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Everyone’s got one, most are largely unread, and people like me only post to their blogs when they’ve something new to promote or to sound off about.

The long gap between posts happens because I’ve lost confidence in myself as a poet. Well, not quite, because I’m always going to retain a core of arrogant self-belief in my own abilities – but, in general, I’ve been trying to accustom myself to the notion that my work is never going to rise above the mediocre, other than in the occasional line, and that I’ve probably little to offer that will really excite or interest people. I can’t quite accept this, of course, but increasingly it seems to be the closest I’ll ever get to an objective assessment of my own work.

Which is hard to take, as I’ve been encouraged my entire life – and that’s not really an exaggeration – to think of myself as having special ability, as being “meant” for a high level of achievement. In truth, I’ve had a decent career, and certainly no cause for complaint in practical terms. Many people would be hugely pleased to have some parts of my CV, both as academic and writer. But, in my own eyes, I’m simply not good enough and, it would seem, am never likely to be.

I’ve had two recent successes – a pamphlet, Point Me at the Stars, accepted by Indigo Dreams (due early next year) and, just yesterday, winning the Sentineal Literary Quarterly poetry competition. Both these, of course, make me feel good about my work, but neither are the mighty accolades I once thought I might be worthy of. It seems to me I can continue to carry on at this competent, careful, middle of the road poets’ level, and almost certainly will, because, like most writers, I simply can’t resist the addiction of the pen. But I’m saddened to be approaching the last few laps of the running track, with no more than a bronze medal in sight. (I chose that metaphor deliberately, as my only success on the running track, as a schoolboy, was to breast the tape as winner in the final lap of an inter-school relay – I just managed to hold off the other boys, having, in my lap squandered roughly 200 yards that’d been built up by the rest of my team.

There’s an alternative to self-pity, of course, and that is to do something about it. In this case, the appropriate action would be to take some risks. After all, what do I have to lose now? Do something different. Shrug off the comfort of the easy achievement, and strive to make something which is radically original – yet still me. In a way, that’s the whole struggle, isn’t it? Trying to discover what it is that you’re trying to discover.

 

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That’s the big news. Antiphon reaches its twentieth issue, which means we’ve been going for five years (actually a bit more) now. And this is a pretty good issue, too, with more reviews then we’ve ever had previously, and a rich collection of quality poems.

I do think I need a to write a post about poetry submission and success, though – despite the fact that I’ve said all of it before. Clearly, getting an editor to publish you is a matter of taste. But it’s not just about taste, it’s about quality of work, too – which is where we’re coming from with Antiphon, at any rate. Work which is careless, casual, contains errors or cliches, travels topics which have already been done to death in ways that have themselves become hackneyed – all these prevent publication. Yet we still receive an endless stream of submissions which seem to ignore all elements of craft – “it must be poetry because I call it poetry”.

Talking of the importance of craft: my co-editor, Rosemary, who has a solid following online, is about to launch her first collection. It’s called “Drawing a Diagram”, published by Kelsay Books, a US Press, and a beautifully built collection it is, too. Of course, she’s my friend and colleague, so no-one is likely to trust what I say, but I’ll be posting a proper appraisal of it in due course, and I think it’s a very original and extremely well crafted set of poems. In particular, many of the poems are highly original in subject, content and approach, without needing to assume the postures of being “avant garde” – she works clearly in quite traditional frameworks, but manages to do something different with almost every piece. Anyway, more detail on this later.

Meanwhile, the minor news is that I’ve a few more poems pending: in Three Drops from a Cauldron (edited by the energetic Kate Garrett) and ‘Panning for Poems‘, a clever idea: “a micropoetry broadside, designed to print out, fold up, and fit in your pocket.” It also seems my poem ‘Noctilucence’ was voted 2nd equal by the readers of Orbis #178. I always feel a little ambivalent about success in Orbis, as I’ve clearly at least a theoretical influence over Carole (the editor) as I do the job of Reviews Editor. We all know that judging poems by poets you’re friendly with, or working with, can make it difficult to make fair judgements. However, Carole has no influence over the readers, so when they write in saying things like “lyrical, but subtle”, “exquisite”, “beautiful, delicate and deft” and “most moving poem I’ve read in a while”, that’s the sort of affirmation I am very grateful for, as it suggests that, some of the time at least, I’m doing something right.

