For those about to slam…

Some (probably worthless) advice on slams for beginners , from someone who’s watched a lot of them and won a few.

  • Don’t start your set by saying, “Please be kind to me: I’ve never slammed before/my boyfriend has just left me/my dog has just died.”  Audiences are usually prepared to be supportive and generous to a slammer who appears nervous, inexperienced or in some kind of emotional pain, but they aren’t usually impressed by slammers who actively try to cultivate the sympathy vote.
  • If you didn’t know that and actually did start your first slam appearance with “Please be kind to me: I’ve never slammed before”, don’t beat yourself up about it. So did most of us.
  • There’s this thing called “etiquette”. Listen respectfully when the other slammers and any feature acts are performing (if you’re too nervous about your own upcoming slot to really listen, at least try to look like you’re listening). Do not: chat to your friends, check your phone or go outside to buy a drink/have a smoke during other people’s performances, loudly criticise other people’s performances, turn up late and/or leave early so you miss the other acts, unless it is absolutely unavoidable (e.g. you’ll miss the last train home if you stay).
  • Do try to chat to the other performers in the breaks and at the end. You’re at least as likely to impress the spoken word community and get offered other opportunities by your offstage conduct as by what you do onstage.
  • Don’t try to chat to them before they’ve performed, though. Many slammers need space to get their head together and run lines before they go on, especially at major slams. And don’t do it in an ultra-ambitious, networky sort of way – just enjoy the experience of getting to know people who share a common interest.
  • Some slams are very eclectic, while others have a marked house style. It’s often (but not always) the case that young, urban audiences prefer intense, confessional and/or political poems about serious topics, like identity politics, while provincial and literary festival slams with a slightly older audience are more likely to favour Pam Ayresey-style light verse. If you can, it’s a good idea to get a feel for what kind of poetry goes down well before you decide whether to enter that slam or not.
  • If you do choose to enter a slam where everyone else is doing a different style of poetry from you, don’t expect them to experience a Road-to-Damascus moment where they realise they’ve been doing poetry wrong all their life and that you are a far superior poet to them. And don’t throw a strop, complaining they’re all Philistine idiots who don’t understand what real poetry is/all cliquey snobs who only vote for their mates, if you don’t win.
  • The biggest difference I’ve found between audience judges and “expert” judges is that audiences often want you to sound exactly like every other spoken word artist they’ve ever heard and if you don’t, it confuses them and they penalise you for it, while “expert” judges want you to sound different from every spoken word artist they’ve ever heard and will reward originality (often to the bemusement and displeasure of the audience).
  • If you do win, don’t think that automatically makes you the new Kate Tempest. If you don’t win, don’t assume you must be shit and there’s no point ever entering a slam again. Judging is always going to be somewhat subjective and on another night, with different judges, it might have gone a very different way.
  • The audience and the organisers will have forgotten who did well and who did badly within approximately 24 hours. They might remember who won, but you can’t even count on that. But slammers never forget – they’ll still be rehearsing their keenly felt grievances about the judging three years later.
  • It’s gutting when you don’t do as well as you think you deserved to do, but try not to be an arsehole about it. Congratulate the winner as sincerely as you can. If you can’t honestly look them in the eye and say, “You were fantastic and deserved to win” at least try to muster a fake smile and a noncommittal “Well done”.
  • Having said that, if you have lost it and thrown all your toys out of the pram, it’s probably not irredeemable – most of us have behaved badly on isolated occasions. Just try not to make a habit of it.
  • Stay off social media if you’re sore, though. A churlish remark made in the heat of the moment, on the night itself, in the immediate aftermath of defeat, is much easier to forgive than one that your opponent has taken the time to type out on Facebook the next day.

In a critiqual condition

I’ve recently been asked to read and give feedback on other poets’ work quite a lot. I love doing this – it is always an honour when someone chooses to share work-in-progress with you, as it’s a very exposing thing to do and means they are trusting you with something very precious. You also learn a lot about poetry from critiquing other people’s poems – you learn from what they’re doing better than you or differently from you, but, as it’s always easier to spot flaws in other people’s work than your own, you can arguably learn the most from their mistakes, because you are almost certainly making them in your own work, as well.

