Category Archives: Musings

Poetry Resolutions

Some writing resolutions for 2014, at the suggestion of Jo Bell

 1. Memorise poetry. Think about memorable spoken-word events and open-mic nights. Which poets made the greatest impact on you? Chances are the ones you remember are the ones who knew their work by heart and so were able to maintain eye contact with the audience, simply because they didn’t have to keep glancing down at their notes every few seconds.

Of course, if this were easy we’d all be doing it – plus I know of some very eminent, published poets who insist on reading from the page. Yet most of us will have memorised some poetry in the dim and distant past, and well-known lines will be firmly lodged in the brain (‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’’Green eggs and ham…’ etc. etc.).

Surely, as poets shouldn’t we know our own work better than anyone else’s, even if it’s just the poems we tend to read most often?

Goal: Memorise enough poems for my 10-minute slot at The Quiet Compere Tour when it visits Leeds in June.

 

2. Make more use of strict form. When I studied creative writing a few years ago, one of the most enjoyable elements was learning about poetic forms hitherto unknown to me, and then having a go at them. Paradoxically, writing to strict form can often liberate, rather than constrain creativity, and that the structure might actually take the poem places it would never have gone in free verse, yet it can still feel daunting.

My notebooks contain plenty of unfinished poetry long since abandoned as ideas going nowhere, so perhaps revisiting these poems and trying to revitalise them using strict form might be a good place to start.

Goal: Write at least six poems in strict form over the coming year, and post them on this blog.

 

3. Research ways of getting more work published. Note that this doesn’t simply say ‘get more work published’; that’s not only too presumptuous, but also would fail to take account of the fact that I still don’t have much idea how to go about it.

Hence, this resolution is about getting more clued up, discovering what possibilities lie out there – things like pamphlets and chapbooks (are they the same?), poetry magazines etc. I have one self-imposed condition: ‘Published’ for me means work appearing in print – something tangible, that has staples in it and pages you can turn; so online doesn’t count!

Goal: Gain sufficient knowledge so that next year’s resolution is about actually making it happen.

 

And that’s all I‘m going to commit to. The stuff that I do for the Day Job tells me that setting any more than three goals invokes the law of diminishing returns i.e. the more you set, the less likely you’re to achieve. Of course there’s more I want to do – and I may well do it – but in terms of making a public commitment, three’s your lot…! Happy 2014.

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Farewell to Wickedness

It’s over. At an end. Wicked Words is no more; it has ceased to be, it is an ex-spoken word event – and other such Pythonesque clichés…

I’m not sure it’s quite sunk in yet. That was the phrase commonly heard from friends in Seven Arts around 10.30pm on Wednesday, 4 December 2013. Friends who I wouldn’t have met had it not been for Wicked Words; fellow poets I feel proud to call my friends.

Turn the clock back a little over two years. I was doing a Creative Writing course at Leeds University and my then tutor and now friend Cath Nichols suggested a good way of broadening poetic horizons was to seek out local open-mic events – maybe even take part! I sought them out, and realised that, actually, there weren’t that many in Leeds; one stood out in my online search results, though. Described as “Leeds’ longest-running spoken word event” held in Chapel Allerton on the first Wednesday of the month, it was, of course, Wicked Words.

Those who know me well will understand that venturing somewhere new, especially alone, is not easy for me to do, yet I found the courage to go along one particular Wednesday night in early 2011, I think it was. I found a table in the dark near the back of the room, spoke to no-one and scuttled away quickly at the end. Yet I left impressed. Impressed by a certain warmth pervading the evening that I hadn’t expected, by the charisma, humour and general leaping about by one Brendan McPartlan, organiser and compère; impressed by the poetry and the poets who read it, and by how everyone seemed to know each other. I realised I’d discovered something special and wanted to be part of it – the problem was that I felt like the child in the school playground who sees everyone else having fun, but doesn’t quite know how to go about asking to join in…

I was a ‘lurker’ at Wicked Words for longer than I care to admit. In the meantime I’d begun reading at open-mic nights over in Manchester and the North-West, encouraged by friends I’d made in that neck of the woods, so by the time I plucked up the courage to request a slot at Wicked Words I was at least no longer a performance virgin. Also, I’d got to know a few people on the Leeds poetry scene through writing workshops, who also went to Wicked Words – so I knew I wouldn’t be walking into a room full of strangers anymore.

