Rodents through the window

Forget horses. Today it is wasps and rats.

The less lovely things in life can be the best inspirations. But the isle of Iona has popped up three times too, and Iona is gorgeous.

The leaning verbs are still leaning. I think I may be making it a bit of a mission to prop them up. Or bring them down − whichever metaphor grabs you.

Honestly, some great poems today.

Among its other virtues, poetry bears witness. Real things that happened and can’t unhappen. The grain of things. Seen as they were seen. 



It was difficult getting the window to shut. Several envelopes were stuck in the hinges. But it has shut now.

Thank you! Thank-you to the writers who trusted me with their poems. It’s not an easy thing to expose your work to a critical reader, especially one who comments on verbs that are leaning, lines that are breaking and sonnets that are creaking. And towards the end that reader was very tired.

There are other thank-yous. If you spend a whole month reading like this, very little else can be done. So the ordinary functions of the press grind to a halt, which is risky. But many readers humbled me with their generosity before Christmas. They ordered publications, they sent donations, they sent stamps, they sent love. This secret fuel is amazing.

The window won’t open again in the same way. This was the apex, the peak, the nirvana of poetry reading. In May 2015 (still difficult not writing 2014) HappenStance will be ten years old. I will be nearly 62. And I plan to change things. How? Not quite sure yet.

But poets mainly create themselves. There will be, and always have be, people to whom making poems is important. Creating readers of poetry is harder. That’s what I’m working on.

Watching my fiendish work over the last weeks, more than one friend has said, ‘Why don’t you charge?’ Of course I have thought about this. The money, if some people paid for feedback, could be reinvested in the press. If payment were required, it would reduce the numbers dramatically. I haven’t ruled it out.

Still, I’ve a deep fear of poetry that’s by the privileged for the privileged. I am on the side of the garret and the baked potato. I am on the side of it is more blessed to give than receive. I believe, ridiculously, enough money will always arrive. So far, it has. Though only just.


Now here’s the ‘window’ analysis. I love figures.

162 poets sent in work. More than twice as many as the previous December. They sent between 1 and 29 poems, but it would average about 10 each. Most of them remembered the stamped addressed envelope. About 1600 poems, then.

Of these poets 107 were female and 55 were male.

I can’t comment on age range because I don’t ask people about that, though they sometimes tell me, but my unstatistical impression is that three-quarters were over 50 and only about 4 were under 25.

Nearly all the poets who sent poems were (hooray!) HappenStance subscribers. 17 were not. But they might yet be. I am an optimist.

About 30 took out a subscription just before sending poems in. (This is good if they also go on to buy publications, because it suggests they’re active readers. If they don’t buy anything subsequently, the postal subscription makes a loss).


  • 34 in Scotland
  • 3 in Wales
  • 2 in Ireland
  • 115.5 in England (of which 23.5 were in or near London)

as well as

  • 1 in Isle of Man
  • 1 in Sweden
  • 1 in Canada
  • 1 in Spain
  • 3.5 in France

I hope those numbers add up. This is me, not a spreadsheet talking.

I took 47 pages of (secret) notes. Most ever. These include notes on the bio, brief comments on the poems, and also comments on my comments and the experience of reading. Up to now I’ve done this by hand in large books, but this time I did it on the laptop because the books go back nine years and are hard to search. Many poets assume I’ll remember what they previously told me about themselves. I don’t. I get my Marys and Chris-es confused.

88 poets sent in poems for the first time, just over half. I rewrote the printed reply notes three times.

The level of guilt on my part was at 88% (I made that figure up. It means high). That’s because I made hardly any offers. I agreed to do two debut pamphlets in Spring 2016 (2015 was already ‘full’) but both authors already knew an offer was coming.

Normally I would have offered to do more in 2016. Two things stopped me.

First, it was the volume of poetry. It overwhelmed me. Second, I was astonished by how many possible debut poets, sending for the second, third or fourth time (so I was recognising poems I knew and loved), clearly merited publication in the next two years. I highlighted a group of 24 who fitted into this category. Twenty-four! If I did nothing else from now till 2017, I couldn’t manage that.

Fortunately, other things will happen for most of these poets. They’ll either win one of the competitions (as many who’ve send poems to me have done already) or find another publisher. I hope they’re all on the qui vive, spotting what’s going on in the sector, and which new imprints might be worth approaching. In the first three of four years of a new publishing business, a publisher is actively looking for new, good poets. After ten years, what she needs is not poets but readers. Or even better, poet-readers.

