Friday, 3 September 2010

All About Soul - free expression or language fascism?

(editor's note: this article first appeared in the August 2010 issue of NAWG LINK)

A few months ago, a dreadful example of literary fascism dropped through my letterbox. It wasn't an election leaflet from a right-wing political party; it was the judge's report from the latest competition in a respected poetry journal. The report was one long diatribe against poets who used a small subset of words to which the judge seemed to have taken an irrational dislike. "Shards", "crimson" and "seeps" were singled out for particular criticism.

I won't name the journal, or the offending (male) poet. In his defence, there's no doubt that poets can get over-fond of certain words ("shards" is probably one of them). It doesn't matter how beautiful a word might be, its poetic resonance will pale if you see it too often. Even the professionals are sometimes guilty of over-using their favourite expressions – just count the number of times the verb "to sieve" crops up in Carol Ann Duffy's writing!

But it got worse. According to this judge, the word "soul" has no place in contemporary poetry. It is "curious and archaic" and shouldn't be seen except in Victorian hymn books.

OK, so this poet might prefer a rational, non-mystical approach to poetry. Fair enough. A few of my favourite poets are secular atheists, some outspokenly so. But I can't think of any who would make a pronouncement so sweeping, or so culturally alienating. The word soul is still in common usage to refer to a dimension of life which people use to encompass poetry, nature and the arts as well as religious experience.

And what about "soul music"? Is that an anachronism too? Judging by the public response to the untimely death of Michael Jackson last year, it clearly isn't. His music still inspires and uplifts generations of people from a worldwide cross-section of cultures and traditions.

Making arrogant pronouncements about the words a poet can and can't use is a fascism of language. It is dictatorship, in the literal sense of the word: one self-appointed authority telling others what they should (and shouldn't) be thinking, believing, and trying to express; one poet controlling the style and manner of expression of an entire art form. This is completely contrary to the spirit of free expression that poetry should be about. It isn't just an intellectual pursuit; and we shouldn't be content to let language fascists turn it into one.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Problem with Poetry Readings

(editor's note: this article first appeared in the June 2010 issue of NAWG LINK)

The deeper I go into poetry, the more I am convinced that what makes poetry powerful isn’t the appearance of words on a page, but the effect of those words being transmitted from poet to audience. The democratic principle appears to be behind me on this. Open mic nights, slams, and "poems and pints" sessions are springing up all over the place. Poets who appear at these gigs range in age from students to retired people, and in style from shaven-headed rappers to foppish Victorian throwbacks.

Not everybody in the poetic world agrees that this is a good thing. There is a distinct snobbishness from certain quarters – a suggestion that poetry should be elitist rather than democratic, intellectual rather than accessible. A dangerous mind-set for poets to possess.

My first poetry readings, back in my student days, were tipsy, hedonistic, romantic affairs. These days, "poetry readings" mostly seem to involve a darkened room, a stack of books, and a guest poet sat behind them. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this format. But it's more like a sort of highbrow Jackanory than the poetry readings that were so formative for me.

I've lost count of poetry readings where the poets don't seem to understand how to connect with an audience. They have sat miles back, buried their noses in the books, and mumbled their poems – often without even a microphone to mumble them into. It's as if they are embarrassed by the whole affair.

Is this really the way for the poetry world to win new audiences? Is it heck.

What makes it worse is that I'm not talking about amateur poets. I have seen some of the most respected names in British poetry give readings like this.

The audiences are sometimes as much of a problem as the poets. The whole affair can degenerate into an excuse for people of a certain caste (usually white, patrician and elderly) to show their faces in the right company. I've walked into events like these and left with a definite impression that my face doesn't fit. Audiences have been downright rude: I've been cold-shouldered, talked across, even on one occasion verbally abused. Are they telling me I'm not part of the poetry "set" and have no place there?

Poetry exists to stir a response in others. There is no better way to stimulate that response than by performing poems in front of an audience. Not all poets have a natural aptitude for this. But all poets who have ambitions to succeed as poets need to learn how to do it. Poetry needs to live, to breathe. To be heard.

Its audience deserves nothing less.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Ten Poems that Changed my Life

(Author's note: this article first appeared in issue 86 of NAWG LINK)

I'd like to pass on one of the best pieces of writing advice I've received. If you find the writing doesn't come, don't stress about writing – READ instead. Read your favourite things, the stuff that really inspires you. Immerse yourself in it, for weeks or months if necessary. Over time, those treasured writings will start to stir your subconscious, and get your imagination on the road to fruitfulness again.

I'll go a step further. Many people have a musical Top Ten, or a list of "songs that changed their life". So why not seek out the ten poems that changed your life, and use these as the starting-point for your literary therapy? Don't just list them – think about how and why they changed your life, why they're still meaningful today. Read them, again and again. Luxuriate in them.

I'll get you going by telling you a bit about ten poems that changed my life.

The first one goes back to my infant years, and Brian Cant (I think) on Play School (more than likely) reciting Wilma Horsbrugh's The Train to Glasgow. This has everything a perfect child's poem should have: it's full of rhythm and rhyme, delightful repetition, lovely unusual words, and it's really, really funny. I can still recite it today.

