I’ve just spent (I was about to say “wasted”, but that’s exactly what it wasn’t) an hour browsing back copies of The Frogmore Papers on the Poetry Library’s wonderful online database of poetry magazines, bingeing on poetry like it’s a tin of Quality Street I should be eking out sensibly over several months, but just can’t resist. And I’ve had a wonderful week, watching Thommie Gillow, Tim Vosper and Hannah Teasdale perform stunning sets at Hammer and Tongue, Bristol and Tim King rock an equally brilliant headline slot at WordMustard, Weston-super-Mare, feeling like a child watching the magician at a birthday party, delighted by their imagery and wordplay and rhythms and performance skills.
I love it when I feel like this: when it doesn’t matter to me whether I’m writing or not, whether the work I have written is being accepted or not, I just feel privileged and elated to be alive in a world where poetry exists and I can’t get enough of it.
I don’t always feel like this. Sometimes, poetry can feel like a tough exam I have to pass in order to be considered a worthwhile member of the human race. What have you achieved in life? Er, not very much, but I do write some poetry…. Well, in that case, you have to get more poems accepted by better journals, you have to win every slam you enter, you have to get offered more and better feature slots than the next guy, or else you’re not good enough. While it’s good to have goals to aim for, taking it too far sucks all the joy out of poetry and you start to forget why you began writing it in the first place.
When I no longer feel joy in what I read and hear, when it purely becomes a yardstick by which I measure my own work or a fellow runner I need to try to overtake by the end of this lap, I know I’ve lost the plot and it’s time to step back.
The more I submit to journals and e-zines, the more I realise that it’s a two-way process. There are some journals which publish work I just don’t like and I’ve come to realise that, no matter how prestigious they are, there’s no point submitting to them: they’re unlikely to ever accept me, anyway, and it’s artistically dishonest trying. There are other journals where the work makes me feel so warm in places I didn’t even know I had that it doesn’t matter if they ever accept my stuff or not – I’m just grateful for the delicious work of other people they share with me.
There will be many days when I don’t feel like this, when I feel jealous and embittered or cocky and complacent or inferior and depressed. But I’m glad I feel like this today and it reinforces the undeniable facts that it’s more important to be a reader and listener than it is to be a writer and that if you don’t make being a reader and listener your top priority, you will never be a writer.