But also it’s important not to keep on doing the same thing in the same way, even if that thing has gone well up to now. Creativity thrives on change.

Also there’s Chapter Nine of the HappenStance Story to be written, three pamphlets urgently needing attention, StAnza tickets to buy, two new books nudging my collar, and the other 13 items on my list. And I had better get dressed.

Thank-you again. Huge thank-you. Thank you poets, blog readers and poetry buyers and supporters. You are not a vast community, in Harry Potter terms, but individually and en masse, you are . . . supercalifragelisticexpialidocious.



The shortest day. Losing the plotamus.


No, not really. That was just to get your attention. Well, it was the shortest day yesterday – but also an absolute beauty in this neck of the woods. Bright, brilliant sunshine and December gleaming for all it was worth.

But someone probably noticed I didn’t blog last week. This was because I had disappeared under the mountain of tasks, partly a result of Christmas, and partly Other Things.

Meanwhile, the submission envelopes were stacking up alarmingly, and arriving faster than I could open them. In the middle of all the December mayhem, it’s calming to sit and read poems from real people. But it’s been hard getting proper time to do that.  I’m one of those people who slows down if pressure builds up. I slow down and go on longer, and dream about hippopotami (at least I did last night).

And although – yes – I do love poetry and language and all that stuff, I’m also endlessly analytical. I’ve never understood why I write what I call ‘poems’, let alone anyone else. So I constantly try to work out what’s going on and how it’s happening in the here and now, which is different from any other time as well as similar to every other time.b2ap3_thumbnail_PILE-OF-MS.jpg

In last year’s December window, 77 sets of poems arrived. This year, so far, there have been 115 by post and 7 electronically, because the new online sub allows people to send up to 5 by email.

However, the online sub is now in a dodgy situation because of a new European Union VAT rule that comes into place in January. This requires the seller (me) to apply the VAT of the home country of the buyer to any digital sale. And then, obviously, to pay the appropriate sum to the tax revenue agents of the requisite country, thus making the small amount of income even smaller, and the time required to do it even greater. Insane.

But that’s just more plodding for the hippopotamiss. Meanwhile, I’m reading the poems people have sent. I was a bit worried that the online people would try to discuss the feedback with me – by email. I can’t do that because I don’t have time, even though if I were the poet, I know I would feel I wanted to explain what the sixteenth stanza meant too. But most of the poets have been admirably restrained.

Back to the postal ones, which are still arriving. And the reading.

I’m interested in the forms and shapes. It’s what I see first. What shape the poem is on the page. I flick through the set. If they’re all similar in appearance, I wonder if the poet writes all her poems that shape. To me, the shape of the poem is part of the form of the poem, which is (if the thing is a humdinger) inextricably tied up with what the poem is saying/meaning. This indefinable business of it all coming together is part of the magic. If it works, it’s astounding. And rare.

When poems are divided up into neat chunks: couplets or triplets or quatrains, that’s okay. It looks nice. It looks like a pattern, and I like patterns. If I get to the third stanza and find myself wondering why the poem’s in quatrains, it usually means it hasn’t ‘hooked’ me. Because although I am, self-confessedly, analytical, I know I’m not supposed to be analysing the stanza format while reading.

Similarly, I hate the way I go on about sentence structure or syntax. I really do. But often I get lost in the opening sentence by line three. This can happen for all sorts of reasons, not least using a sequence of words in which each one could, for a moment, be either a noun or a verb or an adjective. Something like this:

Frost walks break, cooling, and again

seasons hope open before the wheelbarrow
that peril jacks here catching all the attention! Oh I know
confusion purposes this.

Of course that was an extreme example because anyone would find it confusing. But you see my point. When you read ‘Frost walks break’, you’re not sure whether ‘walks’ or ‘break’ is the verb. Same with ‘hope’ and ‘open’.

I often draw attention to a difficulty in finding a finite verb. Oh hopping hippopotami – what is this, an English lesson? Using the term ‘finite verb’ is a short cut. I mean the bit of the verb that’s clearly attached to the subject of the sentence, the bit that completes a statement. Verb = doing/being word, right? With a finite verb, the doing/being gets done. With bits of verbs, like participles, the doing isn’t finished so you get a sentence fragment, or non-grammatical sentence. Like this:

Moving into the sun again, and coming
back and not knowing, even then, which
way the sun, the
setting sun, the falling sun.

