Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Titles and Pen Names

Yesterday, I posted my entry for the Poetry Business competition. You need to submit 20-24 pages worth of poems. The four winners get a chapbook collection of their poems published and a cash prize. It’s a well-established competition with a formidable reputation for finding high quality work. Chances of winning – as ever at this level – are slim.

One intriguing aspect is the choice of a title for the collection and of a pen-name. The title is clearly important as a collection of chapbook length requires an underlying unity. Its theme might be loose and wide-ranging, but there’s got to be something holding the collection together and the title should at least allude to that.

The choice of pen-name is another matter. Real names mustn’t appear anywhere on the manuscripts, and you might imagine that this rule is simply concerned with anonymity of submission and transparency of judging, but I don’t think so. The judges are bound to recognise poems in many manuscripts because they will have read them in magazines, competitions and anthologies. I know it will be easy for at least one of them to identify my entry and there’s nothing I can do about that – other than leave out some of my stronger poems, which would be self-defeating. So I don’t believe the pen-name requirement is primarily concerned with anonymity and, in any case, I think these judges will select their favourite entries irrespective of who has written them.

I was discussing the matter with Eleanor Livingstone on Sunday, and Matt Merritt also considered the issue on his blog a couple of weeks ago. Could it be that the choice of pen-name is part of the ‘test’? Choosing a name like ‘Jim Smith’ might suggest a failure of both nerve and imagination. ‘T. S. Stevens’ could suggest pretension and megalomania. ‘Sa Mi-Gyoung’ might suggest deception unless it becomes clear that you really are a Korean woman.

So what to choose? Clearly I can’t make public either my title or pen-name here. All I can say is that I chose them with the kind of deliberation I’d bring to writing the final line of a poem. Of course, it may turn out that the pen-names are entirely irrelevant.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Editing qarrtsiluni

The issue of qarrtsiluni that Kate Abbott and I guest-edited is now complete. We’ve concluded the issue with a real cracker of a poem (with a terrific photograph to match). Don’t miss it! I thought I'd try to say something here about the experience of editing.

As experiences go, this was a good one. At first submissions were slow in coming and I was a little concerned. However, it was probably a positive sign that people were thinking about the theme and working on their pieces rather than rushing them in.

We received a few strong pieces early on, but it was only after the first few weeks that things began to take off. It became vital to deal with submissions in as disciplined a way as possible so as they didn’t build up in too large quantities. I was surprised at the amount of high quality material we were sent, particularly on the poetry side (we could have done with more quality prose). I had expected far more bland stuff and we had to reject pieces that weren’t bad to make room for the ones which had something extra about them, that indefinable quality that demanded attention.

In the vast majority of cases, Kate and I were able to agree quickly on pieces we wanted to accept and reject. Some kept us in discussion late into the night. A co-editor is valuable. I would have rejected a few pieces of real worth had Kate not persuaded me otherwise and I think the same is true the other way round.

In a small number of cases, we worked with authors and suggested ways of improving their submissions. Some pieces needed a tweak here or there, others needed more substantial changes, but it was great when writers revised pieces and sent them back in a far stronger form. I guess that if qarrtsiluni continues to grow in readership and in numbers of submissions, this co-operative element might prove more difficult.

Rejecting submissions from friends and Internet colleagues was hard, and we had to do a fair bit of that. However, receiving brilliant submissions from people with whom we’d previously had no contact made up for it. I was so impressed by one poet’s submission (well, OK, Claire Crowther) that I went online to purchase her collection the very next day, and it’s excellent.

So it was great to be part of an online magazine that’s gaining a reputation for eclectic, quality literature and strong visual design. I hope you enjoy the issue and might consider submitting to qarrtsiluni in the future. A new theme with new guest-editors will appear sometime in early November.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Shore Poets Tonight

More live poetry again tonight, this time at the Shore Poets. The line up is impressive:

Gillian Allnutt (“her work is at once hard and delicate, like wrought iron” – Denise Levertov)
Christine de Luca (queen of literary Shetland)
James W Wood (yet another HappenStance poet, and a good one)

from 7.45pm at the Mai Thai Bar, down from the Scottish Poetry Library in Crichton’s Close, Edinburgh.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

New HappenStance Launch

I’ll be off soon for a new HappenStance launch – four new chapbooks – at the Scottish Poetry Library this afternoon, 3pm. The titles are.

