Archive for April, 2010

Procrastination Station #68

Friday, April 30th, 2010

A rather audio-visual link-love this week!

Great stuff from the Guardian: Literary Edinburgh! // The perils of meeting your favourite authors // Parents should let children choose what they read // Poster poems: dramatic monologue // and a great article on women (writers) with depression

Brilliant book covers

I loved this via Green Ink

An almanac of human emotion…

Hey crafters! 13 craft-show display DOs gave me heaps of ideas.

A conversation Boy and I have all the time.

Flying jellyfish, Batman!

Really looking forward to seeing Jucy!

Now, some poems!

(Yep, I’m a fangirl)

Also… some cuteness! (seriously, I defy you not to go AWWW at some point here!)

& an important message. (plus some nice animation!)

Have a great weekend!

(Photo by Fototastisch)

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Things I’m Reading Thursday #11: poetry contest entries, part two!

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

So last week I spoke a bit about the hundreds of poems I’ve been sifting through in my role as judge for the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Contest — last week I had only just received the hefty envelope and was still feeling rather daunted by the prospect of choosing a winner! Now, however, the winner and two runners up have been chosen, along with three Highly Commended poems and nine others that narrowly missed out on a prize, but which I chose to be published in the magazine alongside the winning pieces.

The results of the contest should go live sometime tomorrow on the Sentinel website, and I’m very excited to see who wrote the pieces I chose. Judging “blind” was actually really hard — I had a lot of anxieties about it. The main one was a worry that I’d award a prize to a poet I know well, and that people would then wonder if the judging had been biased (it really wasn’t. The brilliant Sentinel editor, Nnorom, was very thorough in making sure all the poems looked identical, without any identifying marks). I was also worried about the fact that I didn’t know how many poems each poet had entered, and I was terrified of the prospect of giving 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize to the same person, for example. The first worry was really overpowering — I know a lot of my friends, acquaintances and ONS readers entered poems, and I “know” a LOT of poets, both in real life and online! Every time I came across a line that sounded even vaguely familiar, it was difficult not to start worrying. However, I got over it, and I’m confident that I gave the prizes to the best poems, without being influenced by my anxieties. I’m also confident now that the three prize-winners are all different people — if they aren’t, then the person responsible for the three poems has a deft sleight-of-hand when it comes to switching voice, style and tone!
In fact, the most difficult part of judging “blind” was the fact that I’d never previously realised just how differently you read a poem when you have no idea who wrote it. As part of my undergraduate degree I took an incredibly dull module in Critical Practice, the only highlight of which was a lecture on “blind reading,” given by the brilliant Professor Colin Nicolson. He gave us a Margaret Atwood poem to read, without saying when, where or by whom it was written, and we had to give our impressions of who the author might be, just from reading the text. We were all way, way off. Reading these poems was the same, only on the grand scale. Of course, knowing who wrote a poem doesn’t change it’s quality — it’s still a strong poem, still a poem that needs more work, etc. but you find yourself looking at a poem about, say, childbirth, and thinking “I assume a woman wrote this. But what if it was a man? That would be really interesting.” You develop a bizarre nosiness about the author — the more poems I read, the more I came to disagree with Roland Barthes!

So what about the poems I chose? Well, I obviously can’t reveal their identities before they are announced, but I have written a report on why I chose each and will probably post those reports here in the next couple of days. But I was surprised by some of them — particularly the winning piece. In my first post about the contest I gave a few clues about what I was looking for as a judge — a strong voice, an original take, and “excellent wordsmithery.” The second prize poem had all of these in spades, but the first prize winner was more difficult to analyse. The voice is strong, yes — and well maintained — and the poem is a parody or subversion of a rather tired genre, done well, so it’s also original. But the wording was very simple, as was the conceit. I found that I had given first prize to a funny poem, and that its funniness was key. I realised — from reading so many pieces in the pile that were obviously trying to be funny — that finding a balance between laughs and strong writing is actually really damn hard. The winning poem had an effortlessness to it that made me curse my own tendency to over-think my poems. When a piece makes you look afresh at your own work, makes you think something new about the writing process, that’s a pretty big deal.
Something else that struck me was the weird and wacky nature of a lot of the poems I picked out. I realised that the pieces I liked best were the ones that took risks, found unusual ideas and ran with them, poets unafraid to boldly go (ouch, split infinitive!) where no poet has gone before. I thought I’d built a reasonably clear idea in my head of the kind of thing I was looking for. The poems I whittled down out of the hundreds of entries totally hit that for six. Which is really, really, really cool.

Check back tomorrow to find out who won! In the meantime… what are YOU reading this week?

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Some writing advice… from my gran.

