A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Poetry World

Last Saturday, I took part in ‘An Afternoon With The Small Press’ at Southwell Poetry Festival. In my “work role” as the Managing Editor of Mother’s Milk Books, I was one of four indie publishers at the event to talk about this strange thing known as ‘Poetry World’. (Credit goes to the marvellous Helena Nelson of Happenstance Press for naming it thusly.)

Ross Bradshaw, of Five Leaves Publications and Five Leaves Bookshop, put questions to myself, Di Slaney of Candlestick Press and Martin Parker of Stonewood Press, and the audience listened carefully, asked questions and whenever one of us had mentioned something particularly note-worthy they eagerly scribbled down what we’d said. Poets, especially those new to writing poetry, want to understand Poetry World, and they especially want to know how to get their poetry published.

But although I run a small press and know a bit about Poetry World through the publishing of other people’s poetry, I do NOT consider myself an expert on Poetry World as a poet. I have only been seriously writing poetry for about 5 years. That length of time is nothing in Poetry World. Seriously, it is just a blip (especially when you’re not actually writing poetry every day and sending it off every day). But… I have learnt a thing or two in that time. And so I thought that for those other fledgling poets out there, who are just about to strap on their poetic backpacks and head off into the realm of Poetry World, I would give them a few pointers.

My favourite accompaniment to a good book - creamy coffee and dark chocolate.

My favourite accompaniment to a good book – creamy coffee and dark chocolate.

1) Every successful hitchhiker needs a guide or two. The absolutely ESSENTIAL guide is called How NOT to Get Your Poetry Published by Helena Nelson. Seriously, if this had been published 5 years ago and I had read it then I would have saved myself a few poetic embarrassments and felt much more prepared when entering Poetry World. So buy it. Seriously. If you’re serious about poetry and getting your work published BUY THIS BOOK. It has bucket loads of information about how Poetry World works and how long it takes to get established in Poetry World. (Hint: we’re talking decades here, not months. So if you’re serious about this poetry stuff, start planning in the long term.) Also, it has lots of useful poem-making exercises. I’ll admit that at first I wasn’t convinced that I needed to read (or do) those exercises, because I don’t have any problems with inspiration, but boy, were they eye-opening! And funny. And insightful. And amazingly inspirational. And they made me look at poem-making in a whole new way. So hats off to Helena Nelson for writing this very, very good book.

 

2) Alongside the above excellent guide, I would also add that if you consider yourself fairly new to Poetry World then you should buy and read The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. And don’t just read it. Do every single crazy, beautiful, damn exercise that Fry has dreamt up. I promise you that it will give you a good basic knowledge of how this thing called poetry works. And by the time you complete the last exercise your “poetry brain” will have grown and absorbed a huge amount of knowledge.

 

3) Now, perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself here, because if you’re new to Poetry World, it may be a little too early (like, years too early) to start sending poems off to poetry journals and literary magazines. But hey! I know about that feeling of excitement that comes with the desire to get your poems out there. So when you’re thinking that you’re ready and are looking for places to send your work, you have a couple of options. The free and electronic-only option is to visit the website known as Comps and Calls. The wonderful Cathy Bryant spends ages each month listing all the free-to-enter submission calls and writing competitions that she’s discovered through t’internet. AND some of them even pay. Yes, you heard me right. They PAY. So check it out. And then the not-free (but still, very good value), paperback option is the indispensible Mslexia Guide to Indie Presses and Magzines 2016/2017. And while you’re flicking through the magazine, dreaming of the day when you’ll get your first poem or pamphlet or collection published… do something else. Make a note of the indie presses that publish poetry and BUY some of their books. This leads us nicely on to the next point –

 

Mslexia Guide to Indie Presses

Mslexia Guide to Indie Presses

 

4) A huge part of successfully navigating Poetry World and then becoming an established part of Poetry World is READING POETRY. It is not enough to simply write poetry, one must read it, read it, read it, read it. And continue reading it. Again, I’ll have to admit that it takes me a long while to read single author collections, because although poems are (mostly) short, they are dense in the sense that a good poem can make me think about it for days. And make me want to re-read it. So a full, say, 80 page collection can take me several months to read. So, if you’re new to this, maybe start with buying a few poetry magazines. Or anthologies. One can easily dip in and out of anthologies, (Being Alive, edited by Neil Astley is brilliant, as is my own Musings on Mothering – even if I do say so myself!). And pamphlets are a brilliant and less time and money-consuming way of reading contemporary poetry. I can heartily recommend the below which I read recently; all are haunting in their own unique way:

