What makes a poem original?  In my previous column, I referred to originality as something more than mere novelty – “perhaps some combination of exactness, particularity, intelligence and beauty”, “something ineffable” – which admittedly dodged around the tricky business of actually defining it.  These approximations are still my best working description of originality, but the fact that I can’t pin it down doesn’t prevent me from indulging in that fine artistic tradition of speculating about where it comes from.

Speaking as a writer, the poems that feel the most satisfyingly original, the most unmistakeably themselves, are the ones that are at least partly “given” – or, as I’ve described it elsewhere, poems whose writing provokes “the delicious sense that you’re not making something new so much as uncovering something that has always existed, word by tantalizing word.” Many poets have spoken of the subjectively remarkable, yet apparently commonplace, experience of having a poem seem to write itself; here, for example, is Michael Longley in a recent interview:

“[A poem is] a rare event […] It has a feeling of inevitability, as though the poem has always existed, and was just waiting to be discovered.”

A poem doesn’t write itself, of course, even if it sometimes feels that way – so where is this spine-tingling sense of otherness coming from?  The ancient world had its Muses, and religious people might still incline towards the notion of divine inspiration, but what’s a secular modern writer to conclude?

When I puzzle on the deep roots of originality, the thing that immediately comes to mind is sleep – something of a pet subject at the best of times, I admit! – and more particularly, the dreamlife that accompanies sleep.

Consulting the scientific literature, one could be forgiven for concluding that sleep is as inscrutable as originality:  its exact purpose in human and non-human biology is far from clearly understood.  (For example, in people, it may have some role in filtering the day’s experiences in order to lay down useful memories, and animal studies have suggested that it may replenish  neural processes – but there are plenty of competing theories).  Scientific studies tend to emphasise short-term, biology-driven benefits of sleep, but the writer in me can’t help but suspect that there’s some deeper, longer-term organisation or intelligence at work in dreaming.

Sometimes my dreams seem shamelessly symbolic – the careening car-with-very-spongy-brakes that I’m desperately trying to slow down, or the collection of baggage that I’m going to have to leave behind if I’m not to miss my imminently-departing flight.  At other times my dreams are intensely filmic, telling convoluted but essentially linear adventure stories.  Most interestingly, there’s a recurring dream which I’ve had for many years, but whose denouement continues to change subtly over time as I myself change, grow older, sort a few things out – a metaphorical mirror, almost.

The cumulative experience of all this dreamlife creates the sense of some coherent other, deep in my own mind, which has a penchant for symbolism, a vivid narrative imagination and (sometimes) a thing or two it wants to tell me.  It’s subjectively tempting – and yes, of course, rationally unjustifiable – to infer that it’s the same coherent other that feeds me both these ever-surprising dreams and these occasional “given” poems, constructions that are nominally offshoots of my own mind, and yet somehow feel like they’re from somewhere else.

What are the implications if the dream-self and the deeper writing-self are indeed two faces of the one entity, the true locus of our originality?   I find it encouraging –  not least because I’ve never suffered from Dreamer’s Block!  Dreamlife is abundant, so perhaps the rarity of Longley’s “rare event” is not because that deep creative voice doesn’t have things to say, but because we get too caught up in the noise of our busy conscious minds to hear it.  When we reach an artistic impasse, and all our work seems stale and unoriginal, perhaps it really is a sensible idea to “sleep on it”?

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 – keep an eye on our events page for further information on the next surgeries. You can also hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and  follow her on Twitter.

“Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

I was reminded of this pithy slapdown (attributed, apparently unprovably, to Samuel Johnson), when I encountered the following remark from Paul Sutton in a recent review in Stride:

“Frankly, it seems bizarre that such an established figure should lack originality; but then maybe it isn’t so unusual. With the proliferation of courses on the ‘craft’ of writing, simple originality – in terms of saying something new or different – is regarded as almost irrelevant. In fact, the very idea is often sneered at; certainly its absence seems no impediment.”