Once I’d taken the plunge I felt welcomed instantly; not only welcomed, but encouraged, supported – made to feel part of a kind of family. There was no turning back. I did a few open-mic slots, and then was flattered and privileged that, as a relative newcomer, Brendan first of all invited me to perform a support slot to the wonderful Tony Walsh, and then recently enquired if I’d like to take part in the final night’s celebration by joining his ‘Wicked Words All-Stars’ on stage; it was an honour to be asked.

The last-ever Wicked Words was something special – an affirmation of everything this night has meant to Leeds for the past ten years, a celebration of Brendan’s hard work, massive effort and sheer enthusiasm put in to make it so. Luke Wright headlined and so had the honour of being the final poet to be heard at Wicked Words, but I’m sure Luke won’t mind me saying that on this occasion the events of the first-half took precedence, and tonight Brendan McPartlan was the real star.

Particular mention must be made here of the unstinting efforts of Greg White in making sure Wicked Words and Brendan had the best possible send-off. I can’t begin to imagine how much time Greg has put in over the past three months or so compiling and producing the one-off anthology Past Wickedness as a farewell gift to Brendan, also the hours spent folding origami birds out of coloured paper – one given to each audience member – on which was printed Greg’s poem Undone, its poignant message reminding us that whatever follows, nothing will ever be quite the same as Wicked Words ever again. Thank you Greg – and I hope you find a good use for the bird-cage!

Brendan’s collaborative poem Words of Advice from my Grandfather was a joy to hear and to be a part of, along with Matthew Hedley Stoppard, Noel Whittall, Greg White, Jonathan Eyre, John Hepworth, Chris Stephenson, Tim Ellis, Sandra Burnett and Jane Kite. I hope that one positive consequence of Wicked Words’ demise is that, now freed from the role of compère, we’ll hear much more of Brendan’s sharp and witty poetry on the spoken-word circuit in Leeds and beyond.

So that’s it – the end of an era. I’ve no doubt that a phoenix will rise – Seven Arts is too good a venue to be lost to spoken-word events – but there will never be another Wicked Words. It’s hard to explain how much it’s meant for me; I’ve loved the poetry, made friends, new opportunities have opened up… but above all, even though a relative latecomer, through Wicked Words I’ve been made to feel welcomed into the Leeds poetry scene, and privileged to be part of something really special.

Thank you Wicked Words, and thank you especially Brendan.

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The Self-Promotion Dilemma

I admire the self-confidence of my fellow poets and writers. I admire the way they grasp opportunities to promote themselves and their work, to tell the world about forthcoming appearances at spoken-word events or festivals, or share competition and publication successes, near-misses and honourable mentions. And that’s not intended in any way as being sarcastic – I really do have genuine admiration, because if there’s one element of this writing business I really struggle with, it’s self-promotion.

You see, I’ve never been a naturally competitive person. I appreciate recognition as much as the next person if someone happens to think I’ve done something well – but I don’t enjoy feeling I have to actually compete for praise, or push myself forward to be judged or compared with others. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had more enjoyment from simply taking part in activities, rather than setting out to win or prove I’m better than anyone else.

I know I’m not the only one. Roger McGough sums it up perfectly:

“I have always regarded the creative impulse as something pure and seen a paradox in the need to show off the result, to see it published, sung or hung on the wall… I have never fully resolved the conflict between the privacy of the poet and the public face of the performer…” (Said & Done. Arrow, 2005)

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Roger is one of my poetic heroes and influences. But it does beg the question whether it’s possible to rise in the world of writing and poetry without a certain amount of narcissism.

