Monday, 22 June 2015

Poetry, Evolution, and The Interpreter's House


The UK has many Creative Writing degree courses now, generating more jobs and more poets. These poets have been brought up on newer (often US) influences, producing newer styles of poems. But where do they get published? At first it was difficult, marginal habitats being all that was available. Gradually however, magazines changed. Some (Weyfarers) disappeared, some (Iota) were taken over and rebooted by young editors. Book publishers were the slowest to change. When old editors didn't move aside, new publishers (e.g. Salt, Nine Arches) emerged and encroached.

Conditions for change

As well as a growing mass of poets, there were external conditions that encouraged change

  • Lack of external threat and obligation - poets were no longer expected to produce marketable books or compromise for the general public. Certainly they weren't expected to speak for their generation. The energy freed from the need for self-protection or pronouncement could be used for experimentation
  • Hot-house isolation - It became easier to incubate novelty in secure (academic), supportive surroundings, using the internet to find like-minds wherever they were.


New genres emerge from old much as new species emerge -

  • Mutation
  • Combination - a fusion of 2 or more genres: magic realism for example. Some hybrids may be sterile.
  • Arrested development (neotony) - e.g. a sketch treated as a finished work
  • New habitats - a new media will encourage new or adapted genres
  • Asteroids - New material might have arrived from elsewhere

The simplest mutations adjust the proportions of what already exists, perhaps removing some parts completely. A common recommendation is to chop the first few "set-up" lines of poems. Often the final, cloying closure's removed too. These minor mutations can set off a chain of changes - less reliance on narrative for example, more fragmentation. Before long a new species buds off from the evolutionary bough.


Faced with habitat change, some older poets sought more congenial surroundings (e.g. when US Formalists found the going hard, some found a welcome in the UK). The risk of shrinking habitats broken up into isolated patches was ameliorated by the improved communication that the Internet offered. Some poets (e.g. Alison Brackenbury) were good enough to survive the changes without needing to change, others (e.g. George Szirtes) encompassed so much variety that change was just a matter of judicious selection.

The Interpreter's House (issue 59), June 2015

I found this magazine (Martin Malone's the main editor) an interesting read, and typical of the new breed of quality, relaunched periodicals. It shows how change and continuity can ride tandem. It contains 2 stories and about 60 poems, some of the latter being chosen by competition judge Liz Berry. Amongst the contributors are many Creative Writing students past and present, Ilkley and Bridport winners, and people with books by Red Squirrel Press, Enitharmon, Smith Doorstep, Shoestring, tall lighthouse, Nine Arches Press, Poetry Salzburg, Cinnamon, Shearsman, etc - in other words, impressive credentials, with far fewer mentions of esoteric publications than "Tears in the Fence" has. Significantly perhaps there's also nothing about older publishers like Bloodaxe and Carcanet.

I liked a few of the poems, and liked parts of others (though perhaps for inappropriate reasons). A few I thought suspiciously plain, as if I'd missed the point. The rest, though evidently crafted, were difficult for me, especially the competition pieces. Let me pick 2 examples by 2 clearly accomplished poets

  • Here's the 1st section (of 4) from "What Colour Is The Sea?" by Rosemary Norman.
    Every evening a dog barks
    in the stairwell.
    Separate from our talk -

    though that too echoes
    off tiled walls -
    the bark's inflection's not

    unlike human complaint
    as if the dog
    hoped earlier for better.
    Norman's passage in itself makes prose sense, the dog used as analogy, though it sounds a mite strange, and doesn't work for me as an independent piece.
  • Rob Miles' "A skinful" has
    A clown

    brought in to cheer, waves
    and turns two hoop-wands, as if to tantalise

    and sharpen the fingers of those screaming children
    with frogspawn. Let's you and I stroll over
    This is more puzzling - sharpen fingers with frogspawn? Is "Let's" a typo or a colloquialism?