Speaking personally, I’ve never met any creative writer who sneered at originality, or dismissed its centrality as a creative aspiration, so I feel there might be a straw man dancing about here.  More critically though, to constrain originality as novelty – the merely “new or different” – seems to me to diminish it.  The danger of pursuing novelty is that you can end up reducing your art to gimmickry, where the froth of “this hasn’t been done before!” starts to override the more measured “is this worth doing?”  A novelty-based creative arms war can result in escalating attempts at outlandishness or shock value that themselves become a meta-cliché;  I sometimes wonder if, by establishing the idea that anything can be art, postmodernism has eaten the tastiest bits of the conceptual artist’s lunch before it got to the table…

Even if we aspire to “simple originality”, the one-offness of our work, we can never guarantee it.  It’s a rare poet, for example, who hasn’t had the experience of finding one of his or her own most prized images, metaphors or phrases employed similarly in an older, previously undiscovered poem by somebody else.  Saying “This poem is wholly novel” is like stating “No crows are white”;  no matter how many black crows you see, you haven’t proved your contention – and it only takes one white one, however freakishly rare, to knock it over entirely.

In being dubious about novelty, I’m not in any way defending the derivative, the unambitious or the mediocre;  I’m not wholly unsympathetic to the “sausage factory” criticisms sometimes made of creative writing MAs/MFAs and the publication-by-prize culture so prevalent in the US.  I value originality tremendously;  I simply don’t believe that it’s “simple”, or reducible to “saying something new and different”.

So what is originality, then?  At this point, I’ll give the cop-out answer that I generally offer to clothing shop assistants when they ask me what I’m looking for:  “I’m not sure, but I’ll hopefully know it when I see it.”  Some poems, even on the most timeworn themes (love, death, ageing…), achieve a quality – perhaps some combination of exactness, slant, particularity, intelligence and beauty? – that feels both deeply original and very hard to quantify or explain.

As an artist, I want to understand this mysterious quality;  I’d love to have a shortcut, a rule-of-thumb, a gimmick that would let me achieve it reliably. Isn’t it the very essence of originality, though, that that no rulebook or mechanistic process can generate it, and no shallow checklist can reliably detect it?  Acknowledging that we can’t teach originality is by no means the same thing as deeming it irrelevant or sneer-worthy;  if anything, it’s entirely the opposite, a reticence born of deep respect for something ineffable – that weft of emergent magic threading the warp of our conscious creative will.

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 – keep an eye on our events page for further information on the next surgeries. You can also hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and  follow her on Twitter.

Writers and would-be writers are always being advised to “do a blog” for PR purposes, as though this were some mechanistic process akin to a self-assessment tax return or a used-car listing in the local classifieds.

Despite being something of an IT geek, with an acknowledged tendency to engender new websites on the most tenuous of justifications, I’ve spend years signally failing to “do a blog.” (I’ve had a “Poem Of The Week” section on one of my sites for several years, which is built using blog software, but presumably this doesn’t count because it consists of – you guessed it – poems, rather than “blog”.)  I didn’t blog because I didn’t feel like I had anything in particular that I needed to blog about, and the Internet already contains a massive superfluity of dutiful and pointless daily vacuity.

However, I have a really rather clichéd tendency to dream up new projects over the Christmas holiday break, and this year was no exception.  I’ve always had a vague intention (ok, ok, “pathetic recurring fantasy”) of writing a reflective, subjective non-fiction book that waltzes along the tops of all my favourite soapboxes, and to this end I’ve been keeping a file of notes, links and ramblings that might be relevant.  Looking through this file in December, it dawned on me that the tantalisingly vaporous book might work just as well as a blog.  Shortly after Christmas, ‘that elusive clarity’ was born, and I became another tiny cog in the rolling juggernaut that is the blogosphere.

I’ll be honest:  as a poet, it’s pretty scary to commit to writing and publishing prose on a daily basis.  All kinds of anxieties swim up:  “Will I use up all my creativity on the blog, and have none left for poems?”  “Will people like my prose more than my poetry?”  “Am I doing this because I secretly want to run away from poems and ghostwrite salacious and lucrative celebrity memoirs instead?”  I’m finding out the answers to these questions as I go along.