I have my Mum to thank for unleashing the storytelling power of poetry on me at an early age. Her eerie recitation of Edward Lear's fantastical ballad The Dong with a Luminous Nose is one of my earliest memories. She filled it with such weird musicality that it used to terrify me as a child; today, I consider it the finest gothic romantic poem ever written.

Roger McGough's First Day at School was another much-quoted childhood treasure. I didn't realise it at the time, but this was my first encounter with free verse. No less rhythmical or musical than The Train to Glasgow or The Dong, it's a joy to read aloud.

I came across Oliver Goldsmith's The Deserted Village when I was 16, studying English Literature O-level. I have Irish heritage and this poem took me right back to where my ancestors might have started out. It was a blast of fierce political rhetoric, lambasting the establishment of the day for ruining a land and its inhabitants in the name of what we'd now call capitalism. At a time when my social and political conscience was still being formed, it stood strong alongside the repertoire of protest songs I was discovering.

O-level English Lit. also introduced me to Tennyson's The Lotos Eaters. Tennyson was well and truly part of the establishment that Goldsmith loathed. But he was a lyrical genius. Not only was this a slice of epic storytelling in a tradition that I loved, but it was one of the most musical things I'd ever heard (it demands to be read aloud).

After Tennyson, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land was a shock to the system! I blame a theatrical production by a university friend, not long after I moved away from home, for introducing me to this incredible piece of writing. I hardly understood any of it; at the same time I was mesmerised. The words, the chants, the half-glimpses of meaning wove a spell around me like nothing I'd experienced before. Suddenly I knew it didn't matter if I didn't always understand poetry, I loved it just the same.

J.R.R. Tolkien isn't best known for his poetry. A cursory glance at the form and structure of his Mythopoeia shows a number of stylistic weaknesses. But these didn't matter to me when I discovered that behind the shaky iambic pentameters lay the best excuse for imagination, ever! The poem was Tolkien's response to an argument with C.S. Lewis when Lewis was still an atheistic rationalist who sneered at storytelling and myth as "lies". Tolkien's defence of the storyteller's art was satirical, inspirational, and even a little prophetic when you consider the struggle that writers and dreamers still face against the dumbing-down of the world. The central stanza is a call to arms for poets and all creative writers to keep their eyes open, keep dreaming and marvelling at the wonder of the universe: "He sees no stars who does not see them first / of living silver made that sudden burst / to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song / whose very echo after-music long / has since pursued. There is no firmament, / only a void, unless a jewelled tent / myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth, / unless the mother's womb whence all have birth."

I’ve loved and lingered over almost all of Carol Ann Duffy's collections over the years, and have been lucky enough to hear her read a number of times. Our new Poet Laureate deserves to be represented in this list, though I struggle to settle on a favourite from her vast repertoire. The famous Valentine, a brilliant subversion of the classical love poem, is an obvious choice. But if pushed I think I might have to go for Star and Moon from the Meeting Midnight collection. A poem written for a close friend of the poet and for her unborn child, it has a breathtaking intimacy that I long to be able to emulate in my own poetry.

I was just beginning (unsuccessfully) to send my poems out to competitions when I discovered Diana Syder's Hubble. In my day job I'm a research scientist, and I'm acutely aware of how infrequently the scientific world and the poetic world overlap. It's not that they have no connection – more, perhaps, that many poets don't know how to make the connection. Syder, an astrophysicist, astonished me with her hymn of praise to the Hubble Space Telescope – and put a healthy dose of childlike wonder back into both poetry and science.

Just one more to choose: and for my last one I'll select something that brings me full circle, in Roger McGough's Poem for the Opening of Christ the King Cathedral, Liverpool, 1967. I grew up in Birkenhead, and the unique shape of "Paddy's Wigwam" sat on the skyline throughout my childhood. It symbolises family, community, my roots, and my faith. McGough, fellow Merseysider, catches the spirit of it perfectly.

There you have it. My poetry jukebox, or Ten Poems that Changed My Life. Which ten poems would you choose?

Friday, 25 June 2010

Time to ditch the daffodils?

(Author's note: this article first appeared in issue 85 of NAWG LINK)

Having had a few choice words to say about pseudo-intellectual free verse in a previous Poet's Soapbox, I think it's time to direct my ire elsewhere. Critics of the poetic "establishment" often raise the accusation that the more prestigious poetry journals seem to have no time for verse which the general public would actually recognise as poetry. The mystical, the avant-garde and the just-plain-pretentious is fine; but try sending these journals anything which has a regular metre or which actually rhymes, and your chances of publication are about as remote as my beloved Tranmere Rovers' hopes of winning the Champions League.

Many poets feel hard done by on this score. Rhyming verse, after all, is central to the British literary heritage. Shakespeare's sonnets, Blake's Jerusalem and Lear's nonsense rhymes are as much a part of the English psyche as cricket, roast beef and rain-swept seaside holidays. Burns' ballads and satires are at the heart of Scottish lore and its modern national identity. Rhymesmiths like Roger McGough, Pam Ayres and the two great Barkers (Les and the late lamented Ronnie) are almost national treasures. More importantly, their verse is actually recognisable as verse – a relief in a world where poetry can be so mystifying it seems to require a doctorate to appreciate it.

