What’s in a name?

“If you ask me my name, take the time to spell it correctly. Take the time to learn to say it correctly, and I’ll do the same with yours.” ~   Icess Fernandez Rojas (Journalist), in response to Starbucks’ practice of writing its customer names on cups – and getting it wrong a lot of the time…

Names

My name is not the same as yours;
Yours is not the same as mine.
So when you ask my name, take time to
Find out how to say it as I like it to be said.
Take time to spell it as I like it to be spelled
And I’ll make sure I tell you how.

Take time and treat my name with some esteem;
Accept my name the way it seems,
Don’t stare at me looking all quizzical;
It’s a name, not something metaphysical.

If you’ve found that it sounds strange to you
Then please – don’t guess at what you’ve heard
Or write down something quite absurd –
A name that certainly isn’t mine,
Take time, and ask me how it’s spelled,
And if you can’t tell first time around
Then ask again, and listen to its sound;
Listen to me, and watch my lips,
Listen to how I carefully pronounce
The vowels, spell out consonants;
It’s important that we get names right,
So take time, all our names are personal;
They may be easy or exceptionally
Difficult to say or spell; some may seem unusual
To you, but every person’s name is precious.

Names should not be objects to be mocked
Or slighted because you can’t be arsed
To get it right; maybe you find it comical –
Reminds you crudely of parts anatomical –
Or conjures innuendo in your mind –
Because I mind, – it winds me up
Because my name belongs to me,
As much a part of my identity,
As how I look, the way I speak and
Where I’m from; names don’t make us freaks,
So don’t tell me my name sounds odd because – guess what?
I’ve had it all my life, so to me – it’s not!

And this is not about pretention or being politically correct,
I simply want to mention that names are things
That we should treat with much, much more respect.

© 2013

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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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Post Box Poets: 25 July 2013

I’ll be honest: when I first saw the place I wasn’t sure. The Post Box Cafe is in part of what looks like, appropriately enough, an old Post Office and at first glance looked a bit on the compact side for a poetry night – but three hours later I knew that Sarah L Dixon, The Quiet Compere, had found another perfect venue for poetry! What changed my mind? Well, first of all Post Box Poets has exclusive use of the whole café, so the various comings and goings associated with sessions held in pubs and bars (by poets and general public alike!) weren’t there – but neither was the atmosphere completely hushed and sterile, the buzz of passing traffic and life on Wilbraham Road somehow creating the perfect background for urban poetry. Secondly, I quickly realised that its actually its size that makes the Post Box an intimate venue where poet and audience can easily connect; everyone feels part of the poetry, not slightly detached from it as can be the case in some larger venues.

Whether it was that intimacy, or simply that Sarah had chosen her line-up well, the evening simply flew by in a rush of poetry that was variously passionate, comical, touching, gritty, emotional, and often intensely personal. It would be wrong to single out any one poet – all played their part in a wonderful evening of poetic friendship and camaraderie that went by too fast. For the record, though, love and appreciation goes to (in no particular order): Zach Roddis, Cathy Bryant, John Lindley, Mabh Savage, Dominic Simpson, Jimmy Doxford, Steph Pike, Angela Smith and Sarah L. Dixon herself. I feel privileged to have been invited to read alongside such talented poets. Thanks again, Sarah!

I believe Sarah’s intention is for Post Box Poets to replace Lead Poets, and if that’s the case she’s chosen the perfect venue. The Post Box is fully accessible to all and perfect for those travelling by public transport, situated close to Chorlton Metrolink station. Future poetry events are already planned for 30 September and 26 November 2013 – my advice is to get there early, Post Box Poets will be popular!

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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Writing Group

I’ve been messing with this poem for months. Every time I open it I seem to make changes, so I thought it time to go public with this draft. If you couldn’t guess, it’s after Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Written from experience? I couldn’t possibly say…

Maybe thirteen isn’t enough.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Writing Group

(after Wallace Stevens)

 

1.
A platform for demonstrating
Academic background
And hence, superior intellect.

2.
She wrings her hands and apologises
Profusely for sub-standard work
That no-one could ever possibly
Want to read.

3.
Repressed anger and
Suppressed inhibitions
Explode from the page;
Debris is scattered everywhere.

4.
Of course, I only speak well of everyone’s work;
That way I hope I’ll hear only
Good things
About my own.

5.
D-e-n-s-e
Diff-
-icult
CoMpLex;
Hidden depths of the poet’s mind
Remain
Well-hidden.

6.
He makes frequent, obscure
Literary references,
Subversively deriding
Those less well-read than himself.

7.
F**k!
C**t!
T**t!
Sideways glances of outrage and disgust,
Then silence;
No-one dare complain:
We’re all open-minded here…

8.
Arguments about punctuation
Punctuate the evening;
Get to the point.

9.
Nod and smile politely,
Accept feedback gracefully;
Say and change nothing.
Submit the same next time.

10.
The merest hint of criticism
Is defended furiously;
He passionately explains
The obvious points
Everyone has missed.

11.
Chat convivially and persistently
About anything
Other than writing.

12.
New members must be published to keep
Our high quality untainted.
Next item: dwindling membership…

13.
Group therapy that reaches
The parts counsellors
Have failed
To reach.

© 2013

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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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Where have all the poems gone?

I spent April 2013 furiously penning a poem a day for NaPoWriMo – National Poetry Writing Month. Each poem was posted on this blog (trust me!) and some people were even kind enough to stop by and read them (thank you!). But, as the hardy souls who took part along with me know, any poetry written in NaPoWriMo can only ever be considered as a first-draft.

So the time has come to take all the poems down for another year, find my editor’s pen and smarten them all up a bit before they’re seen or heard anywhere else. Perhaps May should be designated NaPoEdMo…

In the meantime, you’re more than welcome to explore the various other musings that are here, and to look out for any other nonsense that I might post in the weeks to come. Thanks for visiting.

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