 

I’m really pleased to get three poems into Dreamcatcher #34, though there’s perhaps not much similarity between them. Is it a good thing, or not, that many of my poems seem to be written by different people – or at least by different intents? I wouldn’t say that I have extensive range as a poet, but I do write different sorts of work – from two line joke poems (actually, my shortest so far has been a single word), through silly stuff in the vein of Spike Milligan, to the personal or observational lyric (and name me a contemporary poet who doesn’t write those), to the rather strange and surreal, sometimes quite dark, and weird experimental stuff (which generally disappoints, but that doesn’t stop me). I like sonnets, though I find them hard to write. I’m currently working on a set of love poems, though there’s no sonnet amongst them. And I continue to struggle with my long poem – it’s not Paradise Lost by any means, but it stands at around twenty pages, may well be still incomplete, and I can’t currently see that there’s any part of it to cut. I like creating sequences of poems, too, although to date the only one that stands published as a sequence is the five Kim Phuc poems in my collection.

Almost in the same moment that I opened Dreamcatcher came an email that I’d not made it into an anthology I was rather hoping I’d be accepted for. I wrote two new poems specifically for it, and both, I thought, offered a couple of things that were interestingly unusual – but the editors apparently disagreed. Somehow the joy of acceptance doesn’t offset the disappointment of rejection. Every time it happens I go through the same familiar cycle of thinking that I must be pretty useless as a poet, that the successes only arrive through accident or persistence rather than any actual quality in the writing. Then I look at the long list of poems I’ve yet to publish, finding it hard to identify any that actually seem worthwhile, and find myself wondering if I’m simply wasting my time. I’ve well over 200 poems published, plus my book of course – you’d think that’d be enough to please anyone. But, apparently not. Ego. Self doubt. The fear that the last poem published will be the last poem ever published.

Poetry should not be about self-aggrandisement, but I fear most of us write because we want to have our words out in the world, not because we have some sense of pleasing others or addressing the world’s difficulties. In fact, when I did write with a belief that I’d be doing something for the sake of others – with a social or even political agenda (this was in my youth, you understand) the work was almost completely unsuccessful. At that time my best work was completely self-indulgent – fantasy and extravagant invention, with nothing to offer except entertainment and the occasional belly laugh.

Perhaps that’s the lesson here. Perhaps poets take themselves too seriously. Maybe that’s why no-one actually reads poetry, but hundreds of people feel they can write it.

 

When I was 11 or perhaps 12 Dad drove us from Sheffield to Bicester, and I read the whole of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (although it then bore its more offensive original title) in that three hour journey. From that point, I was hooked by the idea of murder mystery and I’ve read them as either an innocent or guilty pleasure ever since. (At fourteen I wrote one of my own, Spiders in the Bath, and sent it off to a publisher, who returned it with a pleasant critique including the judgement “this writer has a taste for buckets of blood” – which, at fourteen, was probably true.

Some are murder mysteries are formulaic and superficial, some are sophisticated and psychologically deeply judged. Some rely on clever twists, some on detailed knowledge of police procedure, some on engaging characters. My friend Helen Cadbury pitched a near perfect approach with her ‘To Catch a Rabbit’ (I’ve yet to read the follow-up, Bones in the Nest, despite it glaring at me for months) where there’s a central mystery, intriguing but flawed characters, good local colour, good underlying research, convincing procedure and knowledge of the underworld and, more than anything else, a plot that makes you want to read just one more chapter till you reach that final satisfying denouement, long withheld but coming disappointingly too soon.

But I’ve just read one such book which, if I’d had any hair left, would’ve made me want to tear it out. I’m not sure whether to name the book or author, because he’s clearly successful in what he does, as he has something like 30 books to his name, so readers must like him. But I finished it thinking: “if that is publishable, almost anything I can write clearly has a market, too”.

