On Boundaries & Being a Minecraft Mum

 

Last year, when I finally got to bed on Christmas Eve I had the sudden realization that we had come to the end of an era. You see, waiting under the tree there was a certain present for our children. The certain present had lots of circuits, a screen and a keyboard. And my husband was going to put Minecraft on it. I just knew that from Christmas Day onwards everything would change…

 

Minecraft books, photo by Marija Smits

I’ve read all these books cover to cover. At least 10 times. (Photo, by Marija Smits.)

 

My husband and I had thought long and hard about this gift. For one thing, it was essential to get the kids off my laptop which was full of work stuff. Also, my eldest daughter was being asked to do more and more computer-based homework. Third… well, Minecraft. Although I knew very little about it I could already see the appeal. As a sandbox game it allows you to be creative and build all sorts, but there are also certain challenges/achievements to complete, as well as the chance to play in multiplayer mode with other people. This was going to blow our minds!

 

Creeper, by Marija Smits

A creeper. Not mind-blowing but he does blow stuff up.

 

Four months down the line I can confirm that the Minecraft era is all that I expected it to be: 1) a lot of fun 2) highly creative 3) an educational experience – it’s been a steep learning curve but now myself and my children pretty much know everything there is to know about Minecraft: mining, crafting, mobs, fighting, farming, building, enchanting, potion-making, the Nether, the End. (There’s even some poetry in it! And a creepypasta in the form of the elusive Herobrine.) YouTubers I knew nothing about in the pre-Minecraft era are now household names: Mr Stampy Cat, iBallisticSquid, AmyLee. Stampy’s ‘hic-hic’ laugh is oft-mimicked.

These first 3 expectations are positive. So far, so good. Yet the fourth is not, for it is this: addictive.

So this is where the ‘boundaries’ bit comes in. It would seem that some people have a pre-disposition to addiction – in that they have a more sensitive reward system in place, and this, most likely coupled with a diminished ‘pause-to-check’ instinct, means that they are more vulnerable to addiction. And perhaps more likely to be risk-takers.

Addiction, as a topic, fascinates me, so it’s no wonder that addiction as a theme reoccurs in my short stories (one of these stories is to be published in a litmag this summer. Yay!). But it only feels like something I can view more dispassionately now, since I feel I have a better sense of my own addictive tendencies. (Though in the past [soft] substance addictions were an issue, my addictions are now internal rather than external. I know that I am only ever a few wobbly and perilously short steps away from OCD thoughts – which in the past have stolen hours, days, weeks, months from my life. And person addiction – aka limerence – is the other.) Also, having lived with a gambler for several years and had friends with alcoholic parents (as well as the requisite uni pals most definitely [and yet not] in control of their own chemical addictions) I feel as though I’ve got a bit of a handle on the issue. And TV programmes, branded with trashy titles such as: Help! I’m addicted to sex! (or food or social media or feet or whatever) actually make for an insightful (and fascinating) watch.

Anyway, back to boundaries. Obviously, computer games can be addictive. And I’ve noticed that my son finds it far more difficult to come away from the screen than my daughter. When it’s time to stop he complains and wheedles for just another 5 minutes. I do my best to always give him at least a 10 minute countdown, but still, it can be hard for him to stop. I can empathise. I have memories of playing Tetris over and over in a darkened room while outside the sun shone, and finding it very hard to detach from the screen. (And apparently, my husband, too, was a keen computer gamer in his youth.)

Still… empathy is good. It helps my son to know that I’m on his side. But also, boundaries are good. However, when I’m setting and enforcing boundaries, I always feel as though I’m being a big bad baddie. (Something that I think many women find tricky – saying ‘no’ and ‘enough’.) But I have to remind myself that boundaries are good. I’m actually a goody for imposing boundaries, because boundaries help us to cultivate personal integrity, and create wholeness, and also, they are necessary for healthy relationships: with ourselves, with each other and with our environment. They make for a healthy society.