In both pieces the line-breaks are beyond me, but that's nothing new. Nor are the part/whole issues. I'm happy to delay interpretation with no expectation of an eventual integrative aha!, but I still dwell on the parts individually and in combination. Both poems allude to (but aren't unified by) their title, though they leave it rather late -

  • The final part of Norman's poem commences with mention of the (until now neglected) title - "The sea is greenish-blue,/ grey, silver, lilac -/ absurd this giving names// to colours picked up idly/ and returned/ all as one, with the sea's authority", which may be the presiding theme of the poem (something to do with inadequacy of language). The poem ends with "They'll hear it/ gather gulls' cries/ in its din total like silence. I can't parse that, unless it means that the din is as overwhelming as silence. "they" might refer to the colours or the third-person couple in part 3. I don't think it refers to the first-person people in the first part.
  • Miles' poem ends with "there's this/ lustrous rainbow crazing on something// also taking a skinful, for a moment/ holding its own" which leaves me none the wiser, though I was expecting something about alcohol or intoxication.

I wondered how superficial the differences were between some of these poems and some typical older ones, whether they share the same template, varying only in surface fashion. I get Stuart Henson's piece (I suspect it's no coincidence that it's in rhyming couplets) and James Giddings' poem, perhaps because they're standard templates told more slant than usual. Several of the other pieces are slight mutations of standard templates -

  • Sarah Westcott's "Bats" is only partly descriptive ("You cannot hear us but you'll feel/ our hunting song across your teeth/ defiling the laws of physics/ with frequencies beyond this")
  • Tammy Adams' "Finger Plan" starts with a sort of palm reading, taking a page to imagine making the persona's hand into a giant city ("There is excited talk of an extra finger") before ending with "Or, one day, another hand/ might extend towards yours./ And you will want to take it.// What of your city then?". The closure is standard, the length and sprawl of the first section isn't. In Stalking the Typical Poem Jan Schreiber identifies a New Yorker poem template: "It is unmetered and unrhymed; It is focused on a particular event; Its details are slightly fantastical but not incomprehensible; It invites metaphoric or symbolic interpretation; It can be reduced to a simple, unsurprising observation; It ends inconclusively – in this case with an unanswered question". This poem's not so far away from that shape. Idle speculation suddenly clashes with reality.

In the context of such poems, some of the more prosaic pieces stand out more than they usually might. I don't get Jack Houston's piece, unless I've overestimated its intentions - it's prose with odd white space. Gary Wilson's straightforward "Sonnet" (Highly Commended) seems minor, beginning with "You said I ought to phone my wife and I/ agreed. Chinese veg in black bean sauce,/ a bottle of wine, chopsticks, colourless/ tea".


The emergence of new species doesn't necessarily imply the extinction of the old, though the old may return to niches or seek pastures new. The Web is a new continent, offering new audiences and confrontations for poets young and old. New magazines and courses are appearing to cater for people suddenly interested in writing poetry. Such people tend to have an easy time with the older poetry.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Dana Gioia in "The Dark Horse"

Dana Gioia has an article in the 20th anniversary issue of "The Dark Horse". In it he points out that

  • "there is no human society, however isolated, that has not developed and employed poetry as a cultural practice", p.11
  • "Until quite recently, poets still assumed that the typographic text would be vocalized in some way", p.12

He thinks that "Poetry speaks most effectively and inclusively (whether in free or formal verse) when it recognizes its connection - without apology - to its musical and ritualistic origins", p.13. Inclusively, yes, but "effectively" is more controversial. He thinks that "Poetry offers a way of understanding and expressing existence that is fundamentally different from conceptual thought", p.17. Different, yes, but I'd contest that it's "a way of understanding and expressing existence". He then considers academia -

  • "Critical analysis remains deliberately outside the full experience of the poem, which is physical, emotional, subjective, and intuitive as well as intellectual", p.16
  • "The work of [The New Critics] represented a great moment in American intellectual history. Yet their immense success also had an enduring negative impact on the popularity of poetry", p.19
  • "No one intended the decimation of poetry's audience or the alienation of the common reader. Like most environmental messes, those things happened as accidental by-products of an otherwise positive project", p.20

I think that critical analysis is less like that nowadays (we know what makes adverts and political speeches effective, and are more likely now to apply that knowledge to poetry), and I think that The New Critics weren't that massive. He suggests 2 ways to improve the situation -

  • "to recognise the power of enchantment in teaching poetry", p.24
  • "critics, scholars, and teachers need to recognize and respect non-conceptual forms of knowledge, which are fundamental to all literature, especially poetry ... These are often difficult elements to summarize in abstract terms, but their resistance to conceptual paraphrase reflects the limitations of criticism not the limits of art", p.24

He points out that "Poetry Out Loud has just celebrated its tenth anniversary. Two and a half million students have participated in the competition", p.23. Good news.

