Have you ever set out to obtain something, dear readers, only to wonder afterwards what on earth you were thinking of?  Right from the beginning, life has a sneaky way of turning hard-won prizes into tongue-curling disappointments:  just ask the toddler who’s finally managed to grab that tasty-looking, strawberry-smelling bar of soap while Mum wasn’t looking and stuff it gleefully into his mouth.  I’ve had my own share of these forehead-smacking disillusionary moments, but perhaps the most bittersweet has been the experience of publishing books of poetry.

For every happy soul for whom writing poems is an enjoyable end in itself, there are legions more who write in the grip of the canonical Unpublished Poet’s Dream – to achieve reputable publication of that first slim volume of poems.  Now, you might hope that holding a pristine copy of your own lovely book in your hands might be an adequate fulfillment of that dream – and for another subset of lucky individuals, it probably is.  However, for many more, the first collection is not so much a physical artefact as a massively overloaded psychological symbol – a cipher for some tangled farrago of nebulous underlying wishes, reflecting varying degrees of outrageous over-optimism, which might include a craving for material success, runaway fame or the slavish adoration of one’s poetic peers, the unacknowledged need to be loved, the desire to give all those doubters and naysayers a metaphorical slap in the face, the fantasy of having something to be quietly smug about at future high school reunions, or the heartfelt wish that your slightly desperate google ego-surfing might produce more than just those three links to reader comments at icanhascheezburger.com made in 2008 by your obscure namesake in deepest Iowa.

When you consider the raft of unspoken expectations freighted on the slim support of 64pp and a paperback cover, it’s hardly surprising that publishing a poetry collection can be a disheartening experience;  you’ve achieved the symbol itself, but not all the other things it has come to represent.  (Fame?  Pfft.  Wealth?  You’re joking, right?)  In acquiring the surface manifestation of your dream, you may have irrevocably trampled the other hopes and aspirations hidden in its dark and half-acknowledged depths.

It’s also easy for a newly-published poet to underestimate just how little the average poetry publisher will be able to do in support of that shiny new book.  The publisher will put out a press release, and maybe send some review copies to the usual suspects, but they likely won’t (a) throw a glamourous launch party at some venue currently favoured by the literati, (b) pay for such a launch party should you choose, go-getting soul that you are, to organise it yourself, (c) ensure that your book is prominently advertised on large posters in all London railway stations, (d) get you featured on Oprah, or even GMTV, (e) get any bricks-and-mortar bookshop actually to stock your book, let alone put it on one of those deliciously prominent impulse-buyer display tables at the front of the store, or (f) suddenly come up with a radical new solution to the teensy mercantile problemette that few punters these days are willing to stump up hard cash for individual poetry collections, particularly first collections.

As Don Marquis once said, and distinguished Scottish poet Stewart Conn quoted at his recent SPL book launch, “Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo” (substitute “publishing” for “writing” and you’ll get my petally drift.)  When proto-writers say “I want to publish a book”, there’s almost always an implicit “and have people read it” attached – and yet the former is no guarantee of the latter.  When considering the problem of poetry, the literary world strokes its chin dubiously and then advises aspirant poets to remember that “it’s very difficult to get published”, as if getting published were the only significant hurdle in finding a readership, rather than simply the first of many (most of which have been set in place facing the wrong way, and thus trip you right over, or at least give you a very nasty crack on the shins, when you crash into them).

Of course, there are consolations in attaining the tenuous status of published poethood.  Chief amongst these is the outcome of the following, all-too typical artsy party conversation:

New acquaintance:  “What do you do?”

Poet:  “I’m a poet.”

New acquaintance (warily, with a glint of fear in the eyes):  “Are you published?”

If you answer “Yes”, the conversation probably continues (or at least runs to an “Oh – who by?” if your new acquaintance is a Literary Type),  whereas in pre-publication days, when you answered “No” (or, even worse, “Not yet”), the new acquaintance generally plastered on a nervous smile and began to back away, muttering something about getting another drink.  [Aside: What is it about subjects beginning with P – Poetry, Physics, Philosophy – that generates the assumption that anyone pursuing them is an utter crank until officially verified otherwise?]