Many adults already know what their boundaries are. For some it means zero alcohol. For others it means a certain limit on coffee. For those in a committed relationship it means a blanket ban on ‘friending’ exes or past lovers on Facebook. For children who love screen time it can mean making sure that there are time restrictions in place. (We also don’t have phones or screens in our bedrooms – I’m trying to ensure that bedroom = rest in their minds. I’ve also found that making sure that screens are off at least 2 hours before they go to bed is a big help with their sleep and temperament.)

Anyway, so far, Minecraft has been a positive in our life, but as usual, observing, reflecting and setting (and enforcing) boundaries on a day-to-day basis are paramount for something that has, like so many other apparently innocent things, the potential to become addictive.

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Women in Science

As we’re currently in British Science Week (10 – 19th March), I thought it the perfect opportunity to write about something close to my heart: women in science.

Teika Marija Smits in the lab, photo courtesy Lankani Hettigoda

Teika Marija Smits in the lab, photo courtesy Lankani Hettigoda

Now, I used to be a woman in science, but then I left for all sorts of reasons, which I outlined in an earlier post. To clarify, it was not the science that was the issue, rather, a male-dominated environment (and the competitiveness, extrovertism and ‘blokey’ jokes that was a huge part of that environment). It was also a time when work email somehow allowed people (okay, let’s admit it – they were men!) to send pornographic images. At one university I worked at I walked past the odd computer screen seeing some things I’d much rather not have seen. This experience didn’t make me (one of about 5 women in a group with 20 men or so) feel so great about myself.

In addition, looking up the hierarchy, I could see that the female lecturers and researchers were clearly juggling so much – their careers and motherhood and trying to run a household, and, and… and still the male lecturers would make comments about the women ‘not pulling their weight’.

In conclusion: I did not love scientific research enough to continue in that career. And that is okay. I am glad I realized this sooner rather than later.

However, I am immensely thankful for the women who do love research and overcome all kinds of obstacles to pursue their research and excel in their specialism. But why is it that at the age of 40 (and even as an ex-scientist) I still find it difficult to name the contributions women have made to science? Once again, and as in so many fields of endeavour, women’s achievements in science have been overlooked, sidelined, ignored. Or been appropriated by men. In general, women scientists have been put on ‘mute’.

So when I came across this image on Facebook on International Women’s Day – from the excellent Compound Interest page – I was delighted to discover more women scientists. (Chemists, like me!)

 

And when I went to my local library the other day they had a wonderful display full of cards with inventions and discoveries by scientific women on them. Such as:

Stem cell research – Ann Tsukamoto

Kevlar – invented by Stephanie Kwolek

Semi-conductor theory/telecommunications research – Shirley Ann Jackson

The life raft – Maria Beasley

Computing – Grace Hopper

Solar-energy technology – Maria Telkes

This display was for International Women’s Day (or to call it by its other name – ‘Why Isn’t There An International Men’s Day’?). Sad but true, every year outraged men take to Twitter to wonder aloud Why oh why isn’t there a special day for men? Richard Herring, bless his heart, answers many, many of them to let them know that yes, there is an International Men’s Day. It’s on 19th November. He also encourages his followers/those interested in his cause to educate the incredulous to donate money to the charity Refuge).

And another good resource for women scientists I came across recently is Sheroes of History.

Having been a teacher (and now a parent) for a fair while now, I’m pretty sure that girls and young women have got the message that science is something that both sexes can excel at. But it cannot be overlooked that academia is very much an environment for the privileged white middle-class male. That’s not to say that boys and young men shouldn’t be encouraged to study science – they should be, it’s brilliant! It’s just that schools, universities and scientific companies need to look at their environment through the feminist (as well as racist) lens. How can we make academia more accessible to women? How can we keep mother scientists still involved in research if they don’t want to spend virtually all their waking hours away from their children? How can we get away from the competitiveness that so obviously suits highly-driven testosterone-fuelled men? Indeed, can scientific research be a cooperative endeavour? And why oh why must everything be measured by publication in the ‘big’ journals, Science, Nature et al.? Is this really where all the ‘good’ science is? Just as with poetry, there are the ‘big’ journals/magazines. That does not mean that the smaller literary magazines aren’t publishing just-as-good (if not better) poetry. They are!