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

My late maternal grandmother was one of those seriously formidable northern women who smoked like a chimney, swore like a stevedore and always called a spade a spade. She also loved to dole out sayings, proverbs and advice like doses of medicine, as so many grandmothers do. I was recently writing a poem about her, and about her propensity for advice-giving, and realised that a lot of her ‘life advice’ also makes pretty good writing advice. See what you think.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
This is a saying all grans use, I think — and plenty of other people besides. But it was the saying that got me thinking about writing this post. Ever since I started taking control of my own future and deciding what to do with my life, this saying has been floating around in the back of my mind, and it’s something all poets need to consider. Basically, don’t think you can rely on poetry to pay your bills — you can’t put all your eggs into poetry’s basket because it just doesn’t have the space! If you’re serious about writing poetry and sticking at it, you need to realise that some of your eggs need to go elsewhere — you’ll probably need to spend some of your time doing something other than writing in order to keep a roof over your head. Sad but true. (More on this here, by the way.)

Fine words will butter no parsnips.
This was a saying my gran was fond of, and one I always found rather weird and confusing as a child! Now I understand how adamant my grandmother was about honesty, plain speaking, and not ‘putting on airs’ — a good attitude to have towards your writing. The voice you use should be your own… all too often I see young poets attempting to emulate their literary heroes and use voices that clearly don’t really belong to them. Don’t use fine words if they’re not yours. Speaking as someone else will do your work no favours.

Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Another popular saying and an obvious one for young writers. The need to progress, get better, get published and get on with it is really strong in less experienced writers — getting a book out into the world as soon as you can seems utterly imperative (I know, I’ve been there myself). But it’s better to take your time and make sure your work is as good as it can be before you start pushing onwards to the next stage. Don’t feel rushed into submitting to magazines if you’ve only written one or two poems you’re properly pleased with; don’t scrape a pamphlet together without making sure you’re totally cool with a) what’s going into it and b) the fact that heaps of people are going to see it. Don’t try and build your poetic Rome in a day. Take it easy.

You’ve been brought up in the bottle and seen nothing but the cork.
My grandmother — like most of the women in my family — was a determined and ambitious woman who didn’t believe in waiting in for opportunity to walk up to the front door and knock. To her, waiting for life to happen to you was not an option. She was all about getting out there into the world and attacking it head-on! For me, this saying suggests that you need to get off your butt and go have some life experiences, particularly if you want to be a half-decent writer. After all, how can you write about life, the universe and everything if you haven’t seen any of it? For me, this also applies to books. If you’ve only ever read one poet’s work or one type of novel, you’ve been brought up in a literary bottle. Get out of there! Get thee to a library!

One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure.
In other words, not everyone is going to like your poetry. There will always be someone who comes along and tries to pick holes in your stuff. Don’t take it personally — take it professionally. Appreciate and accept the criticism. For every reader who comes along and thinks your stuff is rubbish, I guarantee there’ll be another one out there somewhere willing to argue that it’s treasure. If you never stop reading, writing and working to improve your stuff, rubbish ratio should dwindle and shrink in time.

The devil makes work for idle hands.
My gran was always doing something with her hands — a trait I in particular have inherited from her. She was an expert seamstress and made everything from full three-piece suits to wedding dresses; and when she wasn’t rattling up garments on the sewing machine she was knitting, doing embroidery, cooking, assaulting a crossword puzzle, etc. Procrastination just didn’t figure in her universe and I think if you’d explained the concept to her, she’d have given you a lecture on how it was some new-fangled invention that should be done away with. She’s right of course — we’ve all built, bought and acquired so many procrastination devices for ourselves that it’s a wonder we ever get anything done. So next time you’re playing computer games or vegging in front of the TV, think — idle hands. Pick up a pen and paper. Write instead.

I’d be interested to hear your handy sayings and proverbs, particularly if you relate them to writing… but I’d also be interested in hearing about your grandmothers! I think grandmothers are the coolest — they should run the world!

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Procrastination Station #67

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Links I’ve loved this past (few) week(s)…

Loads of gold from the Guardian Books Blog lately: book graffiti ftw // Margaret Atwood’s (brilliant) thoughts on Twitter // an interview with Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie // Philip Pullman on The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (which I am SO getting as soon as it’s out in paperback!) // is masturbation literature’s last taboo? // and an unusual poetry workshop from Alan Brownjohn

The verdict on James Franco’s short fiction…

You have to watch this brilliant stop-motion on “letting out the creative beast”!

Good writers. Bad men. Brilliant article.

Great writers, their drugs of choice, and the works they wrote while under the influence…

A poem by Billy Collins that I hadn’t seen before.

Carol Ann Duffy’s poetic response to That Volcano.

Are these poems? Social commentary? Oversized post-its? Whatever they are, they fit the procrastination theme!

