Should I Send My Poems to Magazines or Competitions?

Issue 87 (January 2017) of Acumen has just appeared including Shanta Acharya’s interview with Indian poet and short story writer, Keki Deruwalla, plus reviews of books by Alice Oswald, Carol Rumens, Liz Lochhead, Tony Curtis and the first tranche of books from Little Island Press. There are also poems from Tony Curtis, Norbert Hirschhorn, Harry Guest, Duncan Forbes, Deruwalla and many others and translations of Verlaine, Tsiakos and Catullus. As well as this, Acumen editor, Patricia Oxley asked a number of poets (myself included) to comment on the relative importance of publication in magazines and winning (or placing) in poetry competitions. Which of the two is most important or advantageous?

 

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Keki Deruwalla

 

In his piece, Christopher North feels poems go to competitions first as the rewards of winning are greater than a mere appearance in a magazine. But for himself, he prefers to read poems in “gangs” or small portfolios (most likely to be found in magazines or chapbooks). North voices a common concern that the isolated poem (in a competition) is not always the best guide to a poet’s true worth. Hilary Davies’ piece suggests much the same thing, strongly praising the role of the magazine and its editor for having an eye not for the spectacular one-off, but for the longer term: “they have a stake in bringing on and nurturing new poets . . . there is a depth to the activities of the editor”, she argues, in stark contrast to the competition judge however thoroughly they do their job.

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Davies also regrets the existence of the ‘competition’ poem that we are all so familiar with – the 40 lines, any subject, the successful mostly with a powerful narrative drive or end-of-poem punch. None of these elements are bad in themselves but Davies argues persuasively that “competitions unintentionally reinforce a formulaic and limited understanding of what constitutes a good poem”. Evidently, she sides with the magazines (see my recent review of Davies most recent collection). In contrast, Martin Malone confesses he’s not so sure where he stands though he acknowledges that competition wins “do provide a fast-track means of ‘getting-on’ in an age besotted with instant success”. The imagery he uses to express this – that we live on Planet Gadget and how we cannot but love our bells and whistles – makes clear his scepticism about the ultimate value of such winning poems. But Malone is clearer than most about the importance that winning competitions can often have on a poet’s career these days.

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Caroline Carver’s piece is rather more celebratory in tone, suggesting the modern world of poetry presents writers with an “increasing choice” of outlets in terms of publication in print, or on-line or via competition entry. But the ease of the mouse click also means that the competitiveness and crowdedness of the market increases. Nevertheless, sounding admirably un-angsty about the topic, she says (assuming one has enough material available) a mix of both magazine submissions and competition entries is the safe way ahead. And for those who suffer repeated set-backs she refers us to the newly-launched website Salon of the Refused.

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Michael Bartholomew-Biggs is both poet and editor of the on-line magazine London Grip. He puts forward what I think is the generally-expressed view here that “a publication record reveals more about a poet’s consistency and range than a prize – or even a few prizes”. Following the logic of this, he squares the circle by suggesting that the type of competition (which seems ever more common) that offers prizes and publication for a “portfolio” of poems seems to be “a distinct and valid route to recognition”. My contribution argued something like Bartholomew-Biggs’ view though rather more cynically suggested that winning prizes, in part through the likely resulting prominence through social media, might well weigh more heavily with a more commercially-driven publishing house. Overall, these six writers seem to feel a track record of publication in magazines is still the best guide to a poet’s quality and worth, though there is equally a clear anxiety expressed that competition-winning is becoming (or has already become) more used as a means of sifting through the submissions of collections for publication.

To read this discussion in full go to the Acumen website and subscribe!

Poems, Swerve and Alan Brownjohn’s Sky Blue Trousers

Life should be full of swerve is what I have been thinking recently. It’s how I prefer my days to unfold and certainly one of the main reasons why I value poetry. In dipping and swooping from this to that, swerve serves to exercise our capacities in terms of tension, torque, balance and force. I’m talking emotionally and psychological here, of course, though last Saturday evening did find me doing swerving obeisance to the sat nav woman as I drove up to the Dugdale Centre in Enfield, north London.

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It had also been a pretty swervy week in the more serious sense too. My brother and I have been emailing trying to organise a Lasting Power of Attorney in regard to our nonagenarian parents, alongside my daughter’s final events in the Sixth Form, filled with promise and talented and beautiful friends. A liking for swerve also accounts for why I have always loved that moment in The Winter’s Tale when the Old Shepherd talks of meeting both things dying and things new-born.