Sadly, again, so much of the problems of academia come down to that monster, neoliberalism. Universities are more companies nowadays, the students the ‘customers’ – the power taken from academics and given to the bureaucrats and the private companies they fling money at. The people at the top enjoy six-figure salaries for formulating things like: strategic mission and the academic vision, innovative streamlining, the student-centred approach etc. while the academics (who are irreplaceable, because, let’s face it, how many of us have a good working knowledge of quantum mechanics, or crystallography or neuroplasticity or… or… ?) grind on, trapped between teaching, research and the huge amount of administrative tasks they have to complete. They do not enjoy six-figure salaries. And especially not if they’re women.

However, all that said, there are, of course, exceptions to the rule. There are high-earning women at the top, just as there are high-earning men at the top. Check out this link if you want to know just what the heads of some unis pay themselves. I will add two words here that are appropriate: fat and cat. But as always, there are good stewards at the head of universities, who are perhaps worthy of their salary. And there are bad stewards at the top of many universities too, who are most certainly not worth of their salary. Also, there are women who thrive in a competitive environment. And those who do not. But the lower down the hierarchy you go the more likely you are to find women not negotiating for extra pay, not negotiating for better working conditions for themselves and their families, and not speaking out about inappropriate conduct or unprofessionalism of male colleagues.

I don’t know what the answer to all this is, although I think it’s clear that separating business from academia is key. Commercialism is making science less science-y. And in these post-truth times, scientific rigour, objectivity and the pursuit of truth (no matter if that truth pains us) is absolutely vital. I also think that talking and writing about all the many women scientists of the past and today is also key in helping girls and women to know that science is something that they can really get involved in. And excel at. Lastly, we need to give young women the tools to assert for themselves so that they can make the changes to academia that are so badly needed to free it of capitalism’s grip so that it can become a true place of learning and creative investigation, irrespective of the student or teacher’s sex, skin colour, class or financial background.

 

My daughter's base + acid volcano, photo by Marija Smits

My daughter’s base + acid volcano, photo by Marija Smits (with thanks to Red Ted Art for the YouTube video on how to construct the volcano).

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Anticipation, persistence and um… hairy legs

Although there were a couple of crappy things that happened in February – family illnesses and me managing to dent my husband’s car (don’t ask!) I was just thinking today that I would miss February. I think it’s because I actually like really like this in-between time of year. I’m all about anticipation. As Kipper the dog in the all-time classic Kipper’s Christmas Eve by Mick Inkpen (a wonderful name for a writer, don’t you think?) says:

Which is best I wonder? Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? Presents or expecting presents? Who knows?

He too, like me, comes to the conclusion that expecting presents i.e. anticipation is better than gratification. (Though gratification has its good points too!)

February was also a fairly productive month for me, which made me happy. Despite being ill on and off I managed to finish a couple of short stories and send off quite a few submissions. And yes, another reason I like February is because of the whole ‘love’ thing. Any excuse to eat chocolates and to go out for a meal with my husband is appreciated. I also got to have an actual real meet up with local friends, which was lovely too. 🙂

I’m hoping that the odd submission will ‘take’ (although, I know the chances are always slim) but in the meantime, while I’m trying to patiently wait for the results – I’ve been waiting for a year to hear about one submission! – I am squeezing as much pleasure as I can from the knowledge that all this creating is helping to move my writing forward. And today I was reminded (by a meme on Twitter, of all things) that:

Through readiness and discipline, we are the masters of our fate.

Bill Paxton

Also, as I flicked through my lovely Mslexia diary – a gift from my most trusted supporter, my husband – I spotted this quote from the most excellent Octavia Butler:

We don’t start out writing good stuff. We start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.