There’s no finite verb in that group of lines. This doesn’t mean the lines are wrong. It means there’s an interesting, displaced, floating effect. No finite verb means no position in time. I could put a finite verb in, of course, and everything would change, though not necessarily for the better:

Moving into the sun again, and coming
back and not knowing, even then, which
way the sun, the
setting sun, the falling sun was going.

All the same, when reading the second version, you feel you (sort of) know where you are. You’re in the past, for a start, even though the action is fluid. But in that first sentence, the lack of a finite verb is more taxing for the reader. And that’s without even mentioning the line breaks.

Line breaks are just another poetry trick. They can accomplish all sorts of things and this is part of the fun. But they’re also little barriers, positioned deliberately. They create tiny hitches in the rhythm, or the sense, or the flow of meaning. If those tiny hitches become major snags – because you can’t see where the central thread’s going – that’s a problem, unless the poem is (in some sense or other) about confusion. Which, just to confuse the hippopotamuse further, it might be.

There are poems that manage one single sentence across three six-line stanzas. Gerry Cambridge has just sent a beauty on his Christmas card. When this works (as it did in Gerry’s case) it is a joy. In such an instance the reader glides securely through the poem like a skier in perfect snow, and then goes back and does the whole thing again. And again. Just for the pleasure of it.

But so often it doesn’t work. Many poets seem afraid to write short sentences. I suspect there’s an unconscious sense that poems shouldn’t seem easy. If they were easy to understand at first reading, would they be poems?

Well, yes. They might well be poems. Poems can do anything. Short, long, convoluted, crazy.

On balance, though, I think it’s good to keep the reader with you, at least until she gets to the end. If she falls off her skis in the middle, she may never get back on. Or she may get onto a different poem.

In my perilous feedback to poets, I’ve been doing the usual thing of drawing attention to ‘leaning verbs’, because their proliferation is still astonishing. I was amused to see the ‘Blind Criticism’ example in this month’s issue of The North has one at the very end, which puts the author (I won’t give her away) smartly into the contemp-po box. And you can see it isn’t a bad thing. But there’s something familiar about it. It’s not, to my mind, the best thing. Because the best thing is not quite like anything you’ve read before.

It’s also possible that I’m losing it. Yes, plot lost. Hippoplotamus lostus. If you read a huge quantity of poems, you can’t miss the recurring trends. You can’t fail to see how often the word ‘heft’ pops up. Poor ‘heft’. Used as a verb, it was once singular and different. Not now. Lottaheftamus.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Hippopotamus_001.jpgAnd the number of poems that follow the ‘then’ and ‘but now’ format! And the number of lines beginning with my least favourite word,‘as’. Not to mention the ubiquity of ‘we were stood’ or ‘we were satamus’, which causes me physical pain.

Sometimes I think it’s a good thing to be exquisitely sensitive to language and phrasing. Sometimes I know it’s not.

Here’s the list of contemp-po features that have been smacking me in the eye over the last ten days. I’ve modified a little since the last time round, where there was more illustration of the last two, so if you want to know more about what I meant, follow the link:

  • lots of‘I’ plus present tense: ‘I see’ and ‘I watch’ and ‘I think
  • disappearing subjects (verb with no ‘I’ or ‘he’ or ‘you’)
  • poems in couplets
  • entire poem based on one metaphor (sometimes it works)
  • over-mixed metaphor (crossed logics)
  • death by adjectives
  • a lot of cross-stanza enjambment
  • colons, semi-colons and dashes that don’t (for me) do much
  • long sentences that lose the reader
  • multiple statements lacking finite verbs
  • sentences or stanzas starting ‘And’ and ‘But’
  • first few lines dead (no bite) or hard to follow
  • titles with a witty (?) double meaning
  • title steals thunder of the best (last?) line or phrase
  • numerous ‘as’ sentences (see blog 26.05.2011)
  • anaphora structure (eg each line begins ‘because’)
  • the last word of the last line is ‘love’
  • the word ‘yet’ flags an epiphany (resist! resist!)
  • the word ‘for’ meaning ‘because’
  • then, followed a few lines later by suddenly (regrettable in prose, let alone poetry)
  • perplexing line breaks, which is nearly but not quite as bad as
  • line breaks on ‘significant’ word like ‘break’ or ‘turn’ or ‘over’
  • a rhyme at, or very near, the end, but none anywhere else
  • no punctuation, and then some suddenly arrives
  • the ‘leaning verb thing’
  • the ‘how’ and ‘the way’ clause repetition
  • line breaks sometimes serves as a pause (no comma) but other line breaks are enjambed so the line break isn’t a pause at all and it all gets . . . difficult
  • poems that only fit comfortably on a page at least A4 in size
  • ‘I was sat under a tree’; ‘we were stood by the bar’—contemporary usage that works conversationally but sits uneasily in formal writing (so sez Nellie and see OxfordWords blog on this)
  • scant awareness of assonance – one of the best tricks in the book. Maybe even the best.

