As with all things, I attend to this blog sporadically. As a result, it doesn’t really do any job other than record my occasional thoughts, and the odd success or writerly activity here and there. Most recently I’ve had work published in the US magazine San Pedro River Review, accepted by Cake and Interpreter’s House (as has Rosemary, co-editor of Antiphon, by pure coincidence, so that’s pleasing), rejected by Magma, and placed on a shortlist for possible acceptance by another mag I’d better not mention in case they decided against it.

Yesterday Roy Marshall posted an interview with me on his blog. I was very pleased to be asked, and, as always, went way over the top in my response. He’s edited a good thousand words from it, and it’s still very long. And, wouldn’t you know it, the responses address things that were commented on in the original but have been lost in transliteration.

One poet in particular noted that poetry is all a matter of taste and that, consequently, there can be no real agreement about what constitutes “good” poetry. I’ve written on this before, and probably will do again, and I find I’m also doing it now. Yes, poetry is a matter of taste, and so what particular people feel is “better” or “worse” in poetry depends on their taste to a large extent. And the same could be said of all art forms, and perhaps all pleasures. But this reductive oversimplification does not mean that there are elements one can look for in art, or poetry, or music, or cake-making which are more likely to get more people to think that it’s “good” rather than not.

In cakes, for example, sugar is often good, as are eggs, flower, flavour, chocolate, icing, cooking at the right temperature for the right period, firmness of texture, decoration – there’s quite a long list, when you come to think about it. Having any of these things is more likely to lead to a decent cake – one that is at least “acceptable”, (tasty) in many people’s views. Having all of them may be too much – one wouldn’t want a chocolate cake that was also a lemon cake and a carrot cake and contained nuts and raisins, and was iced with marzipan and royal icing and had a buttercream and jam filling, for example. (Or would one? I find I’m somewhat tempted by the idea…) It would be over the top, trying too hard and, fundamentally, based on the assumption that, if some ingredients are good, then all ingredients must be better.

This might work, but probably won’t. Most of the time, at least, it won’t work, though a genius in cake-making might just pull it off. Nor does it necessarily follow that a cake with none of these elements would not be a decent cake. Bakers vary many of these elements, making (for example) cakes with vegetables and savoury cakes, cakes without flour or sugar or eggs, and can produce wonderfully different things. I guess there may well be avant garde cake makers who experiment with every dimension of cake-making, and produce things which are still edible, and possibly delicious – though perhaps  many people would not call them cakes any more.

But the majority of tasty cakes require some of these things. And the best of them require the right combination of the right selection of them. A few we might regard as essential. For example, the ingredients of a cake ought to be edible. Similarly, a poem needs language. Now, we can deny this, as John Cage did with music in 4’33” – where silence is performed as if it were sound. But the denial is made in the context of the essential element. There is no genre of “silent music”, made up of dozens of pieces which deny sound for many different periods and in many different guises. Once the point has been made, once that essential characteristic has been noted, and given meaning by enacting it, there’s nothing more to say. So a blank page as poem makes a point, but it still does so in reference to language. Language is an essential constituent of the “blank page as poem”, because if language was not implied, it could not be perceived as missing, and so the significance of the blank page would be lost.

I’m not a musician, but I am a writer. So, whilst I can’t see different ways one could meaningfully play or compose silent music, I can see different ways that a blank space can be a poem. It can also be a piece of visual art, where it implies an absent image, for example, where erasure has taken place, or where an empty frame is hung in a gallery. These are signals that the thing you can see (or “read”) is to be understood in relation to a thing you can’t see, or read, or hear.

But a blank piece of paper skittering on the pavement, caught on my shoe, is not a poem unless I come to think of it as a poem – that is, I place it in reference to something else, in this case, to the language it doesn’t possess. (I can think of the image of it as having significance, of course, but that’s a different thing). We don’t typically think of blank pages as poems unless we come to attend to them in a particular way. No-one goes into W H Smiths and browses the empty notebooks for all that they might (but don’t) convey!

Language, therefore, is essential to poetry. That might seem a rather obvious assertion, a laboured point, but it’s a critical one, because “essential” does not mean the same as “sufficient”. If it did, then every use of language would be poetry, which renders the distinction between them meaningless. Poetry is a special case of language.