As it’s also the end of my teaching year, the week had also been spent revising what I think of these days (thanks for nothing Sam Riviere) as my ‘81 Laozis’: my new versions of the 81 chapters of Laozi’s Daodejing which Enitharmon will be publishing next Spring. There’s a good deal of swerve in the poems’ urging towards openness, flexibility, sense of balance:

[to be] circumspect as a man

who crosses a stream in winter

watchful and alert to danger on all sides

respectful as on a first visit

yielding like ice when the thaw sets in

blank as a piece of uncarved wood

receptive as a valley cut through hills

I think of what the Daodejing proposes as the exact opposite of the (too much blood-stained) rigidities of fundamentalism. As I said, this is why I love poetry’s ability to swerve quickly, often without transition, from one thing to another, one emotion or image to another. And so, I was off to Enfield where Alan Murray runs the meetings of Enfield poets at the unprepossessing Dugdale Centre which – as its name might suggest – contains a Lidl store, an Argos store, a multistory car park and a theatre and arts complex. The readings on Saturday took place in a municipal box within a municipal box but even that didn’t spoil the event (poetry does make something happen when it’s read and shared like this).

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Alan (whose thoughtful book Perhaps was published by Acumen in 2013) introduced floor readers then handed over to Patricia Oxley as the three main poets were Acumen magazine related. John Greening first, whose quiet, measured delivery belies the time he has spent teaching literature to classes of schoolchildren. Dressed in chinos and pale shirt (yes, I’m doing the fashion notes too this time), I grudgingly admit (being a teacher myself) that he looked like a teacher, suggesting nothing of the real powerhouse of writing, editing, anthologising, reviewing and social-medi-ing that Greening is beneath that mild Clark Kent exterior. Born and raised in Hounslow he read ‘Heath Row’ from To the War Poets.

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Topical, given the recent scandalous report suggesting a third runway to plague the poor citizens of west London, the poem reverses time’s arrow, unearthing what lies beneath tarmac and terminals, back to the original heath and bog, to sarsen stones and druidic rites, back further to a time when “the earth shudders, floods, howls, ignites”. His most recent book is threaded with addresses to the First World War poets and each short poem cunningly, often wittily, says something about the work of each. ‘To Edward Thomas’ notes: “You died at an observation post. / You looked and looked, and saw the detail / we do not”. Greening has also just published a major anthology, Accompanied Voices, with one of the world’s great music-publishing companies, Boydell Press. He read his own ‘Field’ from it, about poor John Field (inventor of the Nocturne) and the artistic irony that it was Chopin who superceded him, or as the poem puts it with all the brutality of the historical process, he “walked all over him”.

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Shanta Acharya’s poems often record the phenomena of the natural world in part for themselves but also, as (her DPhil subject) Emerson suggests, because they can be read as the language of the “Universal Being”. Set in the artistic beauty of a Catholic church, the opening lines of ‘Italian Prayer’ ask: “How does one accustomed to the cold candour of stones / bend one’s knee in reverence”. Acharya’s work is, as Mimi Khalvati has said, “unafraid to take on the abstract, metaphysical, spiritual”. Dressed in an exquisite ivory-cream shalwar-kameez she also read the poem ‘Somewhere, Something’ from Dreams That Spell The Light (Arc Publications, 2010) that argues we do not travel “to explore another country / but to return home fresh, bearing gifts”. In fact, these gifts are for the self because all true experiences – thus discounting those of the ‘mere’ tourist – inevitably change us. The poem concludes, “Let’s fly free, not nailed to a mast; / see the universe with new eyes / not blinded by shadows that light casts”.

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She also spoke of the Sanskrit phrase ‘neti neti’ (the title of an earlier collection) meaning ‘not this, not that’ as a definition of God or spiritual experience. This provoked a later discussion on the link between this idea and Laozi’s Daoist ideas, then The Cloud of Unknowing, followed by the writings of Julian of Norwich. Good swerves all. Lidl and Argos were well closed by this time of night.

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My maternal grandmother would look sceptically up to a cloudy sky on occasions and make a meteorological call on the basis of whether or not there was enough blue sky to make a man’s pair of trousers. Well, those very trousers were being worn by Alan Brownjohn last Saturday evening, teamed with an unthreatening-cloud-coloured pale shirt. Brownjohn’s delivery is also very quiet, words seeming to emerge more from the side of his mouth, confirming that his tongue is often firmly in his cheek, doing deconstruction and the humour of post-modern irony before it was called such. Yet he manages to load poems with a weight of emotion too; he burns away sentiment, but still moves his readers.

