Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Finding a path from Europe to Europe


How to break through the film of dread and write something, anything?  

One option’s to quote from the terrifying vision of W B Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ (1919) and hide.  No: two sentences of prose instead.   

To be defeated and not give up, that is victory. To be victorious and rest on your laurels, that is defeat.

He should know.  That was said by Józef Piłsudski, Polish hero of the fight for independence and leader for many of the interwar years.  (Quoted by Timothy Garton-Ash in the Guardian – a piece like many this week but with added historical depth.)  It’s looking as though we’ve rested on our laurels of peace and security within (most of) Europe for far too long. 

Now the 48% need to not give up.  So often we only really care about something when we risk losing it.  

The bitter irony of the referendum is that it’s the people who voted Leave because their lives are fraught with difficulty who will suffer most.  Their expectations have been failed in the last 8 years and will be failed again – and then what? 

Scotland, Europe...
It would be madness not to try to find a path through this that ends back where it started: in Europe.  The country’s future is at stake!  Leave campaigners’ lies/promises are already being reneged on. Scotland’s heading for the door (my biggest dread throughout the campaign: nightmare of a truncated UK with all that it implies) and  Northern Ireland is smouldering.  Racism’s rearing its head as if given the stamp of approval.  Money is falling out all over the place and Putin & co are having a laugh. 

Reasons to be positive: the passion of the 48% and of the young, the parliamentary majority for Remain, the referendum’s advisory nature, the political and economic turmoil, Leavers’ regrets, a new urgency about addressing Leavers’ concerns, Angela Merkel being calm.  Reasons to be negative: the political and economic turmoil, the tabloids, the Eurocrats who want to teach us a lesson so others don’t follow, the main UK parties’ failure to address the problems and perceptions (most of all those around immigration) that motivated the 52% leave vote. 

It must be possible to call another referendum on the terms of departure, once these have been negotiated.  And/or delay until circumstances and opinions have changed.  And in the meantime do some hard thinking about how to address things that aren’t working well in the world (here’s Gordon Brown on globalisation).  A general election might help, if one gets called; or not help.  The scary thing is that various complex elements would have to fall out right for there to be a good outcome. 
 
So: back to Piłsudski and not giving up.  For Europe, for peace and stability, for a UK that remains united, for equality of opportunity, for progress on the environment, science etc, and for tolerance.  For the 52% as well as the 48%.  Shelley, too, 100 years before Piłsudski and Yeats, 200 years before us, ended this sonnet with hope:

England in 1819

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th' untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

From poetry to strategy: How (not) to get your poetry published



Recently someone without knowledge of the poetry world asked me to read a poetry collection and advise on publication.  What I really wanted to send instead of my longish and painstaking email reply was a concentrated version of Helena Nelson’s book How (not) to get your poetry published – something that would encapsulate all its wisdom, common sense, humour and raw experience. 

Here I’d better declare an interest: Helena Nelson (Nell) of HappenStance Press has published both my pamphlets.  But that means I know she walks the walk.  Many other poetry readers and writers know it too: she’s a prize-winning small publisher and poet.

Why did I need How (not) to and what’s so good about it?  Here’s a list of thoughts about the book, which is itself full of useful lists.  Extracts are in blue.   

1.   If the world of poetry publishing were a tangible object, How (not) to would be a DIY video on YouTube.  A voice and pair of hands would be taking the world apart, explaining how it works and what to do when it doesn’t.  People who’d googled how poetry publishing works or problems with poetry world would settle down to watch it with relief. 

People don’t do this enough to the worlds we construct, which tend to operate on the basis of shared, unspoken assumptions.  These are usually odd and/or unfathomable to anyone new.  Someone who knows a little may think s/he knows a lot and therefore still make what are, in that particular world, mistakes. 

2.   How (not) to takes a strategic and systematic approach, working through the stages an aspiring-to-be-published writer of poetry must go through.  From the first page:

This book deals with strategy.  You may not think poetry and strategic planning have much in common, but why do you think some poets are successful in their publishing deals while others, who seem to you to write just as well, are not?  Getting poetry published is a competitive game in which you create your own luck. 

3. The book’s both hard-headed and warm-hearted, both structured and imaginative.  For example it contains several worksheets at the back including a checklist of how ready you are for publication and a table with criteria for assessing which publisher might suit your work.  It also contains 22 writing prompts – the subliminal message seems to be: don’t get too wrapped up in this, keep on writing the best poems you can. 

