I think of them as dragon-flies, some of the fastest flying insects in the world.
Let’s not even mention the egg stage. When writing early poems they’re more like nymphs. In fact, most of a poet’s life may well be spent in nymph form, beneath the water's surface (submerged), using extendable jaws for nefarious purposes. The larval stage is short for some, lengthy for others. Some remain nymphs for decades. Some tend to merge, rather than emerging. But most achieve metamorphosis. The nymph climbs up some kind of stalk and is exposed to AIR. It starts to breathe, its skin splits, and out staggers . . . a flully-fledged poet, ready to feast on midges and propel itself in at least six directions.
Or perhaps it’s not quite like that. Tim Love sent me a link to a discussion paper from Devolved Voices, a 3-year research project based at Aberystwyth University. It commenced in September 2012 and they’re mapping stuff. I like ‘mapping’. It sounds like it will help you find your way (as indeed is the intention). You may recall another well-publicised document of this kind: Mapping Contemporary Poetry, released by the Arts Council England in 2010.
Poetry world is desperately confusing to anyone starting out as a writer. So how useful is this discussion document from Aberystwyth?
I liked it a lot. You could argue that it is a little retro – not enough about spoken word routes, or social networking, or new forms of publication, but it is easier to describe what has, until recently, been true than to write about a kind of emerging that is . . . still emerging. If you’re not sure whether you’ve emerged or not, a common concern, I recommend this document.
Aberystwyth propose stages of emergency. Stage 1 you get a poem, and then a couple more, published in a magazine, possibly a local publication. The nymph is just out of the egg.
Stage 2, you start to use the extendable jaws and penetrate other magazines, “probably moving beyong the confines of an immediate locale”.
Stage 3, you get poems in much better magazines: the most widely read publications. You may even get a pamphlet published (most first-collection HappenStance poets are somewhere around stage 3). You’re climbing the stalk and you have abandoned your gills.
By Stage 4, you’re doing readings here and there, you’ve got a book collection out, you might be doing a residency or teaching creative writing. You are dining on more than just midges.
At Stage 5, you’ve got a “well-established profile over a wide national/geographic area”. You might be an “established reviewer or essayist”. You could be an important predator, consuming flies, bees, ants, wasps and very occasionally (and remorsefully) butterflies. You may be fulfilling “significant cultural roles”.
(Fulfilling roles is a phrase I’ve always had difficulty with. It’s the aural pun that causes me a problem: I have an image of people filling bread rolls. Significant ones. But I digress.)
Stage 6 is the final stage. At stage 6 you have emerged. You have self-actualised. You are probably on the literature syllabus in schools and most ‘well-read’ people, even people who aren’t into poetry, have heard of you. However, you are still subject to predation by birds, lizards, frogs, spiders, fish, waterbugs, and even other large dragonflies disguised as mentors.
The writers of the Aberystwyth paper point out that “poetic emergence is distinct from poetic development: it is entirely to do with becoming prominent as a poet, rather than becoming a poet of better quality or worth.” They also observe that “poets sometimes jump stages, and sometimes go into reverse, but most reach what is called her a ‘plateau’ and remain thereafter at more or less the same point”. (I am writing this blog from a pleasant plateau partway through stage 5.)
Stages 1-3 are “emerging”. Stages 4-6 are “emerged”.
There are bands too (not the musical kind: bands as in categories). Band A: pre-collection. Band B: first collection. Band C: multi-collection. Publishers like these kind of bands.
Devolved voices also touches on factors that can affect the emergency (I know I am wilfully mis-using this term: it keeps me sane). These include prizes, fellowships, creative writing degrees, courses, mentorships etc. They talk about “tipping the publication see-saw” (another neat image if tipped up) and “premature anointing” (to be avoided at all costs).
This is a 'discussion' document – so do join the discussion, whether you are submerged, emerging or emerged. Facetiousness aside, it is interesting, well-written and easy to digest.
But I said it was a somewhat retro. What about the new ways? Regrettably, I think I am part of the old: most of what I do is nurture an editorial relationship with a few nymphs to help them move from stage 3 to stage 4 (the sort of thing Rialto Bridge pamphlets also mention and that the Mapping Contemporary Poetry authors approve – but then, they would.)
Things are changing. Poetry used to be literary, intellectual and dusty (though it was discussed in pubs, by men, with beer or whisky). Now the slams, the performance, the spoken word, the fun – these things are bubbling, and not only with the young. Some of the nymphs read the notices on publishers’ websites about ‘no unsolicited submissions’; they get fed up because what they write is nothing like what wins competitions; they set up their own presses; they do the business. Some of these enterprises will prove their mettle and will draw in participants of talent, ingenuity and new types of jaws and wings. They will be impatient (and why not?). They will be unreasonable.
As George Bernard Shaw said (the world consisted entirely of men in his day): "The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man."
I am never very sure about the word ‘progress’. It suggests things get better. I suspect they simply get different. Human beings develop hierarchies, and people find ways to ascend. When daunted by the survival of the fittest and fastest, it's useful to remember all this is “entirely to do with becoming prominent as a poet, rather than becoming a poet of better quality or worth.”
Given the devious dragon-fly trafficking, I’m strongly reminded of a poem by James Reeves who, despite mentoring from Robert Graves, spent most of his life at stage 5 and worked very hard to stay there. I may well have quoted this before, in some other context (blog entries proliferate on this plateau) but I don’t care. Here it is.
Important insects clamber to the top
Of stalks; look round with uninquiring eyes
And find the world incomprehensible;
Then totter back to earth and circumscribe
Irregular territories pointlessly.
Some insects narcissistically assume
Patterns of spots or stripes or burnished sheen
For purposes of sex or camouflage,
Some tweet or rasp, though most are without speech
Except a low, subliminal, mindless chatter.
Take heart: those scientists are wrong who find
Elements of the human in their systems,
Despite their busy, devious trafficking
Important insects simply do not matter.