Maybe I should adopt the philosophy of Neil Innes, and simply take the view that “I’ve suffered for my music, now it’s your turn”, but – seriously – if you are a poet or writer, successful or otherwise, I’d be interested to know how you’ve gone about shutting up that little voice in your head that keeps trying to tell you that really, you should just keep your poetry to yourself unless anyone asks to read or hear it, and ended up believing in your work sufficiently to put all those lovely words out into the world regardless, and sod what anyone else thinks.

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To post, or not to post…?

As most of you will have noticed, there aren’t many poems here. And there’s a reason for that, but I’m beginning to question whether or not it’s still actually valid.

Being relatively new to the poetry ‘scene’ (how that word still evokes images of the 1960s, smoky basements and Liverpool Poets!) and a bit wet behind the ears when it comes to unspoken rules and protocol, I’m always open to advice and guidance from those poets with more experience; seasoned poets, if you will, ones who’ve been around a bit, know what you can and can’t get away with, where the boundaries of decency are – that sort of thing. Well – getting back to the point – I was advised that, actually, it’s not a great idea for a poet to have a blog or website stuffed full with almost every piece of work they’ve ever produced. The justification for this nugget of wisdom is that often, publishers, magazines and competition rules stipulate specifically that all poetry submitted should be previously unpublished work, and that, in this digital age, the posting of one’s work on the web is considered as publication – in some eyes, anyway.

Now, paradoxically, I can understand why poets fortunate enough to have had work published try to avoid it appearing online gratis, because once in print, anyone interested enough in reading it should, not unreasonably, be expected to fork out for the privilege – otherwise poetry publishing as a business and service would cease to exist; so if you want to read my one (so far) published poem A Sunflower’s Tale, then I’m duty-bound to direct you to Puppywolf Publishing’s website, there to purchase a copy of Best of Manchester Poets Vol. 3.,  and allow Keir Thomas to eat another meal.

But how realistic is it to expect that once a poem has been tossed into the maelstrom of the world-wide web that it’s gone forever, and can never appear in printed publications (or even e-publications) or considered as a competition entry? And how often do publishers or competition judges check anyway? I know of many poets whose blog or Write Out Loud profile is full to the gunnels with work, and I struggle to believe that none of this is ever submitted for publication elsewhere. Equally, I know of other poets whose work is virtually impossible to find online, and who observe both letter and spirit of what potentially constitutes online ‘publication’. But which is right? And how does the unpublished poet go about getting his or her work known publicly, without it being forever barred from print in the process?

Maybe there is a middle ground. Notwithstanding the tendency of certain search engines to keep more stuff than is good for them in a cache for years to come, material on personal websites and blogs can be deleted just as easily as it’s posted – as indeed I did with my NaPoWriMo haul. So would there be anything terribly wrong in, say, posting a selection of poems on a blog and replacing it every couple of months or so with different stuff? And of course removing completely anything that’s actually accepted for formal publication in the meantime; I can’t really see any modern publisher arguing with that (although maybe you know different…!)

So that’s what I’m going to have a think about; perhaps the poems will return soon.

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Poetry and ‘psychological safety’.

I was introduced at work recently to the concept of ‘psychological safety’ by behavioural psychologist Prof. Rebecca Lawton. Put simply, in the context of the workplace, psychological safety means that employees can trust that  suggestions and ideas will be listened to and treated with respect, that no-one will be made to feel inferior or belittled by admitting they don’t know or understand something, and generally feel that it’s OK to speak up or challenge things that are done or said, especially by those in authority, or who – allegedly – may possess superior knowledge or presence. This generally makes for a safe, high-performing and innovative organisation; I was mightily impressed.