Which coincidentally chimed with me as I’d been creating some art on a similar-ish theme:

At the swimming pool, by Marija Smits

At the swimming pool, by Marija Smits

 

And although I can’t make myself taller (why do I always picture myself as taller than I am in reality?!) I can simply persist. And the (inevitable?) good outcome of persistence will surely have to put a smile on my face. Right?! 😉

 

Anyway, whether you will spend your March fasting or feasting I hope you manage to pack in lots of creative loveliness.

New Year’s Resolutions? No thanks. I’ll do ‘Sustainable Positive Habits’ Instead.

 

The years go by... photo by Marija Smits

The years go by… photo by Marija Smits

 

Oh dear, my title has given away all the exciting stuff I was going to explain. Never mind. So yeah… I haven’t really ‘done’ New Year’s Resolutions for a few years now, and that’s mainly because those huge, rather amorphous resolutions like: I’m going to lose weight! Get richer! Become famous! (<– the last being something I’m not very interested in but still you get the drift) are simply that: unquantifiable, vague desires. So instead I’m dismissing the vagaries and set-up-to-fail resolutions and instead keeping going with my (probably not that exciting) but overall, positive habits. These are:

 

  1. Listening to my body more. Part of this involves continuing to go swimming once a week and doing two HIIT (high-intensity interval training) sessions a week because my body needs and appreciates it. Since September (when I posted my ‘Publisher’s Bum’ post) pretty much without fail I’ve kept up with this routine. So I’m pleased about that. Another part of this listening habit involves me dealing with the RSI in my wrist. To that end I’ve ordered myself an ergonomic mouse and I’ll see how it goes. The final part involves questioning myself more at dinner times, and whether I really really need to eat the kids’ leftovers and finally, continuing to listen to my body when it’s telling me to sleep and rest (and actually acting on that) which I mostly do already.

 

  1. Listening to my family more. My youngest still needs me and though my oldest child, my soon-to-be ten-year-old daughter, doesn’t ‘need’ me in the same way as she used to, they (and my husband) want to share and spend time with me and I want to do the same with them. So this habit mainly involves being fierce about protecting family time and reminding myself to listen to their cues.

 

  1. Listening to the voice of the ‘stern but fair headmistress’ in my head more often (just one of the many voices of the Wild Woman). Thankfully my inner critic isn’t too shouty anymore but I really do need to be more respectful of the headmistress. She’s the one who tells me to stop being such a magpie about shiny new creative ideas and FINISH THE CURRENT WORK. She also tells me to get off Facebook and knuckle down to the to-do list. The stroppy (and yet creative) part of me thinks she’s a party-pooper, but deep down I have great respect for her. Because it is only by finishing things that I can truly grow as a writer and artist.

 

  1. Listening to the hands of time more often. Okay, so this seems like a pretty gloomy habit. But there is only so much time to go around. It’s one of the most precious resources any human has. So learning how to make best use of it is worthwhile.

 

  1. Listening to quiet more often. This simply sometimes involves exiting cyberspace and leaving behind the noise of the internet with all its attention-grabbing headlines, tricksy ads, outraged voices, and shouty ‘me, me, me’s that make my head spin, and then tuning into my own voice. (The whispers of the Wild Woman perhaps…?) What is it trying to say? What am I thinking? How am I feeling? Better still, going for a walk in a wood where the trees grow so thickly that you can hear the sound of silence… or along the side of a lake so mirror-like it is as though the Lady of the Lake may well emerge from the waters… ah well, for me, those are some of the best experiences in the world.

 

Swan on lake, photo by Marija Smits

Swan on lake, photo by Marija Smits

 

So on that rather quiet note I will leave you to your own listening. I wish you all the best for 2017. Thank you, loyal readers (all 11 of you + my wonderful husband!) for continuing to drop by to read my reflections.

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On Darkness and the Age of Enlightenment

Today, I am full of tears. I am hormonal, I am tired. A short story not being placed in a competition has made me feel low. Money worries are ever-present. My eldest daughter has been ill (though, thankfully she is on the mend). News of children suffering and dying in my Facebook feed has overwhelmed me. I feel useless and so very helpless. Today, I am full of tears.

