I expect there are some writers who will describe their progress as a gradual upward slant; each poem they write becomes the measure for the next one, which must be that minuscule amount better, and so the progress continues.
I’ve never felt like that. My progress – if you can call it that – has been erratic. I scrawled my first published poem on a scrappy piece of paper on a bus from Bellshill to Glasgow. I revised it several times, but got the basis down on that forty-minute journey. Before that I hadn’t written any poem worth the paper it was written on. What had changed to make this new one several degrees better?
Looking back, I see that several things coincided. I had subscribed to a poetry magazine and for the first time, I was paying attention to what other writers were doing and how they were doing it. My first marriage ended and within a few months, I had material to write about that I wouldn’t have had access to before that happened. I began to perform poems monthly at the Bar Brel in Glasgow, an open mic situation, and that forced me to come up with poems I didn’t feel too ashamed about reading in front of other people.
And it was strange. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but almost every time I sent poems to a magazine, I’d get an acceptance.
This lasted for a few years. I then remarried and moved to Italy. I wrote nothing for six months. I wanted to write about Italy but didn’t have enough experience of it to come up with anything of any depth. And Scotland just seemed so far away, invisible even to my imagination. Then I discovered the PFFA workshop and wrote a poem, Waiting, and sent it in. It got a very mixed reaction. There were good bits in it, but it was way overwritten. I managed to improve it in subsequent drafts, but it still remains unpublished.
For a couple of years, nearly every poem I sent to magazines was rejected.
What I find interesting is that when I read some of the poems I was writing at that time, they seem sloppy, without the substance I’d aim for in a poem now (“aim for” doesn’t always mean I am successful). Either this means that I have changed for the better, or it means that in three years time, I will look at the poems I am writing now and have that same feeling of disappointment.
These days, I get some acceptances and some rejections from magazines.
I’m not sure what progress means anymore. I am convinced that my writing has improved in the last few years, but if so, it hasn’t made magazine editors fall over themselves to accept my latest creations – not any more than it did seven years ago. Occasionally, I do ask myself why that should be. But a glass of good Italian red wine takes the edge of the question. As it is doing now.