I think most linguists would argue that all language in use is a “special case”. Speech Act theory suggests that all uses of language are performative, are doing something, and functional linguistics is grounded on the assumption that language is something we use, not something we simply have. Language is a tool with which things are done, not a set of rules to be learned and adhered to. Language, therefore, is manipulated, changes, evolves, alters according to situation and need. As each speaker or writer decides what they want to do with it, they may alter, abuse, misuse, invent, deviate, twist, create, change the language for the particular, current purpose they have.

So one couldn’t claim that there was a definitive set of rules that made good poetry. But that doesn’t mean that anything at all which uses language is necessarily a poem. Somewhere between those two extremes are some uses of language, some manipulation of its many ingredients, which are more likely to lead to more effective poem-like uses than language use without them. There are some things which, if found in a specific use of language, are more likely to be felt to be “poetic” than texts without them.

However, a poem is not a dead thing on a page. Or it shouldn’t be. It is a bridge between someone somewhere who created, found or transmitted it and someone who has turned over a page, or turned up at a reading, or found this thing blown against their instep in the street. A poem is necessarily something that can be read or heard as a poem, i.e. it is a function of how a reader or hearer is willing to react to it. This does not mean that the writer had to intend it as a poem. But one of the signals that commonly disposes a reader to attend to it as a poem is the knowledge that the writer intends it as a poem. “I’ve used this blob of language as a poem, and I’d like you to attend to it as if it was.”

Neither the writer’s intent, nor the reader’s willingness to receive, a text as if it was a poem necessarily makes it a good poem, but it’s probably sufficient to regard it as a poem. In other words, a poem is a text that someone, somewhere is willing to regard as a poem, and treat in the special way of using language that we would call “poetic”. Whatever that special use is, it’s the defining characteristic of poetry: that which someone is willing to hear as a poem, is by virtue of that “special use”, a poem.

But it might not be any good as a poem. Something I’m willing to taste as if it was a cake, might make me call it a cake (or maybe a “potential cake”) and condition my reception of it, but it doesn’t mean I’ll enjoy it, nor agree that it offers the special experience I look for in Battenberg, Lemon Drizzle and Victoria Sponge. Cup cakes, for example, Cup cakes can be splendid in appearance, with all the signals that suggest “here is a cake. Experience this as a cake”. But one mouthful tells you it’s merely a whipped confection of sugar and cream put together by someone who has no sense of what works, what doesn’t, and what true cakeness might actually feel like.

True cakeness suggests an elite of cake makers and, I think, poetic communities as can operate in such a way – probably do, in most cases. “Elite” is perhaps a misleading word, in that it implies a privileged minority with power, control and authority. I know that some people see the poetry world this way, but these are most often those who feel they lack such power, control or authority, who feel they have been excluded from the privileged group, and who resent that exclusion. Whether they are truly excluded by virtue of elitism, or merely by virtue of being unable to subscribe effectively to the uses that “elite” group constitute and perpetuate in their position, is probably impossible to determine, but I guess it’s a mixture of both: there are poetry cliques it is difficult to penetrate, and that’s partly because they are exclusive (i.e. they operate practices which necessarily exclude others) and partly because those outside that clique are unable to replicate what those within the group possess.

The more democratic voices in the poetry world proclaim a “poetry for all” where anything goes, and the practices and preferences of the elite are ignored, derided or actively worked against. At its worst, this can lead to an “anything goes” view of poetry, which will accept any text uncritically as a “poem” and, in doing so, be unable or unwilling to apply any standard to it or critique it in any meaningful way, for fear of subscribing to elitist, exclusive manifestos or poetics.

I think both these tendencies in the poetic community are necessary, even desirable, but I don’t think either of them are right (in the sense of correct). If the implication of the democratic, inclusive approach is that anything goes, that all texts seen as poems are equally good because someone somewhere is willing to assert that, then the implication is that all texts are equal, no poetry is any better than any other, and nothing in any text is of particular value, when placed against any other arbitrary text you care to nominate as a possible poem. The arbiter between them is merely a matter of “taste”, with the implication being that there can be no “good taste” or “bad taste”, merely different personal preferences.

