Doing Poetry: No Sweat

My ebook  ‘Made in Birmingham: The Poems’ is a collection of approximately seventy poems. One was called ‘Doing Poetry: No Sweat’

I’m going to be a poet.

It’s an odd thing at my time of life

but a choice that is becoming

more popular, I’ve noticed.

I’ve bought my first garret

and cut down on food.

I now only need access

to a pub full of artists

and a distant woman

to impossibly love

and I’ll be off

doing poetry.

No sweat.

It isn’t autobiographical, just a poem. There is no garret; I don’t eat to excess but that is a health thing not a starving poet thing; and a distant woman to impossibly love is definitely off the agenda (unless you count Agent Lisbon from ‘The Mentalist’, or the very nice female detective from ‘Law and Order Special Victims Unit, or the woman detective from ‘Castle’, or Ziva from ‘NCIS’  …. Do I detect a trend here..??).

A bit of a push

In an earlier posting I talked about planning. Each year I have a set of loosely-sketched intentions. For the near future these include ‘Having a bit of a push on poetry’. This is a broad statement of intent, but I have several elements in mind that might add up to ‘a bit of a push’. I also have a specific image when I talk about ‘poetry’: Not poems that pour out of me, like it or not, but poetry to order, poetry on demand, poetry to a schedule.

Recent attempts at producing poetry to a theme include:

  • Poems written as part of workshops linked to art exhibitions at University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute (and the invitation to read some of the work as part of a public event)
  • Poems written in response to contemporary art works in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s ‘Metropolis’ exhibition
  • Poems written in response to the Royal Academy’s ‘Sensing Spaces’ exhibition

Developing a poetic career

A few months ago I attended an excellent workshop run by the editor/director of Nine Arches Press which is a UK small press that specialises in publishing poetry. The theme of the workshop was to try to understand what might be meant by the ‘career’ of a poet. It was clear that (except for a very small number of people) this rarely meant creating a full-time high-income role from writing poetry.

The figures speak for themselves:

95% of poetry sold recently was written by dead poets. Of the small amount by living poets 90% was via one major publisher and the bulk of that was the work of a few outstanding, award-winning poets. The remainder – a very tiny proportion of the total amount of poetry published for sale – was published via a few small/medium sized publishers, each publication maybe selling only tens of copies. On that basis, if the poet earns royalties of around 10% then they need to move to a garret and cut down on food ….

To reach this point of having a collection published by a small press, selling in fairly small numbers, and bringing in very little reliable income, a poet may follow a ‘career’ – ie a ‘development trajectory’, that could include:

  • Regularly writing poems; regularly reading poems by contemporary established poets
  • Submitting to online poetry magazines (and being accepted)
  • Entering poetry competitions (and being successful)
  • Taking part in events, readings, open-mic sessions
  • Operating a poetry/writing blog of ones own
  • Having sufficient poems that have been tested by public airing, and putting these into a small pamphlet for publication

So, to have ‘A bit of a push on poetry’  means that I will have a concerted attempt at some of these steps – moving the ‘I am a poet’ part of myself across a development arc so that I might feel some sense of progress.

The aim is to find time, space, energy, motivation, inclination, stimulation etc to write 50-70 poems  and to test some of these publicly in open reading events or in online publications. With a bit of extra polishing maybe 15-20 of these might be worked up to a stage where they could be considered ‘good enough’ (by me; by others; by an editor of a small poetry press). This, at a stretch, might just lead to a pamphlet of assorted poetry. That might be as far as it gets. Beyond that we get into the realm of having sufficient ability and confidence, and a robust enough track record, to put together a small collection of poems on a theme.

Poets: Undomesticated, almost feral, things?

Many years ago a friend wrote a dissertation taking the song title ‘An engineer can never have a baby’ as its theme. The song undermined the outdated idea that women have babies, engineers are never women – so an engineer will never have a baby. Recently this retranslated in my head to ‘Can a poet have a family?’

The poet in ‘Doing Poetry: No Sweat’ was a caricature of a single person, living alone, spending nights in bars and writing poetry from within that ambience. If a poet has a home to maintain, relatives to interact with, grandchildren to play with, monthly finances to regularise – in short, if a poet is domesticated – then is there still enough time, space and ambience for poetry?

Having moved house; and then had builders knocking down walls and filling the air with dust and radio music, I looked to local coffee shops as the place to do writing. That worked if I avoided the times when the places got taken over by lunchtime schoolchildren or mid-morning mums or afternoon shoppers. Especially around the buzzing busyness of Christmas finding quiet corners in which to think and write became more and more difficult. This problem itself prompted a poem:

The table I sit at holds firm

The table I sit at holds firm

as people swirl and twirl;

twisting, turning through spaces

in which I’ve quietly settled.

My coffee cools slowly in freeze-frame hold.

Theirs get gulped, drained, in fast-forward blur;

their chitterchatter all gibblegabble.

My silence of monastic proportion

as I seek out just the right word.

Their minds whirring, churning,

as crowds carry them off:

The table I sit at holds firm.

Nevertheless, I am off to be a poet

So I am off, not to find a garret but to find a table firm enough to write at. I have scoured around for opportunities for local readings and events to go in my diary. I have booked into a couple of national things. I have regular blogs that I follow. I have put out of my mind all thoughts of female detectives with dark hair. The commitment to having a bit of a push on poetry, and the motivation to do something about it, is there – we will just have to see how it works out.

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