Posts Tagged ‘resources for writers’

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.

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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]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo by Emchy)

Procrastination Station #120

Friday, April 19th, 2013

u.f.o.

A poem! By Kevin Cadwallender! At Bolts of Silk! A hat-trick of awesome!

I love Kim Addonizio, and this is SO the perfect book cover for her work!

I am so happy to see some of Stephen Nelson’s work over at Fit for Work — an anti-ATOS anthology you should, by the way, really check out.

Have you guys seen the Books and Nerds tumblr? Wall to wall bookish escapism!

The lovely, lovely Chris Scott (who once told me he’d “be the Testino to [my] Diana” if ever I become super famous, and I plan to hold him to it) recently took this brilliant, smiley photo of great poet and great bloke Andrew Philip. I really like it! Chris’ work is generally great. Check out his Author Portraits and his Flickr for more!

Life in Authoring, you totally get me through the day, SRSLY. I also just discovered Life in Publishing and Life in Small Press Publishing and now have so much less free time.

I’m always fascinated when Caustic Cover Critic points out how often the same images are recycled for book covers. Here’s a sad and elegant lady who seems to crop up awfully often…

…and speaking of covers, I just discovered Lousy Book Covers. Part of me feels super sad for the poor authors, but some of these really are lousy.

Is anyone else as into typewriters as me? If so, you should check out clickthing. It is basically typewriter p0rn.

I believe I have mentioned before that I LOVE DAVE COATES’ REVIEWS OF POETRY BOOKS. LOVE them. His review of The Great Billy Letford (as he should always be known) is an absolute cracker. But he’s at his best when bitchy: “poems to be printed on Cath Kidston merchandise.” DOES CRITICISM GET ANY HARSHER? A review to cackle gleefully at.

Apparently, “dear blank” is something EVERYONE has seen now, but it was new to me, and I loved it!

Two Beat Generation tattoos! Ginsberg and Kerouac! I approve! Also, I have been crushing on thigh tattoos lately and love these.

To be serious for a moment: you should probably read more bell hooks.

How much do you wish you’d been at this party?

Adverts are often better “edited” — some great examples here!

I can has one of these?

It wouldn’t be Friday without CAT GIFS!

Have a great weekend!

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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]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

Things I’m Reading Thursday #33

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Remembering What Is Found There

(This post should perhaps be called, ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL READING FOR ALL POETS, GO AND BUY THIS BOOK NOW.)

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As you probably know, I am a huge fan of the great Adrienne Rich, and was truly saddened to hear of her death a few weeks ago. Last Wednesday would have been her 83rd birthday.

I’ve been writing about Rich’s ideas — specifically, her ideas about the lack of a literary tradition for female writers — in my PhD thesis, and so when I was given book vouchers for my recent birthday I decided to spend them, partly, on a Rich-penned collection of essays I’ve been wanting to read for ages:

What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics.

Thanks to my other reading of books by and about Rich, I already knew that she has the uncanny ability to take something you’ve never really thought about — because you thought you understood it — and to make you see it in such a new and different light that you feel your head might turn inside out. That happened so many times for me, with this book. Rich’s writing on the process of creating poetry is also among the best and truest I’ve ever seen from anyone — only Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With The Dead can beat this book for sheer, “yes! That’s exactly what it’s like!” value. Rich is great at taking what you or I might see as guilty little writer’s habits — procrastination, self-doubt, unwillingness to start on a project if we’ve got other things on our minds — and legitimising them, saying “this thing is a necessary part of the writing process and we must embrace it.” From start to finish I was edified — this book made me so happy. It all felt so utterly relevant me, as a poet, as a teacher, as a politicised person. I found myself repeatedly folding over pages to return to later, grabbing my neon-pink highlighter to block-mark huge passages that just made so much sense.

Instead of gushing further, I’ll share just a few of those block-marked passages with you now, and you can see what you think…

On the invisibility of poetry
“Poetry itself, in our national life, is under house arrest, is officially “disappeared.” Like our past, our collective memory, it remains an unfathomed, a devalued, resource. The establishment of a national ‘Poet Laureateship’ notwithstanding, poetry has been set apart from the practical arts, from civic meaning. It is irrelevant to mass ‘entertainment’ and the accumulation of wealth — thus, out of sight, out of mind.” (p. 20)

On why poetry being invisible is a good thing
“And perhaps this is the hope: that poetry can keep its mechanical needs simple, its head clear of the fumes of how ’success’ is concocted in the capitals of promotion, marketing, consumerism, and in particular of the competition — taught in schools, abetted at home — that pushes the ’star’ at the expense of the culture as a whole, that makes people want stardom rather than participation, association, exchange and improvisation with others. Perhaps this is the hope: that poetry, by its nature, will never become leashed to profit, marketing, consumerism.” (p. 40)

On free time as a necessary ingredient in the making of great poetry
“Most of the poets I know, hearing of a sum of money, translate it not into possessions, but into time — that precious immaterial necessity of our lives. It’s true that a poem can be attempted in brief interstitial moments, pulled out of the pocket and worked on while waiting for a bus or riding a train or while children nap or while waiting for a new batch of clerical work or blood samples to come in. But only certain kinds of poems are amenable to these conditions. Sometimes the very knowledge of coming interruption dampens the flicker. [...] Most, if not all, of the names we know in North American poetry are the names of people who have had some access to freedom in time.” (p. 43)

On why the idea of poetry as ‘academic’ is a lie
“It’s a lie that poetry is only read by or ’speaks’ to people in the universities or elite intellectual circles; in many such places, poetry barely speaks at all. Poems are written and absorbed, silently and aloud, in prisons, prairie kitchens, urban basement workshops, branch libraries, battered women’s shelters, homeless shelters, offices, a public hospital for disabled people, an HIV support group. A poet can be born in a house with empty bookshelves. Sooner or later, s/he will need books. But books are not genes.” (p. 206-7)

On good poetry as a rejection of hatred and competitiveness
“To celebrate, to drive off evil, to nourish memory, to conjure the desired visitation. The revolutionary artist, the relayer of possibility, draws on such powers, in opposition to a technocratic society’s hatred of multiformity, hatred of the natural world, hatred of the body, hatred of women and darkness, hatred of disobedience. The revolutionary poet loves people, rivers, other creatures, stones, trees, inseparably from art, is not ashamed of these loves, and for them conjures a language that is public, intimate, inviting, terrifying, and beloved.” (p. 249-50)

Go buy this book.

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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]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

Eavan Boland on inspiration, the writing process, and failure

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Cathedral Quarry, Langdale

“I have never been sympathetic to the idea of inspiration. [...] I always think of myself as working at a rock face. Ninety days out of ninety five, it’s just a rock face. The other five days, there’s a bit of silver, a bit of base metal in it. I’m reasonably consistent and the consistency is a help to me. It helps me stay in contact with my failure rate, and unless you have a failure rate that vastly exceeds your success rate, you’re not really in touch with what you are doing as a poet. The danger of inspiration is that it is a theory that redirects itself towards the idea of success rather than to the idea of consistent failure. And all poets need to have a sane and normalised relationship with their failure rate.”

– Eavan Boland, from Sleeping with Monsters: Conversations with Scottish and Irish women poets, Polygon, 1990.

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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]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)