The Oboist’s Bedside Book – Margaret Christie
The Body in the Well – Gregory Leadbetter
The Longing Machine – Marcia Menter
Poems for Alice – Michael Munro

I’ve read poems by Margaret Christie and Gregory Leadbetter before – both excellent poets. I don’t know of the other two, but I could lay bets on them being good.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

How to Win the National Poetry Competition

Well, entries have to be in for the UK National Poetry Competition by 31 October and poets throughout the country will be making those last-minute, oh-so-important alterations to propel their poems into the limelight.

I thought I’d pass on a few tips. I did get a poem commended a couple of years ago, and after much thought, I think I know how to get into the top three this year. But I am generous and don’t want to keep the information to myself. Choose from among the guidelines below. Following more than one suggestion is recommended.

1. Paste photographs of your children to your entry. If you don’t have children, use someone else’s.

2. Make sure someone dies horribly in your poem, especially a spouse, lover or child, even if they are still very much alive in real life. Play the sympathy card to the max.

3. If you feel that last suggestion lacks integrity, arrange to have someone kill you in a particularly brutal way. Your entry should be called, “My Last Gift to the World.”

4. Submit all your entries on pink paper, the more luminous the better.

5. Never type your entry. The more eccentric the handwriting, the better your chances will be of winning. Red pen or yellow felt-tip are the favoured options. Judges like that personal touch.

6. Crayon drawings around the margins of each page are a good idea, particularly pixies and kittens. They may distract the judges from that lack of subject-verb agreement in line 34.

7. Scour magazine archives in libraries for early poems from the judges that never appeared in their collections. The judges will probably have forgotten all about them. Enter them as your own work. An uncanny echo sounding in the judges’ heads will predispose them in your favour.

8. Write poems which explore the relationship you had with a dead grandparent. It’s all about making your poems stand out from the pack and no one else will think of that one.

9. Don’t be limited by the maximum 40-line rule. If your entry has 6,476 lines, join as many lines together as possible. Long poems are difficult to write and are bound to impress the judges.

10. Remember to attach copious notes that explain points the judges may have trouble grasping. After all, they can’t see inside your mind and you want them to be sure of the size of your intellect.

11. Use words such as eldritch, ontic, topos, and chthonic, as often as possible.

12. Be careful to avoid any resemblance to poetry in your poems. This is really important. Most poetry isn’t really poetry at all. Copy a section from a rail timetable or a guide to Windows Vista and chop it into lines. The shorter the lines, the more gravitas your entry is likely to have.

13. Judges enjoy novelty packages. Fold your poem into a paper aeroplane and seal it in a padlocked metal box. A key is optional as the judges will also enjoy trying to get into the box without one.

14. Spray your manuscript with a powerful unisex scent. Entries are anonymous, but if a judge thinks you want to sleep with him/her, it’s bound to make a difference.

15. Submit a sestina using all three judges’ names as end-words. For example, this year (judges - Michael Schmidt, Penelope Shuttle, E.A. Markham), you could begin:

“You must be taking the proverbial Michael!”
Maria exclaimed, “You think I could be Schmidt-
-en by the likes of you?” Earl glanced at Penelope,
who must have lied to him. If only a space Shuttle
could lift him to a distant galaxy. The initials E.A.
had been carved into a oak tree near Markham

village, and as Maria had once lived in Markham,
Penelope had put two and two together. “Michael
is better looking than you and belongs to the E.A.
posse,” Maria said, “but you don’t know Schmidt!”
It was now important that Earl caught the last Shuttle
bus home, even if he had to share it with Penelope..., and so on...

16. Submit a ‘concept poem.’ For example, write a different word on each sheet of a toilet roll. Invite the judges to piece them back together in the correct order.

17. Use text language as often as you can. Choosing such a poem as a winner will give the judges street credibility, even if you turn out to be resident in a nursing home.

18. If all else fails, start referring to yourself “as one of the UK’s most important poets of all time” in your blog and in every poetry board you can find on the Internet, and everyone will eventually come to believe that you, at one time, did win the competition or at least should have done.

