Thursday, 5 December 2013

Report on a workshop run by Neil Astley

Neil Astley is the editor of the brilliant and highly regarded published Bloodaxe Books. My lovely Dad, John Prior (as seen in Poetry Bus 3, Rialto and others) went to a workshop he gave recently in Norwich and wrote up a report which he has kindly agreed to share with you here.

NOVEMBER 11th 2013

The twelve attendees at this meeting had all been published: all with magazines, one had been mentored through the Writers' Centre and one had been through the UEA poetry course.
Neil's talk was mainly concerned with getting your first collection published but on the way he gave excellent advice for poets right through the writing process. I shall follow this route in my report, beginning with the poem itself through to full publication.
Before doing this it is worth pointing out the there are large numbers of people writing poems. For example, the recent National Poetry competition received 40,000 entries. Some were from overseas of course, but generally it 's fair to say that huge numbers of people are poets.
He went on to say that a survey showed that books are bought by only 63% of the population. Only 1% of these purchasers buy poetry and of this 1% only 5% of books are by living writers. Of these living writers 67% of the books were by Seamus Heaney. It must be said though that the figures not absolutely recent.  This was in the year of Beowulf. Nevertheless it is obvious that the market is small and the competition intense.

The advice Neil gave applies to all stages i.e. .

95% of poems written and entered for competitions are unsuitable.
1. They are not crafted i.e. it's prose chopped into lines, and there's no metre or             rhythmical sense.
2. It's obvious the writer never reads other poets and that their experience of       poetry comes from poorly remembered school lessons.
3. There are awkward rhymes with the inversion of words.

And less serious but still failings (though the judges might read the fault):

4. In the middle of a good poem theres a 'wrong note': a line or word that jars or is             syntactically wrong or grammatically wrong.
5. It's boring. It might be OK but it's anodyne. This particularly applies to writers out       of writing schools.
6. The poem sounds too much like an existing writer.

He gave advice as to how to improve and rid yourself of the above errors.

a. Read your stuff aloud
b. Workshop your poems with other poets the more skilled the better.
c. Go to groups and on courses e.g. Arvon, Ty Newydd (Wales) and there are      some University courses.
d. Above all: read, think, and write.

Luckily, at the talk in Norwich, all twelve people were already doing these things and many of the readers of this report will have heard it all before.

Neil has been a judge many times. He admitted that after a long list has been drawn up the process is a bit of a lottery. The judges don't always agree so that sometimes the winner is the poem least disliked by all the judges.
In the smaller competitions the poems may be filtered through less reliable readers.
The numbers of entries can be too tiring for the judges. He suggested that more than one poem should be entered because, although no names are on the pages, the numbers are in sequence so that not all the poems by the same poet are likely slip through unnoticed. Also two good ones carry more weight.

If it's a big competition you are up against the best so you have to be the best.

The big competitions can result in the next stage being offered e.g. pamphlet publication or full publication. Big competitions include: The Arvon, The National, The Cardiff, the Cheltenham, the Plough and Basil Bunting. You will need to check the Poetry Library website for the current list. ( )
It was reassuring to learn that the major competitions are truly open.

These are sometimes called Chapbooks (an American term). These are small booklets sometimes sold at readings. They contain a small number of poems. The number and the rules for your submission vary but once again look at the relevant website for details. A number of publishers take on Chapbooks including Mariscat, Doughnut, Hearing Eye, Flipped Eye, Rack Press, Templar, Rialto, Cinnamon Press, Nine Arches, Flarestack, Smiths/Doorstop, Lighthouse an IOTA. Some of these run competitions for pamphlets. Check before sending.
The sort of poems that will attract publication are:
1. Faultless poems.
2. Coherent poems e.g. in the same voice and possibly with a unifying theme.   Bloodaxe is proud to publish and to have published many women poets and people    from mixed and ethnic minorities.

Faber, Picador, Carcanet (the c's are hard), Bloodaxe. Not all of these take unsolicited MS.
Also note that submissions to Carcanet are through Oxford Poets.
Chatto might be starting a poetry list.
The etiquette is to send full submissions to only one publisher at a time, of 64 pages or roughly 50 poems.

OR you can send samples of 6 to 10 poems to some or all of the publishers. e.g. simultaneous submissions.

There should be a strong covering letter, not rambling, of course, but mentioning you existing publications and including your email address and a stamped addressed envelope. If you're older (and one or two of the participants were older) Neil suggested you shouldn't mention your age because each publisher is looking for a long term investment.

Neil gets 5,000 MS in his slush pile in a year. He reads them all but may take months to respond.

If you are taken on, the time from acceptance to publication could be 14 months and your advance could be £500.

Here the situation is constantly changing.
You can publish an e-book for an e-reader. The best poems for an e-reader have short lines so that they look good on the page. An iPad can make poems look more attractive and add sound. The internet itself can act as self promotion e.g. through blogs or u-tube readings.
Some magazines publish on the internet only and these are read by poets other than those who submit.

This has a bad name for itself but self publication can work, provided that you don't pay a commercial firm to publish and promote you.

Neil recommended Lulu which is an internet business supplying print on demand. They give the publication an ISBN number, and print exactly the numbers you ask for. You design the cover, arrange the internal layout etc. and transmit this as a file to Lulu. The costs are transparent on the website and when you receive your copies you are on your own, though more copies can easily be printed. Established poets self-publish and distribute and sell books like these at public readings.

Apologies if you are familiar with much of this report but I'm certain that not one of the listeners on November 11th knew it all. I certainly didn't.

 One or two among the twelve, may have been discouraged by the general gist of Neil's talk but personally I felt he gave us a useful guide as to how, with time and dedication, one might become better.

John Prior 14.11.13

1 comment:

Words A Day said...

found this very helpful, printed it out - its very practical, leaves us under no illusion