4.   Basic questions get clear answers.  Nell lists 10 reasons why writers need to publish in magazines before trying for a pamphlet or book.  Some of these are fairly obvious, such as this being a way of getting your name known.  Others, such as the extra edge that both sending out and rejection bring to redrafting poems, become apparent with experience.  

5.   I challenge anyone to read the book without laughing, internally or out loud.  How (not) to is full of fictionalised case studies from Nell’s own inbox, mostly showing how not to.  We’d never not address a publisher by name in an email enquiry and fail to research her submissions policy on her website first, would we?  Or send an already self-published pamphlet and ask her to publish it?  Of course not… but we’re fallible and the examples are salutary.  

There are many small parodies of today’s poetry world and human nature interacting.  Here are just two items from a list of options for ‘thinking outside the book’: 

- Attract attention to yourself by some highly original fundraiser: maybe performing poems by heart at every railway station in the UK and uploading videos to YouTube.
-  Start a ‘school’ or ‘movement’ with a group of poet friends. Create a name for yourselves (The Middenists? The Quiddites?)  Publish a group anthology. Get noticed.

Those names are fit to march alongside the Levellers or Diggers.

Nell’s approach is more effective and humane than the usual somewhat dry and irritable harangue by an editor fed up with the attentions of zany poetasters. 

6.    How (not) to gets the reader to think like a publisher.  One chapter explains what publishers want.  It itemises all the things a publisher will have to do to publish you (from drawing up a contract to distribution) and all the other things she’ll be doing at the same time (from considering further collections for her poets to applying for funding).  Nell points out that publisher time runs differently: five years seems an age to an impatient poet (and which of us aren’t?) but is short to her. 

Another chapter’s about how to research publishers.  So many people, when applying for anything, talk a lot about why they’d be good at whatever it is but not at all, or hardly, about what about the organisation they find interesting.  

7.   Nell’s wisdom just has to be motivational.  On sending to magazines (bold text is mine):

It’s hard graft, this regular sending out of poems, but it strengthens you.  Certainly rejection of your favourites can be demoralising.  But there are at least three key aspects to the poetry business.  The first is the best – the making of poems, the joy, excitement and fun of that.  Second is getting those poems as good as they can be, which means exposing them to strangers.  The third thing is determination.  Stickability.  Doing the necessary business of sending them out, filing the returns.  Earning respect because you don’t give up.  Standing up and being counted.  You wanna be a poet?  This is your job. 

8.   There’s advice on what to do if publication attempts aren’t working.  The chapter on ‘thinking outside the book’ contains a long, long list of options.  There’s a chapter on self-publication too. 

9.   And there’s much more besides.  About networking online, networking in person, giving readings, blogging…

10.   How (not) to isn’t just invaluable for the starting-out writer.  We all forget or ignore things.  (For example I hadn’t thought about publisher/poet differences in perception of time.  That’s really helpful to me right now.)  The checklists and decision aids would be very useful for any poet on his/her nth collection needing a fresh approach. 

And it’s not only for UK writers.  Although it’s written from within the context of the UK its truths and common-sense have universal application.  That comment’s addressed to the readers of this blog from America, India, Australasia, Europe and everywhere.  The world that’s interested in the poetry publishing world. 

I did send the link to How (not) to to the person who’d sent me the poetry collection; I hope that might lead to a purchase and one more individual both enlightened and entertained. 

How (not) to get your poetry published by Helena Nelson is published by HappenStance Press and costs £10 + postage (which is around £5 for Europe and a bit over £7 for further away).  Its web page, here, has some downloadable material including the publisher analysis worksheet and one called Plan A and Plan B. 

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Reliquaria by R. A. Villanueva


American poets in London have long made it a more interesting place to be.  There are many; some stay more or less forever, others come and go.  Some are also commentators and Ron Villanueva’s one of these.  I met him at the Troubadour a few months ago when we were both on a panel discussing the “I” in poetry.  By then I’d read enough of his poems to be sure I wanted the book. 

Reliquaria: it’s clear roughly what that means, something to do with relics and reliquaries… but exactly?  The word’s not in the Shorter OED or Lewis & Short (classical Latin); nor is it clearly defined online.  I got some clerical (not Catholic) help.  Independently we worked out that reliquarium is ecclesiastical Latin for a reliquary and may also stand for a place where relics (perhaps boxed in reliquaries) are kept – just as the house of a poem contains stanzas and lines and words, and a collection contains poems.  Reliquaria (plural) also makes you think of the things themselves that are left behind, whether bones or memories – things that appear in the poems.