So why do the premier journals and the competition judges seem to despise rhyming poetry? I have a few theories about this. And the most persuasive, for me, is that such a lot of today's rhyming verse is awful.

Is that controversial? Good. To support my thesis I'd like to cite poet Norman Johnson, who a couple of years ago set up a journal specifically dedicated to rhyming verse. You'd think that Star Poetry, as it was known, would be inundated. After all, isn't this what the grumblers had been crying out for – an editor who knew and loved good rhyming verse and was willing to go the extra mile to champion it? The sad fact was that Star Poetry closed after just two issues. The reason Norman gave for closing it down was that he didn't get anything like enough submissions that were of a standard worthy of publication.

When I judged the Speakeasy poetry competition a few years back, roughly 1 in 3 of the poems I received was a rhyming poem. Only three made it to the shortlist. The year before it was even worse, with just one rhyming poem shortlisted from a postbag of over 160. The reasons that all the others were eliminated? Many were binned on technical grounds. The rhythms were inconsistent, so the poems didn't hold the music which is essential to rhyming poetry. The words were often jumbled up in ways that meant they rhymed, but lost all coherence in the process. They read as if Yoda had written them. A few were better crafted, but were so full of "thee"s, "twixt"s and "'neath"s that they read like pastiches of Victorian verse instead of modern poems with something to say in their own merit. And an even larger category went into the recycling bin on the grounds of toe-curling sentimentality.

Why is there such a dearth of good rhyming verse? When those who complain about the poetic status quo insist that the people want rhyme, why do the people seem to be so incapable of producing it to an acceptable standard?

I think I know the answer to that. It's because generations of English-speaking people have been brought up with the idea that William Wordsworth's Daffodils is the pinnacle of poetic accomplishment.

The popularity of this poem (listed at No. 5 in The Nation's Favourite Poems) mystifies me. For the standards of its time, Daffodils is mediocre. Its formal structure is flawed; the iambic tetrameter stutters in ways that no poetry tutor would allow nowadays. And that opening line contains one of the most ridiculous similes ever penned. I wandered lonely as a cloud, for goodness' sake? Never mind whether or not clouds can feel loneliness – even the most anthropomorphic cloud "floating on high" o'er the Lake District would be anything but lonely. It’s the one part of England where you can guarantee there will be plenty of other clouds for company!

Daffodils presents a whimsical, sentimentalised view of the natural world, or Wordsworth's corner of it. For me, the great thing about nature poetry is the way it provides a window into the human soul. Robert Burns' "sleekit, cow'rin', timorous beastie", for instance, is a metaphor for the frustration of human (as well as animal) endeavour. Oliver Goldsmith's memories of The Deserted Village form the backdrop to a ferocious social and political commentary, making this ostensibly rustic poem one of the first truly modern protest songs. Even Matthew Arnold's Scholar Gipsy, which contains some of the most overblown pastoral wittering in English verse, has a serious point to make about the threat of Progress to traditional wisdom. But Daffodils offers no such insight. Nothing new or surprising, or especially deep.

Herein lies the problem. All the time Daffodils has been held up as the quintessential English poem, generations of English people have been brought up believing that this is how poems should be written. Schoolchildren, at least until recently, were taught to emulate Wordsworth's Daffodils when writing their own poems. Thankfully, these days poetry in schools tends to be more contemporary; but the damage has already been done. Countless thousands have grown up thinking that poetry means trite nature studies in forced rhyme schemes, interspersed with sentimental metaphors.

No wonder so many fail to get beyond this, and lose interest in poetry altogether. No wonder, too, that many who return to writing poetry later in life start flooding the literary presses with over-sentimentalised nature poems filled with twee poetic inversions and awful rhymes. They were first taught poetry as children re-hashing Daffodils – and are writing it now, like children re-hashing Daffodils, because they don't know any better.

There is great rhyming poetry in the English-language poetic canon. But Daffodils is not it. Those who want to know how to write good rhyming verse with a modern feel should be looking at Auden, Larkin or Betjeman – or even at Roger McGough, who combines the music of rhyming verse with an exhilarating freedom of form. They should appreciate the intensity of craftsmanship that goes into sounding as effortlessly silly as Pam Ayres or Les Barker. And they really should ditch the Daffodils.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Poetry and free speech: the Patrick Jones controversy

(Author's note: this article first appeared in issue 83 of NAWG LINK and appears here with a couple of minor modifications)

It's not often that poetry makes headline news. But that is exactly what happened in November 2008 when the Cardiff branch of Waterstone's took it upon themselves to close down a book launch by Welsh poet Patrick Jones. They were responding to complaints and threats of direct action by a pressure group on the extreme fringe of Christianity, who had read Jones’s poetry and condemned it as "obscene and blasphemous". Fearing violent – or at the very least, objectionable – altercations if the launch were to go ahead, senior management at Waterstone's cancelled the event at the last minute, leaving supporters of the poet and staff from his publishers Cinnamon Press locked out.

My immediate reaction was What on earth is going on? This is supposed to be a democracy, after all, which upholds an individual's right to freedom of expression even (or especially) in the face of violence or intimidation. Waterstone's never took this action against Salman Rushdie when his controversial writing made him the subject of violent threats, so why pick on a poet whose sales are likely to be pitiful by comparison? When The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – surely a far more influential and (to religious extremists anyway) dangerous thinker – was published, many branches promoted it as a staff recommendation. There were no crowds of picketing believers outside.