Yet there is light all around me; achingly bright sunlight currently fills the room in which I am writing and ice-white fairy lights snake about the walls of our house. The tree in our lounge sports ribbons of multi-coloured LEDs. Candles sit around our nativity scene, keen to be lit. There is light within me (though darkness too). And I see light in others. And light calls to light.

Chrstingle, photo by Marija Smits

Chrstingle, photo by Marija Smits

2016 has been a year of darkness and much ugliness for so many. It is now more than ever that light is needed. It is interesting to me that light is so important to many (if not all) of the religions, and in pagan festivals too, light, in the form of the sun or moonlight or fire, is key. Storytellers, as well, know about the importance of light (think Lumos! in Harry Potter). It is a theme I explore often in my writing. Artists are the wielders of light. But in addition to creative and spiritual light (which I equate with love – and so something we no doubt need more of) there is also the light of reason. This is something the world desperately needs.

The Enlightenment… …was an intellectual movement which dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state…

…The Enlightenment was marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism along with increased questioning of religious orthodoxy – an attitude captured by the phrase Sapere aude, “Dare to know”.

from Wikipedia

Daring to know the facts and statistics and hence outcomes about uncomfortable things like sexism, racism, climate change, government policy, neoliberalism, even something as (supposedly uncontroversial) as breastfeeding is difficult. If a journalist, celebrity or (lowly in the eyes of many) mother cites facts about breastfeeding: breastfeeding reduces the risk of vomiting and diarrhoea, SIDS, type 2 diabetes and obesity (to name a few) or to state it another way: formula feeding increases the risk of vomiting and diarrhoea, SIDS, type 2 diabetes and obesity (to name a few) just wait for the outrage.

Yet these are facts. They cannot hurt us. But for some of us they can and do by causing cognitive dissonance; they turn our worldview upside down, they turn our comfy, cushy lives and perception of ourselves as ‘good’ people into something else entirely. They damage the shiny image we have of our ‘self’. And for some these facts are simply dull and they feel browbeaten by those who wield them. School has turned them off facts. And anyway, who doesn’t want to think of themselves as a ‘good’ person? One of the most difficult and yet enlightening conversations I had was with my husband this year as we talked through some of the stuff that had happened to us as a family this year. I did some hard self-reflection and found my behaviour to have been selfish and driven by selfish desires. Ow! There is nothing quite as searing (or purging) as examining one’s own ‘self’ and coming face to face with darkness.

Yet, there was also something liberating about this discovery. I am freer of self-deceit than I was before and in many ways this new knowledge allows me to give more energy and thought to positive things. It is a hard-won gift.

But the gift of knowledge, of self-awareness, is one that not many will want in their lives. For how much more easy it is to listen to lies on the news that tell us what we want to hear than to search out some evidence-based research. How much easier it is to vote for someone who appeals to the fear that they and their cronies have nurtured in us and our societies. How much easier it is to say that climate change can’t be happening because it’s all a made-up conspiracy. How much easier it is to think of ourselves as without fault, all issues and problems in our lives caused by others. How much easier it is to distract ourselves from life’s true joys and worries with fact-free click-bait; junk food of the soul, surely. How much easier it is to act like the herd mammals we really are and to go along with what everyone else is doing and saying.

In this age of post-truth, this age of outrage when the individual’s feelings trump everything else – you offended me, how dare you! the rallying cry of so many – we need to fall back on reason and the scientific method.

Science books, photo by Marija Smits

Science books, photo by Marija Smits

The age of enlightenment brought us so much. The scientific revolution followed soon after and so many of our advances in technology and medicine etc. come as a direct result of these two movements. It is the reason for the Cancer Act of 1939, which basically stops conmen and conwomen from pushing “cures” which don’t cure on cancer patients. (This Act is something I had to make someone aware of recently.) The age of enlightenment is the reason behind so much of the advantages and good stuff us wealthy-enough westerners get to enjoy. But as Sophie rightly pointed out in this blog post, sometimes (with a view to ‘equal debate’) there comes about a false balance as journalists and those in the media have allowed those without any facts and extreme views a platform. And closer to home, we allow ourselves and our friends and loved ones their own lies and myths.* We have done a disservice to those who brought about this age of enlightenment and our society too by letting lies abound.