What ONS friends and readers have been up to this week: Emily Smith was featured at Bolts of Silk // Stephen Nelson has a chapbook out! Buy it here! // former Featured Poet Eric Hamilton has a Youtube channel for his music videos; check it out! // a new piece from Kerri Ni Dochartaigh // Cassandra posted this great poem over at Ophelia Blooming // & I was interviewed by the very cool E. Kristen Anderson on everything from tattoos to Tom Waits

Check out the Museums at Night animation contest winners. All so cool!

Cool typography at

I really, really, really want to visit this place.

How Doc Martens are made.

A handy .gif showing the spread of the Icelandic ash cloud over Europe…

…and some fascinating photos of the ash cloud/eruption from The Big Picture.

An amazing dress made entirely from newspaper!

Fabulous pin-up tattoo.

& finally… the great Gregory Corso gets animated

A poem for geeks everywhere:

and I may have posted this before, but I love this creepy typewriter short…

Have a great weekend!

(Image by nicolebindewald)

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Things I’m Reading Thursday #10: poetry contest entries!

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Yes, I’m still alive! I took a bit of a break from ONS over Easter, as I was away chasing the Muse in Wordsworth country. But now I’m back and normal service will (hopefully) be resumed!

You may remember that a while ago I was asked to judge the Sentinel Literary Quarterly’s latest poetry competition, which closed at the end of last month. Hopefully some of you entered! Well, this week my reading has been mostly dominated by sifting through the hundreds of anonymous contest entries. The results won’t be announced til next week, and I’m still working on my final decision, but it’s been such a fascinating process that I thought I’d share my initial thoughts (as a judge, but also just as a reader) with you here… hopefully it’ll be helpful to those of you entering contests in the near future!

When I was first faced with the huge pile of contest entries (hundreds and hundreds — the response was pretty amazing), I thought I’d be fine. I assumed that two years at the helm of Read This Magazine had prepared me for anything, that I’d seen the best and worst that poetry could throw at me, and that the judging process would just be something like a particularly large chunk of magazine submissions — the only difference being that I was going it alone, without the help of my editorial team, which I felt shouldn’t be too difficult. I was pretty much totally wrong on all of these counts.

Firstly, the process so far has made me value my assistant Read This editors, past and present, in a whole new way. When you’re faced with a huge swathe of poems that could all easily be called “good” or “strong” but couldn’t really be called “great” or “outstanding,” it’s so useful to have five other people to bounce your thoughts off in order to pare down the list. I was also wrong in thinking that, like with Read This submissions, a good 75%-80% of the poems would be quite easy to put into the “no” pile, for whatever reason. In fact, I ended up pulling out hundreds of those aforementioned “good” poems and feeling rather lost as to how to choose between them.

Don’t get me wrong, I did soon build up a sizeable slush pile… and I suspect that this is what you’re all secretly interested in. There are various things a poem can do to trigger my “just no!” response, which of course includes going over the 40-line limit (apparently you’re either within the limit, or you’re WAY over it. Very few people came in at 42 lines, for example) and containing offensive, graphic or unsuitable material (I do have quite an open mind about this stuff, I promise… it’s relatively easy to fly under my prudish-ness radar, but there has to be a limit). Mostly though, it’s clichés that get my goat. If you can’t think of anything more free than a bird or more blue than the sky, chances are you’re not going to get too far. But there were weird recurring ideas too — I was really surprised (and eventually just wearied), for example, by the numbers of poems that used a flower or flowers as a metaphor for, um, lady parts. The number of poems about sex (and the number of weird and wonderful extended metaphors used to describe it) really threw me, in fact. I’m left wondering if I’m naive… are all poets secretly Byronic sex-maniacs and I just didn’t know?
There were also a lot of poems about black souls and bleeding hearts… something I had been prepared for by submissions to Read This. Don’t get me wrong, depression is a serious issue and one that certainly can and should be explored via creative writing. However, all too often “depression” is actually just short hand for self-indulgence and wallowing; spilling your anguished thoughts/words/tears onto the page under a full moon while some suspicious-looking ravens flap overhead etc. But mostly, the thing that unites the majority of the poems in my “no” pile is the fact that their authors have obviously read very little (if any) in the way of decent poetry. You can tell when someone’s writing an imitation of what they think a poem should be from fifty paces. It’s my favourite old chesnut, but reading really is the key to good writing.

My main problem now is all these poems I’m left with — each of them undeniably “good”, but none of them particularly leaping out at me as better than any of the others. There are loads of them — some that are a nice idea, but linguistically not that interesting; others that have flashes of wordy genius, but don’t really work as a whole… etc. None of them deserve to be dismissed out of hand, but none are leaping out and grabbing me by the throat, as a truly great poem really should. Fortunately though, I have been able to build a (small) pile of Instant Yes! poems, too. It’s much harder to analyse these than the “just no” poems or the “just good” poems… they’re slippery and sparkly as fish. Maybe once I’ve picked a winner, I’ll be able to say more. Watch this space…

What are you reading this week? Get thee to the comments box!

