Poetry-related posts

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
  2749 Hits
  1 Comment

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
Guest — Maria Taylor
My ten year old girls are constantly singing this version of the Wham Christmas song: 'Last Christmas I gave you a car / and the v... Read More
Sunday, 23 December 2018 12:50
Guest — Charlotte Gann
Excellent! Please keep subverting, Hymnal Nelson x
Sunday, 23 December 2018 13:51
Guest — MANDY MACDONALD
Come for tea, my people.
Sunday, 23 December 2018 13:57
  1539 Hits
  5 Comments

THAT PESKY READING WINDOW

READING-WINDOW

So yes, for HappenStance subscribers, there really is an offer of detailed feedback on up to six poems twice a year. And the first window used to be December.

But look at the picture.  I believe the window is shut. That's because the reading window month has changed. It's now January, which gives you all of December and the beginning of January to think about it.

Please don't send poems early. The reading elf (see last week's blog) is knackered.

Of course, January is a cold month for having the windows open, but never mind. I have a log stove, several really warm pullovers and super-thick socks.

Recent comment in this post
Guest — Jinny Fisher
Wishing you a calm and draught-free Christmas,Nell!
Friday, 30 November 2018 10:20
  1825 Hits
  1 Comment

THE POETRY ELF FAILS TO WRITE THE RIGHT SORT OF BLOG

MAILSHO_20181118-122706_1 HappenStance mail in waiting

They have switched the Christmas lights on in our town and the shops (those of them that are still in business) are full of tinsel and elves.

Here at HappenStance HQ, two elves are busy putting bits of paper into envelopes. Tomorrow a mailshot goes out to the 310 postal subscribers and 100 or so electronic ones.

We have four new pamphlets out (or will have by tomorrow) and are hoping that some people will want to buy some as seasonal gifts. Poetry needs all the help it can get to find its way into people's houses. But assuming you buy one, the little folded, staple-stitched publication you will hold in your hand has weeks and weeks and weeks of activity behind it. It's the claws of Art, which extend to many activities.

First there's the acreage of time that the poet put into each line: the thought, the revision, the doubt, the risk. In some cases, this takes years. Well, you know about that.

Then there's the discussion of the poems one by one with me, the fate of the semi-colons, the ones that didn't make the cut, the titles that were changed, the order of contents — all of that business. Hours, rather than weeks, but then subsequent weeks of email exchanges about drafts (with four different poets at the same time).

There's the image on the cover and the discussions with Gillian Rose who draws them between fighting off small children. There are the images she and I rejected, and the days spent in In-Design and Photoshop trying (and frequently failing) to make the jacket look like I want it to. 

There's the title registration and uploading of jacket images to Nielsen Bookdata, and then, after an interval to allow them to be processed, the giant Amazon (oops, I haven't done Amazon yet — so add that to the list of things to do today, 21 and counting).

There's the trip with the pamphlet pages to be printed to Robert and Liz at Dolphin Press in Glenrothes, about a mile from here. Yes, this is very old-fashioned. I print them and take them. There's the review of what endpapers we have left or can use from Robert's stock. 

Then, for Robert at Dolphin, there's the making of the lithographic plates, the printing, and this time round there's the day the stapling machine broke and Robert spent three and a half hours fixing it (I think that was part way through D.A. Prince's Bookmarks, but it could have been Geoff Lander's The Lesser Mortal).

But before the stapling, there's the collating of pages (usually Robert and Liz's daughter Nicky does that), the filling of boxes. There's me driving there to pick up boxes, and me and Matt staggering along to the house with them (the hall is full of cardboard boxes and we haven't even picked up Meg Peacocke's Honeycomb or Helen Nicholson's Briar Mouth yet).

And the flyers. Each new pamphlet has a promotional flyer, so those take a while to design and make, and then they're printed by Robert in time for the mailshot, into which (this time) goes not only four flyers but a bookmark, a postcard, a Bardcard, a newsletter and (if it applies) a subscription renewal slip. The postcard was printed by Moo (costs a fortune but they do a good job), the bookmark by Solopress (cheaper and not bad). Designing and uploading and ordering these – a day for each one.

The newsletters take an age to write. Each time I'm fearful of forgetting to mention something or someone essential and obvious. The brain gets too full. Some days I could forget my own name. And there has to be a product page in the online shop for each pamphlet, and an updated poet's page for the poet, and an electronic version of everything in the right place at the right time for the online-only subscribers. All that stuff is ready now: I spent a couple of days on it last week, but it's not yet visible. (Don't publish the product till you're ready to sell it!)