Apart from the points I've already made, I disagree with little he says, though when he uses the word "poetry" I understand it as having different meanings depending on context. There are different type of poetry. Some (free-form or formalist; sung or read) are popular with the public but not theorists, and v.v. Some are popular with both. That's not meant to be a value judgement, it's just how they are. I think that popular poems/songs are as popular as ever, nowadays often experienced on the move. I don't think that affects the popularity of serious poetry which has never been popular, though there have been times when the culturally engaged felt more obliged to buy the latest poetry books than they currently do, even if those books weren't read. Serious art - even modern art as displayed at Tate Modern) - has always been more popular.

There are biologists and flower-lovers. One interest may lead to the other, but there's no particular reason why it should. Flower-lovers may become formal flower-arrangers, or large-scale flower growers. Biologists may end up doing chemistry. That's just how things are.

Friday, 5 June 2015

My poetry rejections

The great Capablanca in his book "Chess Fundamentals" decided to show nearly all of his losses. It would take too long for me to do likewise here for my poems, but maybe there are lessons to be learnt from my failures.

Single poems

Poetry Review270
Poetry London130
PN Review130
Here are the extant magazines I've sent the most poems to ("Weyfarers" and "Other Poetry" aren't active nowadays), along with my success statistics. I usually send poems in batches of 3, so even if one of them's accepted that counts as 2 failures. The last 4 magazines in the table belong to a tier of publications that I'd like to appear in, though I can go years without sending them anything. I usually know when I'm beaten, but I keep trying with "[The] Poetry Review", especially when they have a new editor. I read somewhere that they accept 1 poem in 500, so I suppose I'm not doing too badly. I've been close with "Magma", corresponding with editors on rewrites, but nothing yet.


Recently I've looked back at my attempts to produce follow-ups to my Moving Parts pamphlet. Here are the near misses -

  • From Poetry Wales -
    Poetry Wales is delighted to be able to finally reveal the results of the 2011 Purple Moose Poetry Prize. As always, it’s been a challenge for our judges, Zoe Skoulding and (judging the prize for the first time) John Barnie, but they have decided on a winner. And the Winner is: Archimedes’ Principle by Rebecca Perry. Congratulations Rebecca!

    In a slight break from the conventions of the last two competitions, the judges felt that, in addition to listing 3 or 4 highly commended entries, another collection warranted the recognition of being Runner-up: Facing Facts by Tim Love. Well done Tim.

    The winner’s work will be published by Seren

  • From Cinnamon Press -
    The debut poetry collection prize 2014 was adjudicated by Matthew Francis. The finalists were: Patricia Helen Wooldridge, Philip Madden, Frances-Anne King, Tim Love and Jane McLaughlin and we are delighted to announce that the overall winner was Jane McLaughlin with her collection Lockdown which will be published in September 2016.

The winners of these competitions have both had more success than I - Rebecca Perry's become a Bloodaxe poet and Jane McLaughlin's been shortlisted in the 2013 Bridport prize, longlisted in the 2014 National Poetry Competition, etc - so part of me thinks that I was lucky to get as far as I did. But all the same, being this close is disappointing.


  • Single poems - Magma has different editors each issue, so I should try them more.
  • Collections - Looking at the short-lists makes it clear that several people repeatedly get close to being published. There are however only so many places one can send the same poem or collection to. Eventually some new poems are required. Or at least new selections of old poems. Perhaps I should be more bold in the poems I submit as a pamphlet. A pamphlet's not always the best place to display one's breadth. It can afford to be tightly-focussed - even unrepresentative.
    I've created various pamphlet selections, each with fewer odd-men-out in terms of aesthetic demands required by the reader. The pamphlets overlap, but that's a problem I can deal with later. That said, Magma has different editors each issue, so I should try them more.