There is one other great benefit though, which is that every now and then, on one of those rarest of occasions when the wind is right and the moon is full, a day so out of the ordinary that the Tories might announce a boost to Arts funding and Polly Toynbee might loquaciously applaud them for it, on such an uncommon flower of a day, some magnificent, noble-hearted, unutterably precious (oh for adequate superlatives!) complete stranger will spontaneously get in touch to say (a) that they, alone amongst uncounted millions, have gone so far as to read your book and (b) that they actually liked it. O rapture!  Even JK Rowling could have no sweeter moment than this! (Do I hyperbolise?  I swear not!)

My point, dear readers, is that poets expecting to make a splash (or even just an audible drip) are likely to be thoroughly disheartened by the poetry-publishing experience.  However, with a little bit of luck, a published poet just might get to make a fleeting connection with a real live reader or two.  That, in my experience, is something that makes a generally dis-spiriting enterprise briefly but profoundly worthwhile.  Is it worth it then, overall?  Yes, I think so.  But you might want to ask me again tomorrow, just in case.

Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland. This column is a monthly feature. Kona also facilitates the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries. There will be further batch of surgeries here in the library on Saturday 30 October . You can also hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and  follow her on Twitter.

Happenings 36

July 23, 2010

Julie prepares the library for our Edinburgh Art Festival exhibitions by putting up vinyl lettering and painting. Plan B, featuring the poetry of Paul Muldoon and the photography of Norman McBeath = photoetry and David Bellingham’s Animal Vegetable Material, a book of new texts and drawings by David Bellingham, distributed free of charge as a ‘public artwork’ during the Festival. Both free!

Our Poetry Reader arrives hot from the printers! Packed with: a celebration of Norman MacCaig in this his centenary year; a new ‘Meet Our Friends’ feature; a focus on National poetry Day 2010 and the theme of home; a closer look at our podcasts; first mention of an exciting new anthology of poetry selected by prisoners at Barlinnie and exclusive poem by Liz Lochhead; reading in bed with the delightful Elspeth Murray and MORE! Completely free!

The Forward Prize and the first ever Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Poetry short lists. The winners of the Edwin Morgan International Poetry Competition were also announced – to find out who came where, you’ll have to bag yourself a ticket for the prize-giving ceremony and reading at the Edinburgh International Book Festival; what with this, and 4 of the 6 shortlisted on the Forward Prize Best Collection category appearing as part of their poetry programme selected by Don Paterson and us, we’re starting to feel the festival fever…

Wind: Variable. 4 or 5. In southwest, northerly or northwesterly 4 or 5, occasionally 6
Sea State:  Slight or moderate.
Weather: Changeable.
Visibility: Monday – Wednesday: poor. Thursday & Friday: Good.

We urge you to spread the word about the plight of the late Charles Causley’s house: Custodian of the late poet’s house, The Charles Causley Trust has worked since 2004 to try to conserve for future generations the intact home and contents. Over £50, 000 has been raised, but £150,000 is required. For more information, and to find out how your wealthy philanthropist acquaintances can help…

We enjoyed M & S ginger biscuits.

We started to get excited about our Autumn/Winter programme, especially the collaborative ventures we’re lining up for your viewing pleasure…

…we wrote copy for the afore-mentioned.

Tomorrow feel free to join us for a reading from the ladies of Grey Hen Press. Between 2 – 3.30pm, A C Clarke, Joy Howard, Rosemary McLeish, Gina Shaw and Margaret Wood will read poems from Cracking On: Poems on ageing by older women. All folk of all ages most welcome… Afterwards, we’ll be mingling at Scotland’s newest writing social club, as the Forge of the Wordsmiths garden party hits the Scottish Book Trust.

Listened to our current podcast, featuring the multi-talented Kevin MacNeil?

Heard about our new opening hours, taking effect as of September?

See you next week? Wishing all a fabulous weekend!

I saw an article about potential Christmas best-sellers over the weekend (hard to think of this in July: no one in my family is allowed to mention the December word until 1 November at the earliest). One poet was a contender, of course, because a new collection from Seamus Heaney is always an event. Among the autobiographies they didn’t mention Mark Twain’s, although the first volume of his unexpurgated story is appearing this winter, and sounds as entertaining as anything produced this century.  “I believe that the trade of critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and that it has no real value,” Twain writes. “However, let it go,” he adds. “It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and Congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden.”

Incidentally, when he was invited to an official White House dinner during Grover Cleveland’s presidency, he went, but was warned by his wife not to wear his winter galoshes. At the White House, he asked the first lady, Frances Cleveland, to sign a card on which was written “He didn’t.”