What, you may think, has this to do with poetry? Well, consider this: how many of you – and be honest here – ever read or hear poetry that, for whatever reason, you just don’t understand or can’t connect with, no matter how many times you hear or re-read it? How do you react when this happens? Do you admit it or not? Would you feel able, for example, to walk up to a poet at a reading and (gently) ask them what on earth their poem or performance was all about? Or would you applaud politely, stay quiet and leave the event at the end of the evening feeling ever so slightly less intelligent than others in the audience who were nodding sagely, perhaps emitting the odd, self-satisfied “ahh…” now and again? Would you admit to friends that [insert name of your eminent, published poet of choice] leaves you cold? Maybe you would, but maybe not. Because of course by saying nothing, everyone stays safe.

The thing is, some poetry can seem so dense and impenetrable as to be almost like it’s written in code for a highly-favoured few, clearly not for the masses. Listen to a few episodes of BBC Radio Three’s The Verb and you’ll soon get my drift (however please note that there’s also lots of excellent stuff that’s easy to engage with too – and I do love the programme!). I’ve also experienced this heavy, complex style from people in workshops or on writing courses, so it’s not the exclusive preserve of the highly-regarded, published poet. What I’ve noticed in workshops is that people tend to stay quiet rather than say anything negative, and thus the writers of such poetry receive perhaps less feedback on their work than they otherwise might, thus perpetuating the cycle.

Before anyone thinks this is just another diatribe against what I refer to as ‘difficult’ poetry, it’s not; I’ve had my say on that already, see this post of mine from 2012. Poems can be delicate things, as are often the poets who write them. We know what our poetry’s about; we created the subtle imagery, metaphor and hidden meaning that’s been woven into the fabric of our work, and like to think that the reader will (eventually) be able to understand and engage with our poetry in the way we designed.

But the question I want to put to you is this: How would you react if someone else read or heard your work, admitted they didn’t ‘get’ it and asked you (nicely) to explain what it was about? Would you feel slighted by the approach – insulted even? Or rather, would you take the time to sit down with the person, explain what was in your mind when you wrote it, why you wrote and structured your poem that particular way, being generally helpful and maybe even taking on board the reaction to make revisions to the work? I doubt many poets would be so arrogant as to send the questioner away with a flea in the ear, telling them that if they’re not bright enough to figure it out for themselves, then you’re not going to tell them.

Which brings me back to the whole issue of Psychological Safety as it applies to the world of poetry.

I’m not convinced that our world feels as psychologically safe as it could be, or possibly is, because it’s not tested often enough. I still detect a reverential hush in some circles when the names of certain highly-regarded poets are spoken; the unspoken acceptance that a minimum level of intelligence is needed to truly understand some poetry, and that the bar is often set deliberately quite high. The effect, though, can be to create a kind of elitism that discourages open expression of opinion and deters new readers or audiences – and surely that can’t be healthy?

There is (possibly now was) a wonderful TV programme on Channel 4 spawned by the 2012 Paralympics called The Last Leg, hosted by Australian comedian and broadcaster Adam Hills. Amongst other things, the programme sought to debunk as many preconceptions and prejudices about disablement as it could through a segment called Is it OK…? in which viewers were invited to ask what hitherto might have been perceived as awkward or insensitive questions (example: ‘Is it OK to ask if Adam Hills removes his prosthetic leg before making love?’). The Last Leg was a perfect example of psychological safety in practice, and Is It OK…? was inundated with questions, all of which were handled with respect, openness and appropriate humour.

So the next time you encounter poetry that you struggle to connect with, try speaking up; ask questions, give feedback, gently and constructively to the poet. Tell them that you don’t ‘get’ it and, if you can, why. And if you happen to be that poet, make it safe and OK for others to do so – in fact encourage it. Sit down, explain, enlighten – but above all, listen. Because if the people who read my poetry weren’t getting anything from it, then I think I’d want to know.

Wouldn’t you?

