Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Cambridge Writers

Congratulations to Ilse Pedler, who's won MsLexia's pamphlet prize. Seren will publish it in March 2016. Ilse attends the Cambridge Writers poetry group that I attend. Another member, Diana Brodie, had a book published by Salzburg Press in 2013. A previous member, Emma Danes, was published by Smith Doorstep in 2013. And my pamphlet came out in 2010. Not bad for a little group.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

A prose submission schedule for early 2016

As more magazines introduce submission windows, and competitions increase their significance, it's worth planning ahead. I shall try to submit to these (mostly UK) competitions and submission windows -

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Cold Reading

When you write a review you'd like the author to describe you as empathetic and perceptive, someone who really understands what's inside the author's head. The experts at appearing to be insightful are people who give psychic readings. Rowland in "The full facts book of cold reading" explains some of the tricks, with examples - e.g. the 'Rainbow Ruse' where opposite traits are predicted, as in

  • "You can be a very considerate person, very quick to provide for others, but there are times ... when you recognise a selfish streak in yourself"

(p.32). Sounds familiar? How about

  • "Condensed, intellectually rigorous and challenging, but nevertheless readable and entertaining" (about Raymond Tallis)
  • "These poems speak in a voice of resonant mystery, detached yet tender" (about Peter Streckfus)
  • "Her poems have both great delicacy and an undeniable toughness" (about Maura Dooley)

Another trick is to make an observation/prediction that seems surprising or insightful but isn't (the Barnum/Forer effect). A psychic reader suggesting that a person's father died with chest or abdomen problems is quite likely to be right. Similarly, a critic might suggest that a poet who uses rural settings has read Heaney.

When you read out a poem you don't have long to convince the audience that you're worth attending to. Like a psychic's audience, the audience for poetry readings is often receptive, especially if you have appropriate credentials and behave according to the audience's expectations. The skeptic's dictionary points out that psychics' audiences are

  • inclined to find more meaning in a situation than there actually is
  • likely to remember the hits and forget the misses.
  • generally self-centered, have unrealistic views of themselves, and will generally accept claims about themselves that reflect how they wish to be.

Presenting a difficult poem is already flattering the audience whose self-image is enhanced (perhaps even mirrored) by finding meanings. Phrases that fail will be forgotten as long as there's the occasional striking success. The one thing performers mustn't do is shatter the illusion of meaning, or hint that it's all bluff. One doubter in the room can destroy the effect.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

A few successes

In the last few weeks I've passed my "250 acceptances" milestone thanks to "New Walk", "London Grip" and "Orbis". I've also got into "Mill" (a Templar anthology) and "Quintet and other poets", an anthology from Cinnamon.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Stories from the Uncanny Valley

The uncanny valley effect describes what happens when something is unsettlingly close to being realistic. A nearly realistic wig attracts longer stares than an outlandish hair-do. In a horror movie, a person with slightly odd behaviour (e.g. Norman Bates) can be more disturbing than a plainly mad axe-man.

To me, all "stories" are artificial, it's just that some of them pretend not to be. In "The Best American Short Stories 1996" edited by John Edgar Wideman, two authors describe how their stories begin unrealistically without having a narrative impetus or a single consciousness -

  • "I write hundreds of pages of fragments every year and put them in folders together, hoping they will mate ... I am always groping in the dark when it comes down to actually fitting pieces of these fragments together" (Dan Chaon)
  • "I wanted the story to hinge or unify itself with a series of repetitions and interlocking images: water, birds, flight, God, sugar, junk, and so on. It's something of a contrivance to have Scout kill himself" (Jean Thompson)

I use both of these techniques. Sometimes there's much symbolic interlocking in the language, despite the main character's life falling apart. Just as a painting can be organised around constellations of colour (the blue of a saint's eyes matching the blue of the sky) so a story can have a non-linear organisational structure - the storyline being accidental, emergent; the characters not burgeoning from an inner soul of necessity but constructed as a sop for readers who want a character to empathize with.

