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A very pleasant review of Point me at the stars from Jenny Hockey in WriteOut Loud. It’s good to hear that a reader finds pleasure in this book, because I wrote it essentially to pursue a few imperatives of my own, without much thought of readers or, indeed, publication. That’s unusual for me, as I’m almost always looking for an outlet once I’ve a complete poem on my hands. I say “What’s the point of writing something if no-one is ever going to read it?” But, of course, that really hides a self-indulgent viewpoint – why should anything I (or anyone else, for that matter) expect people to spend time and energy on my words merely because I happen to have committed them to paper?

My first collection, Out of Breath, was most definitely the culmination of a long-held desire to have published a book of poems. It’s a common ambition and perhaps not a very worthy one, in itself. It implies the primacy of the author over the value of the words or, to put it less pompously, it’s the desire to “be a writer” (validated by being able to wave an actual perfect bound book in the air) rather than the desire to say anything worthwhile.

Following the elation of that publication, I began to wonder why I’d written it, why I’d been so keen to publish such a book, beyond the desire to be admired as a poet. (After all, I’d written quite a few books before, so I was well established as an academic author). I also began to wonder if any of those words were really of much value, except to me. It’s perhaps impossible to be objective about one’s own work, but to the extent that I’m able to, I can see some good things in the first book. Many of the poems strike me as very competently executed, the sort of poem that’s been refined by workshopping and careful editing, the sort of thing that little magazines frequently publish, well crafted, well formed. However, very few of them seem to be seriously felt. Few seem to have a strong emotional core. They stand in place of real emotion, rather than expressing it.

This is characteristic, I think, of an intellectual approach to writing, albeit a sensitive one. Many of my poems originate in a felt moment, an emotional experience, but that then seems to be lost by the time the poem is completed on the page. Arguably, the urge to write “publishable poems” limits the emotional credibility of what I write. That’s not to say that the poem in Out of Breath are untrue, or lack emotional moments. If anything, several of the poems are founded on moments that have been core emotional experiences for me. But I think I’ve a strong tendency to take such moments and turn them into something else, something which works as a poem but which wanders a long way from the emotional core of its origins.

Point me at the stars, despite wandering in a knot of cliches (or perhaps because of it), is different. Because I wanted to write a particular sequence, a particular set of poems, with a particular orientation which is close to how I truly feel about my own life, I was able to present semi-autobiographical moments not as “subjects for poems” but in terms of their emotional impact on the “I” in the poem (me and not-me). It’s a different kind of egotism, if you like, in that the poet assumes that his emotions are something others might feel empathy with, or even recognise within themselves. If so, then maybe the poem stands as an expression of what other people feel, articulating, perhaps, what they find they can’t.

Kim Moore (who kindly wrote a little blurb for the book) told me she thought this collection was the most honest work she’d read of mine. That’s hugely flattering, because she’s a poet who strives always for emotional honesty, and avoids the whole business of writing to a recipe. In workshop situations she often avoids the task, if it does not touch an emotional element she can respond to honestly. This means she takes risks  in her work – risks which generally come off, but sometimes don’t. I generally lack that courage, because I’ve one eye looking at the reader, at how the poem will be as an artefact, rather than what it actually expresses. I tend to see the poem as a construct (which I’m pretty able to craft, up to a certain point) rather than an expression, because, I guess, I’m unwilling to be honest about who I actually am.

I fear that person, I think. Or rather, I’m rather shamed by what I know about him, and if I present him honestly, truly honestly, I feel that people will at best be uninterested and at worst, will despise that tiny little soul.

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A very encouraging review of Point me at the stars from Davina Prince for HappenStance’s Sphinx at: https://www.sphinxreview.co.uk/index.php/682-noel-williams-point-me-at-the-stars

This is a (small) book I wrote for its own sake, not because I thought it would be particularly publishable, nor likely to find a ready audience. But, so far, the response has been positive and pleasant. I gave a reading on Tuesday at Writers in The Bath, and was pleased by the feedback I received. It’s a problem at readings, because the tone of the poems remains pretty constant throughout, and, being a narrative sequence threaded with repeated imagery, it’s hard for an audience to attend to more than a couple of the poems at a time. I think in future I’ll not aim to represent the sequence as such, and instead mix these poems with others, in the name of being a little more entertaining.

…is the title of my pamphlet, now published by Indigo Dreams. Details here:

http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/noel-williams/4594148627

It looks like this:

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my design, but executed by Ronnie at ID. I’m really pleased with that look.

I’m launching the book on Wednesday, Valentine’s Day, which seems appropriate as the book’s a sequence of loneliness, love and loss. So if you happen to be in Sheffield, come along to Waterstones, Orchard Square, at 6.15 for what I hope will be a lyric treat.

I’m sharing the bill with my friend, Al McClimens, who is also launching his new pamphlet, ‘Keats on the Moon’. (Cue opportunity for various planetary promotional phrases). His poems are a little more contemporary than mine, and have a little more bite, as well as some humour, so between us there should be something to entertain you.

 

Here we are, testing the waters of a New Year, wondering whether there’s any point in making resolutions, given so many previous years marred by lack of resolve. I’ve always seen plans as statements of optimistic desire rather than intent, and a New Year’s Resolution is essentially a plan for future behaviour made in the expectation of failure to stick to it.

Yet the power of the word is such that saying something gives it a shape within  the world it would lack if merely thought. At the very least, we might stumble against that shape in the darkness of the coming months, and recognise its outline as we fumble around. Our behaviour may not conform to that shape, but at the very least, we’ll know when we feeling our way around it.

So I’m making no resolutions. What’s the point of a promise you know you’re going to break? But I do have some weak-willed good intentions, two of which I’m outlining here, like the chalk shapes of murder victims on the carpet, so when I next walk into this room, there’ll be inescapable evidence.

I’ve a new poetry pamphlet due out later this month. Intention number one is to use this to get out to read and perform a bit more. I’ve been a lazy old poet, and I should do a bit more than I have been.

Alongside this, I intend a third book to be ready some time during the year. With luck, I’ll have it in shape before the summer. Whether there’ll be any takers is, of course, another matter.

Third and lastly, I intend to have completely revised one of my draft novels. I’ve plenty to choose from – about fifteen, I think, written over many, many years – and none really brought to fruition, which is a searing indictment of creative dilettantism.

There – now I’ve said it. There’s no going back now, is there?

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.

 

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.

 

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