Poetry, Performance and Publishing: Ten or so Things I Know for Sure
Today, my first non-fiction book with Bloomsbury is published. The Poetry Writers’ Handbook is a short(ish), practical(ish) guide to succeeding in poetry in the UK, on your own terms.
Am I bricking it? Yes. Am I suffering from massive imposter syndrome despite over fifteen years’ experience of poetry and publishing? Also yes. Did I get up at five in the morning to write some of this, helped by my wonderful wife Heleana, plus Dr. Yvonne Battle-Felton who provided a quiet place on Zoom and my kitten Cleo accompanying me in those pre-dawn hours and having a comically loud litterbox wee whenever things got too much? Is Cleo doing that again as I write this blog? Absolutely.
Many of my poetry friends appear in the book – sometimes specifically named, and sometimes your advice, or your presence, or a kind word has informed my view of the world and made me want to pass it on and pay it forward.
This book was written during a turbulent time and will be published into another one. I thought I had escaped that, but in a way, it seems fitting that I did not – that I must do something similar to what all my lockdown-published friends did, swallowing my uncertainty and trying to always appear graceful and tasteful when I am as knackered and hanging on by a thread as everyone else is. The thing is, I think I know when we can be together again (probably October in a cosy, familiar pub) and we did not have the luxury of that when I was writing the book, so, silver linings.
The Top Ten Tips below are more matter of fact, less researched versions of what is in the book, with additional silliness. I hope this encourages you to buy it, and if you can, from the Bloomsbury website with the discount code POETRY20, but wherever works.
And here are the tips:
1. Performance is editing. Nothing is going to convince you to cut that unfunny line or extra verse more quickly than an audience member’s stony expression.
2. Everyone deserves to be paid fairly for their art – but money is not the sole achievement you should be judged by. I have always had a full-time job, and I have also seen some great work from hobbyist or voluntary performers and promoters over the years. That being said:
3. Trust your gut. If someone in a position of power is giving you the ick, give them a wide berth. The chances of you regretting that are minimal.
4. You do you. When I spoke to the poet Andrew McMillan, he eloquently described trying to respond to criticism of his early work by changing his style, but then realising it just was not right. His interview is included in the book.
5. Tell your story before someone else speaks for you. I spoke to the poet and musician Muneera Pilgrim about this, and she generously shared her insights about what it meant to run workshops and to create work that specifically addressed her life and experience.
6. Structuring a collection can be like making a mixtape. Poet and Nine Arches publisher Jane Commane helps me get to grips with the technicalities in the book.
7. Self-publishing can be a means to an end and can be very effective – just be honest with yourself and your potential customers about what you are doing and watch out for warning signs, which I go into in frankly obsessive depth.
8. Rest but do not quit. We all get knocked down, we all have fallow periods – the thing is to keep limber and keep the faith. Never give up. If it no longer serves you, fine, and I really admire my friends who have gladly chosen to leave the arts party – but it is not too late to chase the things you do love.
9. Nearly all the advice in this book is based on me screwing things up.
10. Get a cat. They make everything bearable including lockdown, writing a book in lockdown and getting up when it’s dark.
Contributors to the book: Many of you, but particularly Daphne Astor, Sharmilla Beezmohun, Alan Buckley, Jane Commane, Andrew McMillan, Helena Nelson, Muneera Pilgrim and Grace Savage.
Thanks for reading this far. I am making some radio programmes this Autumn, so if you’d like you and your work to be considered, DM me on a social platform or message me via this site. This book is dedicated to the memories of my grandparents, Angie and Jack; my tutor, Roddy Lumsden, and my friend, Peter Austin Kennedy.