Suppose a detective believed that a major accident had been created in order to murder one person, and that accident killed twelve people. Would it not seem logical to investigate those twelve victims to see which was the intended death? That doesn’t even occur to this detective, or anyone else in the book, or, it seems, the author, who instead pursues three key survivors which (it rapidly becomes clear to any tuned-in reader) are going to turn out to be red herrings. There are, in fact, three separate major crimes being carried out, two centred on one of these characters, one on the true target. Each is revealed towards the end (in an attempt at drama which in each case feels to me very flat, but that’s perhaps a matter of taste) and turns out to be perpetrated by a character we’ve not met anywhere else in the book. Three completely new characters have to be wheeled in in the book’s closing chapters in order to make the story work.

Timescales are messed around in order to keep the plot moving – in at least two cases, events are reported out of sequence, and there’s no attempt to match the timing of events in one location to those in another – we simply have to take it on trust that the sequence makes sense in some real world or other. Almost every character is introduced with the same formula: “Mrs Bland was short, red-haired and cheeky” – a three part characterisation which stands on place of any sort of psychology in their behaviour. To counter-act this, all characters have one, or at the most, two, core characteristics which they deploy in every situation: right-wing arrogance or dastardly immorality or loving-kindness or loyal efficiency. Character POV can change from sentence to sentence, with characters being described in ways that don’t make sense, given their situation or knowledge. And so on and so on.

From one angle, this is hugely depressing, because this author commits just about every sin of writing that a student writer would be exhorted to avoid, yet he’s made a career out of it. From another, it’s quite encouraging, because it suggests that “the story is everything” and as long as you string together a series of events which more or less carry the reader forward, no matter how badly they’re expressed, you’re in with a chance of publication and a readership.

I’ve always tried to write well, even in my sporadic blog-posts. Even in emails, in fact, which I very often revise until I’ve got the tone in decent shape for the person or purpose I’m aiming at. And I’ve had my words complimented (just yesterday someone I’d never met before told me he always found my poetry reviews enjoyable, which was pleasing, especially as reviews tend frequently to the formulaic, and it can sometimes be hard to find a way through the potential clichés). And, I suppose, I’ve made a reasonable career out of writing – as an academic, at least, and a passable accomplishment as a poet. But I find it hugely disappointing that bad writing does well, whilst better writing (note that I don’t call it “good”) finds it harder to succeed.

Does this mean that rather than “must try harder” I’d be better off “not trying at all”? That testing the ins and outs of a narrative, which I’m quite good at doing with other people’s work (but less able with my own) is a waste of time? That we might as well lower the bar for publication, because poor work will get published anyway so, in what I think are the words of Homer Simpson, “If at first you don’t succeed, give up?”

The only real positive I can draw from this is that I now have identified 29 books I never have to read.

 

I realised some time in 2016 that time spent blogging was time unspent on more meaningful writing. And as my work over the last eighteen months has been pretty sporadic and uneven, I probably needed to spend more time on “real” writing and rather less on the e-displacement activities.

This year I intend to make something of the poetry, and perhaps prose, I’ve been working on in bits and pieces since 2014. I’ve the basis of my second collection and, separately, three pamphlets, too – one “Point me at the stars” is complete and recently won “Highly Commended” in the Indigo Dreams competition, but wasn’t selected for publication, unfortunately. The other two need some further work before being released onto the unsuspecting world, but I don’t think they require a massive amount of effort, so I expect it won’t be too long before I have at least three collections being touted round.

Which is a little unfortunate, as something like 80% of the small presses I know of are not accepting submissions at the moment. My co-author at Antiphon, Rosemary, has gone to the USA to find a good press able to produce her book relatively quickly (it will be published very soon now, possibly this month – see here. But I’d much rather find a press in the UK. Which means a fair bit of research, and then the usual sequence of submission, long waits with crossed fingers, and potential rejection. Why do we do it?

 

Well, the launch of Millstone Grit was fun, very well attended, enjoyed by everyone, it seems, and sold a fair number of books.

What’s next?

Next, we’re planning a series of readings to promote the book and, of course, to sell it. If we manage to sell enough, that should enable us to fund the next project, which may well be another collection of some kind.

If you’re interested in buying a copy, you can find it on the Antiphon site here

Or, if you prefer, Amazon

Here’s the invite for the Launch. All welcome. Circulate as widely as you like:

launch

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