Was this pressure group attacking a poet because he was a soft target, with nobody influential to fight his corner? And were Waterstone's caving in because they thought the launch of Darkness is Where the Stars Are was a small event, and nobody would notice if it didn't go ahead?

It seems both Waterstone's and the protesters miscalculated. The unforeseen publicity has prompted all sorts of people, who might never have opened a poetry book otherwise, to read Patrick Jones. The first thing I did when I heard about the furore was log on to the Cinnamon Press website and order a copy.

Personally I find Jones's poetry to be a mixed bag. There is so much atheistic polemic in Darkness is Where the Stars Are that other good writing in the collection (and some of it is very good writing) is rather eclipsed. I can't criticise his sincerity. His anti-war poetry is ferocious, invoking the spirit of Wilfred Owen in Keys to your Kingdom when he writes "pro patria mori, the old lie, / you warned us yet no one heard / and your words drifted like ash". But his determination to pin the blame on organised religion is so relentless that at times it loses the personal focus, resorting instead to abstracts. It's a pity, because when he is talking in the first person, Jones's poetry is raw and immediate – and correspondingly powerful. Moment of Light, which for me is his most persuasive "political" poem, is effective not because of doctrinal conviction but because it comes straight from the heart: "today / I have become a born again / atheist / bow to a river bank not the parting of the sea / sing to a star not an invisible man."

It has been argued that Jones is the architect of his own controversy. He has a habit of sending samples of his writing to people who are bound to object to it, in an effort to encourage debate. Is this commendable idealism, or self-publicity? I'm not entirely sure. His publishers state that "Patrick Jones has corresponded with many organisations with whom he strongly disagrees and on every other occasion the result has been mature, if passionate, discussion, not threats. Patrick has never threatened anyone nor tried to curtail anyone else's freedom of speech."

And to be fair to Waterstone's, they have never refused to stock Darkness is Where the Stars Are. My local branch had plenty of copies on the shelves last time I looked. I can’t help thinking they're a little embarrassed by the whole sorry episode.

What the uproar does illustrate is something fundamental about the nature of poetry. You see, poetry is a powerful beast. Whether or not the modern, short-attention-span world claims to understand it, there remains a sort of visceral awareness that poetry packs an emotional punch. That distillation of words, emotions, ideals, into a few short rhythmic phrases seems to have the capacity to disturb, inspire and challenge humankind in a way that few of our arts and none of our technology can achieve. Perhaps that is the real reason why the enemies of free speech are so afraid of it.

Patrick Jones's poetry tackles subjects which many of today's poets don't have the guts to approach. We have become used to the poem on the page as a sanitised thing. We can agonise for hours about the metaphor hiding in a raindrop on a branch. Or, when we dare to tread in sensitive areas, we prefer to whisper and hint, using the gossamer of our imagery to ensure we don't have to touch the bloody, smelly, repulsive things of our world.

There is no such fear in Patrick Jones. He speaks unflinchingly about the (male) victim of domestic violence (in the title poem and numerous others), or the friend carted off to the psychiatric hospital (Spring Asylum). He likens the ruined woodlands where he played as a child (Flowers for the Trees on Mother's Day) to terrorist victims, "a field of fresh corpses". He gives a voice to the persecuted asylum seeker, the victim of female genital mutilation. He may not be Wilfred Owen, but his words reduce war to the ugly, irredeemable mess it is. He may not be Richard Dawkins, but his critique of religious hypocrisy is just as scathing. As a Christian myself, I can’t agree with his condemnation of all religious belief, and can understand why some find it offensive; but I applaud him when he likens the distorted fundamentalism of the group which scuppered his book launch to that of the Taliban. As a poet, I can only admire his determination to keep using poetry to "redress the rigours of th' inclement clime", to borrow a phrase from that other great protest poet, Oliver Goldsmith.

It could be that Patrick Jones is exactly the kick up the backside we poets need. The bards and poetic agitators of yesteryear made their words and their principles work together. Let's see if today’s poets can do the same.

Friday, 14 May 2010

In Praise of Les

(Author's note: this article first appeared in issue 82 of NAWG LINK and has had a couple of minor modifications to make it up-to-date)

The search for a new Poet Laureate last year threw up some predictable names. As well as Carol Ann Duffy, who eventually accepted the post, a string of well-known poets including Simon Armitage and Wendy Cope were tipped as possible successors to Andrew Motion. But one surprising name was added to the list of contenders through the unusual mechanism of a Parliamentary petition: that of a certain Les Barker.

This isn't a name you are likely to find on the poetry shelves in Waterstone's. Les Barker doesn't judge poetry competitions, keeps out of the literary journals, and for many in the narrow world of English poetry, his name is unknown. Yet Les is one of Britain’s most successful poets. He regularly packs out concert halls and collaborates with some veritable legends in the music and entertainment worlds.

Les is a true English eccentric. He spent the early part of his working life as an accountant before giving it all up to become, in his own words, "a professional idiot". He is also the power behind Mrs. Ackroyd Enterprises, his own very small press and independent record label. On stage, grey and cardiganed, he shuffles through his poetry collections as if bewildered by the poems. The deception lasts about thirty seconds.