Some of these techniques will not work with this year’s judges who, unfortunately, appear to be people of great integrity. So think of it as a practice run for future occasions. And who knows, you might get lucky!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Mary Margaret O'Hara

With 'Miss America' (1988), she recorded one of the greatest albums of all time, and topped it off by not following it up! Apparently she still plays low-profile gigs around Toronto, but that's rather far away from me. So I'm delighted to find this video clip of her performing in her unique style.

John Llewellyn Rhys Prize Shortlist

The Guardian reports on the shortlist for this year's John Llewellyn Rhys prize, which is awarded to a writer aged under 35 for a work of fiction, non-fiction, drama, or poetry, has been announced – but contains no poetry or drama.

One of the judges, Peter Hobbs, talked about the submissions (which are made by publishers);

"There was very little poetry and drama at all," he said, suggesting that with big publishers restricted to three titles every year, it is difficult to reflect the diversity of their output. "It's partly market forces," he admitted, "the novel is what sells, much more than short stories, poetry and plays."

Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, responded;

"It's a bitter irony that awards have been subsumed into the battle for sales," she continued. "Literary prizes are one of the few things that might offset publishers' whims and the logic of the bottom line."

Publishers and booksellers already make decisions about which books to promote most heavily, she continued, and awards that only consider the books put forward by publishers will only replicate those decisions, giving shortlists the air of the three-for-two tables at the front of big bookshops. "Literary prizes ought to be leading the way, rather than responding to market forces," she added. "Prizes will have to change if they want to be taken seriously."

I couldn’t agree more. But there you have it. Publishers, understandably I suppose, note how prizes can greatly increase sales. They submit books they think will sell, given publicity, not the books they think are best. And poetry drops even further from the public eye because it doesn’t get onto the prominent displays that bookshops reserve for prize shortlists.

If publishers are able to submit three books each, it surely makes sense for the competition rules to insist that publishers must submit books from three of the four categories, ensuring that drama and poetry have a chance of a fair showing. But I don’t see that happening in a hurry.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Act of Making

George Szirtes has posted some interesting thoughts on The Sensation of Making a poem. And he invites other writers to email him (the address is on his home page) with articulations of their own.

Andrew Shields has responded. And I started a PFFA thread on the subject.

Poets in Velvet

My wife doesn’t read much poetry, but devours novels – hundreds each year of all kinds. She indulges, now and again, in a spot of chick-lit. At the moment, she’s reading a book called The Chocolate Lovers’ Club by Carole Matthews.

On page 183 of this novel is the following paragraph:

The poetry book that’s being launched is an anthology and I notice that there are several of the contributors mingling nervously with the guests. You can tell that they’re poets as they’re wearing mainly velvet clothing with lots of scarves and some of them have on jaunty hats.

Velvet? Lots of scarves (inside!)? Jaunty hats? Does that description scream 'poet' to you?

To be honest, she could probably spot the poets far more easily by those who'd start re-arranging her first sentence to read:

The launch is for a poetry anthology and I notice several contributors mingling nervously with the guests.

Friday, October 19, 2007


I have the idea of sending poems out in late October and November. I already have batches of poems at three magazines, but I will know either way from at least two of these by early November. I’m working on what I imagine to be eight of my strongest unpublished poems – mainly tweaking and minor re-orderings, but in certain sections I’ve also tried making imagery more unpredictable and compressing some of the prosy bits into something resembling poetry.

The UK National Poetry competition entries need to be in by 31 October. There are two or three magazines I’d like to have a shot at. Deciding what to send where is always a problem. I could easily send a potential national winner to be rejected by a magazine editor, or send a poem the magazines would snap up and even pay me for to the wastepaper bin at the National Poetry competition HQ.

Is there such a thing as a 'competition poem'? I'm not convinced that there is, and the judges this year - Michael Schmidt, Penelope Shuttle, and E.A. Markham - may spring a few surprises.

Anyway, for the moment, I’m going to keep working and hope that things become clearer towards the end of the month.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Pick Your Morgan

Lesley Duncan, poetry editor at The Herald, Scotland’s biggest broadsheet newspaper, draws our attention to a new volume of Edwin Morgan poems which will be distributed free as part of Glasgow’s “Aye Write” literary festival next year. The book will contain 50 poems, ten of which will be chosen by public vote. We can vote for our favourite Edwin Morgan poem, together with fifty words explaining our choice, and email it to to arrive no later than 4 November.

