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Twelve Reasons Why Poets Should Write Reviews

Okay: here goes.

  1. Poetry is a communication — a message in a bottle. A review is a reply.
  2. There is no shortage of poets. But good poetry readers are rare. Reviewing helps you read well.
  3. Reviewing is educative. You look up the references, you look up the poet, you pay attention. You learn things you never knew you didn't know.
  4. Reviewing poetry gives craft insight: you see new tricks to try, and also some to avoid.
  5. Most poets like to have work reviewed. If you give reviews, you get reviews (not always in equal proportion).
  6. Poets need to write well in prose too. Reviewing (with an editor and some constraints) strengthens prose style and confidence.
  7. Poetry books are costly, especially if you read widely. But review copies are usually complimentary.
  8. Reviews are an art form. Writing them is creative. 
  9. Reviewing strengthens your profile as a writer and extends your network.
  10. People sometimes think reviews are about criticism or praise. Not necessarily. They are (or can be) about expressing interest and encouragement.
  11. Reviewing is a way of paying respect to the community you're part of, putting your money where your mouth is.
  12. A book and its reviews are a conversation anyone can join, provided they use words carefully. Join the conversation!


Please take a look at sphinxreview.co.uk with its ongoing resource of OPOI reviews, and, if you can bear a few more emails in your inbox, subscribe to the list. 

This will mean you get notifications about new material on the site, mainly new OPOI reviews. Such emails tend to come in little flurries when groups of reviews are posted. If it drives you nuts, you can unsubscribe at any time.

OPOIs are short reviews of poetry pamphlets which focus on only one point of interest (OPOI) in not more than 350 words.

Far more poets would like their pamphlets to be OPOI-ed than would like to write the OPOIs. Forty-three poetry pamphlets have been received for review this year so far, and only three new reviewers have offered their services. More are needed. Over 60 pamphlets are waiting hopefully.

Some poets don't have the confidence to write reviews. They are nervous of this role, which they see as authoritative and judgmental. OPOI reviews are neither. They are edited before they go public. They are a good thing to do, and if you are reviewing for the first time, the ideal place to start.




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What do Poetry Editors do?

STUDY-EDITOR

What DO they do?  I'm not always sure of the answer, but I know what I do. It's a place to start. Oh but — health warning: this blog entry is quite boring.

It's easier by far to talk about other kinds of editing. When you edit prose, you check for consistency of house style, regularise spelling and punctuation, remove stray spaces, sort out grammatical glitsches. It all makes complete sense.

But you can't do that in a poem, or not necessarily. Many poets don't have systematic punctuation. Some use punctuation in one poem but not the text. Or minimal punctuation in one, and then masses of dashes in another.

Quite often poets even withhold the full stop at the end of a poem, on purpose. They stick gaps between words. They throw ellipses all over the place ....

Frankly, poets are an editing nightmare!

So (when occupying the editor's role) you do your best. You work out what seems to be the system in any one poem or set of poems and you make suggestions for change, if appropriate.

You work out whether anomalies are deliberate or accidental.

You work out whether ambiguities are intended or not.

I did a workshop recently which included 'editing' as its topic, so I drew up two lists for the participants.

List one is the ordinary things editors (and typesetters) check mostly without even thinking.

List two is the point where the editor (or it could be a critical and respectful friend) gets more challenging.

All these editors, when it comes to your own work, are you.

List A (simple):

Make all the dashes the same size (m dashes): many people are confused about this.

Reduce two spaces after full stops (or colons) to a single space.

Make sure ellipses have the correct number of dots.

Consider direct speech, how it is presented (speech marks or italics), whether it's consistent, and whether it works.

Identify punctuation system (if there is one) and make it consistent if possible.

If poet uses gaps inside the lines work out what system/consistency is (if any) i.e. how many space-bar spaces makes up a gap.­­

Consider whether line length can be accommodated without doglegs or, if a dog has to break a leg, where it should do it.

Consider whether poem will fit inside an A5 page, or any page, advantageously.

Check for errors in capitalisation e.g. seasons.

Check spelling (US or English, practice or practise).

Check apostrophes.

Check for 'dumb' quote-marks and make them all curly.

Check references for accuracy – dates, places, people etc.

Simplify punctuation if it is over-complicated (eg unnecessary number of semi-colons and colons).

Italicise Latin/foreign words or botanical references.