(Photo by Atomic Citrocity)

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Procrastination Station # 66

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Links of love!

First up, thank you SO MUCH to the lovely Emily of Sparkbright Magazine for writing this piece on me!

Sage advice on dealing with writers, by Neil Gaiman’s assistant

Poster poems: Easter

I just discovered the Dear Me blog, where you can write a letter to your past self.

OMG Sir Christopher Lee reads Jabberwocky!

I recommend you read Young Dawkins’ The Lilac Thiefreviewed here in The Skinny

This is a damn cool idea.

What ONS friends and fans have been up to this week…
Howie Good appeared at Bolts of Silk // So did Regina C Green! // Juliet Wilson posted a sweet Spring haiku // Mairi Sharratt spoke about writing and dyslexia at Dyslexic Brain // McGuire posted some new brilliance // I was selected for the latest issue of Anything Anymore Anywhere // I forgot to thank PoetHound for blogging about my contest-judging (thanks PH!) // Jim Murdoch blogged about his experiences working with myself and thiscollection — thanks Jim!

A blog of groovy letterhead designs

Thin priviledge: an interesting essay/comments debate…

I really like these rainy, grainy flea-market photos

Steampunk PC-typewriter! Be still, my beating heart! (thanks, Sally E!)

I LOVE this photo of Gabourey Sidibe!

Zana Bayne = style icon

& finally…


I want to be able to do this!

Bobby McFerrin is super-cool.

Happy Easter weekend, everyone!

(Image via Peterodevon)

Don’t forget to visit The Read This Store, and its sister store, Edinburgh Vintage!

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Things I’m Reading Thursday #9

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

As I begin this post, my clock is saying 23:27… so the chances of me actually managing to post this before Thursday is out are slim to none. And to add insult to injury… I haven’t actually read anything this week that didn’t appear in last week’s post. I finished the first first-year thesis draft, though, so hopefully I can get back to reading things I want to read rather than things I have to. So because I have nothing new to tell you this week, I thought I’d share some books from my to-read list (aka, Amazon Wishlist!)… so if you’ve read any of them, please do tell me what you thought!

A Disaffection, or actually pretty much anything else by James Kelman
I first discovered James Kelman in my second year of undergrad, when I was given this really damn weird book called The Burn to read for class. As an impressionable young twenty year old, I had never come across anything like it before — it totally blew me away. A couple of years later, I decided to read How Late It Was, How Late, and again, I was just totally overwhelmed by how brilliant it was — it’s now one of my all-time favourite novels. I’ve also dipped in and out of Kelman’s collection of essays And The Judges Said…, but for ages now I’ve been meaning to get back to reading his novels. A Disaffection has been recommended to me, but then so have all his books. It seems he just can’t write a bad one. Anyone have a favourite? Is there a particularly obvious one to read next?

Paint it Black by Janet Fitch
I basically just want to read this book because I loved Fitch’s White Oleander… you know the one, huge bestseller, Oprah’s Book Club recommendation, made into a freaking awful movie, etc. I really DID NOT want to like that book, trust me. But it was recommended to me by a friend who reads A LOT and has never yet suggested a book to me that I didn’t come to absolutely love, so I read it, against my own better judgement. It is annoyingly brilliant — huge bestseller for a reason, Oprah’s Book Club pick for a reason. I actually did something with White Oleander that I’ve never done with any novel before or since: immediately after I finished it, I read it again, cover-to-cover. I have no idea why, to this day, as the language is sticky with metaphors and the snippets of poetry Fitch writes into the narrative are genuinely horrendous. But I was compelled, to the point where it unnerved me! So I want to see if Paint It Black can live up to its predecessor.

Dorothy Parker’s Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos ed. Kim Addonizio, Cheryl Dumesnil
If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time you’ll know I have a slightly unhealthy interest in body art… I even edited a book about it myself! I also love Kim Addonizio, so I’ve been wanting to buy this book for bloody ages. Worth it, tattoo fans?

With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E Grant
I know it’s a huge student-y, Brit-hipster cliché to list Withnail & I among your favourite films, but tough, I do. It’s one of the funniest films ever made, and one of the best, so there. Also it features a youthful and lovely Paul McGann, which is an obvious bonus. I’ve already read Kevin Jackson’s Modern Classics take on the movie (which is really damn good, by the way), but I’ve heard that With Nails is brilliant, so it’s been on my wishlist for ages. Anyone else as much of a geek as me? Read it?

Hey, it’s 23:58! I made it!

What are you reading this week? What’s at the top of your to-read list?

(Photo by Kharied)

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