So you wanna be a rock ‘n roll star: some thoughts on ‘being published’

To put it all in context. In the last year or so, I’ve reviewed – or blogged about – collections that I love. Kim Moore’s The art of falling. Christy Ducker’s Skipper. Fiona Benson’s Bright travellers. Jane Clarke’s The River. Work by Shirley McClure, Maria Taylor, Hilary Elfick, Tom Cleary, Bob Horne, Steve Ely, Clare Shaw., Wendy Pratt…loads of them. I’ve been asked to read manuscripts of draft collections and wished they were mine. For the last three days (with the invaIuable help of Sandra Blackford) I’ve been collating a new collection of poems by me and my friend Andy Blackford, fiddling about and agonising over sequence and continuity and beginnings and endings. I just signed a contract for a first collection of my own poems…of which more in another post. And I’m involved in a frustrating email exchange about the cover design. How did I get here? Because I never set out to get here. Let me tell you how.

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We can all dream. Write poems. Get them accepted by The Rialto, Magma, Poetry Review...all of them.Find a publisher. Bloodaxe would be nice. Get great reviews, prizes. Sit in Waterstones and sign copies while the queue stretches out of the door and along the street. We can dream, and so we should; our reach should exceed our grasp, or what’s a heaven for?  But.

Some time ago I was riffing on the various cries of pain I hear on Facebook. We’re a fragile lot, us poets, I wrote.  You find yourself, for reasons you can’t fathom, writing, or trying to write, poems; meeting other bewildered and enthusiastic folk in the same pickle. And every now and again hearing (or reading on Facebook) the complaint that someone is ‘blocked’ or ‘stuck’ or has ‘hit a blank period’. You become addicted to Anthony Wilson’s blog, and his dialogues with The Book. The self-doubt, the angst…and the casual indifference of the mephistophilean Book. You understand every bit of it. But.

You go on writing, and maybe you get some poems accepted by magazines. And for a bit you feel sort of content. And then folk start asking: have you got a collection out yet? And you look at the growing files of poems you’re more or less pleased with. Your ouevre. And that ‘what shall I write about?’ morphs into ‘when will I be published?’. More specifically, ‘I want a collection’. Which morphs into ‘When will I be famous?’. And then poet-envy. Then doubt. Despair. Oblivion.

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It doesn’t have to be like that. This won’t be one of those helpfully informative ‘how to’ posts. I leave that to folk who are better at it than me ..lovely folk like Roy Marshall (https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/). Specifically, the post you want is at the end of this link https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/putting-a-poetry-pamphlet-together/ .  And  other lovely folk like Josephine Corcoran (https://josephinecorcoran.org/), for instance. Everyone’s route to a collection is different. ( I nearly wrote ‘journey’ and caught myself just in time). This was mine.

I had one abortive attempt at taking the business seriously a few years ago, when I did a part-time Creative Writing MA. To be honest, I really did it because I was semi-retired, and struggling to cope with free time. I thought that committing to a course would put some discipline into my life. It didn’t, but that’s another story. On the other hand, I was struck by the diffuse ambition of my (much younger) fellow students. None of them asked questions about how to make their work better. But they constantly asked about how you set about getting published. I didn’t get it. I genuinely thought it was hard enough to actually learn something about the craft of writing, and to actually write some poems. In the end I didn’t do much of either, and I got an MA, and that was that for some time.

But. I’d got a taste for it, even if I didn’t acknowledge it. It was Poetry Business Writing Days that set my feet right. You learn from the company you keep; I was taken along for the first time by Julia Deakin, to whom I shall be eternally grateful. I sat in rooms with people who seemed to write as though writing, and getting it right, was enough. I was comfortable in their company. Eventually, though, the conversation would turn to magazines and pamphlets and collections, and I realised after all that just writing better wasn’t enough. What was the point, if no one was reading your stuff? But.

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Why would they would be reading yours? Who would notice? How will they find it in the multiverse of books and bookshelves and libraries  and bookshps? I remember saying to Ann Sansom that I couldn’t see why folk would pester publishers. Or why poetry publishers put themselves through it. There’s no money in it for anyone, that’s for sure. Or you might get published by someone who it turns out isn’t that bothered about the most important thing in your life.