Make heading styles consistent.


List B

Check for repetitions – if intended, do they work? If unintended, need to think again e.g. too many uses of 'then' or 'as'.

If references are difficult, consider whether poem might need note or epigraph.

Consider effectiveness of line breaks. Do any of them seem to throw up barriers, or are any too obviously 'clever' e.g. fall over / a cliff; go round / the bend.

If the poem is 'after' somebody, decide what 'after' means in this case. May need to track down the source and see what is owed.

Consider title. What does it contribute? Does it replay a key phrase from later in the poem and thus steal some thunder? If so, suggest change.

Consider the form: does it work for the content? Would change of stanza groups or lineation be worth considering?

Consider shapes: is the poet doing much the same thing in several poems: e.g. generally long and thin, generally couplets, generally even-sized chunks. And if so, does this have a cumulatively dull effect?

Individual words: do any of them feel too 'easy' or even risk cliché?

Are there too many adjectives?

Point of view: 'I', 'you', 'one', 'we', 'she': is it mixed? Is it right?

Metaphor: does it work? If mixed, does the mix work?

If the first four lines are a little flat, decide at what point reader attention is captured. If parts seem to be unduly hard to follow (or a complete mystery), try to work out whether this is intentional and necessary, or whether simplification would be a good idea.

Sometimes there's an obvious point where the energy kicks in, and that's not always the first line. What happens if we start with stanza 2?

And that's about it. I promise to be more entertaining next time and not so up my own ellipsis.


Recent Comments
Jinny Fisher
Not boring! A really helpful breakdown, the A/B lists. There seems to be some dispute over em vs en dashes. My editor pointblank i... Read More
Sunday, 28 April 2019 14:35
Ama Bolton
I'm in the midst of an editing job (someone else's poems, not mine.) I did not find your post boring in the least! There's a lot t... Read More
Sunday, 28 April 2019 17:55
Helena Nelson
Jinny, your ed. may use n dashes as house style. Ems, however, are not American. I use them in all my publications.
Sunday, 28 April 2019 18:23
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EILEEN ÒG

MUM-AND-DAD Kath & Howard Curry: The singers

In the olden days, before there were radios in cars, folk travelling on long journeys used to sing. As a child, I always liked story songs best. Our family of four used to rattle out Clementine and Walzing Matilda with gusto. Walzing Matilda has a ghost in it and ghosts are always good. I think of Clementine as our mother's song, Walzing Matilda as our dad's — I never learned all the words to Walzing M. because they were so mysterious — jumbuck and tucker bag and swagman. But it was great hearing dad sing it and joining in the chorus..

At bedtime, sometimes an adult would sing to my sister and me to get us off to sleep, especially our grandmother on dad's side (we called her 'Nanny'). As I get older, her songs draw me back, and I wonder about the world they came out of — music hall, perhaps, or old 78 records. Where did she first hear them? Inside what kind of life? How did she know all the words — because she did know all the words, and once I did too, and so did my sister, who had a fabulous memory. As we grew up and were assailed by contemporary tunes, the words started to disappear.

It's a very strange thing about being a granny-age yourself, though. You find yourself losing some bits of memory while other bits come back, like an onion unpeeling and rediscovering itself. Snatches of those old songs keep coming back to me in bits and pieces, phrases and flashbacks. Thanks to the wonder of the web, if I can remember even some of the words, I can find recordings, I can even find (what a joy!) all the words.

Here, for example, is one of Nanny's favourites — 'I wouldn't leave my little wooden hut for you'. And she often sang a lullaby — 'Sweet and Low', the words of which are by Tennyson (we were injected with poetry without knowing). I can hear her quavery voice now, and since I'm the age she would have been then, mine quavers too.

She liked strongly sentimental songs. Her repertoire included 'I'm forever blowing bubbles' and 'Sonny Boy'. And she particularly liked (and we did too) 'If those lips could only speak', which I'm betting she knew in the Peter Dawson version I've linked to. It's a music hall song and she told us this song was based on a true story — that the woman in the beautiful picture in a beautiful golden frame was shot by her husband in a hunting accident. Did she invent this?

But the song I loved best was one I could never find, and mum sang it. I thought it was called 'Eileen Orr', and I always remembered, and loved, the tune, and some of the words — but with gaps. A few years ago I looked for it on the web and failed to find it.