Back to the envelopes now. Oh, one last word. Some nice people have deferred sending poems, they tell me, because they don’t want me to be overburdened. But theirs could be the ones I would like most. I know I can’t keep this up forever. By next December, there may not be a window at all. So send them now while the hippo muse is still (relatively) amusing and before the postamus crumbles. Hip, hip, hurrotamus!



In December, there were 77 submissions or, in the end, 76, because one turned out to be the same one twice.

Reading and responding took all of January, between completing Chapter 7, designing new flyers and negotiating with the bank. The standard of the poetry inside the envelopes was horribly good. Horribly, because the likelihood of my offering to do a publication becomes more and more evanescent, even for good poets. I can only do so many.

Some poets make their first approach with little awareness of how it does (or doesn’t) work. It’s not their fault. A well-known poet has recommended they approach me (they will tell me who this person is) and they hope the endorsement will make a difference. It doesn’t make a difference.

I read each submission carefully and write things in pencil on and around the poems. As time goes on, I get less polite. I know I’m dispensing liberal doses of disappointment. Who wants to be a professional disappointer? The awful truth is that what I really want them to do is buy the poetry I have already published, not give me more of the stuff to market and sell. (It is so hard selling poetry. They have no idea.)

And yet, I love the poetry I have published. I really do. My enthusiasm isn’t feigned. Who would not want more things to love?

So I read the poems. Do I love what’s in front of me? How much do I love it? Do I love it enough to add it to the already impossible challenge in front of me?

Probably not. It’s the same for everyone who reads poetry. For every poem you love and copy out, there are hundreds you can live without.

Even as I scribble insults about the poem’s punctuation, sentence structure, mixed metaphor and line breaks, I know my view is just one view. But it’s a very particular one. Out of all the new submissions, I may offer to do a publication for one. I can’t afford, in time or money, more than that. (I can’t even afford that.) It has to be one that’s not only strong, but also as different as possible from anything I’ve done before.

And still there are a whole set of people here with individual poems I like very much. I’m glad to read them. In response to some of them, I could write pages, although lack of time prevents that. I hope some of my responses may prove useful to these people and perhaps win them opportunities elsewhere (the pamphlet competitions are useful in developing sets of strong work, I think, irrespective of winning).

The breakdown this year was as follows:

Already HappenStance subscribers, so know at least a bit about the press


First submission

Currently working on a promised publication, so sending poems towards that

Second, third or more approach (this normally means I have been encouraging)



45 (c 60%)







Number of new firm offers made: 1.

Not everyone makes an approach hoping I’ll do a pamphlet (it helps to know people’s ambitions). Some just send a dozen poems for feedback, which is fine. Many of them are now wonderfully professional: they have read the submission guidelines and followed them, and the dos and don’ts, so there are no immediate barriers.

So far, I’ve published more men than women, and I would like to change that. However, I getmore poems from women than men. I don’t know what conclusion to draw about this.

I don’t make publication offers on first submission. I might express an interest or a strong interest. Sometimes I tell poets they’re so good they don’t need me: they should be winning a competition outright. Some of them go on to do just that. It helps if people know my antipathy for villanelles, sestinas, pantoums, ekphrastic poems, ‘after’ poems, and dedications.

I am presentation-sensitive. I prefer single spacing (it’s in the guidelines). I prefer a size of font similar to what I would put in a pamphlet (roughly a 12 in Word) so I can visualize the poem on a page. I like the name and address of the author on each sheet. I expect the font to be consistent: all 12 poems same font and same size. (Often poets present their work dramatically differently from page to page.)

