabby” or “poor” for bad. A song we particularly liked was a “tune” (with the ‘u’ pronounced quite long), whereas a teacher we particularly loathed was a “piece” (as in “piece of work,” I assume — “she’s a real piece, like!”). Ugly people were “munters” (although this was a term I found too hysterical to actually use), but now they’re “fugs”, apparently. And it seems that “epic” can now mean something very long or boring. Working out what my students are on about is a real task, despite the fact that only seven years ago, I was exactly where they are now. For those of you who are also struggling to comprehend the speech of The Yoof, check out these gems!

When I was a teenager, like “epic,” the word “solid” meant something very good. Originally it meant a strong bond or friendship — if you were close to someone, you could say you were “solid.” Then it just seemed to engulf anything we thought was awesome.
Now, apparently, “solid” means difficult. I have been making the mistake of giving exercises to students and feeling pleased when they told me “this is, like, solid.” However, I have now cottoned on that “Miss, this is solid”, is actually a complaint. Oops…

“Shan” is a Scottish expression that as a youngster, I always took to mean “shady” or “dodgy” — e.g. “this neighbourhood looks a wee bit shan.” At that point in my life, I was too afraid to use any Scots slang for fear that it might get me into trouble re: my pesky English accent. I always sounded like a bit of a moron saying it anyway, but I was very aware of what it meant.
Apparently “shan” has now become “shannage” — but “shannage” seems to be a more damning term. Where for me “shan” just meant something a bit dodgy, my students say “shannage” (in fact, they have a tendency to yell it) for anything they disapprove of… so it seems to have become just another term for “bad.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used in a sentence yet — generally they use it as a response along the lines of “that sucks” — e.g. Student 1: “I lost my phone yesterday.” Student 2: “Aw, shannage!”

Telt ower.
This is Scots obviously — they mean “told over.” This is not an expression I’m familiar with at all, but apparently it means ‘to be tattle-taled on by someone.’ In my day the expression for this was “grassed up” or “dobbed in” — both reasonably traditional, I reckon. Now, you say “I’ve been telt ower”, or “my mate telt me ower.” Yesterday I had a student who was misbehaving, and when I reprimanded him he said “are ye gan te tell me ower?” My response was: “am I going to what?!” Needless to say, when the explanation came, I felt really rather old.

Across the Atlantic…
Those of you on the other side of the pond need not feel left out — the slang I’m learning feels rather Scot-centric, but fortunately I have a US informant in the form of my bestie Lucy! She’s over in Edinburgh for a few days and has been giving me the lowdown on the latest Californian slang…
When she first came out with this one I thought it was absolutely hilarious, and having tried it out myself I am pretty sure it only works in an American accent! I remember a time when, if things were considered “good,” you could say they were “the bomb” — but again I think this American expression rather passed us Scots by. Apparently now “the bomb” has evolved into “bomb-dot-com” — for example, you could say: “so-and-so’s new album is, like,!” This would mean you like it a lot and think it’s good… I think!

As you can probably guess, “turbo” and “deluxe” both mean “good” too. I’m told that if you really, really like something and want extra emphasis, you can stick the two together and say “it’s turbo-deluxe!” High praise indeed!

OK, I am utterly behind the times so I was not aware of the popular online phenomenon “FML,” or the expression, and I have no idea which spawned which. Basically “FML” stands for “fuck my life,” and can be uttered at a time of distress or embarrassment. e.g. “I just tripped and fell over in front of everyone! FML!” The website of the same name exists for people to publicly document their traumatic or embarrassing stories… stories which always end in “FML!” Apparently it’s worth a read!

For those of you who are interested in this stuff, the Guardian’s Education section (yeah, I’m a geek) ran an article yesterday called “Know Your Teenglish.” I am skeptical about some of the expressions they claim teenagers use — do people really call Facebook-account-hacking “Frape” (as in, Facebook-rape)?! “Neek” is apparently a nerd crossed with a geek… but has anyone this side of 1989 ever used “nerd” in the first place?! And “cool beans,” another of the examples of ‘new slang’, was an expression I used frequently from the age of about 12. The fact that said article is only a selection of “the best” from an entire book on the subject makes me feel rather queasy. But hey, this wouldn’t be the first time the Guardian majorly failed in their efforts to “get down with the kids”…

Anyway, I want to know what slang you used as a teenager… or maybe you are a teenager, and you can tell us a thing or two about what’s cool/hip/awesome/sweet/sick these days? Are there any other expressions I should be aware of in order to avoid looking stupid in front of my students? You know where the comments box is…

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Words to avoid using in your biography…

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Over the past little while I’ve been really enjoying GoodCopyBadCopy’s lists of words you shouldn’t use — here and here. Most of them are corporate but I started thinking about words people use in relation to their poetry, and which words put me off as an editor. I thought this information might be useful to you when you’re writing about your work or putting together your biography to accompany a submission, so here you go: words and phrases that would put me off publishing you are…

1. “Creative”
“X is a highly creative individual” or worse, “X writes highly creative poems”… you’ve sent me a poetry submission, so I know you’re creative — and is there such a thing as a non-creative poem?! Biographies are short, so use those few words to tell me something I DON’T know!