To me, this is nonsense and, at its worst, veers towards dangerous nonsense. To maintain that my shopping list can be seen as a poem of equal status and value to, say, a Shakespearean sonnet or The Four Quartets or Paradise Lost is to remove all notions of worth, talent, ability, experience, understanding, insight, emotional value, learning, development, intellectual challenge from literature. The writers of Hallmark gift cards are producing work as good, as worthwhile as anything every written by Rimbaud or Carlos Williams. No amount of practice or reading or learning will make you a better writer. Every text you ever produce will be of exactly the same worth. There’s no point in trying, just write anything at all.

All poems are not the same. They are clearly and palpably not the same. As poetry, some texts are better than others. Some have power, impact, value, worth. Others have little or none.

So there will always be cultural “elites” – groups of writers or artists who are more likely to produce those “better” texts. However, they elevate different criteria or practices, implicitly or explicitly in what they do. The best poets understand their own practices (if only intuitively, through repeated, learned experience) and seek to improve them, which means they recognise, or believe they recognise, what works, and they seek to do it again and again. What “works” is those elements of their practice which produce texts that people respond to – and the writer is one such respondent – I don’t always know how I’ve got to a particular line or image but I do know when it is “working” (resonant, interesting, affective, effective, testing, challenging, rich, apposite, entertaining, powerful, evocative) and when it isn’t. I think hope others will feel the same way, and, with luck, some of them do. That doesn’t mean we constitute a power group elevating those practices over all others, but it does mean we are a particular subgroup of people with inter-subjective agreement about what works in a poem, and therefore, perhaps, a degree of agreement about what poems (of this kind, considered in this way) do and should be doing.

“Taste” is not a matter of unique, individual preference, because no-one exists, grows up or learns in a cultural vacuum. Taste is formed by the cultural experiences we have, the other people we interact with (and what we think of them) and by the cultural ambitions we have in relation to our own artistic practices. The mere fact that one person thinks a poem a “good poem” does not make it so. It makes it a text which one person is prepared to regard as a poem. If lots of other people agree, then almost certainly it is carrying some characteristics which they all recognise as markers of “good” poetry – intersubjectively, they see similar things. These might be musicality, emotional impact, originality, creative use of language, craft in the effective use of form, intellectual stimulus, striking ideas, powerful imagery, intriguing metaphors, succinct phrasing, subtle use of syntax, a recognisable voice, spiritual resonance. They are less likely to be cliche, weak grammar, redundant or superfluous expression, trite imagery, inconsistent form, language errors, prosaic expression, plagiarism, trivial subjects.

Good poetry is more likely to have more of the first list, and less of the second.

2014 was a strange year. It begun with huge enthusiasm for my very first collection, but, after the wonderful launch, and the pleasant words from a few (a very few) generous readers, more or less disappeared from the face of the earth – though it is still selling, of course.

There followed a very fallow year, in which all enthusiasm for poetry, and to a large extent writing, ebbed away, to be refreshed eventually by an excited drafting of a novel in the summer, which I’ve subsequently failed to find enough motivation to redraft into something better. In consequence, I wrote little and published less last year. There was a big dip in my output and my successes and I thought, for a while, I’d perhaps exhausted my creative self and no more decent poetry was going to come.

This year, though, I’ve decided that I must make more of an effort both to write and to publish my work. My attitude now is that, if a poem works, then it deserves to find a press somewhere willing to publish it – and if it doesn’t work, then it will never find such a press, so the only responsibility is to keep sending them out until absolutely coninced of their unpopulairy/unseccessful nature.

In essence, therefore, I’m now trying to sort the sheep from the goats in my work, and publish as many of the sheep as I can. Alongside this I decided I might as well seek international markets as most of the better UK magazines have already said “yes” to me, whilst the very best have given no indication that they would ever like my work in any respect. The problem with international publication is trying to identify the better from the lesser, and trying to pin down those which might feel my work was suitable. I don’t like wasting editors’ time. But I don’t like wasting my time even more.

So far I’ve had a poem accepted by an Indian magazine – which then immediately seemed to fold Ofi Press and a couple of US magazines, one of which, San Pedro River Review, is co-edited by a really lovely person, Tobi Alfier. The former has just been published, the latter will not be until the summer.