There are some pieces of advice that I find myself giving over and over again, to poets of all levels of experience, writing in a wide range of different traditions. This is what they are:

Make sure you haven’t gone into Poetry Voice

Example: “I do not behold the solar orb in the welkin without thinking on your visage”

We all want to be thought of as poets.The trouble is, sometimes we end up sounding like poets circa 1790. Or, even worse, like a very unconvincing 1790 poet tribute act.

Your poetic voice doesn’t have to sound exactly like your normal voice when you’re down the pub with your mates, but it really shouldn’t sound like you’re nervously doing a telephone interview with Wordsworth, Keats and Christina Rossetti and you’ve put on your Hyacinth Bucket voice in a bid to impress them.

Avoid archaism, unless you have a very, very good reason for using it,and choose words for precision, not for obscurity or difficulty. Does “visage” bring anything to the party that “face” wouldn’t, or “behold” that “see” wouldn’t? If not, use the simpler word.

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given is “Use contractions wherever you can (e.g. say “don’t” instead of “do not” and “we’ve” instead of “we have”) and avoid relative pronouns (“that”, “who” and “which”, e.g. say “The man I love”, not “The man who I love” and “The night we met”, not “The night that we met”).”

Make your voice sound natural and conversational, not stilted and tryhard.

Don’t provide a simultaneous translation with your imagery

Example: “The ground was covered with a soft white blanket. It had been snowing.”

We know it had been snowing. Your metaphor already made that perfectly clear. You don’t need to explain it again for the hard of thinking. Trust your own imagery. Trust your audience.

And if your simile or metaphor doesn’t make clear whatever point it is you’re trying to make without further exegesis, then you need to ditch the simile or metaphor and find a better one.

Go easy on the imagery

Example: “My heart is a balloon, a shaken-up pop bottle, an overstuffed pillow
and my heartbeat is a dripping tap, my breaths now coming as fast as a jaguar”

Yeah, yeah, we get the point – your heart is full to bursting point – but did you really have to tell us three times? And pillows, taps and jaguars are just too disparate ideas to pile up together – they send the reader’s brain off down too many lines of inquiry simultaneously. They introduce fuzziness and imprecision where poetry should be about clarity.

This is, I admit, a case of “Physician, heal thyself.” Do as I say, not as I do, okay?

Don’t use mixed metaphors

Example: “My heart is a balloon which died when you shattered it with a hammer”

A balloon can’t “die”, as it’s inanimate, and it “bursts” or “pops”, it doesn’t “shatter”.
If you start off comparing your heart to a balloon, don’t change it midsentence into an animal and then into a sheet of glass. Finish off one metaphor before starting the next.

Or, as a metaphor mixer would say: don’t change horses until your chickens have hatched.

Even better, only use one metaphor in the first place.

Yes, the example I gave was truly terrible poetry, whereas some of the mixed metaphors I see when critiquing sound very beautiful until you start trying to think them through. And, as with all “rules” in poetry, this one isn’t unbreakable – there are some greater poets than I who mix metaphors and do it with style. But 99% of the time, mixed metaphors don’t work.

Know why you are placing the line breaks where you are, especially where enjambement is involved

Some poets say you should always begin and end a line with a significant word, preferably a noun or a verb, and that beginning or ending a line with a function word (e.g. the, on, and) is a no-no. I once tried adhering to this rule and I lasted about 20 minutes – it was impossible to construct poetry that made any sense if I was always avoiding function words in inconvenient places and a cursory glance at the work of almost any significant poet I could think of revealed that they often began or ended lines with “and” and “the”, too. It’s not a rule you have to follow. It is, however, a useful thing to think about, in my experience.