So it’s a good title: you think you know where you are with it but then..?  Google it and the first page results are mostly the book!  

Going down a layer, poems have titles like ‘Vanitas’, ‘What the bones tell us’, ‘Fishheads’.  The book invites layered thinking as with the cemetery in ‘All Souls’ Day’, which starts:

Here see the city of makeshift things:
ramshackle balustrades, stopgap pipes,

clotheslines of staples and twine.
What surer proof of the risen Christ

than this tomb-stacked city,
its lungs of bamboo. Gravestone town of scaffolds

and cellophane. Smoke-heft of burnt plastic,
of tin, match-lit ranges of ash.

The poem’s as packed as the cemetery with details of the strange after-life of death.  The fullest lines bristle with consonants but also have assonance to give them music (eg. ramshackle, balustrades, stopgap; pipes, clotheslines, twine, Christ).  Between the couplets is much-needed space for the reader to walk, as between gravestones.  The looser second sentence offers space between the lists, a vowel-filled change of tone.  Words, syntax and line-ends all work together.  

The detail could also stand for an accumulation of heritage; Villanueva is Filipino American and this poem is (I think) set in the Philippines.  Tagalog words and phrases enter some poems along with fragments of family history.  In ‘Fish Heads’ the speaker’s mother

.. warns, Don’t waste what should be eaten. Reminds me
of every delicate gift we have thrown away: tilapia stomach
best soured with vinegar, milkfish liver to melt
against the dome of the mouth.

Such gifts, scorned by a younger generation not brought up to know the frugal past, could be metaphorical too. 

I like it when Americans do form because they do it (as everything) differently.  Villanueva has a rather lovely poem in a form that’s hard to do without making the average editor groan and think Oh no, another X.  Form can make a writer go to surprising places; here, it’s the work to disguise the form that does that.  Enough about the poem – no spoilers for a pleasurable discovery. 

He also has a sonnet crown, ‘Aftermath’, whose main theme is white racist violence and the associated dilemmas, memories, fear and other states of mind it brings:

I need you to know I’ve tried. To name ghosts,
to face them, dark as they are, slurred in with
the city’s glossed clots and fresh buttresses,

The thought and description is complex, concentrated and regretful, almost elegiac in tone.  The crown isn’t closed off as if to say: this story continues. 

Within the broad themes of life and death that run through Reliquaria, subject
Gunther van Hagens 'The Skin Man'
matter ranges from ancient Greek myth to Magellan, the Kill Sparrow War (China, late 1950’s) and life in modern New Jersey.  There’s much strangeness, often related to often deathly transformations: a rodent-poison that causes the body to kill itself by producing deadly levels of calcium; cancer; a plastinated cadaver; a journey to the ocean’s hadal zone.  Language often has gothic flourishes to match, sometimes with deliberate archaisms.  These occasionally, for me, tip over into bathos in the relatively few persona poems such as ‘On the sixth day, Ugolino thinks of his children’: “I… cannot father / more grief here among what remains alive, /knots itself round my waist..”  But the risk usually pays off as ‘Drifting towards the bottom, Jacques Picard recalls the sky’:

All around us seems an empire at the
height of its forces, a tuber of night
and ooze, bone fog and soot we come to love
because we can.

There’s a lot to be teased out of many of Reliquaria’s poems in repeated reading; for example ‘Swarm’ in which schoolboys in a biology dissection have “jury-rigged” a phallus on a crucifix. 

                     Transgressors, all of you,
           he said and closed the door behind him,
refusing to look at us or the thing
           that seemed to shimmer and twitch
with each frog’s reflex kick against our forceps.

Schoolboys, sex and death; religion; mockery and suffering; group solidarity; the visceral mystery, wonder and absurdity of the body; institutional behaviour…

The short lines and simple language of the final poem, ‘Mine will be a beautiful service’, show Villanueva’s versatility:

Pressed, chemical

I will look content,
but confused,

as when you watched me turn
in my sleep, dreaming

           of a Golgotha
in beeswax, a coffin

for swallows..

This is a favourite poem partly for its gentle humour and especially in part 2, where it becomes a love poem for the “you” it’s addressed to (the longer line length contributes to a change in tone):

          If you each day clutch
our pillows, press them to your face, pray
to take in some atom of me all
into the hollows of your chest, yes

I promise my ghost will find you
should you want someone else to love.

Reliquaria is published by University of Nebraska Press.  I've kept it around for several months now, enjoying rereads of various poems for their richness of language, form and metaphysical thought.  There’s an interview with Ron Villanueva here.