I want to talk about Les Barker because he’s a wonderful example of an alternative road to success as a poet. The established career path for most professional poets (and many good amateurs) involves literary journals, competitions, poetry readings, festivals, an Arvon course or two. But this isn’t a road that suits everybody. For those who thrive on the adrenaline buzz of live performance, the rarefied world of "traditional" poetry may well be a disappointment.

Les created his niche by a different means: through the subculture of Britain's folk music clubs. He is a natural songwriter; his poems lend themselves well to musical arrangements. His repertoire of "filk-songs" – comedic or satirical re-workings of well-known folk or popular songs – has almost cult status. Many have now become part of the folk tradition in their own right (The Hard Cheese of Old England, recorded by Martin Carthy, is a fine example).

Britain’s folk clubs share a sort of "bush telegraph" where news of great performances travels faster than the performers themselves. One small but successful gig can spawn dozens of recommendations. For Les, this has meant an ever diversifying audience; writers' circles, literature festivals and the Eisteddfod now regularly succumb to his unique brand of insanity. He is a headline act at most of the UK's folk festivals, drawing audiences of hundreds. Few of today's professional poets can boast of such crowds.

What of the poetry itself? It's true that some purists would probably sneer at the notion that Les's many filk-songs and rags deserve to be called "poetry". This work does however showcase two distinctive aspects of the Barker craft: a surreal sense of humour which compares favourably with another enormously popular poet, Spike Milligan; and a faultless ear for puns and word-play. A poet can have no better preparation for their craft than to be in love with words, with the absurd sounds they make and the intriguing similarities which ring out when they are placed together. Les Barker is a master here.

His repertoire isn't restricted to filk-songs. Les's gift for rhyme has spawned a vast body of original, absurdist poetry in the grand tradition of Milligan, Stanley Holloway and Hilaire Belloc. His comedic characters – such as Cosmo the Fairly Accurate Knife-Thrower, Spot of the Antarctic, and Jason and the Arguments – have become legendary. Famous names such as Terry Wogan, Roy Hudd, Mark & Lard, and even Ian McMillan have recorded their tales on CD. Barker fans wait breathlessly for new instalments in the lives of these characters ("Cosmo, Prince of Denmark" made a recent appearance…). One of his most celebrated works – Have you Got Any News of the Iceberg?, the tender story of a polar bear looking for his family, missing on the iceberg that sank the Titanic – was turned into a graphic novel by cartoonist Bill Tidy.

A poet has to have a fine eye for small, incongruous details, and Barker's is magnificent. Undeterred by the niceties of convention, he tackles such subjects as the eating habits of mangetout peas, the temporal irregularities of occasional tables, and the question of how to experience déjà vu for the first time. The results are some of the finest performance poems I've ever heard, and a masterclass in how to hold an audience spellbound.

Although a Les Barker gig is generally a laugh a minute, the poet has a serious side. Now and then, a piece of barbed satire will slip through between the jokes. War, human rights and global warming often feature on the agenda. His poetic critiques of George W. Bush and the so-called "war on terror" are compelling in a literary sense, as well as a political one. His many musical collaborations include the libretto for the folk opera The Stones of Callanish. More recently he has won several prizes as a writer of poetry in Welsh.

So why won't we ever see a Les Barker collection in Waterstone's? Well, mainly because his many collections of poetry are self-published (through the ubiquitous Mrs. Ackroyd imprint). They lack the luxury of smart covers, and are higgledy-piggledy in their selection of material. However, these collections sell in their droves at gigs and through his website ( A newcomer to Barker will find an excellent introduction to the essential works through the Guide Cats for the Blind audio CD series, too.

Les Barker, in short, is a beacon of hope for those poets who really do move to the beat of a different drum. His success is self-made, and all the more impressive for it.

There is still a chance that one day, one of the "serious" poetry publishers may give his repertoire the credit it deserves and take a chance on publishing a Selected Works. But even if that never happens, I don't think Les will be disappointed. That strange combination of eccentricity and business acumen ensures that the Mrs. Ackroyd brand stays more than merely viable. His diary is generally booked up a couple of years in advance; even heart bypass surgery seems not to have weakened his appetite for performance. And he's one of the only poets I can think of who is pretty much guaranteed to sell out every venue he performs.

An unlikely candidate for Poet Laureate, perhaps – but a candidate whom the Poet's Soapbox was proud to support.

Friday, 30 April 2010

The State of British Poetry Today

(Author's note: this article first appeared in issue 81 of NAWG LINK)

Readers of literary websites and Writing Magazine’s letters page may have noticed that the poetry “establishment” in Britain has come in for a fair bit of criticism over the last couple of years. The gist of the argument is that critics, poetry competitions and writers’ workshops all promote one style of poem as a sort of cultural acme. The favoured style, according to complainants, is a type of free verse that’s rich in intellectual allusions but short on points of connection with the average reader. More traditionally popular, or at least populist, verse forms get turned away by the top literary magazines and generally sneered at by the self-appointed arbiters of taste.