So far, I seem to have enough creative oomph to go around, but this doesn’t surprise me:  if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past three years of weekly poem-posting, it’s that creativity is an abundant thing.  It’s been interesting to find that certain preoccupations tend to feature in both spheres simultaneously;  for example, when I first started the blog, I had a couple of posts about failure and a poem called How to fail in the same week. (Not much psychoanalysis required to understand that particular coincidence, methinks.)

As far as readership goes, prose-blogging has been a little bittersweet.  Poets will publicly acknowledge that contemporary poetry has a relatively “select” audience, but privately we like to fantasize that everyone secretly adores it, and that the world is always rushing off to read poems on the quiet behind the bike sheds.  Having both a poetry and a prose blog dispels this wishful imagining rather effectively;  based on my current brief experience, it seems to be an order of magnitude easier to get people to read prose blog posts than it is to get them to read poems.  (This could be because I’m a genius prose writer and/or a truly dire poet, I suppose, but somehow I don’t think the relative attention levels are much to do with the intrinsic quality of either blog).  Perversely, I think this supports the idea of providing prose commentaries as a way of helping new readers begin to explore poetry, but that’s a different soapbox…

Regarding the temptations of jumping ship and abandoning poetry for prose – well, I don’t think that was ever a very realistic fear.  I enjoy writing prose, and I think I’m benefiting in all kinds of ways from the discipline of daily blog posting, but the pleasure of writing poetry is quite different:  more concentrated, less dominated by conscious reasoning, more revelatory, less evanescent.  I don’t think I’d bother writing a blog if nobody read it (I could just keep a diary instead) – but I’d continue to write readerless poems “into the void”, because the act of reaching for them is so deliciously tantalising, the act of uncovering them so profoundly clarifying, the act of refining them so intrinsically satisfying.  Whatever the rewards of blogging, I don’t think they’ll ever quite match up to that.

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 – keep an eye on our events page for further information on the next surgeries. You can also hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and  follow her on Twitter.

Here’s a puzzle for you.  Which of these four items is the odd one out?

  • A ham sandwich
  • A rainbow
  • A goldfish
  • A racing bike

Take a minute or two to think carefully…

Now, examine your own thought processes.  Did you flail around, trying to find some axis of comparison on which one item was obviously different from the others?  Was it easy to compare these four heterogeneous entities?

The truth is that if there is an odd one out, I have no idea which it is. Arguments can be contrived for each item (for example: unlike the others, a rainbow can’t be held in your hands;  or, unlike the others, a goldfish is alive).  However, none of these are obviously the “right” answer to the problem, and it’s only our preconceptions – the way the question was posed – that lead us to expect that there is a correct answer.

This sneaky brain-teaser is a tangential introduction to the fact that in November, I was honoured to be invited to judge two poetry competitions. In one of them, for a writers’ group, I was the only judge, and in the other (the Genomics Forum competition), I was one of a panel of four judges.  This was a new experience for me, and I must admit that the process involved a certain amount of confusion – confusion not unlike that induced by our little puzzle above.

In many ways, the notion of artistic competitions is absurd;  how can you award prizes in a sphere that lacks an objective and deterministic notion of “the best” performance?  In a running race, the winner is obvious – the first over the line – but there’s no finishing tape in a contest between poems, paintings or musical performances.

Of course, just because an art award or a poetry competition can’t recognise  the best work doesn’t mean that it can’t recognise work that is good.  The judges’ dilemma lies in the framing of the problem:  the whole notion of First, Second and Third prizes and Honourable Mentions presupposes an objective and precise ranking scheme, and tends to make you flounder around looking for one.  In my case, this struggle involved confronting a couple of significant myths about poetry competition judging.

The First Myth – The best poems win the prizes

Judging is simple – just choose the best poems.  How do you do that?  Well, begin by defining what you mean by best.  How do you do that?  Ah, conundrum.  Comparing two poems can be like comparing a racing bike with a rainbow; how do you weigh two things against each other when everything from their intended purpose to their aesthetic style is radically different?