I've been looking for proverbs that express the idea that narrowly losing can hurt more than being nowhere near winning. There's "a miss is as good as a mile"; "close but no cigar"; "so near and yet so far", etc. but nothing comes to mind that expresses how one feels coming 4th in an Olympic final that you never thought you'd reach. Suggestions welcomed.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Printed magazines with poetry and fiction

"The Interpreter's House" still prints the odd story. So does "Tears in the Fence". And of course there's "London Magazine", "Stand", "Lighthouse" and "Under the Radar". I sometimes wonder how popular the poetry and fiction mix is. Will fiction writers subscribe to a magazine that only has a story or two per issue, if that? The fewer stories published in such magazines, the less likely it is that stories will be submitted. There seems to be a trend for mixed magazines to squeeze fiction out -

  • "New Welsh Review" aren't currently accepting fiction (submission overload) though they're not overloaded with other genres
  • A few issues ago, "The Next Review" justified the lack of fiction on the grounds of submission quality
  • The current (Spring/Summer 2015) issue of "New Walk" contains no fiction this time.

From the editors' viewpoint it must be tempting to print poems rather than stories - contributors are likely to turn into subscribers if they aren't so already, and several poets' work can be squeezed into the space a story displaces.

My impression is that story-writers are less likely to appreciate poetry than poets appreciate stories. Consequently, story-writers are less likely to subscribe to mixed magazines. And more poets turn to story-writing than vice versa. Flash fiction (and especially microfiction) can bridge the divide. Interestingly, "The Next Review" sets a minimum fiction word-limit of 1500, blocking that route, whereas some other magazines don't label the texts published, leaving readers to classify short texts as either Flash, prose-poems or poems if they wish. But that flexibility risks putting side by side texts whose style differs only in their use of line-breaks and white-space, inviting comparisons that may be uncomfortable, particularly when the white-space is extravagant.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The state of Poetry Reviewing

In The Poet Tasters Ben Etherington studies a year of poetry reviews in Australia, going beyond the raw stats (though he quotes those too) by reading all 247 of the eligible reviews from 2013. I imagine many of his conclusions would apply to the UK situation. He points out that poetry reviewers (unlike film and novel reviewers) are thought of as practitioners writing criticism on the side (they are, but they should be respected as reviewers). He noted a uniformity of structure in the reviews he read -

More often than not, reviews follow this formula:
1. Introduce the volume, the poet and their previous publications.
2. Describe the poet’s overall aesthetic with reference to European and / or North American antecedents.
3. Quote approvingly from two or three choice poems with some technical commentary.
4. Express reservations about one or two poems.
5. Affirm, nevertheless, the worthiness of the volume as a whole.

He also notes that it's typical to "criticise some unnamed poets in opposition to those of whom you approve".

Readers expect certain things (not least a judgement) from reviews but I don't think that excuses formulaic writing. A template I often see is a review that begins with an observation about poetry, then shows how it relates to the book in question. My pile of magazines-to-read has examples. Here are 3 starts -

  • When you are young, and full of verse, there seem so many subjects for poems: the self, the other, the leaf on the pavement, the scent of the mock orange: all present themselves as thrilling and new. And when you are old, for many poets, the world fills again with the urgency of imminent loss, and you enter another phase of intense creativity. But in between there is middle age: the era of responsibility, and consistency, and matrimony, and parenting, and imminent not much - Kate Clancy, The Poetry Review, V103:4, p.104
  • In 2004, Dr James Kaufman of California State University published his study into the varying lifespans of writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Along with statistical evidence suggesting that the business of poetry contrived to bump off poets at an average age of sixty-two (four years earlier than novelists), Kaufman concluded that "Poets produce twice as much of their lifetime output in their twenties as novelists do". While novelists of the late modern period were shown to improve through a good long stewing, poets of the same era tended to flash fry, then overcook themselves - Jack Underwood, The Poetry Review, V103:4, p.125
  • Do writers describe places, or create them in their work? Perhaps that question should be can writers describe real places, or must they write them into existence? - Matt Ward, New Walk 10

I don't mind this template unless it's over-used in an issue. I do dislike: opinions that could be backed up by stats but aren't; pseudo-scientific critical vocabulary; and descriptions that are so poetic that I don't know what the reviewer means.

Etherington points out that "No one believes that most Australian poetry volumes are a couple of edits or a tempered excess away from being a perfect version of themselves, but this is what, en masse, the reviews tell us. ... The obvious and probably accurate conclusion is that few poets writing about fellow poets in a smallish scene will want to offend, and fewer will want to harm their own careers and networks". I suspect that the UK situation is similar. I try to moderate my comments so that I rate as average the books halfway down my ordered list! This, I realise, is rarely done in poetry (films much more often get 1 star out of 5).