This state of affairs, so the correspondents claim, has been directly responsible for the marginalisation of poetry as an art form. It has been driven into a ghetto inhabited mainly by upper-class intellectuals, and no longer has anything to say to the public at large. What’s more, this ghettoisation has become a self-propagating cycle. Those who run the workshops, edit the journals and judge the poetry competitions come from within the clique, and only encourage writers who produce the sort of material they like.

I too have been “named and shamed” on one website which alleges a conspiracy of the artistic elite. The website seemed to be claiming that it was inappropriate for people who have won poetry competitions (as I have, occasionally) to judge other poetry competitions. But I’m not unduly worried at having been “outed” in this way. After all, it’s the first time I have been mentioned in the same breath as Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy!

What worries me more than the conspiracy theories is that I can’t quite shake the nagging feeling that the original complainants have a point, of sorts. Neil Astley of Bloodaxe – arguably the UK’s most important independent publishers of poetry – appears to agree with me. In the 2008 Poetry Writers’ Yearbook he wrote of a “huge gulf” existing between many of the poetry publishers and those who actually read the stuff. “Too often”, wrote Neil, “poetry editors think of themselves and their poet friends as the sole arbiters of taste, only publishing writers whom they think people ought to read and depriving readers of other kinds of poetry that many people would find more rewarding.” The result, as he sees it, is a bias towards “male-dominated, white, Anglo-centric” viewpoints – despite the fact that over two-thirds of poetry buyers are female.

My own experience of poetry in England sometimes seems to tally quite worryingly with Neil Astley’s. There are times when I look through poetry journals and can’t seem to find a single poem that has any connection with my own life. Sometimes I suspect the contributors of being more interested in proving their intellectual credentials than in connecting with an audience. I’ve been to poetry readings where there hasn’t been a single non-white face, or non-Oxbridge accent, in the room. And I’ve come away really quite worried for the future of my art.

But – and it’s a really important but – I’m equally certain that this phenomenon isn’t universal. There are so many poetry journals now that even if a few read like the collected works of gobbledigook, it doesn’t take too much effort to find several that publish the sort of poetry which really speaks to me. Dee Rimbaud’s excellent AA Independent Press Guide (available online at lists some 200 UK-based periodicals, to say nothing of e-zines, catering for a broad spectrum of tastes as well as the many niche markets that exist. The very small presses have a devoted, even cult-like, following. My own favourite, Monkey Kettle (, publishes left-field poetry from writers with day jobs as cleaners, care workers, students, and so on – worlds far removed from the supposed poetic elite.

Then there’s the resurgence in live performance poetry. By this I don’t mean the cloistered world of the poetry “reading” (I have more to say about this in a future article), but the much more democratic arena of the open mic, the “Poems and Pints” night, and the poetry slam. Events of this sort are taking off in towns all over the UK, and you’re more likely to find them in a pub than an arts centre. They are attracting new audiences – not necessarily the poetry journal-reading classes.

Cross-over art is thriving, with many poets collaborating with musicians, film-makers and visual artists. The result can be a wonderful fusion of the traditional and the avant-garde – just listen to Benjamin Zephaniah’s extraordinary re-working of the Ballad of Tam Lin which features on The Imagined Village album, and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

An interesting point to note is that many of the best performance poets around today are non-white. Many are from distinctly non-academic backgrounds. A lot of these performers are making an admirable effort to take poetry to new places, particularly into Britain’s schools – which can only encourage future generations to take up the poet’s mantle too.

So there are signs of hope for poetry. A minority art it may be, but it is a resurgent one. The challenge for today’s poetic “establishment”, so-called, is to nurture these seeds of hope, not crush them.

We could make a start by ditching the snobbery which still lingers around white, upper-class poetry. Cressida Connolly, writing for the Telegraph magazine (and online at, noted a distinct snootiness in some literary circles. One poet she interviewed dismissed the entire arena of performance poetry as “anything that doesn’t work as a poem on the page”. Such snobs have clearly forgotten that poetry, classical and British, wasn’t originally intended for the page at all. Today’s performance poets and storytellers are the heirs of a bardic tradition which carried poetry, like news and scandal, from place to place by word of mouth. Keeping this tradition alive should be celebrated, not sniffed at!

A tendency for poetry to cater only for the rich doesn’t help the cause, either. Competitions with spiralling entry fees (and increasingly ludicrous prize pots) do nothing for the democratisation of poetry. Nor do “writers’ holidays” in the Himalayas or the Greek islands. We need to see these activities available in the inner cities instead – why not in youth clubs, churches and mosques, workers’ education establishments, in shopping malls for goodness’ sake?

Wherever the people are, there is where poetry will be. The challenge for us poets is to get out there and show this to be true.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Competitions - How to make your money work

(Author's note: this article first appeared in issue 79 of NAWG LINK).

In my previous post I made the case in favour of entering writing competitions. Now I want to look at the downside to the competitions arena: the entry fees.

A few writers can happily write cheques to cover entry fees for every competition that comes along. For the majority of us who live in the real world, this isn’t an option. We need to make sure those pesky entry fees provide some sort of return on our investment, even if we’re not fortunate enough to be prize winners every time.

Here are some suggestions to help make those entry fees work for you.

My first tip is research your market before you submit anything. There are a lot of writing competitions, and it’s easy for a competition novice to enter too many – or to enter the wrong ones.