It’s hard to sustain any notion of “best poem” for very long, particularly if you’re aware of your own subjective tastes and biases, and are thus confusing yourself even more by trying to overrule your innate gut reactions and give everything a “fair chance”.

This myth rapidly gives way in favour of the next one:

The Second Myth – The poems the judge(s) liked the best win the prizes

Judging is simple – just choose the poems you like the best.  This might seem like a complete no-brainer when you’re the only judge, but even then there are some confounding factors (which are even worse in panel-judged competitions):

  • Liking is variable:  Our responses to a poem can be affected by all kinds of serendipitous things, including our mood, the context in which we’re reading it, and what we’ve read just beforehand.  I spread my judging out over several days, with multiple passes through the submitted poems, and I certainly found that my responses to particular poems could be different on different days.
  • The judges’ report: Ideally, judges can filter out the pressure of needing to justify their decisions in a judges’ report until well after those decisions have been made.  Realistically, a low-level background anxiety about the forthcoming report can subtly bias you towards poems that you feel clear-cut and articulate about, even though you might like some others just as much in a more fuzzy, gut-instinct, hard-to-justify way.
  • Finding a balance of poems: The wish to be fair and even-handed can easily become a perceived requirement for a “balanced” selection of prizewinners (representing, for example, both free and formal verse, the lyrical and the narrative, the experimental and the mainstream, the serious and the lighthearted, etc.)  If your four favourite poems are all sonnets – and especially if you yourself are a known sonnet aficionado – then the need to be “fair and objective” may lead you to discard some of these favourites in favour of other poems in a different style.

The Reality

Once the actual experience of judging knocked down these two myths, a pragmatic truth seemed to emerge: the winning poems are the ones the judges could agree on.  (In the case of a sole judge, in my experience there’s still some kind of negotiated coming-to-a-consensus process – it’s just that it happens internally.)

I don’t imagine that many judging panels find complete consistency between individual judges when they come together for their final deliberations.  In the process of reaching consensus, it’s therefore quite possible that the favourite poem(s) of most of the judges don’t win, and equally possible that the winning poem was not the absolute first choice of anybody.  Judges with natural persuasive talent may have a bigger impact on the final consensus than those who are more reticent – and it’s not clear how this could reasonably be avoided.

In summary, then, the judging of poetry competitions is both subjective and subject to a range of external pressures, and is further complicated by the social dynamics of a judging panel.  What does this mean for poets entering competitions rather than judging them?  Just this – always remember that poetry competitions aren’t scientific instruments for measuring poetic merit.  Whether you win, place or go wholly un-awarded, don’t take the outcome too personally, and keep on striving to enjoy and improve your writing – because the ability to write a good poem is a more enduring satisfaction than any fleeting contest success.

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 – keep an eye on our events page for further information on the next surgeries. She’s also facilitating a day long workshop here at the library on Monday 21 February: Stand Up and Relax: How to give a great poetry reading, and enjoy it too. You can also hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and  follow her on Twitter.

It’s National Poetry Day!  In the spirit of bringing poetry to the people, here’s a grab-bag of playful suggestions for putting some poetry back into daily life.

Out and about

* Window dressing: If you leave your car on the street or in a car-park all day, print out a poem in a good-sized font and stick it up in the rear passenger window.

* Lid lit: If you use a laptop on the train, stick a poem on the back of the lid so the person opposite you has something to look at too.

* While-you-wait: Donate a poetry book to your doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room.

* Word-up the library: Request that your local library buys a new poetry collection or anthology for the circulation shelves.

* Ear-bend a friend: If you’re going to a poetry reading, think of some friends who’ve never been to one and invite them along.

At work

* Tiptoe tantalizer: Print out small poems on pieces of paper, and trim away the unprinted margins.  Then spend a week or two sticking poems in unpredictable places (stationery cupboard / tea-room milk carton / washroom mirror etc) while nobody is looking.

* Front of house: If you work somewhere with a reception/waiting area, add a poetry magazine or two to the piles of OK, Top Gear, Country Life and industry newsletters.