But this week I looked harder and there it was, in several recordings on YouTube. Where did our young mother first learn this song? Lord knows. Her version, as I remember it, was not wholly true to the Percy French lyrics. I think she did sing 'Eileen Orr', not the proper name in the Irish song, which is Eileen Òg

Eileen was the Pride of Petrovore, not (as I'm sure my mother sang and we sang with her) the Pride of Pethragar. 

The villain of the story should be 'the hardest featured man in Petravore' — not, as we sang, 'the ugliest looking man in Pethragar' — but we would never have understood 'hardest featured' — maybe she changed it. I'm sure we sang: 'Eileen Orr, sure that was what her name was, / Through the Blarney she was also famous'. 

In fact, the official version goes:

Well Eileen Òg, that was what her name was
Through the Barony her features made her famous

In whatever mode you sing it, it's a beautiful song, a cracking tune, and some of the lyrics are terrific. Boys oh boys, it's where I first learned how cannily words can fit to a rhythm and how utterly satisfying it is when they do. 

And 'Eileen Òg' is a story, sad and funny. To think that some of its words have been ringing in my head all my life and now — by some miracle — I find people still belting it out, making new recordings, passing it on. Cathy Jordan's version is a delight. I'm singing along at this minute. Eileen Òg — sure that was what her name was! 


Recent Comments
Helena Nelson
Each of them has a cigarette in their right hand. Probably what saw my dad off in his early sixties...
Monday, 18 March 2019 10:21
Helena Nelson
Yes, it's a happy memory. We didn't spend a lot of time together at home, not as a family, but on holiday it was different. Someti... Read More
Monday, 18 March 2019 11:53
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POEMS ON TEA-TOWELS

WINDOW

The reading window here closed two weeks ago now, though it took a while to recover. There were 147 sets of poems in all. Thank you to all the poets who trusted me with their work. I know it must be scary to send them, especially for the first time.

I had more envelopes this time round than I could cope with. However, the process of reading and actively responding continues to interest me very much. What is this thing we are all absorbed in? What are people writing about, and why? One thing is clear to me: it is not done lightly. When people write something they call a 'poem', it matters to them, more than ordinarily.

At the same time, it is an unavoidable fact that editors have a love/hate relationship with poetic texts because of over-exposure. There is a point at which you think you can't bear to look at another one – ever. And then a poem breaks through, because a few – always a few – are magical. Or sometimes it is just one line, or one stanza, that does the trick. This moment makes it all worthwhile.

In between, undiluted poetry can, after three weeks or so, make a person crabbit, as we say in Scotland. Particularly crabbit about ubiquitous semi-colons and certain recurring forms. Thankfully, nobody sends me villanelles or sestinas these days, but I'm afraid I have become allergic to instruction poems too. For example, here's Neil Gaiman – he's famous enough not to mind taking pot-shots from me. His 'Instructions' begin:

Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never
saw before.
Say 'please' before you open the latch,
go through,
walk down the path.

This has only one effect on me. I want to shout: No, I won't!

Other recurring features are herons, allotments and migrants. I shift uncomfortably when I meet the words 'heft' and now (a new one) 'atop'.

One interesting issue is the poem formatted for an A4 page. Most of us word-process and print our work on standard A4 pages, but books and magazines (with notable exceptions like Poetry London, Artemis and The Rialto) use something closer to A5. Sometimes poets design an extraordinary piece – visually designed rather like a poster, with some lines right-justified, some left, some dotted around in the middle. It might even be a concrete poem – something in the shape of a bee-hive, for example – and the shape takes up the whole A4 sheet. But because I publish books and pamphlets, what I see immediately is something that won't fit on one of my pages. Whether or not it fits on one of 'my' pages does not, of course, matter in the greater scheme of things, but being aware of the factor does. It's important to consider where and how these poems are designed to be read: are they hoping to find a home in an A4 magazine, or will they be posters, tea-towels – or what? I am really not being rude. I think poems on tea-towels are a great idea (depending on the poem).

I scribble a lot on people's poems in pencil. During this 'window' I wrote many times: 'Writing simply is the hardest thing'. Often it occurs to me that people are afraid to write plainly, in case it wouldn't be a poem at all. But then, it might. And sometimes, it is. 