How to choose? Morgan has written so many great poems. There are the obvious choices of his better known work – Strawberries, King Billy, Loch Ness Monster’s Song, Glasgow Green – and I’ve no doubt these ones will pick up a lot of votes just because they are popular. But are they the best? I have my doubts. I’ve been blown away by so many of Morgan’s poems. I’ll have to think about this one.

And why wasn't Morgan mooted as a possible literary Nobel Winner? Is he so far off the radar?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

qarrtsiluni unfolding

I’ve just finished my guest-editor stint at qarrtsiluni. I’ll try to post a few reflections soon. It’s been interesting to find myself on the ‘other side’ of the submission process for a while.

Although submissions have now closed, material we’ve accepted will continue to appear throughout the month, so keep looking in, or – better still – bookmark the site or subscribe to it. I think we’ve put together a good issue, mainly thanks to the consistently high quality of submissions. That was one welcome surprise for me, as I’d expected far more weak efforts. Instead we often had to reject work that wasn’t bad at all. I hope you enjoy the unfolding issue. If you like any piece in particular, you can give feedback to the writer by using the comments boxes.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Rik Mayall Reads Poems.

I've been trying to improve my poetry performance style, and I found a lot to think about in this video.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Begin the Beguine

Thanks to Cailleach for her article, Begin the Beguine, which more or less explains why everyone should place an order for The Clown of Natural Sorrow as soon as possible!

I have a small pile of copies of The Clown on the corner of my office desk that I take with me to readings etc. Back at the HappenStance ranch, there are fewer than 45 copies left. Perhaps, with your help, the chapbook will sell out completely before the end of, oh…., 2008?

I should point out that there are two misprints in the article, both from my poem, Girl Playing Sudoku on the 7.15 – “unleash to the stink/ of Lynx” should read “unleash the stink/ of Lynx” and “one hesitation/ begins a hesitation” should read “one hesitation/ begins a chain.”

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Poetry Gig - Advance Notice

Don't miss this!

Poetry at the Great Grog

A great line-up of poets reading in the Back Lounge of the Great Grog Bar in Rose Street, Edinburgh (walk up Hanover Street, turn left at Rose Street for 30 metres).

Roddy Lumsden
A. B. Jackson
Andrew Philip
Rob A. Mackenzie

Sunday 4 November 2007, 7.30pm
Free Entry

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Reviews - Luke Kennard (The Chimaera) and John Ash (Orbis)

The first issue of The Chimaera is now up and among the many articles and poems, you can find my review of The Harbour Beyond the Movie by Luke Kennard.

If the word ‘review’ instantly puts you off reading further, read the book instead. It’s great stuff.

If any of you have the new issue of print magazine, Orbis, you’ll find my review of John Ash’s The Parthian Stations, as well as poems by Andrew Shields and Tony Williams.

By Leaves We Live 2007 - Report

It’s great when other bloggers go to events and report on them so well that I can just link you to their sites to find out all the important stuff. As far as the By Leaves We Live event goes, Colin Will has done the job!

I stayed a little later than Colin and heard Richard Price perform a poetry set, which was a sonic feast - witty and mystifying in equal measure. As RP himself said on reading one poem about cars, “you’ll just have to run with me on this, down the wrong side of the highway.” Not often easy poetry to take in, but always engaging.

I met Robtm (for some reason, that’s how he likes to be known in Internetland) and we ate a sandwich on a bench on the Canongate. Robtm started talking to this Geordie guy on a neighbouring bench who was obsessed by these people who had nicked a wheel off a bike ten minutes before, and whose dog had feet that turned the wrong way, which was nothing to do with arthritis, and…

I ran into Hazel Frew. I last met her around 1999 or so. She used to read monthly at the Bar Brel in Glasgow at the same period I went there, so we reminisced about that. It was a poky wee room on the first floor next to a noisy kitchen, but we both cut our poetry-reading teeth there and can only remember the good bits.

I also met Joy Fuller. I’d heard her read a few poems at an open-mic a couple of years ago and she was terrific. She informed me that she was now to be known as Margaret Christie. In fact, she used to be known as Margaret Christie, but changed to Joy Fuller a few years ago. Now she’s changed back again. In any case, she has a chapbook coming out on HappenStance later this month, 27th October, one of four new chapbooks to be launched on that date. Should be good.