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Wicked Words, Leeds: March 2013

I was at Wicked Words’ quarterly Showcase Event this Wednesday, an evening that demonstrated what a rich tapestry the world of performance poetry can be. The entertainment kicked off with Jamie H Scrutton, an established Wicked Words poet whose pièce de resistance involves donning a bright pink wig and black Belvia bra (stuffed with what looked like tin-foil), whilst cavorting about the stage belting out poetry about the said bra’s magical powers of transformation in the wearer.

Jamie was swiftly followed by Skylab (aka Caleb Parkin) who had debuted at Wicked Words only the previous month. Nothing on that evening could possibly have hinted at the majesty of Skylab in full flight. Taking to the stage in a white decontamination suit, and with the aid of some ingenious headgear, Skylab took on variously the personae of rat, urban fox and – best of the lot in my opinion – a cockroach, complete with metre-long (at least!), retractable antennae that had those closest to the stage fearing for their eyeballs, as he read a set of thought-provoking poetry on the theme of Vermin, each poem addressed to the human from the creature’s point of view.

The second-half was given over exclusively to Bristol poet Anna Freeman, who appeared dressed neatly in jeans and cardi – which, it has to be said, came as something of a relief to many present. Her gentle (but not too gentle) and engaging style was put to good effect in a set that variously covered topics such as love, loss, embarrassing parents, and wonderful poetry about being ginger that could put Tim Minchin to shame. Anna knew all her work by heart and her endearing, self-deprecating style quickly won over the tough Leeds audience. Anna has that wonderful knack of being able to create poetry that’s intimate and personal, but with which anyone who has loved, lost, been brought up by embarrassing parents – or is blessed by being ginger – can identify. Come back soon, Anna.

Brendan McPartlan was ever the genial host, generally leaping around and attempting to whip the audience into a frenzy at every possible opportunity. Such a shame that a few more didn’t make it along to what was a thoroughly diverse and entertaining evening.  Not all poets appearing at Wicked Words may suit all tastes, but by goodness, it’s entertaining and you can pretty much guarantee there’ll always be something for everyone – and surely, that’s the wonder of poetry. So maybe next time see you there, eh?

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In praise of Lead Poets (once again).

While part of me is wondering why I should be travelling forty miles across the M62 to enjoy an evening of poetry, another part is telling me that, actually, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I still maintain there is a dearth of similar events in the Leeds area (unless, of course, you know otherwise) and the poetry scene in Manchester seems to be so much more vibrant.

Chorlton’s Lead Poets is the perfect example of what a good poetry night should be, and I was privileged to be there again on 8 October 2012. Lead Poets is friendly and informal, but with structure and planning so effective that the considerable efforts of Sarah L. Dixon in making the event a success almost go unnoticed. Sarah styles herself as The Quiet Compere – aptly so, in that whilst ensuring a smooth-running session, she makes sure the evening belongs to the participating poets, and takes her turn along with everyone else in reading engaging and entertaining poetry to an attentive, appreciative audience.

Lead Poets is not quite open-mic, in that there are a limited number of pre-booked slots to ensure a full ten-minutes for each reader, plus no poet may read at more than two events in succession (which rules me out for the next one – although be sure I’ll be there to listen and enjoy!) What I also particularly like is the absence of any hierarchy. There are no headliners or supporting acts; slots are allocated randomly (or to take account of performers’ preferences). Lead Poets attracts a range of experience, from seasoned, published poets to nervous first-timers; all are billed equally, and in my opinion the night is all the better for it.

It was lovely to spend time catching up with my wonderful poetic friends – thank you all once again! In the egalitarian spirit that is Lead Poets it would be wrong for me to single out any performance that was more memorable than any other, so I shall simply mention all those who took part in alphabetical order, offering my thanks and appreciation to all for a wonderful evening and celebration of the spoken word:

Annie Clarkson; John Darwin; Jimmy Doxford; Sarah L. Dixon (of course!); Rosie Garland; Rachel McGladdery; Sarah Pritchard; Solomon Scribble; Rachel Sills – and me, Martin Vosper.

See you next time!

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