Some poets have interestingly graphical pieces with elaborate spacing patterns and designs. Mainly they present these on an A4 sheet, forgetting that books or pamphlets work to A5 (some presses use a larger format; this one doesn’t).

Increasingly, I have submissions from poets who have just finished, or are in process of finishing, MLitts or PhDs, for which they have completed a set of poems. These have been praised and now they want to publish them. Oh dear. I would look at a set of poems differently were I assessing the achievement for that particular person than I would when considering them for publication. Getting things published is not the same as writing them well. Writing them well comes first – of course it does – but after that, there’s more. Have any of the poems appeared in good quality magazines? (I expect this.) Has the poet started to build a readership? (I don’t mean their tutors or fellow students.) Has the person thought carefully about pamphlet publications and how they work? Why does the person want to be published at all?

And so I go on to dispense various kinds of disappointment. I am increasingly nervous of the phenomenon I call ‘Contemp Po’ and so I flag it when I see it. Every age has its own Contemp Po features, tricks that seem innovative at the time but quickly become passé. We absorb these features unconsciously. (Every age also has poetry that is timeless: it could work in any age and for any reader.)

When we write poetry, we instinctively reach for something that makes it not prose, a register or a method that confirms for us: This is a Poem. Some people find it in formal conventions (rhyme and metre); others find it in a particular rhythmic vernacular (writing in Scots, or a local dialect). There are many ways.

The ‘line break’ is the major indicator of ‘poem’ for those writing free-ish verse, but line break alone is unlikely to suffice. Sensitivity to sound patterns is just as important. By this I mean assonance (vowel sounds echoing each other), and also the sound trail through vowels and consonants. I don’t want to make this technical, but in the simplest sense, the lines don’t always sound ‘right’, whatever ‘right’ is for that particular poem.

Sound is not everything. There are deaf poets who write beautifully. But they become attuned to something else, some other features that make the text ‘poem’ and not ‘prose’. And besides, deaf people hear through their feet, fingers and toes: rhythm patterns apply.

Here are the recurring Contemp Po features I notice most. I flagged these in a last time round but I have added a couple, as well as an example at the end of the How and The Way feature (new!):

Features of Contemp Po

  • lots of ‘I see’ and ‘I watch’ and ‘I feel’ and, worst of all, ‘I think
  • disappearing subjects (verb with no ‘I’)
  • lots of poems in couplets
  • ‘arty’ layouts , space instead of punctuation
  • poems based on extended metaphor (sometimes it works)
  • over-mixed metaphor (over-wrought, crossed logics)
  • a lot of cross-stanza enjambment
  • numerous colons and semi-colons.
  • poem a single sentence which gets lost in the middle
  • poem based round clauses with no finite verbs
  • sentences starting ‘And’ and ‘But’
  • first few lines dead (no bite)
  • title steals thunder of the best (last?) line or phrase
  • disappearing articles (‘the’ and ‘a’)
  • many ‘as’ sentences (see blog 26.05.2011)
  • poems constructed round a set of imperatives
  • anaphora structure (eg each line begins ‘because’)
  • the last word of the last line is ‘love’
  • the word ‘yet’ flags an epiphany (resist! resist!)
  • the word ‘for’ meaning ‘because’
  • lots of thens, followed by suddenly
  • weird line breaks
  • a rhyme at, or very near, the end
  • line breaks on ‘significant’ word like ‘break’—see above
  • no punctuation, and then some suddenly arrives
  • the ‘leaning verb thing’ (see below)
  • the ‘how’ and ‘the way’ clause repetition (see below)

The leaning verb thing:
There’s a tendency to write lines where two or more verb clauses are each appended to the same subject, often towards the high point. This is now as ubiquitous as scattered ampersands were in the sixties. For example:

 She reaches for her pen, scribbles a few lines,  
wonders why the world hasn’t colluded, hasn’t collapsed.

 The ‘how’ and ‘the way’ thing
Here’s another regular pattern. In fact, the pattern can be useful until it starts to look mannered. It may one day look as mannered as ‘up and spak an eldern knicht’ and ‘o’er the wall the sun doth sink’:

He saw and took note. How she touched each leaf
on the trailing vine. How she stopped a second
beside the stair. How the light on her hair
glimmered. And later the way she paused
outside the greenhouse. The way she held
the key lightly, like a talisman. The way
she turned it slowly in the lock