I'm stumbling out of (or is it through?) my jet-lagged haze to write down some random thoughts about writing poetry. The impetus for this is the recent blog written on the subject by the wonderfully talented, Vanessa Gebbie. You can find it here. In this post she talks about her new pamphlet that will be published by Pighog Press, but also what she has come to understand, and not understand, about the publication of poetry here in the UK (which I have come to understand is different from the US, but that's another post entirely).
1: the pamphlet: I send her huge congratulations on this publication. It's a big deal, to be sure, and I've decided to selfishly give myself a tiny pat on the back about it, too, because I can remember several years ago when Vanessa and I first spent time together at the Anam Cara Writers and Artists Retreat, that I convinced her to start writing poetry. I remember how skeptical she was. She couldn't believe she could do it, but having read some of her prose I knew she could. Which brings me to my first home truth:
It should all be poetry
One of my first writing teachers told me that and I believe it to this day. Setting aside considerations of form, I do believe that any time you sit down to write you should be writing poetry. The sense of cadence, euphony, rhythm should always be there in any sentence. I'm actually going to be teaching that to my own students tomorrow when I address an MPhil class at SOAS on "What Makes Good Writing". Won't they be surprised!
2: Vanessa says: If you are mainly to date a prose writer and have an agent, you do not request said agent to approach publishers of poetry, as I did because it seemed natural. Apparently, the publishers do not like it, and the poet is expected to do the contacting themselves.
This surprised her and she asked for elucidation. All I can say to that is that it is down to economics. Poetry doesn't sell. Sad but true. Unless you are one of a very small handful of "famous" poets, contemporary poetry books do not sell in large enough numbers to allow publishers to pay royalties or advances, and that means that they don't usually want to deal with agents. And anyway, knowing that they are not likely to be paid for their efforts, you have to wonder what agent would be eager to put in the time to try to sell poetry anyway. So poets are expected to approach publishers on their own, and personally, I like this. It sets itself off as a separate literary industry from prose. It creates an immediate connection between the writer and the publisher. And because most poetry publishers are very small enterprises, it creates a sense of "family" amongst the poets which is lovely, indeed. And to that end, I'll now put in a plug for a London reading by two Ward Wood writers, Noel Duffy and Shauna Gilligan who have come down from Dublin to read at the London Irish Centre (50 Camden Square NW1) on Thursday, 7 February at 6.30 pm. They are both wonderful writers, truly critically acclaimed. I urge you to go if you can.
3: Vanessa laments that online publications of poetry don't seem to add up to much in the eyes of poetry publishers, and that to get published you need to build a cv of publication in mainline print magazines. Sad, perhaps, but true. The poetry world is a slow moving one, and in my experience it seems to be somewhat divided between "the young poets" and "the established poets". At one point I thought perhaps young could mean emerging, but actually, I think it means young, as in well under 40. These poets can successfully build a cv around online zines, poetry performances, cabaret appearances, and all sorts of creative, inspiring and jaw droppingly wonderful ways of bringing poetry to the people. But everyone else is expected to have their work fit into the covers of journals, and that means poems that often can be understood in conventional poetic terms. Tradition is important in this world. Actually, it is something I have struggled with, to be honest. Although I have had two collections published (see the photos above and by all means buy them by clicking on the images on the blog's sidebar), my own appearances in magazines have slowed down to a trickle and I sometimes wonder if it is because of the rather personal and sometimes confessional nature of my poetic voice, my use of humour and immediacy. There is also the sense that some people spend their lives thinking about and writing poetry exclusively, whereas I spend as much if not more time working in prose, and those are the poets who earn their places in magazines. Or maybe their poetry is "better". Either way, it is a conundrum to be sure and in my own moments of worrying about it, I just try to remember that the best thing I can do is write the poetry that comes from within me and via my own voice as it sounds to me at the moment of writing (i.e. it does change, you know) and let it rest with that. I think if more of us submitted to all sorts of poetry outlets, either in print, online or onstage, perhaps the poetry world would open up some more, as Vanessa wonders about. Or perhaps not. But if we don't think more about the what than the where, I guess it's our own damn fault -- I'm yelling at myself here!
4: Vanessa ends by saying that it can't hurt to take workshops and learn both about the writing and the editing processes. True that! Poetry is an art particularly suited to training, I think. It is intricate and complicated and diverse and structured and loose and historical and inventive -- who can do it all with equal assurance? Not many. Certainly not me, which reminds me -- it's time I found time to do another workshop sometime.