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Something that’s stuck in my mind since then is an anecdote that Simon Armitage put in his account of walking the SW Coast Path and reading at various venues along the way. (Walking away. Faber). He’s staying overnight at what was the home of Peterloo Poets…who, inter alia, were the publishers of U.A.Fanthorpe. At some point, they simply went out of business. And left behind thousands and thousands of unsold copies, gradually falling prey to dust and damp. There you go. No one’s going to see your stuff on those crowded shelves, and eventually you’ll be remaindered or pulped. It’s a profoundly depressing thought. But.

You send stuff out, you enter competitions, you do open mics. You realise (well I did) that even if someone offers to publish you, it could be over a year before anything happens. And maybe you think you haven’t the patience for it. That’s what I felt like, but at the same time there’s something deeply unsatisfying about a whole bunch of poems that sit there in their Wordfiles, that have no physical heft. As it happened, still struggling to cope with semi-retirement, I enrolled in a bookbinding course at the Tech in Leeds. Learned very simple techniques, learned kettlestitching, all about endpapers, about boards, and even about embossing. Decided that for my assessment projects, I’d make books of my own poems. So I did.

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Two things happen. Well, they did for me.

The first is that when you go through the business of choosing and sequencing your poems, you realise that you didn’t really know your own work. You knew it, if you knew it at all, as this poem or that poem. And then it hits you that there are themes and preoccupations you were barely aware of. It’s fascinating and possibly unnerving. I’m reminded that last week, Roy Marshall (see above) was guest poet at The Puzzle Hall Poets and said, in passing, that he was surprised how many birds there were in his poems…especially since, unlike Steve Ely, say, he knows next to nothing about birds. That chimed with me. I’ve just assembled a collection and realised that I write a lot of poems with birds in. And a lot with God .. or gods…in.It’s an odd thing for a card-carrying atheist to discover that he may be in the wrong club after all.

The second is that when you have your homemade book in your hands, you’re the only one who knows it’s homemade. You can head off to an open mic. and read from it. At which point you realise the snag. There’s only one copy. Someone asks: where can we get that?(if you’re lucky) and there it is. A seed’s been sown. So what do you do if you want multiple copies? The answer is ridiculously simple. You make a template. You page set your poems. You design a cover and think of a smart title, and you type that seductive line: Poems by Me. You find a nice printer, show him the layout…just take in your memory stick…sort out a price and you pay for a properly printed batch of poems. If you’re active on Facebook and you go to open mic.s and you have lots of poetry chums (and I’ll bet the farm you have) you’ll have no problem selling 50 or more. That’s what I did. I did one, and that went well, so I did another. I used any ‘profit’ to pay for a reprint, and each of mine have gone through three reprints. I’m still selling the odd copy via the My Books link at the top of the page.

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Not all small printing firms will do perfect binding …forget the chapbook. A pamphlet, though is perfectly realistic. Stapled. Have a look at the pamphlets you’ve collected here and there. Size varies, but don’t go smaller than 12 X 18.5 cm, whatever you do. (A5 is nice.14.5 X 21 cm)  And learn from the best. Design a dust jacket. If you want to see just what a difference a dustjacket makes, look no further than the Poetry Business pamphlet competition winners. Hide the staples…which just look amateurish. It really is that simple. One other thing. If you want to persuade a bookseller to take some copies, you need to get an ISBN. You can find all sorts of isbn. suppliers on line. Just make sure you get get one that comes with a bar code. Bookshops need the barcode, usually. And note that unit costs are cheaper if you buy  more than one. Because you may develop a taste for it. You want to be published? Just do it. And feel that surge of pure joy when you collect your box of fresh-printed  pamphlets, and you just want to have that smell of new paper and ink in your life for ever. Two of my happiest memories are seeing the big smiles on the faces of Kim Moore and of Jane Clarke when their brand new collections came out. Is there a downside? Depends how you judge the market. Accept pretty well that whatever your plans, you’ll be torn between a book that goes out of print and a box of as-yet-unsold stuff. Like this.

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There are other ways of doing it and you choose one that you think suits you. I enter a lot of competitions, and the prize for some of them is to have a pamphlet or a chapbook published. That’s how I come to have copies of Larach to sell. Quite a lot at the moment, because the publisher let me have all his remaining copies at a generous discount. I suppose it’s officially out of print, now. But if you go to My Books, I’ll sell you one. I’ll sell you lots. At the moment I’ve another (jointly authored) pamphlet collection on a shortlist. We’ll see what happens with that. Whatever happens, we’ve had the pleasure of squencing, and editing and discovering things we didn’t know about our poetry.