Recent Comments
Jennifer Cole
147 sets! That could be 882 poems - are you considering ways of limiting this? Give us some warning won't you. Thanks for the tips... Read More
Sunday, 17 February 2019 13:12
Heather Trickey
Thank you so much for doing this. Tea towels ... I can see this working.
Sunday, 17 February 2019 21:47
Jane Wheeler
gifted instead of given is my pet hate, and it is everywhere now. instruction poems - now supposing one has written a poem to a "y... Read More
Friday, 12 April 2019 11:52
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OPEN THE WINDOW AND WHERE IS RUMPELSTILTZKIN?

20181114_102845

The reading window is about to open. Look back, look out, look forward.

On HappenStance's sister website, Sphinx review, this year we OPOI-reviewed 92 pamphlets. They came in through the front door. But we received far more than we OPOI-ed. 

The stated aim is to write about each and every one that's sent in, but it's an impossible aim. 

Besides, who will read all the reviews? Let's be honest. Reviews are not top of the reading list for most people, unless the review is of their own book.

Sometimes it occurs to me to offer authors an OPOI review of their publication provided they write one (of somebody else's pamphlet). But then some of the authors might write thoughtlessly or carelessly because their hearts weren't in it. 

Still, a mammoth number of poetry pamphlets now appears every year. Of course the authors like critical notice. But how is it to be managed? We did 92. I have 68 more pamphlets sitting here right this minute unwritten-about. I need Rumpelstiltskin.

Besides, there are more, far more. We weren't even sent copies of all the pamphlets that were produced. There must be 200-300 every year in the UK, at a guess. How would anybody ever know the real number? Many of them don't have ISB numbers. 

But the OPOI reviews are (yes, I am biassed) rather interesting to read, and writing reviews (especially OPOIs) is good for poets. I really think that. And if you've never done anything like this before, it's good training. You have a couple of kindly hands-on editors here to help. They're nice. 

This one is also currently sharpening her pencils for another purpose.

The poetry reading window is open from January 2nd to January 29th. Yay!

The window for offering OPOI reviews is open all year round.

Recent comment in this post
Helena Nelson
Making a comment on my own blog, it occurs to me how interesting it would be if a reading group took a particular pamphlet and eac... Read More
Monday, 31 December 2018 14:01
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THE NEED FOR GRAVY

ALAN_DIXON Christmas card woodcut by poet and artist Alan Dixon

Christmas is not so O-come-all-ye-faith-filled these days. I note a great many llamas on the cards this year. Things change. 

I don't mind the llamas, even the ones in Santa hats.

Over half a century ago, I was one of a generation of children who spent quite a lot of time in a church around December 25th. But we were not as faith-filled as you might think.

Children have a way of getting round the hugeness of religion, side-tracking it with their own take on things. Irreverence is a great asset when it comes to staying sane—though irreverence, too, is learned.

My maternal grandmother, who died when I was three, used to say (I know because my mother told me) 'There's an end to everything. Two to sausages.'

And my maternal grandfather, not famous for wit, allegedly said to my father at his wedding (it may have been part of a speech): 'This is the end to all your troubles, son. The front end.'

Then there was my close friend Jenny Green at school. She taught me a lot about subversion. At our school, everybody was issued with a hymn book. We had to make brown paper covers to keep them clean, and re-cover them annually. We carried those books dutifully to assembly each and every school-day morning. On the front cover most of us had written, as expected, HYMNS. But Jenny (oh how I admired her cleverness!) had written HERS.

Our favourite Christmas carols (all to be found inside HERS) were the ones we could subvert. Lord, how we need to subvert! 

(It is one of my favourite features of poetry too: sending the reader off with one set of expectations only to find the poem has overturned every one.) 

Our Father which art in heaven, Harold be thy name (one of my grandfathers was called Harold).

This very morning on the radio I heard a church choir singing one of our all-time favourites—'The angel Gabriel from Heaven came'. It has an undoubtedly beautiful tune, and lovely words too. But that's not why we liked it. We liked it because of the gravy.

The best kind of subversion is liberating because it undermines everything but nobody knows you're doing it. So shepherds washed their socks by night, and the Virgin Mary in that beautiful carol was not 'most highly favoured lady' but 'most highly flavoured gravy'.

On Christmas Day, we even got the gravy. 


Recent Comments
Helena Nelson
Keep 'em coming, my subversive readers! :-)
Sunday, 23 December 2018 16:28
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