Blog Jest

That’s what my mother used to say, especially on a Sunday: today we have jests for lunch.

So this week I was a jest on Anthony Wilson’s blog, the first time I have ever jested on another person’s site. So that’s my blogging juice used up for this week and I refer you to that place to read about Andrew Waterhouse, a poet alive in my head though not on the planet. 

But while you’re here, if you haven’t already noticed, there’s a whole bit of HappenStance website now dedicated to How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published.You see it from the main page in a tab at the top highlighted with a little red star. Click here and you zip to another page which is effectively an advert (designed to restore HappenStance‘s fortunes while doing something useful). But it’s also more than an advert.

There’s another toolbar to the right of this new page, which takes you to various pages with useful links. There could be more.

I’m hoping for comments. And suggestions. I can add more information here. I can do ‘yes buts’. I can do ‘what ifs’. I can highlight relevant news.

New publishers, or publishers doing new things, please alert me to your activities. I can add a ‘new publishers’ tab.

In How (Not) to, there’s a chapter about thinking outside the book, or the box, or whatever you’re currently thinking inside.

Talking of which there was a lovely article in Ghana Web this week about the rise of poetry in Ghana and particular a new book of haiku by Celestine Nudanu. It was an delightful piece in a number of ways. I liked the bit about haiku being ‘laden with a lot of aesthetics, a challenge that discourages less passionate Haiku authors from writing’.

But best of all I liked the opportunity for performer poets. According to Deputy Minister of Tourism, Culture and Creative Arts, Dzifa Abla Gomashie, there is a steady rise of spoken word and poetry in Ghana and in recent times ‘many young people’ have been ‘invited to perform the art to break the monotony of speeches upon speeches when events are organised’. I take these to be political speeches. I do hope so. Because she even noted that ‘this is an avenue for the youth to earn some decent money while they also express themselves creatively’.

I can see a whole new opportunity at the next Labour Party Conference in September. It would certainly make a change.







It’s personal.

If you send poems to someone you hope might publish them, it’s not a business transaction. It’s not professional, no matter how professionally you go about the task.



There may be no response. Manuscripts are returned (though not by me) with nothing but a standard slip. Even that feels (though it is not) personal.

Your poems matter. If you write something and you call it a ‘poem’, that’s tantamount to saying the words matter to you more than ordinarily.

So if the person you send it to, reads the poem and replies, it’s a relationship. The reader has responded to a communication you didn’t make lightly. And whatever poems are, they are communications, and a communication is incomplete without a response, preferably while the writer is still alive.

But hell, it’s a difficult relationship. The response is delayed, and it’s probably not what the writer hoped for. It often shows the communication didn’t ‘work’.

Or the response may be heart-warming. A sense of something understood at least partially. An echo in the darkness.

And yet (although I regularly tell poets to be wary of the word ‘yet’, especially towards the end of poems) all this is muddied by the business of publishing. The publishing thing gets in the way. The person on the other end, the publishing person who is in this case me, has a kind of power they have taken on themselves. They can say, ‘yes I would like to publish some of your poems’ or ‘no, I am really too busy just now.’

When I was a child, and then a young person, and wrote poems readily, I always took my creations to my mother. The writing, when I was in its thrall, was all-consuming. But once that intensity had passed and I thought the poem was finished, I was absolutely desperate for her to read it.

I would rush to her with my poem, which seemed to me more important than anything else in the world. She was invariably too busy. She was up to the elbows in flour, or pinning washing on the line, or writing an important letter, or drawing up a shopping list. She would put it away for later. Sometimes ‘later’ was days away.

I wonder whether she was really all that busy. Perhaps my demand was too intense. It’s hard to read and respond when a little face is scrutinizing you and waiting, waiting, waiting for the reaction.

She did always read them in the end, bless her, though sometimes she must have been sorely taxed by their contents. But her gentle response, when it came, couldn’t match the intensity with which I’d brought my offering.

Poems are intense. They turn on themselves like endless circles. When you get to the end, you’re directed right back to the beginning. They are the inside of a person opened out, whether or not that’s what they look like. I know this, even when I write comments about syntax and semi-colons, and metaphors that might be pruned.

