Friday, May 25, 2007

Poetry Competitions & 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel

Poetry Competitions

Ever since a minor but giddying success last year in the Warwick Words poetry competition, I've decided that poetry competitions may be worth entering after all. In the past I've rarely bothered. The winning poems always seem to possess that bland, small-town air of the ones nobody on the panel of judges really disliked. Either that or, usually in those competitions where there's a single judge with idiosyncratic tastes, they are distinctly unpleasant in some way, the sort of thing one would never write oneself ... !

I'm mocking the poetry competition machine here, of course, but I can't mock the money on offer. The acquisition of money is always a very serious thing, especially for poets, whose usual remuneration for poems published in magazines, books and anthologies tends to be slight to the point of indignity. So I've decided to keep a rolling stock of likely 'poetry competition winners' in hand this year - rather than sending them straight out to magazine editors as I would normally do - and when each poem fails to get placed in a competition, out it will go again in the next wave of entries.

This week I'm putting together an entry for the Poetry London Competition which closes on June 1st. Jo Shapcott is the judge.

First prize £1000
Second prize £500
Third prize £200
Four commendations £75

The money on offer is easily more than you would get in most British poetry magazines or journals, many of which don't pay at all for poetry. But winning a competition does appear to be a lottery, the winners almost randomly selected by a process we can only wonder at from our computer desks. I once judged a competition myself, back in the late nineties in the Isle of Man, as part of an Ottakars National Poetry Day tie-in. My tastes quite naturally informed my own choices of winner and runners-up, but since it was a panel of judges, I then had to persuade the others, not always successfully, that my favourites should make it into the top ten. And their own choices were often inexplicable to me too.

I shall probably enter two poems for this competition, saving a few for other competitions which close later this summer. I don't hold out much hope of being placed though, as both poems are still 'under construction' and I think their unfinished air will be apparent. But I've more or less run out of time to tinker and fidget, so into the envelope they must slip, ready or not ...

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

One final thing I must mention before closing this blog entry: I've just got hold of Jane Smiley's comprehensive '13 Ways of Looking at the Novel' (Anchor Books, 2006), and am enjoying it vastly.

This is a genuine doorstop of a book, difficult to lose even about the most chaotic of book-strewn households, and it makes fascinating reading. Jane Smiley is not only highly astute as a critic, but her own prose is a delight: highly intelligent and stuffed with fabulous insights and titbits of information about the world of novels and novelists, yet transparent and lacking in pretension at the same time. A real masterpiece of modern criticism and analysis, something my mother would have absolutely loved to read and savour over many sleepless nights, and one which is making my own fingers itch to write.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bare Bones, Old Friends & Big Guns

I've just had a striking idea for a new novel - 'Lit Lite', I suspect! - which is desperately inconvenient as we're in the middle of being evicted here. I have ideas all the time, of course, like most writers. But this one has particular promise, not least because it makes delicate little connections with some of the emotional hurdles I've faced over the past ten years.

I've put the bare bones of the plot down in a notebook and will revisit it in a few weeks, just to see if it still resonates with me. I'm pleased to have come up with a new idea anyway, even if it ends up being unwritable. I have to finish something else I've been working on before I can start work on a new book, but at least this will mean I have an interesting project lined up for that twilight time just after you've moved house, when your brain is still shifting aimlessly about in the dust and chaos, looking for something solid to cling onto.

I met the editor of established poetry magazine SEAM the other week, the formidable Anne Berkeley. It was at the Cambridge CB1 reading; she very kindly bought a copy of Boudicca & Co., and asked me to send her some poems for the magazine. Of course, I do have some new poems available, but I'm not entirely convinced by them yet. Another month or two, perhaps. They don't seem quite bedded down into themselves, still something a bit provisional about them. But she put me onto an old friend, via email, whom I first met at an Arvon course many years ago: former editor at SEAM, Frank Dullaghan, who now lives and works in Dubai, and has a collection of poetry forthcoming from Cinnamon Press next year. It was good to touch base with him again.

Today someone on the Poem Forum was asking for hints and tips on approaching literary editors about writing reviews for them. Coincidentally I had just been reading some superb past issues of Mslexia - to be picked up for a song via their website if you're a woman writer or interested in women's writing - including one which featured an article on approaching magazine editors as a book reviewer. I've been thinking for some time myself about stepping up a gear in terms of reviewing, but haven't yet motivated myself to send a sample poetry review to the big guns (TLS, LRB etc), so it was a jolt to my ambition to answer the guy's post with some salient points. I've become contented, I think, just to review for the 'usual suspects' and not look any higher. But one of the points Mslexia frequently makes is that women writers tend not to be as ambitious and inclined to aim high as their male counterparts.

Time to do something about that uncharacteristic lack of inclination, I think ...

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


I had a great reading from Boudicca & Co last night at CB1 in Cambridge. The joint was packed, the audience laughed - and cried, which was a bit weird - in the right places, and I sold a fair number of copies of my new book. Since I'd thought to stow my cue in the boot before setting off, the old husband and I then trolled off for a game of snooker at WT's in nearby central Cambridge, which went on until about 2.30am. The place is run by a guy with an amazing handlebar moustache, like one of the KeyStone cops, and I've known him forever, since he used to referee on the ladies circuit way back when I thought poets were all dead and a good performance meant not getting knocked out until the last 16.

The club was a bit loud and youth-heavy, but after a few embarrassing shots, I somehow managed to find some form and started knocking hell out of the husband. My favourite pastime. It was not until the early hours, after some trouble finding the right road out of Cambridge, that we managed to escape the grips of that ancient place and toppled into bed back in rural Warwickshire just after 4.30am.