The Scottish poetry world is small. I met lots of people I already knew, but quite a few I didn’t. A number of visual artists were there, and many of the publications on display were collaborations between artists and poets.

Of course, I bought stuff. And here’s the list:

Only one book:
Richard Price’s Greenfields (Carcanet, 2007)

Two chapbooks of translations on Perdika Press:
Christine North: Mallarmé
Tom Jones: Akhmatova

One chapbook of original poems:
Hazel Frew – Clockwork Scorpion (Rack Press)

And I got some free things. Issue 15 of Painted, Spoken and issue 3 of the related PS. And Duncan Glen was nice enough to give me a free copy of his magazine Zed2O, issue 22.

When I got home, I went into the back garden in the dark, opened a small bottle of Pepsi Cola I’d bought for the occasion and dropped a polo mint into it. Have you ever tried this? Don’t do it inside the house!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

By Leaves We Live

Today, I’ll be at By Leaves We Live in the Scottish Poetry Library – an annual event here.

• Stalls, displays and talks.
• Drop in to browse or buy
• Meet publishers, artists and poets from Scotland and beyond
• Lsten to talks on poetry and art publishing

For readers, writers, artists, designers, publishers – all welcome.

• First showing at the Library of the duplicator used by Gael Turnbull to print the highly influential Migrant magazine
• First book-fair opportunity to buy works from Wild Hawthorn Press: the Archive of Ian Hamilton Finlay

The full programme is at the link. I’ll report back

Thursday, October 04, 2007

National Poetry Day and StAnza 2008

To readers in the UK, Happy National Poetry Day (or whatever one says on such an occasion)! To celebrate, the Stanza International Poetry Festival have unveiled their first list of participants.

Looks good!

Forward Poetry Prizes 2007

Sean O’Brien’s The Drowned Book won the UK Forward Prize for Best Collection last night. O’Brien becomes the first poet to win the award on three occasions, and last year he won Best Individual Poem as well. Not bad going!

I haven’t read the book, although I’m sure the award is deserved. He’s a good writer. I also suspect the fact that he’d won the award twice before would have been more likely to predispose the judges against choosing him a third time than the other way round, so they must have been impressed.

Winner of Best Individual Poem was Alice Oswald with Dunt from Poetry London. I’m sure last year The Guardian had all the short-listed poems printed online, but there’s no sign of that this time round.

Winner of Best First Collection was Daljit Nagra with Look We Have Coming to Dover! Does anyone else think that Daljit Nagra and Morrissey have an uncanny resemblance?

Daljit Nagra:


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Latest from qarrtsiluni

If you haven’t looked in on qarrtsiluni, which I have been guest co-editing during this month and last, I think we have some very good pieces there at the moment, with some more to come soon. Take a look if you have time. Submissions are still welcome until 15 October. We could particularly do with short fiction (under 1000 words), as that's been thin on the ground, but poems, photos, non-fiction also welcome.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Naivety of Plagiarism

Someone recently came to this site after googling:

“i need a narative poem ok to copy as my own.”


Too Good to Be True

You might remember my elation a few posts ago at finding a copy of Tomas Transtromer's Baltics, translated by Samuel Charters at only $5 (normal price around £50). The elation was short-lived. From an email today from Powell's bookshop:

Unfortunately, the items listed below (ordered through's Marketplace) were not available at this time.

Though our online database is updated hourly to match actual in-store quantities, all of our books are sold on a first-come, first-served basis. Powell's stores are browsed by thousands of walk-in customers every day, and in all likelihood the items below were purchased or mis-shelved by another customer.

Yeah, right! So in the hour before I bought it, a customer at Powell's got there first, or has placed it back on the wrong shelf. I can think of more likely explanations... The thing is, if I had found it in Powell's with a $5 price tag and brought it to the counter, they would have had to sell it to me at the marked price. The email continues:

Your card was billed at the time of your order; however, Amazon will credit the transaction immediately (they'll send you an email confirmation as soon as the refund has been processed. Depending on your bank, it may take a few days for the credit to post in your account).

Unavailable titles are -not- placed on backorder. Your order is now closed.
Please accept our apologies for the inconvenience.