When I read yours, a lot hinges on one particular thing. Does the poem bite? The ones I like do. They get their little teeth in and won’t let go.

If I think there’s an energy in the poem that could be better harnessed, I try to explain how that might happen. But I’m not your mother, and I don’t know, not really.

And the relationship is not how it seems. It is more equal than you think. I am on your side. Most of the time, I am just another poet waiting for a poem worth writing. All the power I have as a publisher is notional. Anyone can start publishing.

We are both weaklings in the face of this thing we call poetry. I’m reading your submissions in the hope you’ll explain it to me.

But only till Tuesday, when the window shuts. If it doesn’t shut, I don’t have time to do any of the other things, and the washing, the baking, the cleaning and the ironing are waiting. And I have a few dozen letters to write.

Now dear, as my mother would have said, do go and read Anthony Wilson on why and how poetry is good for you. This impulse to write it isn’t anything to do with getting published. It’s about the truth and insight and energy and healing in the process. And taking part in that is a marvellous thing.

Stuff publishing.




Maybe. It worked for Sharon Olds, for example, with Stag’s Leap, winner of this year’s T S Eliot prize.

Anyway, Olds thinks themed. “When I see that I have a lot of poems clustering around a subject, I start to put a book together,” she says in the Huffington Post.

But other poets also do well this way, and the theme doesn’t have to be personal.  Joanna Boulter’s Twenty Four Preludes & Fugues on Dmitri Shostakovich was shortlisted for the Forward First Collection prize in 2007. Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities (a kind of theme) was the 2002 winner. Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road ( a sequence of poems responding to Hiroshige’s woodcut prints of landscapes and travellers of the Tokaido Road) took the Aldeburgh First Collection prize, and was shortlisted for Forward as well. Of all Ruth Padel’s books, Rembrandt Would Have Loved You is the one I remember best, and that’s because it tells a story. Hannah Lowe’s Chick, released this year (and described as “a journey round her father”) tells another one (I predict thematic focus will assist its success). Anthony Wilson’s Riddance, which I wrote about here not long ago, pinned me to my seat not least because it deals with the progress of his treatment for cancer “from initial diagnosis to the uncertain territory of remission.”

Plenty of contemporary collections work in this way (although more are not themed). Whether it works or not depends on the synergy. For a true humdinger, the whole has to be more than the sum of the individual poems.

Reading a poetry book is an odd thing to do. Unlike chapters in a novel, which propel the reader forward, each poem demands its own island of time and concentration. The reader moves slowly from one intensity of experience to another (or skims from one text to the next deciding where to immerse). Some kind of connection does make it easier. Oh dear. Even in using the word ‘easier’, I felt a momentary sense of guilt. Is wanting it to be easy allowed?

I think sometimes a set of poems is easy, pleasurable reading. And yes, I think that’s okay. If they’re any good, there will be levels of meaning and intensity that creep up quietly and summon the reader back. And occasionally, if there’s a theme, they’ll accumulate to do something as a set that they might not accomplish individually.

Which brings me to a new HappenStance pamphlet. Officially launched next Saturday (her wedding day), Diana Gittins’ Bork! is a sequence of poems connected by . . . chickens. It isn’t a light verse collection, though there’s lightness in it. Diana keeps hens and, as every poulterer knows, their lives have preoccupations, triumphs and tragedies parallel to our own. Diana didn’t set out to write about the hens, but her writing space (a ‘shack’ in the garden) is in their territory. So this sequence represents – not a poet deliberately writing to a theme, so much as a theme that encroached while she was trying to write something else (in one poem, for example, the hens interrupt her reading of Prynne).

In Diana’s first submission to me, well over a year ago, the chicken poems were mingled with others, many of them interesting and worthy, but it was in the Bork! pieces I sensed synergy. So I asked for more.

I love these chicken poems. I wonder whether you’ll agree. Bork! is in the shop now. For the modest outlay of just over a fiver (including postage) you can sample the synergy.