I’m just considering whether to enter the Torriano competition this year, and surprised to discover I’ve one, or possibly two, poems listedin the “Nearly Made it – deserved to” category (i.e. the top 30 of 800), last year. “Gennel” definitely made it, and “Fin” might have – I can’t tell if the mistake is in my name, or in the placing of the titles. Hopefully the latter – though I quite like the double-barrelled “Noel Williams-Fin”.

Oh, and I recently received my copy of Orbis #169. I wasn’t involved in editing issue #168 so that Out of Breath could be reviewed, and Carole kindly published two poems of mine, which helped support the review. Issue #168 confirms that I won the Readers’ Vote, which is very gratifying, if a little embarassing, with a poem called ‘Night Scented Stock’, from a sequence I wrote in 2013, but have not yet tried to secure publication for. Maybe I should.

I’ve been asked to judge the next Sentinel Poetry Competition. You can find details here.

I’ve done this once before. It’s quite hard work, but good fun, too. The hardest part is near then end, when there are around thirty or so poems jostling for top position, and all have virtues, and I’m trying hard to make the decision more than just a matter of taste. Although, ultimately, of course, this is probably what it comes down to.

What I look for in competition poems is similar to the job of editing Antiphon. High on the list is something that surprises or excites, something I’ve not seen before, or doing something new. I also admire poetry which manages the difficult balancing act of meaning, structure and music, because these tend to pull poets in different directions – to get them all working together is one of the most difficult tricks. I also believe that a poem should mve or develop. This doesn’t necessarily mean it has to tell a story or make an argument, but that it should end up in a different place from where it started. The best poems are an experience, taking the reader through some process or development or understanding or change – not just reporting or describing, but enabling the reader to experience what the poet has experienced (or at least, wants the reader to perceive as an experience).

Technical skill can be admired, but if it is not used to do anything, merely to bask in the glory of its own accomplishment, a poem can feel hollow. So poems which are formal (rather than free verse) need to use their form rather than merely plonk expressions within it. But free verse is often too free, giving the poet apparent liberty to wander verbosely, when what is needed is the tight, exact, best words for the job.

Yes, I’m difficult to please. Usually in competitions there are poems which are technically excellent, but emotionally detached. I like rhyme, but I only really like it when it’s used to some purpose. Rhythm should exist in all good poems, but it need not follow a regular pattern. However, it has to be contemporary language. I usually dismiss quite early on those poems which belong in the nineteenth century, especially those poems which seem to feel they need a “specially poetic” vocabulary of “o’er” and “hence”, or a pseudo-Keatsian “languid dreams”.

Above all, though, I value imagination in poetry. I want to read things I could not myself have imagined, poems which make me feel I’d’ve liked to write that myself, which take me deeper into the real world where I’ve never been, or out into some plausible world I’d like to be.

I’m looking forward to reading what you send in.

What’s in a nomination?

I’ve never won the Forward Prize, and probably am not likely to. However, I have been nominated four times (twice by Orbis, once by Wasafiri, once by The Journal). I thought the Pushcart Prize was for US writers only, but it seems it’s international, and a poem of mine has just been nominated by Neon Literary Magazine.

My ego is pleasantly groomed, of course, and, who knows, maybe the poem, ‘1984 in 1968′, will be one of the winners. It’s not a bad little poem at all, but I wouldn’t count it as one of my very best. However, judges and editors are strange beasts, and what they might choose may well be very different from the choice I’d make. That’s one of the pleasures and puzzles of publication.

But it made me wonder whether a nomination means very much, beyond what it can do for the poet’s ego. It does mean that one of your editors judges your poem amongst the best she or he has published. That’s nice. And it does mean they think it has a chance of a prize, more chance than others that might be considered. Yet there must be hundreds of poems nominated for a Pushcart, There were 64 winners last year, including such notables as Louise Gluck and Philip Levine and I’d dearly love, of course, to be in their company. So, yes, the prize itself would be great: one of the sixty four best poems published in little magazines around the world? Similarly, each of those four Forward nominations led me into a little fantasy of being shortlisted, appearing in the Forward collection, winning that prestigious prize. So I’m not going to complain.