The Density of Salt by Kate Garrett, Earthworks by Jacqueline Gabbitas, Lampshades & Glass Rivers by S. A. Leavesley

The Density of Salt by Kate Garrett (Indigo Dreams Publishing), Earthworks by Jacqueline Gabbitas (Stonewood Press), Lampshades & Glass Rivers by S. A. Leavesley (Loughborough University’s Lamplight Press)

 

(And by the way, if you’re looking to get a single author collection, I can definitely recommend starting with someone like Angela Topping, whose poetry is wide-ranging, tender and absorbing. Or Cathy Bryant, whose writing is thought-provoking and funny and witty. Or Sarah James whose writing is insightful and full of detailed imagery.)

If you’re cash-strapped then borrow poetry books from your library. Or read poetry online. There are many excellent websites and blogs that publish contemporary poetry. And if you don’t know where to start, why not try this excellent blog – The Poetry Shed, run by the fine poet Abegail Morley. And oh ho! What’s that I see? A poem and artwork by Marija Smits? Go on, check it out. I dare you…! 😉

 

5) Now, I know that every poet (and writer) goes about editing their own work in different ways. Some have one trusted Poetry World friend (or if they’re lucky, a good editor) who gives them useful critiquing and works with them to get their poem/pamphlet/collection just right. Others are part of a supportive crit group that may meet every month or so, and others may be a part of an online crit group. And yet, some poets work solely (and happily) by themselves. Find what works best for you, for that stage in your journey through Poetry World, but be open to the other methods of getting feedback/useful critiquing. And knowing where you are along the path of ‘how well I take criticism’ is also useful. It can take years (and this I know from personal experience) to untangle the quality of the writing from one’s own personal worth, so if you’ve just started out in Poetry World and are feeling a bit disorientated (and perhaps a bit tender) it may not be the best idea to get your first poem taken apart and re-built by a ‘someone’. Just do the work — the reading and the writing — and you will get there.

 

6) When you’re ready to send your precious poems off into the world, (how will I know? you may ask. You’ll know, my friend, you’ll know…) then I’d suggest being methodical about the task. Set up a spreadsheet or use an exercise book and make a note of when, where and to whom you are sending off your poems. You’ll get rejections. Lots of them. But that’s okay. If you think of the submission process as the endpoint itself – then as long as you keep submitting stuff, you’re a success! I aim to always have 2, 3 or 4 submissions out there and under consideration (as I’m a short story writer and novelist as well as a poet, I have a range of stuff ‘out there’ which I bundle together under the heading of ‘writing’). Having just checked through my ‘little red book’ I submitted around 30 pieces in the past year. And 5 of them found homes. The others didn’t. And that’s okay. I obviously sent them out to homes that weren’t quite right for them (or perhaps the pieces needed another little tweak) or they simply weren’t to the editor’s taste. (Perhaps I hadn’t done my homework and didn’t really know what the editor was looking for by reading their publication thoroughly. Or perhaps I’d been lazy and taken a shortcut and didn’t buy (or read) the journal, assuming I knew what they were after.) Or… (and this is very often the way) the numbers game wasn’t in my favour. Because this whole submission lark is just that: a gamble. And one mustn’t get too serious about gambling (I know this from personal experience too). Numbers don’t care. They just are. When you send off your submission with (perhaps) hundreds of others, it’s always going to be a longshot that your work gets placed. But it does happen, sometimes. Enjoy it when it does happen and then break out the bubbly. See it as a pleasant bonus that happened because of you building your submission list (which, after some time and a few publications later may just turn into a proper publishing record).

 

7) And lastly, if I’ve given the impression that Poetry World is deadly serious and only about the end result of publication, then I’m sorry and I will have to address that. Because it isn’t. It’s full of fun and innovative ideas – Poetry Trading Cards, anyone? (I LOVE the idea of Poetry Trading Cards! Go grab some!) – and it’s also full of lovely, friendly and inspiring people, just like those who were on the panel and in the audience last Saturday. So get involved! Go to poetry festivals, go to readings at bookshops, perform your poetry (online or on the stage), or just get chatting to poets you admire on social media. And, of course, keep playing with words.

