I regularly submit page poetry to literary journals. You might not have noticed this, as they usually get rejected.
Actually, that’s being unduly gloomy. I’ve done all right this year – I’ve had 14 poems accepted so far in 2016, which is twice what I had accepted in the whole of 2015 and we’re only in July. Admittedly, this is partly because I’ve submitted far more than I did in 2015 (I’ve also had far more rejections than last year), but given that I’ve tried to be more selective about where I submit to, it’s not a bad record, at all. And everybody gets rejected most of the time – it’s one of those things you have to learn to live with if you are attempting to make it to the elite level in any discipline.
Rejections still hurt, though, especially if I get a lot in the same week or if they’re from that Very Prestigious Journal With A Name That Sounds Like It Ought To Be a High-End Brand Of Aftershave who I keep trying and keep getting knocked back by. It’s comforting to read far better poets than me blogging about their rejections or about how many years of submissions it took before they got any acceptances at all. I need reminders that it’s not a race.
I probably submit too much, including work that’s not ready yet. There is immense pressure to get yourself widely published and by the “right” journals in order to be taken seriously as a poet: credible publishers won’t usually consider issuing pamphlets or full-length collections by poets who haven’t got a track record in the journals and my Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of the poetic equivalents of that bastard in the school exam hall who was always putting his/her hand up for more paper before I’d finished writing my introductory paragraph. This pressure can lead to an unhelpful, production line approach.
I read recently that Philip Larkin wrote 2-3 poems a year in his most prolific periods. There’s something to be said for writing fewer poems, but crafting and crafting them until they’re perfect, and getting off the hamster wheel of continual submission.
But that’s never going to happen with me – I need external validation too much.
These are some things I wish I’d known about slams before I started slamming:
- A slam result does not define your worth as a poet
I cannot emphasise this enough.The first time I did badly in a slam, I cried for about a week afterwards. I assumed I was a rubbish writer, a rubbish performer and that everyone was wincing at my gaucheness, amateurishness, ineptitude and self-delusion for putting myself in for a slam in the first place. Even when I eventually realised that wasn’t true, I still assumed that the poem I had used on that night must be a dud and kept it out of my set for over a year.I now know that a poet can perform the same poem equally well at two different slams and get 5s at one and 10s at the other. A lot depends on what the taste of that particular audience is, where you are in the running order, who you’re up against.
That’s not to say that slam results are completely meaningless- someone who is regularly placed in major slams is probably a better poet and/or performer than someone who never makes it past the first heat (although, even then, not always – some very good spoken word artists are rubbish slammers – the skills needed to arrest a general audience’s attention for 3 minutes are very different from those needed to sustain an audience of poetry lovers’ interest and provoke thought over a 20-30 minute set). But you can’t read much into one result.
It works the other way, too: just because you win a slam, it doesn’t make you Kate Tempest. I had a run of about a year where I never finished lower than second in any slam I entered and it gave me ideas above my station. I thought I was brilliant, invincible, in a different and better league to many of the people I slammed against. I became quite obnoxious. The last year, where I’ve not managed to reach the final of a single slam, has taught me a salutary lesson.
- Nobody ever remembers who won a slam, anyway, unless they were actually in it.
That’s the ironic thing. Get a group of regular slammers together over a few drinks and they will start to rehearse their still keenly felt grievances about the results of slams that took place several years ago, but the audience and the organisers will have forgotten who won by the following morning. People vaguely remember who was good, but the exact placings rapidly evaporate from their memory and they retain no recollection whatsoever of the people who were bad or meh, so if you had a bad night, don’t worry – it won’t sully your reputation for the rest of your slamming career.On more than one occasion, I’ve sat in the audience at poetry nights and heard the featured performer described in their intro as the winner of a slam I know I actually won. And I’ve been introduced on stage as the winner of one slam I didn’t win so many times, sometimes even I forget I didn’t win it. The only major slam nobody thinks I won is the one I actually did.
- Different slam, different rules
Each slam tends to have a house style. Expert judges tend to look for different things from audience judges and different audiences like different things. As a broad rule, young, urban slams tend to favour serious, confessional poems about hard-hitting subject matter, whereas provincial and festival slams with an older, more Radio 4-type audience, tend to prefer comic, but I’ve been to many slams which didn’t fit this rule.But it’s usually a mistake to try to read and manipulate the audience. Almost all of my major fuck-ups in slams have come from trying to be too clever and doing the poem I thought the audience/judges would like, rather than the one I liked the best.It is sometimes useful to remember when you didn’t do as well as you hoped, though, that it may well have been the case that it was a good poem that just wasn’t right for that audience. Don’t give up on it! It may well slay them somewhere else.