Besides, first I had to update the  publications in print list, and the subscriber list, making sure as I can that the second of these is accurate and that the address labels correspond with the list (there are always anomalies because some people renew by cheque and some online, and the two systems need a human being to bring them together). That takes another half day. Then finally I print the address labels.

Matt collates all the bits and pieces for the mailshot, gets very grumpy, tells me whether we have enough envelopes of the right size, fills the envelopes and sticks on the labels, and checks them off on the list one by one, adding in reminders to those who are due to renew. He usually discovers (and brandishes) at least three mistakes I've made somewhere. The whole process takes him three days and quite a bit of backache, and I am not allowed to interrupt except with meals. Finally we put them in sacks and drive them in a pony and cart (not really – it's a small red car) to the sorting office on the other side of the town. (NB We haven't even sold one pamphlet yet.)

Then there are copies to be sent to the authors (they get twenty complimentary pamphlets), and copies sent to the copyright libraries, and Scottish poetry library, and Southbank Poetry library, and complimentary copies to old friends and supporters, and review copies hither and thither, and there's the bemused expression on the face of the lady in the post office when I arrive to buy another three hundred quid's worth of stamps. Yes, the cost is scary!

In fact, the cost in time and money and elves is all upfront. It takes faith. By this stage, the bank account is at rock bottom so we wait anxiously to see what will sell and when. New publications help to sell the ones that are already done and dusted (literally) and sitting hopefully. 

Oh, I forgot to mention the publisher's blog. That is this VERY document, which has failed miserably to do what promotional text should do – mention the most important thing first.

Well, let me see. What was the most important thing? Oh yes, the titles of the four new publications. Here I am talking about making them and the key fact of selling them and I haven't even told you anything about them. 

Nor have I mentioned the reading window NOT being in December, but in January now. That's important too. Oh bum.

Watch this space. I have just spent four hours writing the wrong sort of blog. I'll be back tomorrow. 


Recent Comments
Oliver Comins
Dear Nell - if I had some sparkly lights in your town, then I would switch them on for a short while each day...to celebrate being... Read More
Sunday, 18 November 2018 23:31
Helena Nelson
Dear Oliver -- If you came to visit, then we would get a double set of lights and have them on constantly until you went away. As ... Read More
Monday, 19 November 2018 09:41
  3567 Hits
  2 Comments

IN PRAISE OF THE 'OCCASIONAL' MUSE

20180930_110734

There are worse things than repeating oneself. Poets and lyricists do it all the time – on purpose. And sometimes unintentionally.         

So I woke thinking about 'occasional verse', the joys thereof. And the poem that popped into my mind was Robert Herrick's 'Ternary of Littles', which I knew I had written about once before on this blog. And it seems it was the precise same experience that brought it to mind: the making of crab apple jelly. And here I am repeating myself, both literally and in the fact of making the preserve this very morning. It is still too hot to put the lids on the jars.

In the blog back on 2014, I said crab apple jelly was my favourite of the jellies, but I also mentioned its close rival – bramble. And I'm not actually sure crab is better. It's a close call. Both are wonderfully intense flavours and colours. Both 'gel' in an entirely miraculous way, and then melt into hot buttered toast like a dream. (In fact, blackcurrant is also outstanding, and better than redcurrant for flavour, if not for colour, but I have no supply of blackcurrants these days.)

But the crab apples this year were more plentiful than they have ever been before in this garden and on this tree. So much so that the slender branches started to break under the weight. I have thinned them out with my harvesting for jam, but there are more fruits than I can reasonably use. The rest will have to remain and decorate the bottom of the garden like Christmas lights. They shine brilliantly.

Back to Herrick's 'Ternary of Littles'. It's not the big and important kind of poem that everybody remembers because of its universal truth about life or death. It's just a little, affectionate and probably throw-away verse. Occasional verse, or verse written to suit an occasion, rather than inspired by the White Goddess.

I dimly recall when I first met the term 'occasional verse' and (as a child reader) didn't understand it. Were there 'regular' poems and 'occasional' poems, then? What could it mean? Eventually, I processed the fact that the 'occasional' kind was less special, and usually relegated to the back of the book, or perhaps not allowed in at all.

Soon I learned that laureates have to write it occasionally and on special occasions, as in verse (or probably they call it poetry) for Royal Weddings, Battles or Deaths. Some do it better than others, but they all do it. By and large (with a couple of noteworthy exceptions, 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' being one of them) these are not the poems their authors are remembered by.

Ordinary non-poet people write occasional verse too. Funerals, for example. The funeral director presents people with a choice of popular poems, but many people write one of their own. It doesn't matter whether they are 'good' or not. What matters is the unique act of making, and the intense emotion that finds an expression in shaped words.

