Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Finding Balance

One word that kept coming up in my recent mentoring discussion with Angela Carr was 'balance' and it's a word I use a lot in my creative writing teaching as well. We as writers struggle to achieve balance in so many different ways.

A poem or story hangs on many fine threads; imagery, background information, action, language, emotion, and the author attempts to keep them all balanced between what the reader needs to understand the piece and what the author themselves desires of their work. If the language is too difficult to follow or the emotion not well-presented or if the writers tells too much, breaking the threads, the connection to the reader can be lost. 

A balance between what is presented on the page and what the reader sculpts from the words in their own mind. A balance between what the author wants the reader to see and what they can lay out with words. All these things carry the weight of the writing and relying too heavily on one or not giving enough attention to another can throw off the poem or story. 

Once I get past the initial rush to lay out images or the plot, I love the fine tuning, the balancing of all the finer points of writing, playing with the language, weighting words by their placement, drawing out imagery. I try to keep the reader in my mind, what they need, how much I want to lead them and how much I want them to run off on their own with my words. But also giving precedence to what I want the poem to do and say. It's a delicate act of balance above the poem while stepping within it. 

Sometimes it works and sometimes I focus too much on what I want, the 'thing' I'm trying to make the poem do that I force it into shape and it shows in its reluctance. This is when I need mentors, writing group companions and other readers to step up and tell me something isn't working. I find it so helpful to have these dialogues because I am mired deeper within my own writing than another reader and often I cannot see where the problem is, even though I may have a sense of their being one.

So even though criticism can be hard to take, it ultimately can help you achieve that balance your writing needs. But it's never easy. 

In other news, three online magazines have featured my work recently The Stockholm Review of Literature which I just stumbled upon, ink, sweat and tears and The Honest Ulsterman. The latter two I've been trying to get into for a while, so was overjoyed when they found something they liked. I'm still wandering through the issues and there is a wide variety of authors and styles to choose from, so I hope you find something you enjoy. Thanks to the hard-working editors and their staff for offering such great opportunities to get writers' work out into the world and for accepting my poems. 

Just a reminder that GloPoWriMo - Global (or National if you're in the US) Poetry Writing Month starts April First and runs the entire month. One of the challenges is to write a poem a day which until this autumn I never thought I could (see links for my thoughts on this two years ago) so I'm going to step up to the challenge, but because I'm an idiot I've signed up for two online writing courses in April - one with Angela Carr and one with Wendy Pratt, both of whom I've mentioned here before as I've done several courses with them. 

Both courses have limited places and are filling up. There is no pressure with either tutor to write a poem a day or to share them on their private Facebook pages (visible only to the writers on the course and the tutor) but they are guaranteed to have a good positive atmosphere and the daily writing prompts are a good way of getting your writing brain working. They both have a small fee, check out the links. 

I have no preconceptions that I'll be writing two poems a day, but I figured between the two daily prompts I should come up with at least one good first draft daily. And anything I don't manage during the month, I can use to keep myself writing afterwards. I hope you think about joining one of the courses or get involved with other GloPoWriMo events, check out the website listed above for activities, prompts and local events. 

Wednesday, 20 March 2019


I've just had a discussion with Angela Carr in a mentoring session about grounding the reader in poems. She suggested and has anecdotal evidence of other poems/editors saying the same that the first stanza should ground the reader in the poem. By grounding I mean a good understanding of the who, what, where, when sort of details that the poem is hung on.

This idea caught my attention as one repeated comment I've had from other poets reading my work, until recently, was that I shouldn't introduce my poems so much in the first lines or stanza. That I should go for impact to grab the reader's attention and then ground them once they have an interest in the poem. They always seem to want to move the information further down or remove it totally because it was too 'telling'.

The same is said about novel openings, that the first lines and sections should grab your attention and then you can build up information from there. But with fiction you have much more space to develop these things.

I'm torn on this subject and don't have a clear answer for what is best to do. I did agree with my previous critics that many of my earlier poems did start off with a stanza that set up the location and feel of them poem and it left them feeling a bit staid and I have liked the pieces I've written recently that have more of a hook to pull the reader in. 

I'm worried a little that each of my Finnish poems would have to have the word Finland shoe-horned into the first stanza in order to ground the reader. I do rely sometimes on the idea that my Finnish collection is mostly set in Finland with me and my family as the 'protagonists' and similarly for my Scottish collection and that will be obvious when they are actually published collections, but in the individual poems this will not always be clear at the beginning if published in a magazine without background detail.