In some of my pieces, the voice and or the plot are chosen to give me the chance to combine elements that don't normally co-exist. To say that the character doesn't ring true is as relevant as saying that Wallace Stevens' emperor of ice cream is unconvincing because he's clearly deficient both in marketing skills and leadership. In such circumstances the reality-hungry reader would have an easier time if there were fewer character-like elements - they raise the expectation of characters existing, leaving the reader in the uncanny valley of near-realism. So maybe I should try making the lack of realism more explicit, my intentions clearer. The result might tend towards being an essay or being fragmentary, but that's something I'll have to live with.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Cinnamon Press at CB2, September 2015

Yesterday I attended part of Cinnamon's 10th anniversary roadshow. Jan Fortune entertainingly and informatively introduced 4 writers -

  • Jane Monson was the only writer I knew about. She read from The Shared Surface which I'd already read. Sometimes when I hear a poem I can appreciate it in way that I couldn't on the page. I don't think that happened in this case. The book's promoted as prose poetry, though I think I need to listen to them as if it's poetry, and I think having the text before me would help.
  • Adam Craig read from his novel "Vitus Dreams". It's no ordinary novel. On the night I think it was described as experimental. In the past I would have leapt at the chance to read such a piece. At the moment however, I'm avoiding such challenges. I note that he's going to publish a collection of collection of micro-fictions, which I'll look forward to. Both he and Jane Monson operate on the prose/poetry border, a zone I'm exploring with short pieces too.
  • Maria Apichella read from "Paga" (Winner of the Cinnamon Press Pamphlet Prize 2014, adjudicated by Ian Gregson). These were the night's most accessible poems. One was a love poem to her husband (who was present) written before they'd met.
  • Laura Seymour read from "The Shark Cage". She's finished her Ph.D (on Shakespeare and cognition) whereas Maria Apichella's still doing hers. Though I couldn't take it all in, there was much imagery that sounded interesting, and it wasn't at the expense of a sort of narrative, so I bought her book. Flicking through, I'm impressed.

It would be wrong to deduce from this that all Cinnamon's prose is experimental (some of it isn't even very "literary"). Nor do all their poets have Ph.Ds. What helps keep the range fresh is that several of the books were chosen by external judges.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Nine Arches Press

It just so happens that my pile of things to read has reached a seam of Nine Arches Press publications. Recently I've read -

and not long ago I read

Publishers nowadays have to wear many hats. Jane Commane, who runs the press, is active in social media and is involved with festivals, shows, the magazine Under the Radar, mentoring, and running workshops. The hope is that these activities cross-fertilise, producing more readers and writers, all the time raising the profile of the press. Collaborative activities include

  • Leicester Shindig, a bi-monthly spoken word event organised with The Centre for New Writing & Crystal Clear Creators
  • A mentoring scheme Primers with the Poetry School

Keeping all this going is hard work. Jane was in "Best British Poetry 2011" but I guess writing takes a backseat nowadays, and she's not doing a part-time non-publishing job any more. It would have been fun to try to interview her, but Roy Marshall has done a good job there already.

When one assesses success of a publisher, longevity is a factor (it started in 2008) as is impact ("The Midlands" was reviewed in The Guardian), but in the end the quality of the books is the deciding factor. Buy a few and see what you think. Go to their stall at Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair at Conway Hall, London on Saturday 26th September or have a look online.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Tweening, Larkin and Rupert Bear

When Disney animations were hand-made, the master artists drew the key frames (the "keys"), leaving assistants to complete the frames in between (a job they called "tweening"). If apprentice artists could tween, why not knowledgeable audiences? Poetry has such an audience. But there are consequences to sacking the tweeners -

  • Suppose people tween differently? As long as the distance between keys isn't large, there shouldn't be problems. The keys act as checkpoints so that people can resynchronise if they feel they need to
  • If the distances become too large there might be a loss of narrative. Consequently there's a tendency for each key scene becomes more self-contained. The keys become a series of disconnected tableaux - a triptych, a gallery.

A common way of tweening in literature is to supply backstory, motivations, or justifications - in short, telling rather than showing. The amount of this varies according to the style. In the TV series "The Wire" there's little "telling"; the writers decided that all sound had to be sourced - no voice-overs and no background mood music. All music had to come from a car radio, an open tenement window, etc. Some poetry has a similarly purist approach, using juxtaposed images to keep "telling" to a minimum. The risk is that such poetry becomes a game of charades, a dumbed-down mime-show. Complex arguments are difficult to show, concepts like fate harder still.