Big competitions like the Bridport Prizes and the Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition have a sizeable publicity budget and always command a fair bit of press coverage. Unless you are one of those annoying people who can produce works of genius without breaking a sweat, these are not the best competitions for you to enter at the start of your writing career. Those who win tend to be writers with a CV of previous competition success. They may even have already had collections of poems or short stories published. If you submit to the Bridport Prize, you will be competing against a lot of writers who are this good, or nearly this good!

Competitions run by local writers’ circles or small presses have a lower profile than the major literary prizes. Not only does it cost you less to enter, but you stand a more realistic chance of being placed. By doing a few of these, you’ll be preparing yourself for bigger things as your experience and confidence increases.

Don’t enter every competition that comes along. There are a few scams out there, and it takes a little practice to spot them (a lack of past history and an exorbitant prize pot are usually dead giveaways). The NAWG website ( has listings of established, bona fide competitions, and is peer-reviewed so any dodgy ones are eliminated. For poets, the listings on The Poetry Kit ( and the Poetry Library website ( are invaluable. I also recommend Prizemagic (, run by published author and competition addict Michael Shenton. He provides an entertaining (and at times splendidly sarcastic) commentary with each competition listing.

It is worth pointing out that not all the reputable competitions offer value for money either. The most useful competitions to enter are the ones which tell you as much as possible about the poems (or short stories) you’re up against. Competition statistics (total numbers of poems or stories submitted, numbers long-or shortlisted, etc.) can help you size up your chances of success. Seek these out. Look for competitions where you can buy a winners’ anthology, or read the winning pieces on the competition website. These will give you a clue as to why the winning poems or stories were winners, and what happened to those that weren’t. Competitions which publish not just the prize winners’ names, but the shortlists as well, are really helpful – otherwise you have no way of knowing if you reached that far.

Not all competitions will give you this information. Competitions which don’t are doing the entrants no favours. I suggest you spend your money elsewhere.

The judge’s report from a competition can also be a goldmine of information. Sometimes the difference between a First Prize-winning piece and a Highly Commended work isn’t apparent from simply reading the works on their own. Judge’s reports provide an insight into what special qualities stood out for him or her in the winners. They also reveal which deficiencies a judge may be willing to overlook, and which are a guaranteed route to rejection! But beware of relying too much on judge’s reports. The factors which decide who gets which prizes often lie in the judge’s own likes and dislikes as much as in the originality of the material and the skill with which it was created.

So much for the preparation. Now we come to the manuscript itself. The golden rule is never send in shoddy work. During my judging stint for the Speakeasy competitions I was amazed at how many manuscripts arrived with crumpled paper, glaring spelling mistakes and awful grammar. Some of these were obviously works which had been produced in a rush of creativity – but the writers had never bothered to tidy up their original draft. Material that is scrappy or that the judge will struggle to read is sure to end up in the recycling bin. So is anything which fails the “Alison Chisholm test”. I won’t repeat the excellent advice which she and Ian Pattison offered in their recent article (LINK 74) but I would urge all competition entrants to follow it.

Never, ever, submit the same piece of work at the same time to two or more competitions. This practice is known as simultaneous submission. It will make you unpopular because all sorts of copyright problems can ensue if you happen to win both competitions and both organisers choose to publish your work. Small presses and writers’ groups cannot afford litigation. Nor do they want to be made to look silly. If you’re producing shortlist-quality work but you get a reputation for simultaneous submission, you could find yourself blacklisted.

Finally, before you seal up the envelope, go back and re-read the competition rules. Double-check your entries to make sure they fit all the criteria. Don’t risk being disqualified because you’ve failed to double space your story, or exceeded the line limit with your poem. No matter how good your manuscript may be, if it doesn’t fit the competition requirements it will not win – and you won’t get your money back.

If this is a lot to remember, take heart. After you’ve done a couple of competitions, the process will be second nature. And don’t give up. Just because one of your best pieces might sink without trace in one competition, it could still do well in another. The most prestigious of my First Prizes to date was won with a poem which went to five previous competitions and had never been shortlisted. It can be worth persevering with a piece you know to be good, even if you seem to have no success at the first few attempts.

Competitions: Are they really worth it?

(Author's note: this article was the first of my Poet's Soapbox pieces to appear in NAWG LINK (issue 77). I've given it a teensy bit of editing to make it blog-friendly, but otherwise it appears as originally published).

It doesn’t take very long, hanging around a writers’ circle, to realise that one issue divides the writing world straight down the middle. Writing competitions. Half the writers I know treat the annual competition calendar with deadly seriousness. They spend laborious hours over their poems and short stories, earnestly believing that a win will be the Next Big Thing on the rocky road to literary success. The other half treat competitions with disdain. They see writing competitions as close cousins to the vanity publishers. Competitions swallow your money, promising wealth and recognition but delivering little or nothing in return.

I’ve been on both sides of the divide myself. In my very early days as a poet, I picked up a few flyers for competitions, sent off my cheque and the best of my material, and predictably heard nothing back. I felt I’d been conned. An unexpected First Prize in my local writers’ group’s annual poetry competition a few years back encouraged me to try again. Since then, I’ve made the competition circuit into part of my writing discipline. Modest successes, in the form of four more First Prizes in national/international competitions, and several placings and commendations, have followed. I’ve also had the competition experience from the other side, having judged the Speakeasy creative writing competitions for two years running (judging poetry and short stories) as well as a couple of local and regional competitions.

