Roddy Lumsden surveyed several poets and asked them to suggest what irks them about poets as writers and performers, to offer advice and to confess a few of their own foibles. Here are their anonymous responses (serious or tongue-in-cheek).
*To begin with, imitate as many major poets as possible: to imagine you have an innate ‘voice’ independent of other writers is pure vanity.
*’If only I had the time to write more…’ is the emptiest threat in Poetryville. If kids and jobs are more important to you, stick to the odd spot of knitting.
*To quote Margaret Atwood on writers: "Many are called, few are chosen, and a lot of those will be martyred." Poets aren’t made, they’re born (even if it’s a late birth; and being born still means working hard to grow). We have an unprecedented number of people who call themselves poets in England and the States. Real poetry is hard. It takes your whole life, or complete chunks of it. Ask yourself: if I lived in Soviet Russia would I still be saying ‘I’m a poet’?
*If you think you’re a genius, seek therapy, not a publisher.
*Poems about poetry festivals should be banned. This would save much irritation at poetry readings… ‘I wrote this poem, inspired after my wonderful trip to Festival X this year where [insert moderately well-known poet] encouraged us to explore the sestina / villanelle / terza rima…’.
*I can’t stand the dragging into a poem of poor animals and birds to give a tired old nature-in-the-city effect. Herons, foxes and seagulls are particularly endangered, in this regard. We’ve all seen ’em, you know.
*Beware the acrostic – once in poetry class I launched into a lusty attack on what I thought was a rather arch and facile poem that our tutor had painstakingly written out on the whiteboard. Only at the end of my diatribe did I spot that the first letter of each line spelled out the tutor’s name. Things were never quite the same after that.
*Auden is excellent, but spread those pastiches around a bit.
*punctuation is Very useful its also Polite Punctuation can also be boring. And syntax matters.
*Ending. A. Poem. Like. This. Is. Often. Crap.
*Poems in notebooks in spindly pencil used to be my thing, until I opened an old book – just two years old – and found all the writing had melted.
*Retorts like ‘But I am a free verse poet’ do not excuse rhythmically devoid, bizarrely enjambed work from being shit.
*I used to write nasty things about experimental poetry, then came round to it, then became really into it. Now I wish I’d kept my silly mouth shut.
*I wish I was better at ignoring praise and criticism in equal measure. I’d be a better poet.
*The majority of poets writing today, or at any time in history, are riding a wave of fashion, and on the back of new clichés. Don’t try and fit in. Don’t take advice!
On poetry readings
*I hate when poets over-read. Anyone can time themselves reading (including intros and asides). It does them no good as the audience become first bored then annoyed. Better to leave them wanting a little more.
*It’s great to hear new work at readings, but poets who try reading the last 12 poems they wrote, still not finished, one twelve-pager, or just work from their latest themed slim volume, ought to learn some manners.
*For my first few readings, I used The Poetry Voice, until someone told me. Now I get so giggly / angry when someone uses It, I have to slip out of the venue.
*The, mostly American, tendency of poets to bring their voice up at the end of each line when reading aloud is extremely irritating.
*In the States they have a term, Poetry Sluts. These are people who leave after they’ve read their own poems and aren’t polite enough to stay for the others.
*If you are reading out of town, find out what the venue is. I have read in a room in a pub which was entirely painted black (floor and ceiling included) and an ‘Internet cafe’ which was really a job centre on the edge of the red light district. And make sure the organisers don’t allow dogs. I once had an Irish Wolfhound in the audience. Very hard to ignore!
*I once finished off a reading with a poem that excoriated the town in which the reading was being held and whose population had provided the audience. What I felt to be the implicit irony of the piece didn’t shine through and I remember distinctly sucking the atmosphere out of the room.
*I get riled when professional types seem appalled that they might be encouraged to actually purchase my books. They think nothing of forking out for DVDs, CDs, posh meals, cabs home, all of which cost much more than a book of mine which has taken five (count ’em) years to write. They probably earn the price of a collection in, oh, ten minutes.
*Never agree to stay behind and look at the folders or manuscripts of individual poets after teaching a workshop. This leads straight to boiling in pig’s blood in hell.
On publication and reputation
*I used to have a strange and crazed faith in editors (of books and magazines). I thought if something was taken for publication it was Good Enough. Oh, how wrong.
*I once sent poems to a member of Poetry Society Council who I barely knew, asking them to get them published in Poetry Review. Ouch. I was very young.
*Many unpublished poets are as good as many published ones. They’re just not different enough for a publisher to be interested. If you already have plenty tins of beans in the store, you don’t order more.
*Don’t rush to get published. When I was an (even) newer poet I was commissioned to write a poem for an anthology. I was so desperate to be in a real book I rushed it and wrote one of my worst poems ever. I’ve since been terrified it’ll come back to haunt me.
*Be prepared for your minor competition win to herald ten years of arid obscurity rather than the sunlit uplands of the success you drunkenly imagined was then secured.
*Of course I know my editor, it would be a bit of a problem if I didn’t. But I’m not his brother-in-law or his best mate from school. As a matter of fact, to my certain knowledge, he doesn’t publish those people. My work is published because it’s great and people are prepared to buy it. End of.
*Don’t, as I was, be put off by the lofty way reviewers and academics write about poetry – think of it as the pidgin language of a far-away land you never need visit.
*Reviewing should be firm, kind and not more than one sentence cruel. If you can help it.
*Don’t go to a dinner or drinks party where you don’t know the other invitees and say you’re a poet. Auden settled on ‘Medieval Historian’, I normally say ‘Logician’.
*Insisting that I was the reincarnated Lord Byron didn’t have as much cachet with the ladies as I’d hoped.
*Finding Elizabeth Bishop ‘a bit slow…boring, I suppose’ and being quoted as such is now very embarrassing. I was young. I needed the money.
*Don’t give loudly critical opinions of other poets. It’s not possible to be objective, as we’re all competitors in some respect. And it sets you up for a helping of the same.
*I once told a famous poet at a reading that while I admired his latest collection, his ‘previous one was more successful for me as a reader’. Cue security as he threatened to ‘have me outside’. Lesson: every poet mistakes their latest to be necessarily their finest and err…maybe so should you if they’ve had a bit too much of the lukewarm free Pinot Grigio.