 

And a final, final p.s. I will tell you a secret. There really is no shortcut to becoming an established member of Poetry World. There is only the work, and the only reason to do the work is to love the work. And loving doing the work IS THE REWARD. But there is a longish shortcut to getting known in Poetry World. It’s called ‘becoming a poetry publisher’. But unless you have a penchant for quite literally, taking bank notes out of your own wallet, and setting them alight, then don’t do it my friend. Don’t do it.

 

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Light and dark and the idea of hope

The world seems like a very dark place at the moment. A short while ago, when I heard about the UK government’s decision to take military action in Syria I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of conflict and thought about all the fellow humans who would be directly affected (and hurt) by this. I spent many of my walks around the neighbourhood feeling low and contemplating why humans keep repeating this kind of aggressive behaviour.

I find that when there is much darkness without, I often feel the darkness within me crowding out positive and joyful thoughts and feelings. Everything seems worthless, I feel worthless and everything I do seems worthless.

A huge part of my life is centred around books and I very much believe in the power of words, but I also cannot ignore the fact that so many wise, creative people have written over and over again about the idiocy of aggression and how we must cooperate with each other and respect our environment if we are to live in a peaceful and bountiful world. The message is out there, it is forever being beamed out there, but is it being picked up? Is it heard? Is it being listened to?

When the world seems like a dark place, I think no. The message is being ignored, and willfully so, and even the thought of hope – hope that one day us greedy, stupid humans will stop killing each other and destroying our planet – seems an impossibility.

It is then that I must simply hold on to the idea of hope. To hold on to the idea that even if the messages keep getting ignored, a place where people aren’t sending out those messages is even worse.

Slowly, very slowly, I came to the realization that this, for me, would simply have to be enough. The dedication of a life to putting messages of light, empathy and the value of clear communication out there is enough, and importantly, worthwhile.

And as I came to this realization, books, the process of creativity and my loved ones helped me to remember joy and the light there is in life, although for it to exist and be appreciated, there has to be some darkness, whether it be without or within.

A simple trip to the library with my son to pick up some children’s Christmas books was joyful.

Christmas books, photo by Marija Smits

Christmas books, photo by Marija Smits

 

Finding escape and enjoyment – sheer bliss, in fact! – through reading one of my friend’s books was joyful.

Pride and Regicide, by Cathy Bryant

Pride and Regicide, by Cathy Bryant

 

Finding words of kindness and empathy in Matt Haig’s book was a comforting.

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

 

Finding some sweet-smelling hyacinths in a dark box in the garage and bringing them out into the light made my heart glad.

Hyacinths, photo by Marija Smits

Hyacinths, photo by Marija Smits

 

Reading some poignant and beautiful poems in this charity anthology – many by poets I have the pleasure of knowing and being friends with – also made my heart glad.

Over Land, Over Sea book

Over Land, Over Sea book

 

Painting and creating some new art (some of it with and alongside my daughter) was joyful.

Painted glass and stones, photo by Marija Smits

Painted glass and stones, photo by Marija Smits

 

And on the way discovering an older piece, full of the contrast of dark and light made me happy.

Mother and son, by Marija Smits

Mother and son, by Marija Smits

 

Reading my very short story ‘Lady Seaweed or Tristesse’ at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio and was joyful.

 

Writing some sci-fi short stories was joyful.

 

Listening to some Pentatonix songs was joyful.

 

Meeting up with my friend and ex-mentee was heartwarming and wonderful.

And lastly, lighting the candles on our Nativity scene with my son and putting the Christmas tree up with our family, which is now stuffed full of ornaments – many of which have been made with much love – was joyful.

Nativity scene with candles

Nativity scene with candles

 

In a continued time of darkness I wish you all much joy and light.

With many thanks to Maddy for continuing to be the brilliant link-up host.

 

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The Walnut Hearts

Welcome to the ‘Look At All The Women’ Carnival: Week 1 – ‘The Lovers’

This post was written especially for inclusion in the three-week-long ‘Look At All The Women’ carnival, hosted by Mother’s Milk Books, to celebrate the launch of Cathy Bryant’s new book ‘Look At All The Women’. This week our participants share their thoughts on the theme ‘The Lovers’ (the first chapter in Cathy’s poetry collection).

 

Please read to the end of the post for a full list of carnival participants.

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Walnut hearts, photo by Marija Smits

Walnut hearts, photo by Marija Smits

The Walnut Hearts

 

And this is what I found within

the hard and secret shell:

two walnut hearts, identical

in substance, texture, taste.