2. “Intensely” (see also incredibly, astoundingly, and other hyperbole).
Yes, your bio should hype you up to some extent, but if you start telling me your performance style is “astounding” or your poems are “intensely complex”, I’m going to think ‘who says?!’ Unless you’re quoting someone — and preferably someone I’ve heard of — please don’t over-gild the lily.

3. “Genius”
See point 2 — only use “genius” (and “legend,” “visionary”, etc) if you’re talking about someone else. And they deserve it.

4. “Well known”
e.g. “X is a well-known performance poet” or “X’s poems about cats are widely known.” Just be careful with this one. Are you well-known country-wide, or just in your local area? If it’s the latter, there’s no shame in that. Better to say “X is well-known in the Skegness area” than say “X is well-known” and have me thinking “really? I’ve never heard of you!”

5. Use of the first person
The vast majority of publications print bios in the third person (”X is…” rather than “I am…”), and having to change the tense is a real pain in the butt. Particularly since I always seem to miss something and end up with someone’s bio reading “X is from Grimsby and mainly writes poems about my dog.”

6. “Resides”
Come on, you mean lives, don’t you? “X currently resides in London” — you’re just trying to sound poetic, aren’t you? You live in London really, don’t you? (Tip: if you wouldn’t say it aloud to someone — “oh yes, I just love residing in London!” — then don’t write it in your bio)

7. “Seeking representation”
Please don’t use my magazine as a classifieds section. If you’re looking for an agent/publisher, do it properly. Don’t just say “X is seeking representation for his novel” in the hope that someone will pick up your novel based on one measly poem in a zine. That never happens, so go through the motions like everyone else, and tell me something meaningful in your bio!

8. Use of bullet points
If you write your bio in bullet points, I will want to kill you — particularly if those bullet points are in the first person. “Am 22. Study at Uni. Like writing.” Come on, people! That’s not a bio!!

9. “Accepted for publication”
Just say published. OK, it might not have actually physically happened yet, but if you’ve had the acceptance letter, it’s probably a safe bet. Same goes for “works published or forthcoming” — again, just say published and save the word-count. By the time I go to print, after all…

10. “World domination”
This phrase appears in every other bio I see — literally. If you think it’s original to pretend that “world domination through poetry” is your goal… oh dear. And if you think that “world domination through poetry” is actually possible… oh dear oh dear. Either way, saying something that I haven’t seen a thousand times already would be good!

11. “X enjoys reading and writing…”
This is a no-brainer, people.

12. “My poetry sucks.”
Please don’t tell everyone your poems are bad. If I’m publishing them, they aren’t, and if you’ve sent them to me, you probably know that. Being all ‘modest’ and saying “oh my goodness how do I get published when I’m so shit?!” aint cute. It makes both of us look a bit weird, so shhh.

13. “Various accolades”
I always get a bit suspicious when I see “X has won various accolades for their writing.” What does this mean? When people don’t specify, I always assume that what they call “accolades” are not neccessarily what I’d call “accolades.” If you’ve won something decent, own it — if you haven’t, don’t pretend you have.

14. “For your reading pleasure”
OK, I use this expression occasionally, but I would never, ever use it in a bio. “X writes poems for your reading pleasure”?! Um… I’ll be the judge of that, thanks!

15. Use of big, unrealistic numbers
“X has had over 600 poems published in over 300 publications worldwide.” And how weird — I’ve never even heard of you, X! Come on guys. Please don’t lie.

16. Long lists of totally unknown magazine titles.
Similarly, my heart always sinks when I see a poet launch into “I’ve been published in [insert 30+ magazine titles, none of which anyone's heard of, here]” in their bio. 1. This is a waste of your limited space. 2. It looks like you’re boasting. 3. It looks like you’re really not picky about where you send your stuff and/or potentially (read: probably) a simultaneous submitter/serial submitter of the same pieces. 4. It annoys me, and everyone reading. Don’t do it.

17. “X believes poetry is…”
You may have some very valid and fascinating ideas about what poetry is, what it’s for, or why we should all read it. However, your bio is not the place. Write me a ONS guest-post instead, yeah?

18. “enjoys wine, women and song…”
I see this phrase SO OFTEN, you wouldn’t believe. Dear Male Poet, my zine’s Contributors page is not the personals ads. It is also not advisible for a poet to deliberately employ/participate in such a huge cliché! Say something original!

19. “I am inspired by life/the everyday/the world around me”
Erm… who isn’t?

20. “Aspires to being a full-time poet.”
I’m not saying this isn’t possible, but… saying it in your bio just perhaps makes you look a tad naive, is all.

Any poetic words/phrases that make your teeth itch? Are you guilty of any of these? Am I out of order here — is this stuff OK? Comments box ahoy!

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