We desperately need another age of enlightenment. I don’t know if or how or when it will come about. But I hope it does come about, and soon. But I am sure that we all have our role to play in helping it come about. Some of us can and will do more than others. But sometimes all it requires of us is the very act of questioning, ourselves and others. We need to ask these questions:

 

  • Why do you/I believe this?

 

  • What is the evidence?

 

  • How does this work?

 

  • And of course: What can I/you do to change this?

 

And especially, we need to nurture our children’s natural curiosity and encourage them to keep on asking: Why?

In 2017 I will be challenging myself to ask more of these questions.

 

* Communicating in an empathic fashion while making others aware of untruths is something I definitely want to explore in a future post.

Thank you again to Maddy for all her continued hard work throughout 2016 in making the What I’m Writing link-up so wonderful. 🙂

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An Intention and Meet Starry-You

 

To date I’ve not been one to declare an intention publicly (I’m more the quiet person in the background puttering on with their work – vague intentions in my head, but never ‘out there’) so it feels a bit strange to do this, but I can see one big positive of declaring an intention of mine: that it’ll (hopefully) keep me accountable and on track to actually doing the thing that I want to do.

So here goes. I have a little dream of putting together a book – a collection of short stories in the SFF genre – and (whisper it) getting it published and ‘out there’. At the moment the whole publishing thing is not something I’m thinking about too much – it’s the whole good quality short story stuff that’s keeping me occupied!

But you see, something absolutely wonderful happened to me a short while ago. First, my story ‘His Birth’ was shortlisted in a competition. (The Wellcome Trust sponsored ‘Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities’ Creative Writing Competition.) And then second, it got awarded 2nd place by the judge Adam Roberts, who is like some kind of god when it comes to science fiction writing. And believe me, it gave me such a boost (and actually, some much-needed validation) that I started to think, Maybe I can do this. Maybe I can allow myself to consider putting together a short story collection. Maybe.

So… it’s going to take me a good long while (my writing happens at around midnight once or twice a week, or on the weekend) but I’m in no rush. The main thing is to get around 12 good short stories written that I want to include. Now, I’ve got a couple already that I want to include, but there’s still a whole lot more to write. And, there’s also the fact that only about 1 in 5 of the short stories I write are actually good enough to put in a collection. This I know because I only consider a story ‘good enough’ if my husband (aka my editor extraordinaire) really likes the story (and that only ever happens in approximately that ratio!).

So I’m going to aim to increase my publication history when it comes to short stories (no doubt there will be plenty of rejections ahead – perhaps some acceptances too!) but the main thing is that I persevere.

Inspired by Maddy’s image of her ‘Self-Doubt Demon’ I decided to draw a character that represents the opposite: the ‘Supportive Star’ (aka Starry-You in reference to the Pokemon, Staryu). Or does Sammy Star work better? Who knows? Basically, this little guy (or is she a gal?) is there to say: Well done! and You can do it! You got this! Because sometimes we all need a little encouragement when things get tough and the self-doubt demon appears…

 

Yay! You can do it! Starry-You by Marija Smits

Yay! You can do it! Starry-You by Marija Smits

 

Anyway… wish me luck, and if you ever have a spare moment please do ask me about how things are going. It will be good incentive for me to keep going!

Lastly… my blog turned 4 last month (although sadly, I was too busy to do anything about it then) but I’m creating a little something for a giveaway I’m going to run, so please do pop back in the next week or two if you’re interested in seeing what I’ll be giving away in celebration of my 4th blogiversary.

 

Some zentangle-art-to-be, photo by Marija Smits

Some zentangle-art-to-be, photo by Marija Smits

 

So, ta ta for now, and I hope to see you soon!

 

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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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