Enjambement (starting a new poetic line in the middle of a sentence) can be used for the following reasons:

to throw emphasis on the word placed at the beginning or end of a line
e.g. The bus stopped. I got on. Trembling,
clinging to the handrail.

If I had started a new line after “on”, not as much emphasis would have been thrown on “trembling”.

to create a cliffhanger
e.g. The bus stopped. I got on. Trembling, clinging to
the handrail

Here, the enjambement has been used to keep the reader guessing what you’re clinging to

to create a sense of unstoppable excitement or momentum
e.g. The bus hurtled round
corners and slalomed
its way down Strawberry
Hill.

Here, the enjambement, the way that the poetic line cannot contain the flow of the sentence, reflects the way that bus is moving with unstoppable speed.

to create ambiguity
e.g. I bought her a gift. Roses
were growing in the garden
where I gave it to her.

Here, the enjambement has been used to trick you into thinking the gift is roses.

Remember that any feedback given is an optional suggestion – it’s not a law which you have to follow, nor is it a terrible insult, about which you should feel aggrieved

I’ve been very bossy in this blog entry, but that’s not because I think I’m a world expert who has all the answers. This is just a subjective opinion. You don’t have to follow it. It’s entirely possible (indeed, very probable) that I’m talking through my arse here or teaching my grandmother to suck eggs. And, even if my advice is helpful to some poets, it may not be the right advice for you.

It’s difficult, when critiquing, to know how honest or how detailed to be, because you worry about offending people. Generally, though, I try to be as honest, but as constructive and as detailed, as I can, unless the poet has specifically instructed me otherwise, but always stress that it is an opinion only and they are free to ignore it. It is annoying, though, when people ask for advice and then get offended when you give it.

When the boot’s on the other foot, I always try to listen to and consider advice, but I don’t feel obliged to accept it. Sometimes I agree with what they’ve said entirely; sometimes I think about it, but disagree at the time, then six months later realise that they were right; sometimes I respect what they’ve said, but feel strongly that I had a reason for putting it like I did and it’s non-negotiable.

If I ever start thinking, “The cheek! How dare they say that? Who do they think they are? It’s not like they’re the greatest poet in the world,” then I try to check myself. If I don’t rate them as a poet, I shouldn’t have asked for their opinion in the first place – the fault is mine, not theirs. Don’t ever show people your work in the expectation that they will say, “Oh! But that’s wonderful! You’re so good!” Feedback can be painful and I don’t always like it, but it does me good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hold me to this

I don’t much like the #amwriting hashtag on social media. The obvious response to it is always, “No, you aren’t. You’re wasting time on social media, while simultaneously smugly virtue-signalling and pretentiously letting the world know that you are An Artist.”

Nonetheless, I suppose in this post I’m doing something similar. My New Year’s resolution for 2017, inasmuch as I had one, was to write more this year and to care less about what people thought about what I wrote. I’ve never been terribly prolific and the small wisps of success I have gleaned over the past three years have tended to reinforce that flaw, in that the fear of disappointing those who have previously liked my work has, at times, stopped me from writing anything new.

So, in the time-honoured tradition of weak-willed chokers everywhere, I’m posting my New Year’s resolution here, in the hope that Telling People About It will actually shame me into doing it.

Joy

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.

Taking stock

Time for an annual stocktake.

This time three years ago, I had never taken part in a slam or other spoken word event. This time two and a half years ago, I was so despondent after my first few months of doing atrociously at slams that I thought I was probably too congenitally untalented to carry on and that if I did, I would always be viewed as an incompetent amateur who was just humiliating herself by forcing audiences to listen to her drivel. Yet, this year I competed in the Hammer and Tongue National Final at the Royal Albert Hall and was asked to perform feature sets at spoken word nights all across the south west.

This time four years ago, I had never had a poem published in a credible literary journal. Although I had dreams of putting out a collection one day, at best it seemed like something that would only happen many decades down the line, at worst it seemed like an unrealistic fantasy that could never come true. Yet, this year, I have had poems published and/or accepted by journals including Prole, The Interpreter’s House, Obsessed With Pipework, Ink Sweat and Tears, Clear Poetry, Amaryllis and Algebra of Owls and had my first collection accepted by Oversteps Books to be published (hopefully) next year.