Sometimes the "telling" (the interpretation, the moral) is only at the end, though this is rather unfashionable nowadays. One way to convey the information without despoiling artistic purity is to employ metalepsis, making it hard to distinguish between the "show" and "tell" elements. A cinematic example would be for there to be a voice-over scene during which a character walks into the frame speaking the voice-over.

Another, more reader-friendly approach is that adopted by the Rupert annuals. The Rupert Bear stories began as a newspaper cartoon strip, but soon became better known for the annuals. The page layout supports several reading modes. Each page has the story title at the top. Beneath that there's a page subtitle. Young children can follow the pictures. Each picture has a rhyming couplet beneath it - e.g. He meets Pauline, and straight away/ He tells her all he has to say. At the foot of the page is prose - Rupert and Snuffy run towards the tent. Pauline is the first Guide he meets and he pours out his story. People can read the verse, the prose or both.

An entertaining exercise is to take a poem (by Larkin, say, The Whitsun Weddings) and give it the Rupert treatment, pictorialising the imagery (at 1.20pm on a sunny day, a quarter-full train with all its windows open leaves a city station), adding sub-titles to describe how none thought of "how their lives would all contain this hour". Trying the same exercise with Larkin's "Toads" would yield a very differently proportioned layout. I suspect that with some poets their poems would all have the same proportion of text to pictures.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Non-elitist, working class, or political UK literary magazines

Here are 3 UK magazines for non-elitist, working class, or political poems and stories -

  • Prole - "We want to appeal to a wide audience and reconnect a broad readership with excellent examples of poetry and short prose. Anything that sniffs of literary elitism is highly unlikely to make it through the editorial process. If it does, it’s only because we won’t have noticed and the piece has other areas of merit. Obscure references and highly stylised structures and forms that exist only to aggrandise the writer and appeal to the coffee lounges of our older universities are not welcome."
  • Proletarian poetry - "a home for poets and poems that portray working class lives from many different angles; corrugated iron and bricks, brass bands, rogues, grandparents, historical figures, imprisoned poets, the contradictions of capitalism and communism, suffragettes, homeless, transgender revolutionaries, postman, bookmakers, and many, many more."
  • The Stare's Nest - "send poems about current affairs, our culture, media, or political system. As well as poems about political problems and the occasional out-and-out rant, we would like to encourage positive poems about hope, inclusivity, lessons from the past and visions of a better future. Above all the poem should be relevant to both poets and non-poets"

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.

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.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Love, Love, Love

Time for a blast of egoism (aka marketing). I may as well take advantage of my surname - other people do. I was never into the Beatles, but they got a few things right. Here's some graffiti from Abbey Road.

The reason I write so much down (and take photos) is that my memory's poor. I even need to ask others about my childhood. That deficiency has advantages too - I tend to archive things, ephemera especially. I've a weakness for nostalgia and pottering in lofts.

See my illustrated CV for a potted history of places and events. I've not entirely given up the interests I had when I was younger, they've all been useful in their way, though my basketball aspirations faded fast (I'm 5' 8"). My career development, like that of many people, wasn't carefully planned. I tried various cities out, and rather expected to be self-employed in some way, or to do a 9 to 5 job just for the money.

I did physics and maths at university - the "Church–Turing thesis" type of maths in the end - but I don't think that Maths is really my subject. Having done Maths, Applied Maths and Physics at A level, the options were limited.

Computers have figured in several ways over the years, both in work (self-employed and otherwise) and play. I did a brief Fortran course while doing Maths, then after my degree played about at home. Before doing a Masters I wrote a cassette-based game. Then I found gainful employment. We've always had a programmable domestic computer. BASIC was the first language I had any success with. Search for "Tim Love Computing" and you'll soon end up in the UK's History of Computing Museum.

Writing's another hobby.

