Wednesday, 27 May 2015

When is poetry good poetry?

This question came to me a couple of times when I was sorting through a stack of entries to a North Devon anthology. As usual, the standard is very variable, with a lot of very accomplished pieces of fiction and memoir. Writing groups in North Devon have a high standard and are happy to critique constructively, most aren't of the 'well, that's lovely dear' variety. (There's a place for them too, I know). Consequently there is a marked difference between the poetry and the prose entries.

Which is what I'm thinking about. Writing fiction and poetry is so cathartic for many people, so satisfying - does it have to be 'good' as well? If the writer likes it and their family and friends like it, is that enough? What standard do we judge to?

Of course, there's another element here, people want to be read, they often want publication. And mainstream publishers are extremely fussy, they can afford to be. For them to hand over hard cash it has to be a) well written b) saleable and c) turn up at the right time. But in pursuing publication, are we overlooking the value of all of that less 'good' writing out there?

I enjoyed working through the anthology fiction pieces and discussing them with my other judges. Generally, we agreed on what should be included and when we didn't, we included as much as we could. But the poetry creates a dilemma. For me it's simple, put the best of the poetry in, but home-grown poetry isn't like literary poetry. Where a short story in a  magazine and short story submitted to the anthology aren't that far apart, the poems are much further from the literary ideal. Perhaps this is because there are lots of outlets for fiction in popular magazines, and few for poems, but I think at its heart the problem is one of reading. Amateur poets don't read the same poetry as published poets, so their idea of a poem is different. Here's some advice on telling the difference. How to tell a 'good' poem from a 'bad' poem

The problem for me is I see lots of poems that by those criteria are pretty good. They lack focus very often, the biggest problem with most of them is they need a lot of editing and development to get to their best. But they have the right stuff in them, they do the job. They evoke a feeling or an event in an interesting way, they connect people. but they aren't good poems by literary standards.  

So what do we do with the not-literary poetry, the poems that don't look or sound like the ones in the poetry magazines and collections? Some of them are just too sentimental, some lack structure or timing or include clichés, but they are still full of emotion and imagery and heart.  Perhaps we should call them something else, spoken songs or poetry of the people, because I think they are an important part of the total scope of creative writing in this country and we need to cherish them. In the meantime, I shall encourage local poets to keep reading, not just the popular poetry but some of the literary stuff as well. Here's a sample of poems to read that will start you off - and entertain you. They run in the poetic veins of our culture, but are they all 'good' poems?

Monday, 4 May 2015

Moving in to a new house

It's taken me eight months to move house, even though we actually moved at the end of August last year. I've been trapped by stuff in boxes, stuff waiting to go into storage, stuff to go in furniture and on shelves. And I couldn't face doing any of it. I just couldn't imagine living here. It feels weird to be here, surrounded by the familiar books and belongings, my special people, yet feeling like we were temporarily waiting for our new house to be available. If I had been plonked down on the pavement surrounded by boxes I wouldn't have felt less at home. It was someone else's house.

This weekend something shifted. Something in me, I suppose, even though it felt like it was driven entirely by Russell. My 'study', the dumping ground from the move, started to shift. 

'I could move your desk if you like.'

That was all it took, really. I had three bookcases in the corner, and I asked him if he could change them around so I could slot my (huge) desk in them somehow. Within two minutes of looking at the bookcases, sucking a pencil and a bit of measuring, he announced that he could, so I called his bluff. 

'Go on, then.'

Anyway, he did. This necessitated me packing up all the books I had moved (but will never read again), reference books that are redundant thanks to the internet, kids' books that can just go into storage waiting for grandchildren and anything I really don't need (800 A4 envelopes that don't stick any more, anyone? Eight almost empty boxes of matches with none of that striky stuff on the sides? Half-eaten feathers that the cats have chewed?).  

Now I have room to write, enough storage and room to teach from home, getting around the problems of finding a space cheap enough to rent. That will keep the cost down to writers. One problem was the large chest of drawers we had in the room, which had everything from maps to candles to batteries, wrapping paper, string, scissors... you can understand why I wasn't sure we could get rid of it. But it's been emptied, relocated to the youngest daughter's room, her room given a makeover, a new bed and it's tidied up. Now all I have to do is tidy my desk, always difficult. The truth is, I write better when my desk is clear (I know, I know, but...) so it's a good thing to do. It's still the hardest bit, even though we must have moved seven or eight hundred books and a lot of furniture this weekend. But I've done my words for the day so I have to tackle it. I'll post a picture to prove I did it!

I did it! Notice I don't show the floor...

Getting more organised... Russ put my pictures up too.