This time 10 years ago, I hadn’t written much poetry since I left school twenty years previously and didn’t think of myself as a poet, at all. Now I write and/or perform poetry most weeks, read and/or listen to poetry almost every day and it’s a core part of my identity. I have made so many precious friends through the durable social adhesive of poetry.

I’m not just showing off here. Truth is, I remain deeply frustrated and unhappy with much in my poetry life (the poems I’m not happy with, the prestigious journals that have serially rejected me, the gigs I haven’t been offered or have fucked up, the audiences that didn’t like me or, even worse, were vaguely lukewarm, the poets who have defriended me on social media or snubbed my friend request in the first place…) and with almost everything in every other aspect of my life, and I’m cheering myself up because I don’t think I’m good enough, rather than bragging because I think I’m so wonderful.

But I’m also posting this to let other people who have a fragile, unconfident ambition know, and to remind myself, that success comes one small step at a time and if you keep plugging away at it, you will see results. Change can happen.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

I can be relied upon to be consistently inconsistent

People often say that you shouldn’t allow yourself to be buoyed or destroyed by what the audience thought of your poetry, that you should just do your own thing and judge yourself by your own standards, not theirs. Trouble is, I’m very bad at assessing how my own performance is going, except in terms of audience response. And I know I’m a very inconsistent performer. I’ve lost count of the number of times when I’ve performed the same set at two different events, only weeks or even days apart, and I’ve felt like I’ve performed it equally well on both occasions, but at one I get a rapturous reception and at the other the same material has gone down like a lead balloon.

Of course, sometimes this is because of circumstances beyond my control. A middle-aged provincial audience,for example, is probably going to respond differently from a young urban audience, and I can’t control who is in the audience. An audience who prefers comedy isn’t going to respond well to serious poetry, no matter how well it is performed, and vice versa. In theory, this should be less of a problem for me than most poets, as I do both funny and non-funny poems and should be able to adapt, but in practice I seem to have an unerring instinct to do exactly the kind of poetry that an audience doesn’t like, whereas someone who only does comedy is going to get it right at least some of the time.

The running order and who else is in it is also key to how I go down. If I’m headlining, the audience is probably going to be warmer and more receptive than if I’m on first. However, the downside of headlining is that more is expected of a headliner than a bottom-of-the-bill featured artist, and if the person on just before me was absolutely brilliant, then even my best performance will disappoint. Also, if the person on just before me  has just done a harrowing poem about how their best friend died of a long, lingering disease and made the audience cry, then a silly poem about biscuits which might have made the audience laugh on another night will seem trite and wholly inappropriate.

Even taking all that into account, though, I know (because I’ve seen the videos of myself performing shockingly badly on YouTube  or because a very blunt friend who was at both events tells me I wasn’t very good at one) that sometimes the reason for my going down worse was because I did actually perform much worse. The problem is that, at the time, I didn’t actually feel like I was doing anything different from or worse than the successful occasion – the only clue was the audience’s sluggish response.

I’m not quite sure why this happens. I possibly do perform worse when I’m tired (and juggling spoken word with a demanding day job and a thyroid disorder means I often am crushingly tired), but one of my best gigs ever was one where I was so tired I barely even remember being there, so that’s not the only explanation. I definitely need to rehearse more than I do, but I’ve often bombed out on a poem that I did OK a few days earlier when I was even less rehearsed. And we all know that material can be overrehearsed, too – a poem you’ve done too much can go very stale and stop having the effect on an audience it used to have. The effects of (a) nerves and (b) alcohol also play a part. I freely admit I’m heavily reliant on (b) to counteract (a) and it’s a delicate balancing act drinking enough to quell the nerves, but not so much that I start slurring my words or forgetting lines.