 

They were as one, now cleaved in two;

their flesh exposed to air.

They wither, dry; time makes them weak,

their shells begin to crack.

 

And what of us, my lover, friend?

We must expect the same.

We live, we love, we age, we die;

yet still our hearts are twinned.

 

 

MARIJA SMITS

 

 

I’m not a big fan of ‘forever’ and ‘always’ and the idea that there is only one ‘right’ person for each person on this Earth, but when I wrote the above poem I felt it was right to include a line about ‘twinned’ hearts. My husband and I will be celebrating 10 years of marriage tomorrow so I can’t help but maybe add a touch of sentimentality to this post! My point is that by being together for 17 years (we were a couple for 7 years before we got married) we kind of are twinned – in the sense that we sometimes seem to read each other’s minds, and that whatever happens in the future, history will twin us. If our children go on to have children, and they go on to have children, we will be in their family tree – our names ‘forever’ beside each other. Separate, but together.

 

What strikes me about wedding anniversaries is how I often think about them in connection to the local news. Local newspapers often carry stories about couples who are celebrating their ruby or diamond wedding anniversary, and it’s a rare chance to congratulate these couples on the longevity of their relationship and to ask them what the secret of their wedded bliss is. Sometimes the answer given is: “Doing things together – having similar interests and hobbies”. Sometimes the answer is: “Laughing together” or perhaps: “Being able to compromise”. Undoubtedly these things are important – and hopefully there as a solid foundation to the relationship right from the start, but surely good communication has to be key to the growth and harmony of a relationship?

 

Becoming parents has certainly changed our relationship. How could it not? In her book What Mothers Do, Naomi Stadlen writes:

A two-person relationship is radically different from one of three people. A two-person relationship has a kind of elegant symmetry, whereas this three-person one is complex. It is not symmetrical. The two parents have a biological relationship with their child, but a consensual relationship with each other… …Additional children increase the complexity, but the change is not as great as the two-into-three change. This doesn’t necessarily drive a ‘wedge’ into the marriage. But it certainly changes it.

 

This change can be challenging, but clear communication can make all the difference. Talking, and really listening to the other person can help such a lot. Some days, for us, it goes like this:

 

After a long day of mothering all I want is a cup of tea and to be able to discuss my day with my husband. After a long day of working at a demanding job all my husband wants is a cup of tea and some quiet time. After a long day full of excitement, and discovery and play, all our children want is to talk to us! We used to snap at each other at the end of the ‘work’ day, which left all of us feeling unhappy. This snapping, though unwelcome, at least allowed us to realise that this time was an ’emotional hotspot’. It took clear communication and a bit of creativity to help us get to a place where ‘daddy home time’ is now no longer so fraught!

 

Family life is busy. Sometimes conversations between my husband and I consist of five minutes of talking about bills before we go to bed. And yet family life is also fluid – we can often snatch moments when our children play together happily to have a hug and to ask each other that all-important question: “How are you?”. “Fine,” I might say. (More often it’s “Tired!”) But the other day it was “Fine. Looking forward to going out for lunch on our anniversary.”

 

Aw 🙂
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Look At All The Women, by Cathy Bryant

Look At All The Women, by Cathy Bryant

Look At All The Women is now available to buy from:

The Mother’s Milk Bookshop (as a paperback and PDF) – we can ship books around the world!

and as a paperback from Amazon.co.uk.

It can also be ordered via your local bookshop.

If you’d like to know more about the ‘Look At All The Women’ carnival please find more details about it here:

http://www.mothersmilkbooks.com/index.php/books#carnival-2

Please take the time to read and comment on the following fab posts submitted by some wonderful women:

‘Fantasy, love and oddity.’ — Cathy Bryant, guest posting at Mother’s Milk Books, shares two of her favourite poems about lovers from her second collection of poetry, Look At All The Women.

‘The Walnut Hearts’Marija Smits shares some ‘nutty’ poetry about love and reflects on the role good communication has on a harmonious relationship.

Georgie St Clair shares her feelings on why we should indulge our passions as lovers in her lighthearted post — ‘Creative Lovers: Not Tonight Darling’.

‘The Lovers – Or What I Don’t Know About Love’ — Kimberly Jamison posts to her blog The Book Word what she has learnt about love from story books, people watching and her own life and wonders if she actually knows anything at all.

‘Explicit v Implicit’ — Ana Salote at Colouring Outside the Lines considers literature’s role in teaching children about relationships.