I wonder what he talked to Cleveland about – I know that they were deeply opposed on one issue at least: Cleveland said: ‘  Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote’, while Mark Twain said (in 1901): ‘I should like to see the time come when women shall help to make the laws. I should like to see that whiplash, the ballot, in the hands of women.’ Rather more pithily put than William McGonagall managed: his heart was in the right place but his pen…

But the time is not far distant, I most earnestly trust,
When women will have a parliamentary vote,
And many of them, I hope, will wear a better petticoat.

And I hope that God will aid them in this enterprise,
And enable them to obtain the parliamentary Franchise;
And rally together, and make a bold stand,
And demand the parliamentary Franchise throughout Scotland.

~ Robyn

Yesterday the Forward Prize and the first ever Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Poetry short lists were announced:

Forward Best Collection (10,000):

Seamus HeaneyHuman Chain (Faber)

Lachlan MackinnonSmall Hours (Faber)

Sinead MorrisseyThrough the Square Window (Carcanet)

Robin RobertsonThe Wrecking Light (Picador)

Fiona SampsonRough Music (Carcanet)

Jo ShapcottOf Mutability (Faber)

Best first collection (£5,000):

Christian CampbellRunning the Dusk (Peepal Tree Press)

Hilary MenosBerg (Poetry Wales Press)

Abegail MorleyHow to Pour Madness into a Teacup (Cinnamon Press)

Helen OswaldLearning Gravity (tall lighthouse)

Steve SpenceA Curious Shipwreck (Shearsman)

Sam WillettsNew Light for the Old Dark (Jonathan Cape)

The best single poem award (£1,000):

Kate Bingham – ‘On Highgate Hill’

Julia Copus – ‘An Easy Passage’

Lydia Fulleylove – ‘Night Drive’

Chris Jones – ‘Sentences’

Ian Pindar – ‘Mrs Beltinska in the Bath’

Lee Sands – ‘The Reach’

The winners will be announced on Wednesday 6 October – the day before National Poetry day – in London

Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Poetry (£1,000)

Anne BerkeleyThe Men from Praga (Salt)

Sian HughesThe Missing (Salt)

Lorraine MarinerFurniture (Picador)

Tom MathewsThe Owl and the Pussycat (Dedalus)

Andrew PhilipThe Ambulance Box (Salt)

The winners will be announced during the British and Irish Contemporary Poetry Conference being held in Belfast on 15 – 17 September

Lisa’s been reading Cold Comfort Farm, and we had a little chortle about this exchange between Elfine and Flora:

Elfine progressed. Her charming nature and Flora’s wise advice met and mingled naturally. Only over poetry was there a little struggle. Flora warned Elfine that she must write no more poetry if she wanted to marry into the county.
‘I thought poetry was enough,’ said Elfine, wistfully. ‘I mean, I thought poetry was so beautiful that if you met someone you loved, and you told them you wrote poetry, that would be enough to make them love you, too.’
‘On the contrary,’ said Flora, firmly, ‘most young men are alarmed on hearing that a young woman writes poetry. Combined with an ill-groomed head of hair and an eccentric style of dress, such an admission is almost fatal.’
‘I shall write it secretly, and publish it when I am fifty,’ said Elfine, rebelliously.
Flora coldly raised her eyebrows, and decided that she would return to the attack when Elfine had had her hair cut and seen her beautiful new dress…

– page 137, Penguin, first published 1932

Edwin Morgan wrote in his poem ‘At Eighty‘ ‘Unknown is best’. And so it may be for the winners of this year’s Edwin Morgan International Poetry Competition 2010; though their names have been published – in alphabetical order – details of placing won’t be revealed until the now annual prize-giving event and reading at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, this year on Wednesday 18 August at 7pm.

In with a chance of bagging first prize of £5000 and lesser prizes of £1000, £500 and £50 (x 2), the winners are:

Fiona Benson is an Anglo-Scottish writer who currently lives in Exeter with her husband James. Some of her work was anthologised in Addicted to Brightness and her pamphlet is Faber New Poets 1. You can read Fiona’s poem ‘Unaccompanied’ on our Best Scottish Poems 2007, chosen by Alan Spence.

Marianne Burton was awarded a year’s mentorship by the poetry magazine Smiths Knoll and the resulting pamphlet, The Devil’s Cut, was a Poetry Book Society Choice. She has been widely published in the UK, US and South Africa, and earlier this year won second prize in the TLS poetry competition. Her first full collection is forthcoming from Seren.

