Wednesday, 23 February 2022

Poetry submissions via Submittable

Since my first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, back in 2017, I’ve had perhaps my most fruitful period ever in terms of placing new poems in high-quality journals. In fact, I’ve published a total of 44 pieces in outlets such as The Spectator, The New European, Stand, Acumen, Poetry Birmingham, Wild Court, etc, etc.

However, in that same period, absolutely everything I’ve submitted via Submittable has been rejected – a total of 31 batches of poems, all declined. Why? What might the reasons be?

Of course, one immediate reason may be that more people submit to journals via Submittable than via other means, while another suggestion might be that many of the most prestigious mags use Submittable. Oh, and an additional option is that younger editors tend to work with the platform, and my poems are less to their taste. Nevertheless, I do believe that I’ve accumulated a pretty decent and broad list of credits elsewhere (see above) during that same period.

What’s my point? What potential conclusions could be drawn? Well, I’d argue that the use of Submittable is extremely detrimental to the type of poetry I write. It favours work that catches a superficial eye rather than poems that layer their effects with subtlety. This isn’t to knock editors’ decisions, just a reflection on the way Submittable potentially skews their choices. Do you agree? If so, is the use of Submittable changing the poetry some people write and subsequently read? Is this a change for the better…?

Sunday, 20 February 2022

Anja König on being an unprofessional poet

I've just spotted an excellent article by Anja König on being an unprofessional poet (which is an extremely interesting term!) and on prizewinning culture. Here's a brief quote to give you a flavour of the piece...

What is a professional poet? A poet who spends most of their time on poetry-related activities, a poet whose main income stems from such activities like royalties, events, teaching? With a full-time day job in biotech, I am not a professional poet. There are not many “unprofessional poets”, but there are a few: Wallace Stevens famously had a full-time job at Hartford Insurance...

However, you can read it in full here

Tuesday, 15 February 2022

The theatre of life, Barry Smith's Performance Rites

As its title, Performance Rites (Waterloo Press, 2021), indicates from the off, Barry Smith’s first full collection is very much concerned with the roles we play and the characters we act out in our lives.

In many poems throughout his wide-ranging collection, Smith’s exploration of this theme remains in the background, filtered through a narrative or a scene, offering a latent invitation for the reader to wonder whether things and people are quite as they seem. However, in the book’s title poem, he meets it head-on, as he also does in The Roles We Play. The opening lines of the latter read as follows:

What drives us time and time again
to place ourselves onstage in the line of fire
in front of the adjudicating panel?

Is it our search for a new identity,
a different self with licence to act
in ways we would never dare or dream?

Or do we lack essential definition,
just a hazy blur of expressions
an empty vessel waiting to be filled...?

This poem’s scenario is an audition for a play. As such, its concerns might appear specific to theatre at first glance, but they expand. In other words, the two questions from the above extract echo and reverberate through the collection.

Nevertheless, as the poem progresses, it also takes on further ramifications, moving on from its initial, more generic doubts, homing in on a social context, as in its closing stanzas…

…you’re howling into the night…
OK, thank you very much,
we’ll let you know if you’re needed for the call back.

And so in a giggle and gaggle you withdraw to the café
sharing your experience over a latte or expresso
- it went really well, I think they liked me –

you’re ready to take on the world in King Lear
or Maria Marten and the Murder at the Red Barn,
inhabiting an unhinged king or scheming villain,

or maybe just back to the yoga and Pilates
waiting for the next audition to strut your stuff
seeking the ministrations of our transient art.

The ending gives us the bathos of exaggerated drama being undercut by everyday language, followed up by the counterpoint of cosy middle-class conversation about the audition (which feels like a pose in itself), all before the mention of pastimes that are implicitly both compared and contrasted with theatre. This leads to an intentionally over-the-top final line shot through with irony.

In summary, the poem works so well due to initially incongruous juxtapositions that apply gradual layers of nuance to the poet’s probing doubts. As a consequence, it provides us with a perfect calling card for the collection as a whole. Barry Smith’s Performance Rites leaves us pondering just who we are and why we act as we do. And in my book, that’s never a bad thing!

Tuesday, 8 February 2022

History and place, Judi Sutherland's Following Teisa

As Judi Sutherland mentions in the introduction to her new book-length, beautifully illustrated poem, Following Teisa (The Book Mill Press, 2021), rivers have long played an important role in U.K. poetry. From Wordsworth to Oswald, water in general is perhaps more present and prevalent as a symbol, an image, a leitmotif or even a theme in itself than in other countries. This might well because the poets in question are living on an island or in a dodgy climate, of course. However, leaving aside attempts at cod psychology, the fact remains that Sutherland is acknowledging and tapping into a rich seam.

History and the significance of place are both important cornerstones of this collection. The title itself, for instance, references an 18th Century long poem about the River Tees which was titled Teisa, Sutherland explores our relationship with the evolving role of our surroundings. In doing so, her perspective is also crucial, as explained in the following extract from the introduction:

…I moved to Teesdale in 2014 and felt dreadfully homesick for my previous village near the Thames. I started walking by the Tees as a way of getting to know and love my new environment and decided to repeat Anne Wilson’s poetic journey for a different generation…

In other words, Sutherland engages as an outsider. There’s no forced attempt at vernacular, for instance. Instead, she invites us along on her own exploration of the River Tees, portraying it in language that’s both rich yet deft, as is indicated by the opening lines to the poem itself:

How it wells up from nowhere to chase
gravity downhill, becomes a rill,
a rickle of old stones, then hurtles rocks,
purls and pools in reed…

There’s huge skill present here, not just in the assonance, alliteration and internal rhyme, but in the precise way it’s all patterned and  interlinked, one device starting before the previous one has come to an end: downhill-rill/rill-rickle/rickle-hurtle/hurtle-purls/purls-pools. The effect is to mirror the onrushing movement of water.

In thematic terms, the poem also evokes tensions between manmade features and the natural world. Here’s one such instance:

…Below the concrete dam, a dry spillway,
while the river is re-birthed – an indignity
of outfall – with barely time to find its feet before
tumbling at forty-five degrees, a whitewater
staircase with a grand balustrade of columned rock.

Those tensions are then placed in historical context, starting from the point of departure of the allusive title and stretching throughout the book. Some references are closer to the present day…

…Once, a whole wartime platoon
of lowland men was washed away,
with their bridge pontoons, at Barne…

Others, meanwhile, engage with a more distant past:

...Above the town, a stand of pines on a barrow,
Bronze Age elders whose watchful eyes
follow. Turn around, you’ll swear they’ve shifted
in their rootball, their wooden footfall
silent on the hill. In comes the Lune
from its lonely dale, escaping the broad dams
of Selset and Grassholme...

Throughout Following Teisa, Judi Sutherland portrays the interaction of the River Tess with people over the course of history. Her achievement in this poem lies in her ability to carry us along and immerse us in her psychogeographic exploration, inviting us to reassess our own surrounding and their own significance in our lives, all this on top of bringing us a book that’s a gorgeous object in itself. Thoroughly recommended!