But if there are 64 winners, how many nominations were there? If all the magazines on Duotrope which take poetry each submit 6, then that’s over 20,000 nominations. Now, obviously the actual number is nothing like this, because that would make the job of deciding almost impossible. Even so, there must be hundreds, if not thousands of nominations annually. The competition is massive, but the nominations pretty numerous, too.

Still, do I care? I’ve been nominated. I’m going to add it to my list of successes. Like the Ancient Mariner, I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen. At least it gives me something to talk about.

Last night was great fun reading with Linda Goulden and (eventually) the wonderful Kim Moore*, at Writers in the Bath in Sheffield**.

My poetry year has been pretty mediocre, since March when Out of Breath was launched. It seemed, quite literally, that I was out of (poetic) breath, inspiration becoming expiration. Although I produced an okay piece for the Summer Poetry Festival, Skylines, of which there’s a little description on this blog, I wasn’t happy with most of the poetry in it, and that was the best poetry I’d been able to write for months. By June I was fed up with my lack of imagination, lack of skill and, indeed, lack of real interest in poetry. I began to think that I’d reached a peak, and written all that I was really capable of – but then when I read the book, I found quite a bit in that which dissatisfied me, too.

Other poets, writers and artists seem to go through a similar thing. A sort of post-partum slump. Though I don’t think the relatively easy task of writing a few poems compares at all with the business of nine months labour or the pain of birth, there’s a partial analogy. I was keyed up by the collection, excited by it, all my energies focused in the months before hand on the various decisions involved in getting the book sorted, then out into the world. And then, suddenly, it’s there, and, after an initial flurry, the world says “so what?” Even Helen Mort, who could hardly have wished for a much better response to her first collection (Division Street, which you must have come across – but if you haven’t, you can read my review in Antiphon) said that she was having problems working on “that difficult second album”. Whilst I’ve fantasised about a second collection, I had no real sense that I was likely to get even close to it.

Helen’s solution was a turn to prose. She’s writing a novel. Mine, it turned out, was the same. In July I sat down to write what I thought was going to be a short story – an attempt to spend an afternoon doing something different, to knock my lazy mind into some sort of activity. Late in August I got up from my desk with 70000 words of first draft in my hands.

I became re-excited by words in the process of writing the novel. It rather took over me, so that pretty much every spare moment I was noting ideas or scribbling sections to be inserted. It felt something like reading a page-turner, with me wanting to know what I was going to write next, how things would slot together. Although, from almost the very start, the shape of the whole story seemed before me.

Then, the moment I finished the draft (actually, quite literally, I put the pen down saying “There, done!”) and picked it up immediately to scribble down a poem, a reasonable version of a poem.

I’d noticed in my collection that I’d no real love poems, even though I’ve been writing them forever. There are a couple of sideways allusions to love, but nothing that really takes romantic or sexual love as its subject. I thought I knew the reasons, so I promised myself I’d make the attempt. (I’ll write another post about this shortly, I think). Anyway, following the novel, love poems seemed to arrive. Admittedly, some of them have been a bit hard fought and for every one that seemed to work, there was another which I’m rather suspicious of. Even so, I put together a set of 19 which I’m actually quite pleased with. I tried two of them out on the audience last night, and the response I received was probably the best feedback on a reading I’ve ever had.

This is all very strange. But very welcome. Now, one of the worst years I’ve had as a poet – in terms of creativity, publication and success (since the book) right at the very end seems to hold promise again, with both a working draft of a novel and the core of a new collection sitting on that desk.


*KIm, who was the star of the show, drove down from Barrow. She left at 3.30, and arrived around 9.00 in Sheffield, the motorway having been a terrible drive, apparently. She then gave her reading, wow-ed everybody, had a pleasant chat, and then was off again driving back. Now, that is dedication to your art. I’m really looking forward to her collection, The Art of Falling, due from Seren in April.

** Writers in the Bath is a loose, but excellent, group of writers meeting on the second Tuesday of the month in the Bath Hotel, Victoria Street, Sheffield, run by the energetic and resourceful Cora Greenhill. The programme for next year includes Helen Mort and Linda Lee Welch (Jan 13th), Liz Cashdan and Julie Mellor (Feb 10th) and Sarah Corbett, Carola Luther, and James Caruth (March 10th).

I’ve not posted here for months. I expect any followers I may have had will long ago have sloped off to richer pastures.

