Well, it’s working. Ten sets arrived yesterday. In for a penny, in for a pound.
That’s 63 in total so far, and we’re only just half way through the month. I log them as they come in and read the covering letters – an interesting process in itself. I work through every tenth submission in detail (at random), and return some comments immediately. That makes me feel I’m making head road.
Because this week, at the same time, I had the personal Christmas cards to do (and some gifts to post), a book launch to organise at the Scottish Poetry library, lots of books to dispatch and some writing (non-poetic) to do as part of a paid task. (Paid tasks are crucial round here, for obvious reasons.)
The older I get, the more I realise how analytical I am. I’m one of these people who watches a film and then has to discuss the way the story was handled.
As I look at the December submissions, each of them sent by people doing what I myself once did, I’m analysing my own response. Unlike the reaction to films, this particular analysis results partly from my unease with the role. I’m not keen on being in a position to inflict joy or woe, though it seems somewhat unavoidable.
What I most want to do is share understanding of this poetry business and how it works. And in order to do that I need to understand it myself. Frequently I’m scratching my head.
But on Friday, I thought I should draw up another checklist. People talk about ‘ticking the boxes’. It’s a common metaphor these days because checkboxes are literally all over the place. I had survey from the Health Board this week. Boxes. And on Ebay, the feedback is checkboxes. When we go to the doctor, she is checking symptom boxes.
I have a number of internalised poetry-letter boxes. Maybe it’s helpful to share them externally. So here are my checkboxes for when I read the covering letter. In the end, the poems speak for themselves, but it would be foolish to pretend that anybody comes to poetry wholly uninfluenced by its trappings, even though the proof of the pudding is in the reading.
For a start, I write this blog every week – firing words into the web and hoping some of them land somewhere. So yes, I wonder whether people sending poems have read this. That’s not my first checkbox but it’s one of them, and it has sub-boxes to it, as well. If the sender hasn’t read this blog ever, could that mean they’re not a web user? Could it mean they’ve never visited the HappenStance website, are not signed up for the newsletter, haven’t read the Do’s and Don’ts and the Guidelines and so on? And if this is true, does that mean this is a poet who doesn’t interact on the web?
If so, that’s significant to me. It is not true that all good poetry readers are active on the internet – far from it – but many of them are. And this medium, these days, is where much poetry is read. When I worked as a college lecturer, if any of my students were asked to find a poem, the web was where they started. Author, title and where is it? They were appalled if it turned out their poem couldn’t be turned up by googling it. I was even more appalled when they could find the poem by googling it. But that’s a topic for another day.
If the person who has sent the poems has read this blog – if that person is reading it at this minute – I’m also aware that what I write here could make them totally neurotic. It shouldn’t. People do stuff ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – so what? It’s a learning process. This is all a learning process. For me, too.
So here goes. Checkbox alert.
Is this a first submission? ☐
(Lots of them are third, or fourth approaches, but now that I’m getting so many, sometimes I get names confused, and it’s good to remind me.)
Is the poet’s name familiar to me? ☐
(Ideally, any publisher you approach will have heard of your name before you write to them. They will have seen it in magazines, at least, or met the person at an event. Of course, ideals are one thing and realities are another.)
Is this one of my subscribers? ☐
(These people are important to me. They are the HappenStance support network.)
Do they sound like a real person? ☐
(Some people get terribly self-conscious and send paragraphs of ‘bio’ or blurb or quotes from people who know them. This doesn’t work for me.)
Have they read this blog? ☐
Have they read (and followed) submission guidelines etc on the website? ☐
Is this personal already active in promoting poetry? ☐
(Could be a member of a reading group, or a volunteer at a festival, or a regular festival attender, or even just a regular buyer and reader of poetry books.)
Have they chosen HappenStance for a reason? ☐
(as opposed to because HappenStance is just another attempt to get into print).
Have they read any HappenStance publications? ☐
(If so, I’m expecting them to say something about that.)
Is the letter written in good, clear English? ☐
(If the poet writes mangled prose, what will the poetry be like?)
Do they mention publication in magazines I know and like? ☐
(I have a list of reputable magazines on this site, though I don’t take them all, and I’d better not say which I do subscribe to currently because the others will get upset.)
If the poet is in Scotland, are they placing poems only in Scotland, or across the borders as well? ☐
Has this poet already had a pamphlet or book published? ☐
(The majority of HappenStance pamphlets are first publications.)
Where is the poet located? ☐
(If it’s outside the UK, a little frown. I can give feedback but publication is honestly unlikely. I’ll want to know about their connections inside the UK. Do you know what it costs now to post a pamphlet to Australia?)
After the launch at the Scottish Poetry Library yesterday – a lovely event at which C J (Jonty) Driver, Hamish Whyte and Gerry Cambridge read poems and there was much milling and chatting – it struck me that living poets are a human pyramid. We can be too inclined to think about moving up the pyramid, rather than strengthening our place in it. Poets support and are supported by other poets. Not all readers are poets but all poets are readers.
Sometimes, in my replies to submissions, I talk about building a readership – I point out that poets need a readership because otherwise published work won’t sell. But maybe I give a wrong impression. It’s not so much about building a readership for yourself as about building the readership for poetry. If you’re working at getting poetry out there, sharing your favourite writers and publications, your own work will slip neatly in behind that.
The poetry world is not as exclusive as it sometimes seems. Each poet can have a place in the pyramid, and you never know where it will lead. A lot of fun is to be had, supporting and being supported. Each person is vital. Reading and writing. Working and learning.