Other choices? Well there’s the sheer hard slog route. Kim Moore, for instance, has indefatigably submitted to journals and magazines for years and built up a portfolio of published work (as well as winning the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition) that she could take to a publisher and have published as a collection. The art of Falling [Seren 2015] is, as I never tire of saying, a stunner. Or my mate Keith Hutson, who maintains a rigorous routine of writing every morning, of submitting and submitting (about 60 poems published in major journals over the last two/three years), and is rewarded with the breakthrough of being asked to put together a pamphlet. It’s out now. Routines [Poetry Salzburg 2016]. And that’s a stunner, too. Or if you work at your open mics and submissions, you gradually become aware of small poetry publishing firms. We’ve got two in Calderdale: Caterpillar Poetry and  Calder Valley Poetry. And in Wakefield, The Currock Press. Find what’s around you. Make friends with them. Email them. Talk to them. But here’s the thing. Don’t sit around mithering about wanting to be published. If you really want it, you’ll do it.

I started off by making handmade books, just for the fun of it. Then I got a printer. Then I won a competition. Then I won another. I’m a lucky boy. My first collection’s coming out in November. I may even post pictures of it. Or, like Jane Clarke, go to sleep with it under my pillow. You’ll never be a rock ‘n roll star. That’s not what it’s about.  But whatever you do, just do it. You know you want to.

Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write.

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I suppose that begs the question: why write at all? It’s a question that I spent a lot of time on, in the 1980s, when I was writing a book about the teaching of writing, or working as a consultant on the emerging National Curriculum, or when I was putting together a series for GCSE. It’s easy to sidestep, by concentrating on the categories of writing that children and students need (we believe) to get to grips with. Lists, explanations, reports, summaries, persuasive and analytic pieces.

For most of the time in schools it’s so we can assess how well children write, and also to assess what they’ve understood or what they know. About history, geography, science, economics….whatever. In English lessons, we ask them to write in response to poetry or novels or plays. But why do we ask them to write stories or poems or scripts? I’m not sure it’s a question that enough teachers of English bother about sufficiently. It’s sort of a given. It’s what ‘English’ is.

I know when I was at school I’d be asked, or told, to write a story; and when I was a young and not especially reflective teacher, I’d be the one to do the asking or telling. There was always the one or two or three who would very reasonably say: I don’t know what to write about, Sir / Miss. I guess they were written off in school reports: ‘Lacks imagination’. I was OK at school, because although I knew very little, I read a lot and I’d figured out the tricks of writing a story. Poems, not so much. But we were rarely asked to write a poem, so that was OK.

And then, many years later (in my case) you find yourself, for reasons you can’t fathom, writing, or trying to write, poems; meeting other bewildered and enthusiastic folk in the same pickle. And every now and again hearing (or reading on Facebook) the complaint that someone is ‘blocked’ or ‘stuck’ or has ‘hit a blank period’. It’s the voice from childhood, all over again. Please, Miss. I don’t know what to write. I’ll stick my neck out. Here’s the answer. It’s because, for one reason or another, you have nothing to say. Not for ever. But just now. It’s because nothing is exciting or puzzling you.

You can make a list of what ought to intrigue you: your childhood, relationships, friends, school….the whole autobiographical shtick. But if it doesn’t excite or puzzle you, why should it interest anyone else? Places, landscapes, other lives? Ditto. Stuff you know you know about? History, science, cars, philately? Ditto.

So I’m going to stick my neck out again and say it’s the stuff that takes you by surprise, that’s exciting but something you don’t understand, something you want to understand…that’s what you wait for or go hunting for.

I was talking to the poet Helen Mort a week or so ago and she said something that caught my attention (she said a lot of things that did that) and I had to write it down. She said that when she went to Cambridge she was thrown by the way so many students took the place for granted, as though they didn’t actually ‘see’ it. Whereas she, as an outsider, an incomer, was gobsmacked and excited and baffled and all that…And I was immediately transported back to the interview I had in Cambridge, aged 17. I felt like an alien. Which meant, I suppose, that I was differently observant. It was like trying to learn a four-dimensional foreign language. And then Helen said:

                             Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

They are ideally, I suppose, the dark watchers I wrote about last week . They are writing to discover, because that’s the medium they make their discoveries in.Helen said:

I can make poems to be written, and they might be OK, but that’s all

By which I understood: if you’re not puzzled by what you’re writing about then you won’t be writing the poems that need to be written. I’m really glad I was there to hear that. To record it. And then to get on with this bit of cobwebspinning. I’m going to reflect on the business of finding out what it is you need to be finding out for the poems that need to be written.(  I’ll leave that tortured bit of syntax as it is. It’s symbolic).