  • "truly excellent website", Michael Donaghy
  • "I admire the intelligence, seriousness and exhaustive reading I find here", Prof George Szirtes, Aug 2010
  • "I commend TL's website to you as an excellent resource", Prof Stephen Payne, Nov 2010
  • "Tim Love is a very clever chap", Jane Holland, 2010
  • "Just a quick message to say how much I enjoyed your Happenstance chapbook. It was unexpected in the best way. The boldness and intelligence of the poems reminded me of twentieth century German poetry. It's a remarkable collection, and I hope it thrives", Alison Brackenbury, Dec 2010

I've lived in Cambridge since 1987, always working in the same place, but shifting emphasis every so often. I began working with computers before the web was invented, then being webmaster became part of my role. I don't do much system management nowadays. I've taught future astronauts and gold medalists though.

When I was little, the only spaghetti I knew about came in cans. I preferred baked beans. I visited Italy first when I InterRailed in about 1980. I've been there many times since (by car, train, and plane). My inlaws live north of Milan, but we've visited most areas, Sicily being the main omission. I've put online some write-ups of Italian books that I've read. Alas, my Italian's not good enough for the write-ups to be in Italian.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Some prose recommendations

Glancing back through some of my write-ups I noticed some authors and works I was particularly struck by, but haven't yet suggested to people. So here goes -

  • Short story writers - Padrika Tarrant, Sarah Hall, Jai Clare, Anthony Doerr
  • Flash/Short stories/Novellas -
    • "Everything in this country must" (Colum McCann)
    • "Story of your life" (Ted Chiang)
    • "What I've seen" (Dragan Todorovic)
    • "The Goldfish" (David Means)
    • "All downhill from here" (Guy Ware)
    • "Remaking the moon" (David Gaffney)
  • Novels - "So many ways to begin" (Jon McGregor)

Monday, 30 March 2015

The language of menus (and poetry reviews)

  • "a subtle hint of truffle"
    Why "subtle" rather than "slight" or simply "weak"? The same trick is used in poetry reviews, especially with comic verse written by famous, non-comic poets. "weak" implies a lack (in quality or quantity) of ingredients. "subtle" is more to do with perception than final significance. It describes something that's hard to initially discern, perhaps because there's little worth discerning (i.e. the effect is weak), but it may describe something that though well masked has a strong effect once it's detected (e.g. a sigh that means so much). You need to be an astute observer/taster to notice something subtle - the recipient is being flattered by the writer.
  • "Rutland beef in a white sauce"
    Why not "beef in white sauce"? Detail and particularity are valued in poems. In poetry it won't do to give someone a flower, or see a bird pull at a worm. Use African pansies, and magpies. There might not be significance in the choice of detail - in this menu example the extra "a" adds no information, and there's no reason why Rutland beef should be prized. What matters is the evident attention to detail - a reason for the poetry reader to be optimistic.
  • "with a smooth articulation of aftertastes"
    Beware when a word representing an admired quality in one context is used in quite another. Wine in particular needs to import terms, given the limited range of raw materials at its disposal. As soon as more than one factor is involved in a meal or poem, terms can be used from other domains (often engineering) to indicate successful integration - cogs meshing, etc.
  • "clean-flavoured, relaxed, precise cooking"
    Precision is valued in many disciplines. Poetry precision is harder to define and measure than precision of musical performance or realistic art (look no further than the tolerance granted to line-breaks), and yet poetry reviewers, even good ones, praise exactness without explaining the term. For example, Judy Brown in "Poetry Review V103:4 (Winter 2013)" mentions how the reviewed poems have "engineering exactness", and "how precisely they achieve their friable effects".

Thursday, 19 March 2015


Friends sometimes ask unpublished writers why they don't just self-publish nowadays. After all, an e-book's so easy to produce. Why involve a publisher?

One answer is that being associated with a publisher connects you to other writers. You can put on readings together. Another is that if you're lucky, the reputation of the publisher will enhance yours.

Sean O'Brien's review of Tony Williams' "The Midlands" isn't just great news for the poet, but for the publisher Nine Arches Press too.

My other publisher, HappenStance Press, is also active. Most recently, a video of Helena Nelson in conversation with Lindsay MacGregor has appeared in which Creative Writing students are given tips about getting published. Amongst my HappenStance stablemates are 3 generous bloggers who I always read - Matthew Stewart, Matt Merritt (who's also a Nine Arches Press poet) and Fiona Moore (Saboteur's "Best Reviewer 2014").