In the next few articles I intend to take a look at the competition experience. Much of what I have to say will be applicable to those interested in both short story and poetry competitions. For writers new to the competition circuit, I will be suggesting ways you can avoid a few of the mistakes I’ve made over the years.

To begin with, I want to address the fundamental question: are competitions worth it? Is it possible to see all that time and effort, the entry fees and the stamped addressed envelopes as an investment, rather than an indulgence or a waste?

My answer is yes.

Writing competitions matter because in many ways they are the lifeblood of the literary scene in the UK. The writers’ circles and small presses who run the competitions are (with very rare exceptions) not profit-making concerns. They exist for love, not money. Competition entry fees don’t provide the chairmen and editors with exotic holidays and champagne. Once the prize money has been paid out, the judge’s honorarium paid, and (usually) the magazine or anthology published, any surplus funds are ploughed back into the organisation. This money gives writers’ circles the chance to run workshops, invite guest speakers or produce their own publications. It keeps the small presses alive – for many, it can mean the difference between financial viability or closure. It keeps many of the literary festivals on a secure financial footing.

So supporting a reputable creative writing competition is one way of supporting the literary arts, locally and nationally.

Writing competitions matter to the winners, and those shortlisted, because they look good on the CV. There are very few competitions that will guarantee a new writer a publishing contract, representation or fame (the Bridport Prize is probably an exception). But every win or shortlisting mentioned on the aspiring writer’s CV can be another bit of ammunition for that all-important future pitch to an agent or editor. It is a demonstration that you are serious about your writing, and that it is good enough to command at least a small degree of critical respect.

A third reason to make the effort of entering writing competitions is that the effort instils discipline. Competitions demand inspiring, original work, it’s true – but they also demand work that is neatly laid-out, legible, well constructed, free of typographical errors, and suited to the requirements of the competition. If you are a new writer, who has never submitted material to an editor or agent before, I heartily recommend entering a small competition. This will give you practice in laying out a manuscript, gathering together the accompanying paperwork, and reading and assimilating the submission requirements. If you can get used to doing this, year on year, for the East Smethwick Short Story Competition (to take an entirely fictitious example), by the time you’re ready to send a manuscript to a publishing house or an agent, the process of manuscript preparation will be second nature.

Competitions also demand forward planning. The deadlines are usually publicised several months in advance. The well prepared writer will use this time to ensure that their work is thoroughly revised, so that the manuscript which eventually goes in the post (or email) is the best you can get it. Hastily plotted stories or first drafts of poems rarely win competitions. Spending the time fine-tuning your competition entries is another part of the writer’s discipline.

Now to the downside of the competition arena. Most writing competitions (NAWG’s own being an honourable exception) require you to part with money to enter them.

Entry fees are inescapable. In an era when state or philanthropic support for the creative arts is meagre, struggling small presses and writers’ groups have no other option to finance the winners’ prizes, or the competition anthology. This may be all very well for the idle rich, but for the impoverished bohemian, scribbling away in a garret and living on baked potatoes and soup, it’s a problem.

It does worry me that entry fees deter many good, but financially restricted, writers from having their work recognised. There are, of course, ways to make a name for oneself without recourse to the competition circuit. But competitions remain one of the surest ways for a hitherto unknown, talented writer to make an impact. Those of you who are beginning to have some confidence in yourselves as writers should not be put off by entry fees alone. Nor should you sit back and let lesser writers get their foot in the door of the literary world ahead of you on the basis of their ability to pay their way in.

In my next article I will be looking at ways for writers on a budget to maximise their investment in the competition arena. For now, though, I’d simply like to issue a plea that if you believe in your writing, and it receives supportive constructive feedback from other writers, do consider putting it into the competition arena. As writers, all of us have to make some investment in our art: printer paper, ink cartridges, notebooks, stamps and envelopes, and the sheer time and effort we put into our creations. Within reason, it is possible to see a modest expenditure on competition fees as part of this investment. Hard work and talent do pay off – and sometimes they even pay out, too.

Andy Humphrey

Welcome to the Poet's Soapbox!

For the last few years, I have been contributing a semi-regular column to the National Association of Writers' Groups' LINK magazine under the heading "The Poet's Soapbox". The Soapbox has given me the opportunity for a good old rant about the things that irk me in the world of poetry in the UK - and for an occasional rave about the things I think are worth celebrating.

It seemed to make sense, in the fulness of time, to move the Soapbox to an online format, and give its readers a chance to have their say. Thus the Poet's Soapbox blog. I will continue to use it to post copies of the articles that appear (and have appeared) in LINK, as well as responses to topical poetry-related issues and some of my own musings on life as a poet, scribe, performer, open mic MC and occasional competition judge. Feedback is welcome though I reserve the right to edit readers' posts as needed.

In the next few posts I'll put up copies of some of the early articles from the Soapbox series in LINK. Comments on these are still welcome!

I hope you enjoy your visit.

Andy Humphrey