Grim as death, I struggled up the next morning to find a notice of eviction had been unexpectedly served on us. The landlord wants to sell up. Our departure date is set at July 16th, following three years of uneventful tenancy. Not the best of days then, after a fantastic evening of poetry & snooker.

We don't have much money at the moment. I have visions of us living in a trailer park soon. Would I be the first British trailer park poet, I wonder?

This is a little taste of where we live now, to give you some idea of why being evicted is particularly unpleasant ...

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Is Blogging another form of Blocking?

Poets On Fire is now on MySpace!

Blogging versus Writing Poetry

I seem to spend inordinate amounts of time online these days, mostly blogging - not here on Raw Light, which as you've no doubt noticed rarely gets updated, but generally on Poets On Fire, where I tend to post something up every single day. Sometimes more than one event per day. Sometimes as many as five or six, in fact. Which is a time-consuming business and does effectively mean that I'm not writing as much as I could be if I didn't run Poets On Fire.

But, of course, if I didn't have all these tiring nooks and crannies on the net, and run a resource like Poets On Fire, which is visited by many thousands of poetry-interested people every month, would I have as high a profile in poetry as I do now?

When I was first starting out in poetry, as an ex-snooker player with almost no knowledge of the British poetry scene, or multiple British scenes in fact, the quickest way I could see of getting my name known and actually discovering something about the process of writing and editing poetry was to run a small magazine myself. Which I did, for nearly four years, and its name was Blade.

Now I don't have time to run a magazine, and frankly wouldn't have the patience nor the energy for such a vast undertaking. Complicated and emotionally fraught stuff like dealing with masses of poetry mail every day and putting a 60-odd page magazine to bed every few months seemed easy and fun in my late twenties and early thirties. Hard work, yes. But still fun and not so difficult to do.

In those days I had two daughters around the 10 - 12 years mark. Now I have three young children at home every day, being home schooled, and I just don't have the same levels of energy as I did when I was younger and fitter. So running a magazine is out of the question.

But writing up a few blogs in the wee small hours when all the kids are in bed seems like a fair sacrifice of my time if I get useful publicity in return, and perhaps the odd offer of a reading. After all, there's little point writing poetry all day in your lonesome garret if no one is ever going to hear of your work or offer you a paid spot at their local guest poetry night or literary festival.

Besides, it amuses me to post up all these strange and dynamic live poetry events all over the country, knowing that people actually visit and read the Poets On Fire blog every day, and that most of them will take some sort of useful information away with them. And it pleases me to think I'm providing a free service for other people like myself. Even if I'm sometimes a bit too weary and over-run with kids to provide it until quite late on in the evening.

So blogging probably is another way of blocking the creative outlet. But since buying a laptop recently, I've discovered that I can now write up my hand-scribbled poems on that in another room - even in bed, sometimes! - and not be tempted to go online and start blogging when I should be writing. Then I transfer them back to my Mac via a USB pen at some more convenient time.

Once a Novelist, Always a Novelist ... ?

Poems, blogging, all that is going well at the moment. But when a good friend of mine was recently surprised to hear that I was also a novelist, once published by Sceptre - seven years ago - it struck me that I have done very little by way of pursuing my fiction-writing career lately.

This is not through laziness - I have three full-length manuscripts lurking in dusty computer files, written over the past six or seven years - but simply through feeling very despondent about EVER getting an agent. I send these things off periodically and they come back with a 'No thanks' every time. It's hard not to give up and stick to writing the sort of things I know will get published.

But my friend was right. It's time to push harder at the prose, get back to my roots as a fiction writer.

Onward and upward!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Reading at the Whitechapel Gallery TONIGHT

I'll be in London later today, visiting various favourite haunts and then heading over to the Whitechapel Gallery for my reading there, as part of the Salt in the Margins season.

At the moment I'm in the midst of a spate of readings from my latest poetry collection from Salt, Boudicca & Co - you can read Angela Topping's detailed review of this book online at Stride Magazine - having read in Atherstone this week, a Warwickshire booktown, and in Coventry last night at a launch event for the inaugural Coventry Festival of Literature and Liberty. I'll be reading at CB1 in Cambridge next week, on Tuesday May 8th, and at Warwick University the following Saturday. But going to London always feels like going home to me, having spent much of my early childhood in and around our capital city, so a poetry reading there is something very special for me. Especially this one, since it will be my very first London reading from Boudicca & Co.

If I'm lucky and my train down from Warwickshire isn't delayed, I should have a little spare time to head over to the Poetry Cafe before the reading and write some poetry there. It's been a while since I was able to do that, and since I love writing in cafes in the normal run of things, writing in a cafe specially created as a poetry space has to be a real treat ...

Here are the details of tonight's reading:

Salt Margins @ The Whitechapel Gallery
The Whitechapel Gallery, 80-82 Whitechapel Road, London E1 7QX
First Thursday of every month, 7pm start, Free entry

CAMBRIDGE, UK (Salt Publishing) The UK’s most exciting live literature promoters, Penned in the Margins, are joining forces with creative publishing house, Salt Publishing, for a series of free events at East London’s Whitechapel Gallery.

Heavily seasoned with poetry, storytelling, comedy, live drawing and music, the eclectic Salt Margins line-up is carefully blended to provide one of London’s most innovative performance nights, all in the comfort of The Whitechapel’s chic bar space.

Thursday 3rd May, 7pm, Free
In May, poet and former professional snooker player Jane Holland reads from Boudicca & Co (Salt) and Stuart Taylor premieres his poetic exploration of the city, Metropol. Cult author Amy Prior fuses words and visuals with her latest book I Can’t Believe How Great I Feel, featuring live drawing from Sarah Doyle. Plus, bright young thing Joe Dunthorne reads a selection of poems and stories.