'Occasional' verse sometimes slips into Collecteds, along with 'Juvenilia' or 'Early Work'. Risky to allow it in, of course. It might show a side to the poet that was unsubtle, or even sentimental. Poems for weddings, or christenings, twenty-first birthdays, deaths of dogs; divorce poems, new job poems; in-honour-of-my-god-daughter poems.

As for me, I often turn to bits of occasional work with relief. Things are so complex and ambitious and prize-winning these days. You never quite know whether you'll be up to the challenge as a reader. So it's a relief to know a first-rate poet can still write about the death of a pet, and do it especially well.

To prove my point, here's a delightful four-liner from Anne Stevenson's Poems 1955-2005


Epitaph for a Good Mouser

Take, Lord, this soul of furred unblemished worth,
The sum of all I loved and caught on earth.
Quick was my holy purpose and my cause.
I die into the mercy of thy claws. 


  3628 Hits
  0 Comments

THIRTY POEM SNAGS

20180701_111030

​Here goes. These are points that 'snag' my reading because of the frequency with which they occur. Of course, a poem could contain any of these features and still succeed in spite of them.

1. Breaking a line on a hyphen. (I thought this went out decades ago, but it is apparently back with a vengeance. I have seen more hyphen-broken lines this July than you could shake a stick at.)

The name of the shop shone bright in red-
gold lettering.

2. Breaking the line mid phrase. (Ok, it can be done. BUT a great many people are doing this for no apparent reason other than to create a kind of contemporary 'poem' feel. Lots of breaks on 'and' and 'the' and prepositions like 'of' and 'to'. Are the lines even interesting without the line breaks?)

The clock struck
one and the mouse ran
down. Why are the
two of them so
predictable and
what is the point of
the mouse?

3. Breaking a phrase across a line or stanza to re-enact some action also taking place. (Although this may have some justification, it can be less than subtle.)

The magpie clacked and flapped
in alarm. A squirrel shot down

the tree and into the bushes.

4. Forming a stanza round a sequence of leaning verbs, then ending with a discrete sentence with subjectless verb,

I sorted out the washing, put the whites together,
jumbled the dark clothes into a pile,
scrutinised the options on the washing machine,
selected 13 for Mixed Load, threw in two laundry capsules,
shut the door, pressed START.
Poured myself a mug of sweet strong coffee.

5. Using a line break to substitute for a comma. I have written about this before here.This is actually part of a bigger issue, which might be headed 'how to punctuate your poems'. A number of prize-winning poets in recent years have published poems with no punctuation at all. Some use gaps between words instead. Others use punctuation here and there in their own coded system. Let them do what they do. But unless you are very sure and consistent in your own system, try punctuating poems in the same way as prose. It will help the reader understand what you mean.

6. The word 'then' used as turning point in the action. Sometimes more than once. Sometimes 'Then', then 'then', then 'finally'.

7. Frequency of certain words (sorry!) : heft and shard; shard and heft, also weft and filigree.

8. Too many adjectives.This is easy to check in your own work. If you have an adjective (or two, or three) accompanying nearly every noun, you have a problem – unless you're deliberately going for over-kill. Make nouns and verbs work harder, even if they don't want to. 

9. Certain kinds of 'trendy' titles, leading into list poems eg 'Reasons for having a secret name' 'What I learned from my sister before she died' A lot of first line titles too, some working better than others.

10. Titles that use the best phrase in the poem and therefore steal the thunder later.

11. Sentences that go on a very long time and the reader gets lost on the way to a full stop and there are semi-colons; often several of them; and line breaks that make it even more difficult: sometimes the sentence even lasts the whole length of the poem, which is not inconsiderable and may include gaps and jumpy phrases that leap off to the right and then back to the left, and when you get to the end (IF you get to the end) you have forgotten what you thought the poem was about. 

12. Chunking stanzas into even sizes.Three-line stanzas. Quatrains. A lot of couplets. Lines about the same length to make a nice rectangle or square. This often leads to significant cross-stanza enjambment because the stanzas (verses) are not verse paragraphs so much as divisions forced on the words by rule of two, or three, or four. The reader starts to wonder about the relationship between the form of the poem and its subject. Is there one? 

13. How fragments. They work like this:

She thinks of him, leaning against the gatepost
in the evening sunlight. How his brows furrowed.
How he would clench his jaw. 

14. Rhyming for closure at the end, but not anywhere else.

15. Formatting complex layouts for an A4 page.This can include elaborate spacing or verbal collage, including some lines justified left and some right to the right of A4. 

16. Formatting prose poems in a blocks that run the full width of an A4 page with narrow margins. Length of line is a key factor in readability.

17. 'Yet' or 'And yet' towards the end of the poem

18. 'For' used instead of 'because'. (Some poets will defend this to the death.)