But, anyway, I do take the audience’s reaction very much to heart, because I have no intrinsic way of judging how well I did. And I probably should do more work on my performance skills (maybe with the assistance of a director?)

 

Es are good?

I was born in a remote, primitive era of prehistory, millions of years before the evolution of the modern human (well, actually, I was born in 1968, but it often feels like it). When I was growing up, there was no worldwide web, no-one (bar maybe a couple of moneyed tech geeks) had a computer at home, mobile phones were the size of a toaster, too expensive for most people and did nothing other than make phone calls, and counterculture magazines were often produced on hand-cranked Banda machines (ask your nan).

Everything’s changed. We’re now living in a digital landscape and over the last few years there has been an explosion of e-zines and blogs that have brought poetry to a new and broader audience. Exciting times? I think so. With, of course, the caveat that always come with the internet – the democratisation that it brings can also be accompanied by zero quality control.

I am  constantly surprised by the naivety many aspirant poets have about the internet.”I have had poems published!” they say proudly, as if they’re a regular contributor to Poetry London, and it later transpires that what they mean is that they have posted their poems on what is basically an open-access electronic pinboard, with no editor and no filtering, and where all too often nobody goes there to read, they just go there to post.

That said, there are a number of excellent e-zines, edited by respected poets, whose submissions process is as rigorous as the leading print journals and who carry poems of a similar quality to (and often by the same poets as) the print journals. And even if some websites are less exclusive/rigorous than the print journals, that can be a good thing – moving away from poetry as a cosy clique where your face has to fit and opening up the genre to new audiences and new voices. Plus that’s all before you even start on the other fora for our poetry that the internet has provided, e.g. YouTube, our own websites etc.

Being the immature attention-whore that I am, what I love about e-zines is the instant gratification I get on publication. I tweet or Facebook a link and, within seconds, my friends can read my work and post validating messages. Also, (and this is the point where I really should get on the line to Freephone Sad Bastard) I can count up the number of likes, shares and comments my poem got from strangers on the site itself. Contrast that with the print journals, where often I don’t know anyone who is a subscriber, so my friends don’t get to read my poems, and I never really know whether anyone liked or even read it. It’s nice to get my complimentary copy in the post, but thereafter follows an eerie silence, and the ability to put another title on my biog seems little pay-off after the  three-month wait between submission and acceptance and the six-month wait between acceptance and publication.

What I love less about e-zines is their very public nature means that, once it’s out there, you lose all control of your poem: it can be reshared, stolen, misattributed and it is forever lost to other, potentially more lucrative publishing opportunities. As with music, the increasing expectation of audiences that work should be accessible for free on the web is diminishing opportunities to sell the work and threatening to turn art forms from careers that the very tenacious and talented can just about eke a living from to hobbies for privileged dilettantes.

And there’s nothing like the feel of real book, pamphlet or  magazine in your hand. Somehow you feel much more like a real poet when you’re physically holding a  journal with your name in it than when you see your work on a website. That can sometimes feel only one step up from reading your own Facebook posts.

There does not seem to be a great deal of consensus in the poetry world about how the new electronic forms of publishing fit in with the old. I have often been advised not to submit to e-zines and told that publication in the print “little magazines” carries far more gravitas and weight with promoters and publishers. And yet I read an article this week, in which Tom Chivers of Penned In The Margins seemed to be suggesting the diametric opposite: “The readership of some magazines is so low that I wonder, what’s the point? Nowadays we can use different media that are more successful in reaching an audience.”

So is the internet the way forward? Are the “little magazines” the dying gasp of an old order – an order in which the gates to poetry success were controlled by middle-aged men in tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows – that is being swept away by a younger, funkier, more diverse generation with a fairer, more democratic way of doing things? Or are print journals going to remain an important route to getting a collection published for emergent poets for some time to come?

One thing is certain, though: if you care about small magazines and want them to remain relevant, you need to support them. Without subscribers, they can’t compete with the internet.