Now that a few people are actually reading this blog, I wanted to take the opportunity to plug my sister Susan’s poetry. She has more experience and talent than me and she has a book out, The Best Disguise, which won the Richard Wilbur award in 2009. In the words of a blurb on the back cover, “Such pleasurable verse, with its heartfelt and timeless themes, is both rare and indispensable”. If you’re interested in writing poetry, especially formalist poetry, you could learn a lot from her. I know I have.
It seems almost too obvious to mention, but having an award-winning poet as a sister has been extremely helpful. She patiently read my first efforts and offered sisterly support as well as constructive professional criticism. And she also taught me by example that poetry can be at the same time simple and profound.
You can order Susan’s book on the US Amazon site, or send a check for $15 to Susan McLean, English Dept, Southwest Minnesota State University, Marshall MN, 56258. If you’re feeling mischievous you can write to her introducing yourself as a fan of her little sister.
This past weekend was the anniversary of both my wedding (many years ago) and my starting to write poetry (last year). I had written a lot of poetry in my childhood and teens but gave it up entirely when I hit 20 or so. Although I enjoyed reading the classics, I didn’t see much contemporary poetry that I liked or wanted to emulate, and it was obviously never going to be easy or profitable to publish. Plus I won a short story prize at university, which made me think I had a novel in me.
I don’t. I spent years working on story after story before giving them up as terrible. It’s not lack of self-confidence — I know I can write dialog, develop character, and describe the dickens out of people places and things — I just can’t plot. And it turns out this is an important skill in a novelist. Apart from anything else, if you want to sell a book to an editor, you send them a synopsis.
Poetry, on the other hand, is a short self-contained snippet. You don’t need to pitch a poem: an editor just reads it and either likes or dislikes it on its merits. And this weekend, an editor liked 2 more of my poems! ‘Life in Sparta’ and ‘The Chronophage’ will appear in the Winter 2012 edition of the online journal Mezzo Cammin. Hurrah!
I was shortlisted in a major contest for humour verse! Out of >2600 people I made the cut of 30 finalists, though I missed out on the prize money. You can read my entry and those of the other finalists and winners here: http://winningwriters.com/contests/wergle/2012/we12_pastwinners.php
The Wergle Flomp contest was set up to expose and ridicule vanity poetry competitions — ones where the entry may be free but everyone is a winner and expected to pay for their copy of the expensive contest anthology. That’s how they make their money, through crass exploitation of the literary hopes of the untalented.
When I was about 13 I entered one of these vanity poetry competitions, lured in by an ad in the Washington Post. The poem itself is lost, and I’d like to pretend I don’t remember what it was about, but I do. It was a free verse cri de coeur about my teenage unpopularity and the pain of cutting one’s legs shaving. No, really. So you can imagine my surprised delight when I got a letter informing me that my poem Othergirls had been chosen for selection in a book. But then I read the sum required to buy my own copy and guarantee inclusion in the anthology. I like to think that even if I had had the means to pay, I would have been too savvy to fall for it.
In the early years, in order to enter WF you had to attach a letter from a vanity press accepting your poem, and the aim was to make the poem as ridiculously awful as possible (sometimes pure gibberish). Read back through some of those winners from the early years, they are a giggle.
Nowadays it has morphed into a more straightforward contest of humour verse, and I am absolutely delighted to have made the shortlist. Entry for the 2013 competition is now open!
Yesterday British Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy published a poem on the front page of the Guardian newspaper: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/10/carol-ann-duffy-olympics-london
This is not her best work in literary terms, but it provoked an enormous outpouring of affection on the Twittersphere. It also provoked some very funny parodies: http://storify.com/helenlewis/ (My favourites are: ‘Chris Hoy cycling very fast / With big Olympian thighs / He would never cycle into / Iraq based on a dossier of lies’ and ‘Jessica Ennis is very pretty / something something, Occupy the City’.)
I think Duffy is doing exactly what she is there for: writing poems the public can relate to and enjoy. She’s expressing the feelings of national pride in athletes who have had a hard time in recent decades. Team GB won more gold medals in this Olympics than in 72, 76, 80, 84, 88, 92 and 96 combined. The British public are very happy about that; and they also like poetry. That seems to be forgotten in an age where publishers almost never give them poetry that is speaking to them.
In a way, reading modern poetry has never been easier. Public libraries may be on the slide in the UK, but there are lots of free online poetry journals and other web resources. There’s also a lot of dross out there. FWIW, here is the list of my current favourite places to read poetry on the net:
1. www.poetryarchive.org has a sampling from nearly every well-known British poet of the 21st and late 20th centuries. Most poems have recordings of the poet reading the work, which adds another dimension. It’s a good way to decide whether you like a poet before committing yourself to their book (but some good recent poets aren’t yet inducted into this hallowed club).
2. www.poetryfoundation.org is the home of Poetry magazine and a good resource for reading the better-known modern poets, especially Americans, though I find the site a pain to navigate.
3. www.lightenup-online.co.uk is the only online journal I know of devoted to humour verse. There’s a new issue each quarter, and it’s always worth a read. I’ve published there, so you know the editor has taste.
4. www.umbrellajournal.com/tiltawhirl is devoted to poetry in repeating forms (ballads, villanelles, etc). It’s a great place to learn more about these addictive types of poem and see how they are being used today.
5. http://homepages.primex.co.uk/~simmers is the home of Snakeskin, an interesting roughly-monthly mix of free verse and form, serious and funny.
6. www.mezzocammin.com is a journal of formalist poetry by women.
7. www.newversenews.com publishes politically-progressive poetry.
8. www.lucidrhythms.com is also worth a look, though the web formatting can be trying.
What are your favourite places for reading poetry online? Introduce me to more!