My silence has had no clear cause, merely that poetry for me more or less dried up following the release of Out of Breath in the spring, and I’ve not been enthused by much that I have written, or, indeed, read, and most of my poetry activities have also been somewhat unrewarding. I’ve been wondering whether to stop being Reviews Editor for Orbis, as it’s not that exciting; and even Antiphon has assumed the position of something I need continually to get to grips with, rather than something I’m excited by. Workshops and readings seemed to me generally rather superficial, more social gatherings than engaging with the words, and being no longer a student of writing, as I finished both the MA and the Poetry Business Writing School some while ago, with their many stimuli and wonderful poet-friends. Worst of all, though, was that my older poems seem rather vapid, yet I’ve not been able to find a way to new things that are better. In fact, I seem to be going over the same ground again and again, with very limited imagination, and little creativity.

Strangely, much of this feels as if it’s due to the book. I didn’t expect it to be world-shattering or prize-winning. In fact, I pretty much expected what has happened: one or two pleasant reviews, a couple of small readings on the back of it, a few personal compliments, and a small number of sales. I was overjoyed by the launch, and the book itself, and it was a lifelong ambition realised. But now I find it mediocre and, apart from a few poems, very limited.

So, on the one hand, I feel that I’ve acheived something I always wanted to, and, whilst it’s a perfectly decent book, it doesn’t seem to be as good as I feel capable of. But on the other hand, having achieved that, and so being “released” to do almost any kind of writing I feel like, I find I’ve no idea where to go or what to do to create a better book.

In fact, over the summer, I did find the writerly excitement again, in drafting a complete novel which, I think, has some strengths. The thrill of the first draft, the way it all came together, was wonderful, but since then life has got in the way of pursuing a second draft.

However, where I have found some satisfaction has been in mentoring. This has surprised me a little, in that it has happened more or less by accident. Cinnamon Press asked for writers to help support their enterprise, as funding was getting tight, so I volunteered, and found myself mentoring a poet who is just starting out and keen to figure out how to make a success of his work. Then a friend, who has been quite successful in one field of writing, but not published much as a serious poet, asked if I’d take up a similar role in relation to his work. Three other poets have asked me for feedback on their draft collections – and each time seem to have been quite pleased with what I’ve been able to offer them. And now someone else, whom I only know as an ex-colleague is asking for advice on how to achieve her writerly ambitions.

All of this is sort of flattering, because it means people value what I have to say (and, to be fair, if I take on such jobs I am to be as thorough and as detailed as I possibly can, so I give a great deal of my energy and attention to the work) but it’s rewarding, too, because it means I get to grapple with kinds of work and issues in writing that might not occur to me within my own work. So there’s learning for me, too – things I could try, things I should avoid, approaches I’ve not thought about, and so on.

They also give me a sort of benchmark. The draft collection of one of my friends, Kim Moore, is nothing short of brilliant, for example. Examining that for her suggested to me several key weaknesses in my own approach – a lack of risk, for example.

And they help me formulate a sort of poetics. There are many ways of looking at poetry. Some of them seem to me to lead to good poems. Some do not. If I’m going to advise other people on what might make their poems work better, I need to know what I think works but also, more importantly, why. This amounts to a “theory” of poetry, rightly or wrongly, which other poets can take or leave, according to their own proclivities and preferences. Of course, it’s not really a closely worked out “theory”, and there are certainly contradictions and tensions in what I think makes good work, but at least I can explain where I’m coming from in a way that others can react to.

There’s a big risk here, though. To the extent that others trust what I have to say, and move their work in that direction, they are likely to move towards “my sort of work.” This might not suit them. It might not please them. They need to be their own poets, doing their own thing, and that means they have to feel able to reject what I say, so the “theory”, the poetics, has to be something they can argue with, and come to their own conclusions.

For example, I’m fond of saying that writing good poetry is a balancing act, in which different considerations are matched against each other: word choice, sound patterns, line length and so on. But another poet may feel that the “best” poetry comes by driving to extremes, pushing certain aspects of poems as far as they can go. (And, indeed, I could cite a couple of examples that would illustrate this).

So mentoring feels of benefit to both mentor and mentee, as long as they share the process. I recommend it.


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