* Nosy nibbles: Put a poetry screensaver on your workplace computer, or (even simpler) leave your web browser displaying a poem when you leave your desk.

* Evolve-a-poem: Print out a short poem in large text, with words well spaced, and stick it up in a public place.  Leave some Post-It notes and a fat marker pen, and encourage people to replace a word in the poem as they pass (by covering it with a Post-It bearing a new word).  Take a photo at regular intervals, and make a photo gallery showing how the poem evolves over time.  Starting with a rhyming poem adds to the fun!

* Limerick laughs: Seek a few willing co-workers, then write the first line of a limerick about each of them. (Tip: include yourself as a subject!).  Then run a competition for the best completed limerick, with a box for anonymous submissions.  At the end of the competition period, have a morning tea judging session, where the submissions (unless too obscene!) are read out, preferably by their subjects.  Vote on the winner – or simply choose the one that gets the biggest laugh.  Afterwards, have a guessing game to find out who wrote it – if they’ll admit to it!

At home

* MPs please: Send a letter or email to your local MPs asking them what their favourite poem is.  Suggest they mention this on their blog/website.

* Better than Kellogg’s: Stick a poem to the back of the morning cereal box, for something to read during breakfast. (Better than reading the cereal propaganda for the three hundredth time!)

* Poem-as-grace: If you have a sit-down meal with your family, read out an appropriate short poem before you start to eat.

* Bedtime story booster: If you’re still at the reading-a-bedtime-story phase of parenting, add on a poem afterwards. This is the one time when your kids’ love of procrastination works in your favour!

* Pillow talk: Read a poem to your partner in bed. If he or she’s the unromantic type, make it a funny one.

* Round-up round-off: If you send out annual Christmas cards and/or newsletters to friends and relatives, enclose a favourite poem and a brief comment about why you like it.

* Book groupie: If you’re in a fiction book group, bring along a few poems to read aloud after you’ve all finished discussing this month’s novel.  (A friend did this, and says the poetry segment of the evening is now the most popular part!)

At school

There are loads of suggested poetry exercises for schools available online, so here’s just one fun Primary-level suggestion:

* Rhyme bingo: Prepare bingo-style cards where each square contains a one-syllable word (“bat”, “run”, “pig”, “ball” etc);  each card should be different.  Distribute a card to each player, then read out a list of one-syllable words.  The players can mark off a square when its word rhymes with the announcer’s word (“cat”/”bat”, “fun”/”run” etc).  First to check off their whole card shouts “Rhymo!”.

Whatever you do, we hope a little bit of poetry finds its way into your day today – and don’t forget about the weeks and months to come!  If you try any of the above suggestions, please tell us all about it in the comments below. Also, we’d love to hear about your own favourite guerrilla poetry ideas – poem flashmob, anyone?

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 is another set of Poetry Surgeries on Saturday 4 December. You can also hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and  follow her on Twitter.

Kona’s column 11: The M Word

September 13, 2010

Once, in a distant and touchingly naive life, I invited a double glazing salesman over the threshold and into the house.  (While that prospect might seem titillating to those of you who’ve explored the cul-de-sac of paranormal romantic fiction, let me assure you that I remained non-exsanguinated, both biologically and financially, and only one of the participants was the least bit dirty.  Hint – it wasn’t me.)

The requirement was simple:  a single new sealed unit to replace an old one that was leaking and misted-over.  Predictably enough, Mr Hard Sell’s objective was to come away with a contract for the complete replacement of every double-glazed window in the house.  He was masterful, using manipulative sales tricks ranging from the “Yes Set” (a series of no-brainer questions to which the only possible answer could be “Yes”) to the “Spurious Personal Connection” (in the midst of his collection of sample window-installation photos, a snapshot of a cute toddler, ostensibly his).  The fact that his quoted price dropped by 50% during the course of his pitch, after a couple of (presumably faked) “special negotiation” calls to “my boss”, highlighted the lucrative margins on offer to the successful sales fast-talker.