19. Colons used to control the reader into seeing that the next bit extends the previous bit, although this is self-evident.

20. Frequent semi-colons. (When I was at school Mrs Clarke said we were not to use more than one per page. How things have changed!)

21. References to Edward Hopper (and especially 'Nighthawks') appear more often than any other painter, film-maker or author.

22. Double spaced poems.I think this may be because people follow the default of Microsoft Word. When you hit the 'return' key, Word thinks you want to start a new paragraph. So you need to change the default setting, or learn how to do 'soft returns' (hold the 'shift' key at the same time as 'return'). 

23. Capitals at start of every line, or irregularly (nothing to do with starting a sentence). Obviously there is a choice. There are still poets who choose to have a capital letter for the first word in every line. It is retro, but you can choose to be retro. But there are also poets whose Microsoft Word program defaults to a capital letter each time they hit the Return key (see point above). If this is the case, they need to change the default setting. 

24. Poems structured round a set of instructions, a list of imperatives to the reader. eg 'How to kill your bee orchid':

Water the plant daily. Talk to it.
Polish the leaves with a cloth soaked in honey.
Play music to your orchid. Touch its leaves one by one
with the tip of your tongue. Take it outside at night
when there is a full moon
and leave it in the middle of the lawn.
Take it in the bath.

25. 'And I think ....' or 'And I remember', or 'Do you remember?' Memory is hugely important in poems, and the question 'Do you remember...?' is a great trigger. But once it has fired the poem onto the page, remove the trigger.

26. Mingling the narrative perspective: I, you, we. I'll try to illustrate that.

Taking my coffee out in the sunshine,
I tripped over a yellow watering-can. I cried out
in pain, as you do. But no-one came. You know
how it feels to be ignored, you know
how the pain stabs worse when you're alone.
We're never more alone than when
in pain. Do you remember, last year,
when we were in Spain and I fell?
You were the one with the pina colada
and cold compress. 

27. The poet knows what is going on but.... There is a context. The poet knows the context and thinks it's obvious what's happening. In fact, the poet thinks it's obvious enough to develop the idea using surreal metaphors or elaborate similes. But the reader is confused, and feeling increasingly anxious in case it IS all obvious and she just can't see it....

28. A lot of 'as' sentences. I hate 'as'. It can mean three things: while, because and like. That means it could be used three times in one poem meaning three different things. It is often at the start of a line, and often followed by 'I' ('... as I write as on the page, as if I were a an Aztec, as indeed, on Sundays, I am.') 

29. Ellipsis. Dots. Very occasionally there is a case for them. But if they are there for vagueness, that's not good. Vagueness in poetry is not good.

30. A line or lines (often near the beginning) where the reader has good reason to read it wrong. There's a word in a key position that could be a noun or a verb (and sometimes even an adjective) and the reader reads the wrong function and then never quite recovers, even after going back to check how it should have been read. The poet is not aware of this because the poet knows how the word is intended (possibly the only person to know in some cases). Here's an example (where 'fingers' is likely to be read as a noun but needs to be a verb):

This night is bitter for the head and the cold fingers
the soul as it withers and shrinks. 


A last thought. I like to see how the complex-sentence poets construct sentences in their covering letters. Some of them write beautifully there – not a word out of place, and an engaging, personal tone. But when that same writer puts on poem-mode, suddenly the sentences are formed in a different way – far more difficult to follow, and the difficulty compounded by line (and stanza) breaks. I wonder whether we share a subconscious instinct that poems should be complex and a little 'difficult'. Otherwise, they might not be saying anything of value.

A good friend sent me an antidote to this idea – a bit of Seamus Heaney. One can write a stunning poem in straightforward sentences. Here is a bit from 'Clearances' to prove it (even the punctuation is entirely unremarkable).


Polished linoleum shone there. Brass taps shone.
The china cups were very white and big –
An unchipped set with sugar bowl and jug.
The kettle whistled. Sandwich and tea scone
Were present and correct. In case it run,
The butter must be kept out of the sun.
And don't be dropping crumbs. Don't tilt your chair.
Don't reach. Don't point. Don't make noise when you stir.

Recent Comments
Guest — Elaine Glover
Lots of useful tips here. Hope the post get lots of readers - and that they take notice.
Sunday, 29 July 2018 12:51
Guest — John Edwards
We all love a list and this one has much wisdom. I am not sure about all of it. I try to write stanzas that work for the ear when ... Read More
Sunday, 29 July 2018 12:57
Helena Nelson
There are exceptions to everything, John. Helpful, I think, to write both for the eye and the ear if you can.
Sunday, 29 July 2018 13:15
  9419 Hits
  9 Comments