1. 25 Rules for Editing Poems

    Written by Rob Mackenzie at 1:36 pm

    So, you’ve drafted a poem and you want to publish it or perhaps even win the Magma Poetry Competition! But, is the poem ready? Could it do with a few edits or a wholesale makeover? Below are a few rules which, if you keep them, will guarantee nothing but might be useful as an early warning system. The first thing is to put the poem in a drawer and forget about it until you can read it with fresh eyes, whether that takes days, weeks or months. And then…

    1. You might think with the Beats, “first word best word.” Then you pick up Morrissey’s Autobiography at page 108 and read, “…there is occasionally a strong and unsmiling teenager who often appears in the house“. Better to edit glaring errors before they end up in a published book.
    2. Pick out a phrase or sentence or line that constitutes the poem’s emotional core. Can you now cut lines that seem pointless in relation to the core? This is a technique George Szirtes used to great effect during a masterclass at the StAnza International Poetry Festival a few years ago.
    3. Your poem has some great phrases. That makes you happy. But do they skirt around the surface of human emotion without really connecting to anything urgent?
    4. Does the poem sound like it’s been written by you, or by anyone?
    5. If you delete the first line, does that have a material effect on the poem? If you delete the first stanza, does that have a material effect on the poem? Keep deleting until you’re left with the poem. Or until you’re without a poem.
    6. The opening two or three lines set the poem’s mood and tone, even if you consciously subvert them later on. Check there is consistency. Or deliberate inconsistency.
    7. Take away the line-breaks. What difference does it make? If it makes little difference, you have work to do.
    8. Are couplets right for this poem? Or just a habit?
    9. You may have heard it said, “Draft while drunk, but revise while sober.” Consider whether “revise while drunk” is better (even in a metaphorical sense).
    10. Don’t trust your “inner voice” unless it’s telling you something you don’t want to hear.
    11. The sensible word is probably the wrong word. The crazy, outlandish word may be evidence that you’re clutching at straws.
    12. Where does the poem sit on the spectrum from Affect to Effect? Is it where you want it?
    13. Every word, every semi-colon, every decision, is important; every change you make might necessitate a change elsewhere in the poem. Don’t lose sight of the whole when attending to the particular.
    14. If you feel a vigorous reluctance to strike out a phrase, you need to argue vigorously with that reluctance.
    15. Consider the poem’s “truth”. Not the literal facts (although those may be important at times) but the emotional resonance. Is the emotion genuine or just received wisdom?
    16. Are any of your lines memorable? If not, has the poem-as-a-whole done enough to withstand the amnesia?
    17. The long, impressive word is not always better than the short, subtle word.
    18. ‘Plain’ language can be an excuse for lack of imagination.
    19. Consider your adjectives and adverbs individually. Are any redundant?
    20. Consider the lack of adjectives and adverbs. Is this evidence of effective concision, or a dull, grey palette?
    21. Have you conveyed anything in the poem that hasn’t been conveyed millions of times before?
    22. Can you summarise the poem adequately? If so, be wary of the poem.
    23. Is your ending an effective and imaginative response to the poem’s tension or simply an easy (but cleverly disguised) retreat from it?
    24. “Images can be sly ways of escaping from a poem” – Robert Bly, writing to Tomas Tranströmer, from Airmail.
    25. If you’re stuck, take a walk for at least a mile. Concentrate on the moment, not on the poem. Give the unconscious room to work.

    And, of course, it goes without saying that good poets are always ready to break rules whenever a poem demands it.

  2. 13 days to Christmas, 4 days to enter the competition

    Written by Jenny Wong at 12:00 am

    It’s never too late to write poetry…

  3. On Cynicism

    Written by Jon Stone at 11:00 am

    I’d like to say a few words about a subject I don’t often see explored in writing on contemporary poetry, in the hope that perhaps some of the sentiments expressed will chime with others. This year I was lucky enough to win a Society of Authors Eric Gregory Award. I was drinking with the other winners in a pub after a reading at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, and the topic of the selection process came up. There was an almost unanimous agreement that each owed their success to the anonymous judging process. Although I didn’t instigate it (if anything, I was playing devil’s advocate), I find myself in line with the general sentiment. I might occasionally entertain the idea that now, after scoring a PBS recommendation and appearing in several anthologies, there’s a chance my name could somehow worm its way quietly into the hindbrain of a key decision maker or two, but the fact is that apart from the Gregory, the only other major prizes in which I’ve placed have been the two National Poetry Competitions – also judged anonymously.

    It’s not that there’s flagrant nepotism in poetry (although some may disagree with that). It’s that our sense of poetic taste – just like our literal sense of taste – is informed by a variety of factors and contexts. You’ve heard the expression ‘my ears pricked up’. In the case of poetry, this seems particularly apposite – the idea that on noticing a particular name, one that carries connotations of prestige or prodigiousness, the ear – that organ especially employed in the judgement of a piece – becomes suddenly extra-sensitive. The anticipation of excellence then plays a part in the fulfilment of the promise.

  4. Poetry and Basketball

    Written by Inua Ellams at 10:00 am

    The latter half of my youth revolved around hoops, orbiting wide rings, listening out for the net’s swish, attempting to make more fluid, more instinctive, ‘mo’ butter’ the complex body geometry of knowing instinctively how far you are from the ring at any time, how much palm-thrust and fingertip is needed to sail the basketball through. At 17, I developed exercise-induced-asthma, thus ended my hoop dreams. It was a painful breakup. I stopped watching my team play, felt betrayed by my body and tried to forget myself; I read books. Years passed before I felt comfortable enough to watch a game, and even longer before I stepped onto a court, knowing I was a shadow of my younger self.

    The return came after a clip I stumbled across on the net: slow motion footage of a 360 dunk. A kid, half ogre, half figure-skater twirled upwards through a thorn-bush of arms, and everything seemed to make sense, I’d found a new way to connect with the game. It was a number of things: to dunk so gracefully meant time spent perfecting craft. To rise against opposing arms was a quest to define oneself against history. To twirl upwards, suggested style and such daring… The slow motion footage was a controlled, precise, timed. In short, I’d found poetry.

  5. ‘Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?’ – W.H.Auden

    ‘A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words.’ – William Carlos Williams

  6. Magma’s new poetry competition now OPEN FOR ENTRIES

    Written by Roberta James at 10:30 am

    In June this year, in celebration of 50 issues of Magma Poetry magazine, and in anticipation of more to come, Magma Poetry launched a new competition.

    The entry period for both the Judge’s Prize for poems of up to 80 lines, and the Magma Editors’ Prize for poems of up to 10 lines is NOW OPEN and runs until end November.