 

You have to start, somewhere. Maybe you start here.

 

He is the sparrow, the Friday lord.

I hoped to be the watcher on the rooftop,

but He was first. I’m flake of his fire,

leaf-tip on His world-tree”

[ From: Tyndale in Darkness .

U.A.Fanthorpe: Selected Poems, ed R.V.Bailey. Enitharmon Press 2013 ]

I have no idea why I downloaded U A Fanthorpe’s ‘Selected poems’ to my Kindle, round about midnight on a too-hot night in Spain a couple of months ago. Perhaps I’d looked her up on Google and realised that here was another poet, like Causley and Vernon Scannell, whose work was now to be sought via Abe Books. Whatever. On the verge of sleep, I stumbled into her sequence of poems where she voices William Tyndale, and I read these lines, and the hairs at the back of my neck stood up. That feeling that I’d never read anything like this, that it was amazing that it could have been written with such simple assurance. Later on I recognized the echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and of George Herbert too, I guess,  but that hardly matters. I felt I’d learned something new-minted and important.

In a moment she will take you from the ‘dear preoccupied people’ of 16thC Gloucester, to Gethsemane,

‘and they weren’t used to late nights, his disciples

…………….why did He ask them to stay awake

when he knew they couldn’t? Because He always does.’

 

and back to Gloucestershire, and Tyndale remembering that

 

I heard the ploughboy whistling under Coombe Hill,

and I thought, I could do that. Give him God’s word.

I mean, in his own workaday words. And I did.

 

I think this astonishing and lovely, the way the translator of the Bible into English walks into my life. It’s done with such apparent ease..the ease of imaginative familiarity that only comes with total involvement, absorption in a life that’s loved and troubling.

By the time you come to the fifth poem in the sequence-the Passion, two voices have come together in a single voice that’s simultaneously Fanthorpe’s and Tyndale’s. The voice of the poet’s living faith, and that of Tyndale imagining his imminent execution at the stake.

The powerlessness. This is the day He dies,

Jesus the Friday sparrow, the watcher on the cross

who forgives those who put Him there. He’s dying now,

and His world is dying too. I made this world twice

after God. I translated Genesis.

All I could think was: how does she do this, how does she move me so much? I’m an atheist, aren’t I? How did she make me care, make me believe this was important? How could she do it so ‘easily’? Well, here’s the thing I want to concentrate on: she knows what she’s writing about. ‘Knows’. Not ‘knows about’. This is felt knowledge. But at first it could only be facts, history. It had to be read and learned. And here’s the other thing: it couldn’t be understood, truly known like this until it was written like this. She didn’t know what she knew till she said it.

So what I’m saying is, there’s an answer built into the implied question of my title: I don’t know what to write . The answer being a hard one: well, go away till you know something enough to be intrigued and excited by it.Not sure that you undersatnd it but feeling as though you should. Which will involve you in reading, watching television, watching films, knocking around with mates, walking around cities or up hillsides in rain, or digging, or playing football, or cooking or looking after ageing parent, or after young children, or falling in love, or having an affair, or going into hospital, or having an interview. Getting to know stuff. Finding out. Living it. Which is not the answer people on poetry courses and so on are likely to be comfortable with. But let’s leave that hanging. Let’s go back to Tyndale.

Because from here on, I’m going to be riffing around the business of research, and the way it can be a strange and reflexive business. Sometimes the poem comes first, as it did with Tyndale in darkness. and then sends you off to find the world of the poem, which in my case turned out to be the history of a book, and a biography, too, and a work of detection. It’s subtitled : ‘William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the bloody birth of the English Bible’. The book is Brian Moynahan’s Book of Fire [Abacus 2002]. I mentioned to my mate Keith Hutson (a guest poet on the Cobweb in February 2015) that I’d read Fanthorpe’s  poem, and Keith immediately lent me Moynahan’s book. Which is now bristling with post-it notelets, and waiting for me to transcribe all sorts of quotations and snippets from it….although I haven’t got round to that, because I’m skimming through Hilary Mantel again, finding out what she wrote about Thomas More, and (she’s sure)Thomas Cromwell’s enthusiasm for a vernacular Bible. And at some point I’ll be back with Fanthorpe’s poem, marvelling at the way  she lets you know that what you’re reading is the essence and the truth of a hugely complex and contested tale. I know it will be provisional and I will change, and maybe one day the poem will seem less true. But I hope not. What I do know is that I now know a lot of stuff I didn’t know before I read about the Friday sparrow, and I now I’m writing about it. Not poems that need to be written. But later, maybe. They’ll say if and when they’re ready.