It’s unfortunate that Mr Hard Sell and his unscrupulous ilk are the straw men that appear, small but oh-so-perfectly formed, in the average poetical head at the merest whisper of the word “marketing”.   I can’t imagine any really committed artist wanting their work disseminated through hard-sell methods, not least because the salesperson generally doesn’t care about the product, but only for the profits that can be fast-talked by shifting it to gullible buyers who won’t really appreciate it either.  (That said, I’d love to set our Double Glazing Salesman loose on a door-to-door cold-calling spree with a fat briefcase of contemporary poetry books, just to see how he got on:  come on Channel 4, there’s a reality show for you.) To characterise all marketing as hard-sell sales, the gulling of dupes into buying second-rate products they neither need nor want, is about as silly as throwing away a houseful of perfectly good windows – and it’s only one of the misconceptions that blights the name of marketing and thereby gets in the way of poets and poetry reaching new audiences.

Any business-savvy person will quickly point out that sales and marketing aren’t actually the same thing – so the hard sell problem is a red and particularly stinky herring when we’re discussing poetry marketing.  However, there’s a second misconceived objection, which has a parallel in the software industry that’s been beautifully satirised by geek hero Dilbert:  namely, the techies’ gripe that the Marketing Department consists of a bunch of shiny suits who swan in and override all the elegant designs, technical considerations and funky innovations proposed by the Engineering Department because “the market doesn’t want that”.

I’d argue that this view of marketing – that it consists of establishing the requirements of the market’s lowest common denominator, however stupid these might be, and conforming to them absolutely – is the source of the “dumbing-down” whinges that are often trotted out in regard to poetry marketing.  There are certainly commercial contexts in which a market exists and a product is deliberately “tailored” (or bowdlerised) to fit the needs and timescales of that market – but poetry, for goodness’ sake?  Have you ever heard of a poet being told by his or her editor “Can you please just get rid of some of those polysyllabic words, and make it all a bit more unintelligent, so I can sell it more easily?  Also, the words “shards” and “heartache” are hot this year with the C1 demographic, so can you throw some more of those in?  Oh, and by the way, I’m negotiating an iPad co-branding deal, so we’ll need a poem to work in with that.”

There’s a third variety of marketing, though, which is desperately relevant to poetry and its thoroughly non-burgeoning sales.  This kind of marketing, which is required for any innovative product, is simply the act of figuring out who might be interested in the thing you’ve made (be it a gadget, a book, an artwork or a song) and finding ways to let them know about it. There’s no hard-sell, no dumbing-down:  just the challenge of finding the natural market for your product, or, in the poet’s case, of reaching the particular audience that would value your poems.

Some will argue that for poets to bother with even this kind of pragmatic marketing is somehow lowering, fundamentally grubby, and that the artist’s first and only calling should be to his or her art.  I find this position quite defensible in those who wish only to write, but somewhat flaky in those who wish to be published;  publishing a book does tend to suggest that you, its author, would like people to read it, however coyly you might wish to deny this fact.   Even if you are genuinely indifferent to your readership – perhaps, for example, because all you really need or want is the psychological validation of your publisher’s stamp of approval – your publisher is unlikely to be so carefree about it.  Publishers must care about book sales:  commercial publishers have to survive in an increasingly tight marketplace, and grant-aided publishers have funding bodies very concerned about the audience for the work they subsidise.

In these circumstances, helping with the marketing of your book or pamphlet – however personally uncomfortable you find this – isn’t egregious self-aggrandisement:  rather, it’s simple professionalism, part and parcel of being a published contemporary writer.  I’m sure that many of us find the process awkward and embarrassing, and would prefer to restrict ourselves to the more desirable aspects of being a professional poet  (the wealth! the fame! the women throwing underwear!) – but poetry books need marketing to find markets, and in the absence of large commercial budgets for this, some DIY effort is required. It’s only once we embrace the basic non-evilness of marketing that we can get onto the far more interesting question of how to go about it – with all the same verve, creativity and sense of humour that we try to put into our writing.

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. You can also hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and  follow her on Twitter.

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.