So I can see what she means. You don't want the reader to walk away with too many questions after your first stanza but I also don't want to have everything explained, sometimes it's nice for the reader to take the words and fit themselves into them, using their own experiences.

How much background info does the reader need? If I reference a myth connected to a creature, do I need to explain it to them or can I just use the imagery from it and hope if they're interested they'll look it up themselves, as long as my connections to the images and the myth work within the poem on their own

Yeats never mentioned Zeus in 'Leda and the Swan' and I remember a teacher having to explain the myth to the class, though I knew it. Does the power of the poem still hold if you don't know the story? I don't want to spoon-feed my reader info, but in some poems there are certain bits of info that would help the reader to understand better, so I do have to includ that. Do I have to explain every Finnish word or cultural reference, include a glossery in my book or can I leave some to context?

I need to go back and look at poets and poems I like to see how much info do they actually give when opening the poem and whether the details I want the reader to know to understand the poem come through clearly. 

It was a thought-provoking conversation and it once again highlights the benefits of having other readers critque your work, especially those with experience in the genre. 

Monday, 11 March 2019

Found in Poetry

I had a poem published last week in The Writer's Cafe Magazine's 'Letters' issue. I enjoyed reading through the issue as I saw a few names I recognised, new and old friends, but also was introduced to some new names by their poems. The theme offered so many avenues for exploration and each poet seemed to find their own unique way. Thanks to The Writer's Cafe team for sharing my work and that of others.

My poem was quite fun to 'write' as it was a found poem based on a series of letters I wrote when I was 18 and had moved abroad to Norway. It was my first time living away from my family and my first time living in a foreign country. It has obviously set the tone for the rest of my life. It was amusing to read my teenage thoughts and interests again. I'm so glad my mum kept the letters. 

Found poetry can be a good way to kick-start your writing if you're in a slump. Find a text that inspires or stimulates you somehow and pull out the phrases and words that feel like a poem to you. The theme can follow the original text or it can veer off in whatever direction you want. 

Dave Bonta of Via Negativa has been following this idea with his erasure poems, a type of found poetry, written using The Diary of Samuel Pepys. An erasure poem lifts words and phrases directly and doesn't add or change anything to make the poem work. Worth having a peruse to see how he does it, simple but evocative poems appearing from old words. Of course, credit the original author and text.

And thanks to Dave Bonta by the way for featuring my blog on his weekly round-up of the Poetry Blogging Network. I wrote the paragraph above before I checked out his blog, so total coincidence that he is appearing twice in my blog. 

It was quite a shock to bumble upon my own words this morning on a blog I read regularly. I was touched to be included in this community of poets who are working to share their love of poetry and also their struggles with working in the medium. I've been following the links from Dave's round-up regularly and have added a few of my fellow bloggers to my reading list.

Other news in the week, another acceptance and lots of rejections. I'm debating applying for a fellowship, the Alpine Fellowship. It's a relatively simple one, no application forms, no justifying why you deserve it, no seeking references. Just submit your writing on the theme. But the poems I'm considering submitting are tied up with other submissions and they want unpublished work, so I either need to come up with something new or hope the poems are rejected in time by the magazines currently considering them. If they're not, I'll bookmark the Fellowship for next year and give myself more time to sort things. 

Lots of links for you to follow this week. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Ticking Boxes

I thought I posted this week, but I guess I didn't. Time getting away with me and I can't remember if I had an interesting subject to look at. 

My online course with Wendy Pratt finished and I've gone back to my list of verbs from Angela Carr's suggestions. I'm still writing a poem draft daily, I've written over 40 poems so far this year. 

I'm getting my second unpublished collection ready to send out. I've edited it once and need to look at layout again. That means spreading it out on the floor and moving things about, but I just can't summon up the enthusiasm just now. Struggling with things just now. I should be sending my first collection out to other publishers, getting this one ready to go out.

I've been researching poetry publishers and it's depressing. The smaller publishers want or are only able to support their local talent which I respect, so often aren't interested in international writers. The ones who are big enough are in such high demand they shut their intake of unsolicited  submissions. I can't publish locally as I can't find a Finnish poetry publisher that publishes English collections, again fair enough, but it leaves me in an unhappy position of once again not fitting the right boxes though I try and do what publishers require.

I can see why so many writers are turning to self-publishing, though I don't think I'm there yet. There's a plethora of writers who want to be published, but with e-books, Amazon and people preferring social media and television to reading there's not many publishers looking for authors and poetry is always a struggle to sell on both sides.

For now I'll keep plugging along and hope that some good news will be forth-coming.