Abigail Curtis teaches at York St John University. Her poetry collection Unexpected Weather won Salt Publishing’s Crashaw Prize and was published in 2009.

Susan Grindley has had poems published in many online and printed magazines including Limelight, Nth Position, Magma and Rising and also in the anthology Gobby Deegan’s Riposte (Donut Press), for which she wrote the title poem. She is a landscape architect and lives with her husband in Hackney, London.

A.B. Jackson was born in Glasgow, raised in Cheshire and Fife, and studied English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. His first book, Fire Stations, was published by Anvil Press in 2003, and won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection that year. Donut Press will publish a limited edition pamphlet, Apocrypha, in October 2010.  He works for the NHS in Glasgow.

Richard Lambert was born in London. He has a poetry pamphlet, The Magnolia published by The Rialto, and this year won first prize in the Yorkshire Poetry Competition and in the Kent & Sussex Poetry Competition, and was runner-up in the Wigtown Poetry Competition. He is currently doing the MA in Creative Writing in Fiction at UEA.

Nick MacKinnon is a teacher of Maths and English at Winchester College. He spent his teenage years in Ardrishaig on the long finger of land that points at Ireland which is made into an island by the Crinan canal. He was runner up in the 2009 Bridport Prize and a major prizewinner in the 2007 and 2008 McLellan Festivals and the 2009 Plough, Hippocrates and tall-lighthouse competitions.

The competition is organised by Vital Synz and sponsored by the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the University of Strathclyde.

OK, so a few months ago we were dreaming of how lovely it would be if a mobile library van could visit the centre of Edinburgh, somewhere near the designated Poetry Garden in St Andrew Square. Fortunately there are people in Edinburgh who like a little bit of a quixotic adventure of a wet and windy Friday morning.

9.30:  arrive at potting shed entrance to Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh with Fay Young, stick our heads into various intriguing rooms, find kindly contact who is helping to loan us four big pots of fragrant herbs ready to load into boot of Fay’s car.

10.00: sit on a bollard in Castle Street, surrounded by pots of herbs and bags of poems, feeling mildly in wrong century.

10.12: explain non-competitive status to deeply unflappable men on flower stall, buy sunflowers, get good deal on generous bunch of sunflowers, wonder briefly what to do with armful of sunflowers at end of day

10.15: spot brand new mobile library van from Edinburgh City Libraries nosing slowly down pedestrian area, driven by Michael Lafferty and Jane Douglas from the Access Services team

10.17: scramble on board to poke around and squeal at well-appointed nature of new library van design, and particularly stock – stuffed with nice new Scottish fiction and poetry, audio books, children’s books

10.19: snort with approval at poems already looked out for the day by the Access Services team: a fine sense of humour (Ian’s, I think) has located four or five poems about rain, and the second stanza of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Poem in October’ which is stop-in-your-tracks lovely and apposite. And also about rain.  Add to own pile of recommendable poems (short, long, rhyming, free verse, funny, serious as required) from Poetry Foundation and the SPL shelves about the pleasures of summer, sea, city, food, love, insight, coffee, various ball sports, reading and, indeed, rain.

10.20: help create instant Poetry Garden with Astroturf, herbs and sunflowers, deckchairs and one incredibly determined bee. Second kindly man from flower stall comes to rescue with scissors and advice.

10.30 – 3pm:  tuck poem postcards into shelf ends, books, seats, leaflet holders; help Michael and Jane and their boss Ian field queries, chat to borrowers, recommend and issue books; offer to find people a poem they’ll enjoy; slide poems into books and pockets;  catch plant pots repeatedly and sit on Astroturf to stop it blowing away; try to ply Michael and Jane with hot coffee (it’s a nice warm van but they feel it is not cricket to huddle inside because they want to encourage passersby to pop in); beg for their most lurid tales of mobile library adventures and freak weather conditions; fail to catch plant pot during spectacular gust, mourn breakage; agree with several visitors including Chris Scott that bliss would be one’s own mobile library van, complete with regularly renewed book stock; further agree with additional visitors that a more manageable bliss would also be a monthly mobile library visit to the city centre, allowing one to plan book borrowing and renewal;  wonder if they would let me have a shot driving the van slowly up and down; reject thought fast.

3.05: help tidy everything back into pumpkin. Or possibly Tardis. There are parallels.

*aka Lilias