HappenStance has a subscription scheme so that those who haven't been published can still feel they belong.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Does writing prose affect my poetry production?

Below are graphs showing how many poems, stories and Flash pieces I've written and had published since 1991.

I was curious about whether writing lots of Flash suppressed my poetry or story writing. Though a peak in the production of one type of writing often coincides with a trough on another graph, it as often coincides with another peak, so although there's a relationship it's not a simple one. I guess Flash and stories are most nearly the inverse of each other, which isn't such a surprise.

If one views the blue lines (how much I wrote) as quantity and the red lines (how much I published) as quality, I'd say I've not improved over the years. Nor has my quality control changed - the more I write, the more I get published, though my volume of output (which is never high) is patchy to say the least. Some years I produce no examples of a mode. Stories in particular don't come naturally - I have to commit myself to writing them; the temptations of Flash/Microfiction are too great. Increasingly my stories are episodic, a sequence of related flashes.

Or perhaps earnings should be the measure of quality. I hope not, but for completeness, here's the data.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Some recent story successes

  • A New Start (Cortland Review) - Written in 2014. It'll be interesting to see which of its non-mainstream features people have the most trouble with.
  • Death and Deception (the Honest Ulsterman) - Written in 2009. Flash-length Creative non-fiction?
  • "Out of the Blue" (written in 2004) will be in Cambridge Writers competition anthology e-book later this year - highly commended (i.e. not in the first 4 of the competition's 18 entries!)
  • Correspondence (Necessary Fiction) - I wrote the first draft of this back in 1992. Subsequent drafts varied in how easily they could be treated as SF.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Submitting to UK prose anthologies

The Bath Short Story Award, the Bristol Short Story competition, the Bridport Prize, and the BBC National Short Story Award all have associated anthologies containing their short-listed stories. Below are some non-competition prose anthologies that you might aim for -

Magazines like the monthly Writing Magazine have calls for submissions to less regular anthologies - usually themed. Vanessa Gebbie pointed out that there's an open call for story submissions for an anthology to be published next Autumn by Freight books, on the hundredth anniversary of Einstein publishing his Theory of General Relativity - see the Call for entries (closing date 28 Feb, 2015)

A word of warning - in the poetry world people sometimes invite submissions for an anthology, printing most of what they receive and expecting contributors to buy a copy. Prose is far less prone to these money-making schemes, but it's worth sticking to the established publishers if possible. And of course it's a good idea to buy their books.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

A busy 2014 for Commane, Marshall, Nelson, and Gebbie

Some people were so busy during 2014 (and deservedly so) that even reading about their exploits tires me.

  • Nine Arches Press: Review of 2014 - Jane Commane lists the happenings of a very busy year. And it doesn't end there - yesterday, Daniel Sluman was listed as one of Huffington Post's 5 British Poets to Watch in 2015 (chosen by Robert Peake)
  • Becoming a poet - Roy Marshall writes a tongue-in-cheek (maybe completely true) account of what becoming a poet is really like (he should know - he's in many of the magazines I read)
  • Shutting Up - Helena Nelson reports on reading the latest batch of HappenStance submissions ("162 poets sent in work. ... 107 were female and 55 were male ... About 1600 poems ... 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 ... I took 47 pages of (secret) notes")
  • 2014 round up, with special mentions - Vanessa Gebbie recounts her year.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Call my bluff

My Litrefs Articles site is looked at over 100 times a day, but some of the articles are rarely read. It's just dawned on me that most of the unpopular pieces try to expose the tricks of the trade. At how many poetry workshops are poets told to muddy the water by throwing in some obscurity if a poem doesn't sound deep enough, or add loads of white space if a poem's too short or simple? If the poets decide not to use these devices, at least they'll be more able to identify their use when reading poems, so I think the articles are useful.

The situation where these devices are more likely to succeed is when there's no penalty for over-use. Unless more critics are prepared to say that they don't understand something, or that 8 words scattered across a page are unlikely to work, then these devices will continue to be popular.