He notes also that "More remarkable is the general lack of references to other Australian poets, both past and present". I don't notice this anti-local tendency as much here, though younger poets cite US poets as influences and yardsticks more often than they used to.

Producing a UK version of Etherington's article would take a while. Maybe some Masters student might try it. Maybe they already have.

p.s. Etherington praises a review by Bonny Cassidy.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Science and poetry again

Several poets are drawn to using science in their poems. In England the poetry of Prynne, Dorothy Lehane, etc sometimes includes a liberal sprinkling of science vocabulary. More mainstream are Heidi Williamson and Lavinia Greenlaw who use science or (more often) scientists as subject matter.

Science is the new Exotic to some (mysterious trinkets from another land), to others it's the new Theology - deep truths masked by code. With its cornucopia of new ("X-ray") and re-used ("charm") vocabulary it's tempting to raid its word kitty. If the result sounds clever, the reader might think the poet's clever too. Few readers are going to be in a position to challenge from a scientific position, and in any case, what would it prove? A poem's not a thesis. However, I suspect that if poets appropriated the vocabulary of Art in similarly cavalier fashion, they wouldn't get away with it.

The risk with using science terms is that the poem is going to come over differently depending on how much science the reader knows. This risk applies to many types of allusions of course, but in the science case the reading communities are easier to define, and the material may more easily become out-dated.

Using science words is easy. Less frequently, poets deal with science (and maths) concepts. We are used to philosophical or religious poetry, poetry that presents an argument. Quantum theory and Relativity are common themes for those wanting to express scientific ideas poetically.

"Gathering Evidence" by Caoilinn Hughes is the latest addition to maths/science poetry that I've read. Like Greenlaw, Hughes has written about Marie Curie, but she also uses technical terms in the way that Lehane sometimes does. Here's an example - "If he could secure/ a hailstone in a wheelbarrow, with solid algebra, he could square a circle.// To square a circle! He might as well have measured the Garden/ of Eden if he could master this binomial expansion". Maybe it's this kind of writing that encouraged a reviewer to write - Hughes uses scientific language with such precision that I wondered if she had an adviser on hand (booksellers New Zealand)

On the back of Williamson's book it says that her "fascination with science leads her to explore less usual territories for poetry, including mathematics, chemistry, and computer programming, as well as space travel, electricity, and evolution". I think that more poets who write about science go into it nowadays with their eyes more pragmatically open than that -

  • "The main difficulty with 'Night Photograph' has been the “poetry about science” tag. I grew up in a family of scientists and have long been fascinated by time and space, so this is a natural source of metaphor for me. I only became conscious of how much science there is in the book when it was pointed out. Since then, I have resisted science like hell. It is mostly too seductive, incomprehensible and exciting to be anything other than borrowed" - Lavinia Greenlaw, interview in Thumbscrew (1997)
  • "I married an astronomer! ... I think initially I was trying to write metaphors for the science, based on human experience but that wasn’t working out so well, the science was present, but the poetry seemed dry. I didn’t think I was achieving anything more than representing the original idea, theory, or astrophotography I was looking at, or the paper I was researching. So I tried to do more than represent the original by using the science as a launch pad but moving away from it, by keeping a dialogue with human concerns at the same time" - Dorothy Lehane, interview in Annex (2013)

Andrew Duncan reviewing Lehane's "Ephemeris" in Litter magazine writes that "Lehane’s project has to do with combining poetry and science. The two are intertwined in a very specific way here: objective knowledge separates projections of feelings and wishes from the information provided by the eyes, but here the idea is to interfuse them. Her poems are intensely personal and highly coded: everything profound loves a mask".

He goes on to suggest that "The poetry-science project is likely to draw a great deal of attention in the next twenty years or so. It is quite hard to define what the purpose is; I think the core is the sense of opportunity, that there is a wilderness here, and that if you buy creative people time they will wander around that wilderness and bring back things never before seen. Part of the impetus is the wish of museum staff to make their holdings presented anew in visible or audible form."

I think he's right in suggesting that there may be some mutually beneficial schemes available. I've written about Poetry about Science in the UK before, so I won't repeat the arguments here, other than to point out the risk that a mutually beneficial scheme can sometimes turn into uncritical mutual back-scratching.