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Or maybe you start here…not with a poem, but with the glimmering of an idea. Maybe something you didn’t know you’d noticed at the time, but which comes back and surprises you. I’ve written before how I need workshops to generate that kind of surprise; I know I can’t consciously sit down to find stuff out to make into poems. I know, because I wasted months trying to do that with a 19thC painter. But here’s an illustration of what I mean. I wrote a poem recently from a workshop draft. Here’s just a bit of it: I wondered of the Celtic saints of the Outer Islands

if they knew that gulls and fulmars

would nest in the cloister of their ribs.

I had an idea where that had come from, because it certainly wasn’t mine. I tracked it down to Macfarlane’s The old ways and his journey to Sula Sgeir in a small boat. Something I have never done, will never do. I know that Macfarlane had taken me back to Adam Nicholson’s Sea Room, where I’d been led by reading Kathleen Jamie, who also took me to books about St Kilda and the Greater Blaskett…and so on. Sea-girt mountain tops, puffins, gannets, bird migration, white-tailed eagles, nests in the ribcage of a saint. He’ll do that for me, Macfarlane. I don’t know if it’s plagiarism…I know that some of his phrasing lodges in my word-hoard and sort of roots itself there. Like this from another poem about a burial cairn on Bheinn na Caillich on Skye

because their oceans were swanspaths, whaleroads.

because they wrote their maps in the wind,

the whole idea is lifted from Macfarlane. I know, because I knew I hadn’t invented it, so I tracked it down. I didn’t take his words. But I had to write my words to understand what he meant, so I could tell you how the idea excited me. Does that make sense?

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Before I started this bit of the cobweb, I scribbled a list of the stuff that was hanging about waiting to be read, or re-read. The stuff with post-it notelets stuck in it. William Tyndale, British mining disasters, a journey through the English moorlands, A sky full of birds by Matt Merritt, Antarctica (including the remastered films: South (Shackleton) and Scott of the Antarctic, David Wilson’s new pamphlet: Slope [smith/doorstop 2016]. Tectonic plates. Coal measures and the Jurassic. The building of the Himalaya.

I know that at least a bit of that comes from a poetry reading at the Red Shed months ago when the Agbrigg Poets performed a sequence about the Lofthouse Colliery disaster …which was only a couple of miles from where I live, but might as well have been on the moon. And I know that as a result of that, I’ve been finding out about Onibasha. And I can’t make myself write about any of it. It needs to settle into my thinking, become something I don’t know that I know, and wait for it to be surprised into a shape I can share.

Now, I need to make it clear that I don’t think that ‘research’ is the answer to everything. I confess that I’m drawn to poems that announce themselves as knowledgeable rather than (just) elegantly lyrical. Writers like Steve Ely, Ian Duhig, Christy Ducker, Pascal Petit, Julie Mellor. I’m looking forward to the postman bringing me Helen Mort’s new collection which grows out of her research into pioneering women rockclimbers and mountaineers. But I also think that for myself I’m particularly taken by the way ‘research’ can throw a bright, unnerving, illuminating light on what you thought you knew. Childhood, parenting, a parent’s death, or the death of a relationship.

I’ll remind my self of what Helen Mort said:

Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

I think you have to become an outsider looking in on your own life. You think you know it, but you don’t, because it’s too near to see.

I know that it was only by reading and re-reading versions of the Greek myths that I became able to write about the death of a son in a way that didn’t exclude other readers. I’ll stick my neck out, and guess that it wasn’t until she’d been absorbed into the ‘Metamorphoses’ of Ovid that Kim Moore became able to write the poems about domestic abuse and violence in the way that stops me in my tracks. I’m biased…I think these poems are the powerful heart of ‘ The art of falling’. Like I say, I’m sticking my neck out. Tell me if you disagree. I really would like to know.

I was going to go on to write about the way the process can go wrong, and how you can find yourself writing what are essentially lies. But I realise I’ve rambled, and there’s enough in that for whole post of its own.

But just a cautionary note. If you have a project that excites you, be careful who you share your enthusiasm with. Maybe you’ll want to keep it to yourself. Because a poet I love shared her project with someone who went off with it, and used it, and reaped great reward thereby. For me, if you want to write about tectonic plates or Shackleton, go ahead. I don’t know enough about them. Yet.