Alan Brownjohn more formally attired

I was pleased he read several of the Ludbrooke & Others poems, 13 line sonnets for our austere age and an anti-hero-loser who nevertheless somehow gets our sympathy. Ludbrooke boasts of his “transformative” love-making in ‘His Classic Modesty’ (he persuades us it “is like the Acropolis”). In ‘His Jealousy’ he wants to persuade us (and himself, of course) that he has “deconstructed” and “junked” that emotion, only to feel the full force of it around line 12 to 13. We recognise a commonality at the same time as being allowed the space to imagine ourselves better than Ludbrooke. See the setting, re-setting, re-positioning of the powerful swerve going on there? That feeling you get after vigourous physical exercise of being stronger, more balanced, more capable? Poetry makes that happen to your heart – the figurative one.

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Things of the Earth: Joaquin Giannuzzi’s Poems

Here’s a game: search the little haystack that follows for the several needle-reasons why I wanted to blog something this week about the poetry of Joaquin Giannuzzi.

In a review in Poetry Wales, Nia Davies praises Giannuzzi’s “singular, destabilising and pessimistic, but humane take on the world” and, in part, she links this to the turbulent political landscape of Argentina through the twentieth century. This is poetry “always aware of the presence of violence behind a wall” though Giannuzzi is probably a less explicitly political writer than this suggests. The violence he sees in the world is a harshness even beyond politics and his humanity lies in a hard-won sympathy that we all inhabit a world in which human endeavour has become something of a “mockery”, death the only certainty.

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Giannuzzi was born in 1924 to a family of Italian immigrants in Argentina. He chose journalism as a career and his observational gifts are obvious, poems often focusing on individual objects or people. He is a poet of disengagement, the objective gaze (as much as that is ever possible) though what is revealed is in part the poet’s response to what he sees, in part an ironic detachment from it. These are points made by Richard Gwyn (who also links him with Samuel Beckett) in a selection of his brilliant translations of Giannuzzi’s work from 1977 on, A Complicated Mammal (CB Editions, 2012). It was reading with Gwyn in Wales a few weeks ago that first brought Giannuzzi’s work to my notice.

The title ‘Garbage at daybreak’ says a lot about Giannuzzi’s approach. There is the distancing effect of reporting that a “sociological interest” brings the narrator to examine the garbage bins though what he learns is that “things don’t die but are murdered”. His listing of items begins obviously enough but takes a more troubling turn with “a doll’s torso, with a dark stain” (that turbulent twentieth century again?) into a more metaphysical malaise suggested by the ambiguous phrase “rosy meadow death” (una especie de muerte en un campo rosado). The poem ends with a discomforting “comfort”, realising that “not even this excrement / is obliged to abandon the planet”. Why do we harbor such crap and ugliness? But what if we compelled it to be ejected, might we be left even more empty-handed?

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It was while completing an interview about my own writing (to appear in Acumen Poetry Magazine later this year) that I found myself saying “I’d be happy to accept I am committed to the empirical. As a child, though very quiet and reserved, I don’t remember living in any kind of fantasy world: I would be observing things going on around me. I used to find objects when I was a kid – coloured stones, shells, lost coins – and I remember the pleasure when my mother would say, ‘You’re always on the look-out. You never miss anything’. To this day, I like poems that focus on small things and, in effect, make arguments for the ways in which they communicate the bigger issues”. From this, it’s obvious why I respond to Giannuzzi’s work and ‘Coffee and apples’ is a good example of what Gwyn calls Giannuzzi’s concern for “thingitude” or las cosas de la tierra (things of the earth). He locates the poem in an afternoon in June, a moment of uncharacteristic ease since the world “has become hospitable”, though this is immediately cast into doubt with the simile comparing this to “a truce”, a mere postponement of hostilities. But for a while the things of this world give off an allure of “radiance” and “steam” while the narrator sprawls on his “backside”. But the truce is indeed short-lived as the poem ends with a bomb blast, police arriving, all delivered in a tone suggestive of the commonplace.

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Giannuzzi’s narrators are often solitary and self-critical. In another moment of what seems like ease, one turns accusingly on himself: “I sold out my youth”. The waste of time, sucking on the “ribs of aesthetics” has yielded nothing, not even (look how quickly the Absurdist gulf opens in the course of these three lines): “a personal system of language / I mean an act of writing / That my contemporaries might interpret sufficiently badly” (‘Self-criticism). What Giannuzzi does do is see things and poetry (argues the poem ‘Poetics’) “is what is being seen”.

There are rare moments of tenderness. In being aware of his daughter dressing for a night out, another narrator reaches for religious hyperbole as she evokes a second Eden, “a second perfection of nature”. What propels her to this is a “faith” he cannot share or even imagine and as she puts finishing touches to the creation of herself – especially memorable in the clicking of her bracelets closing – he sees her leave the room “and everything that I am not goes with her”. This treads a fine line between self-pity and an excoriating nihilism that risks wiping out his daughter’s youthful optimism: but it is a line Giannuzzi treads so skillfully, leaving the reader with the strange pleasures of a hard-headed modernist perception alongside a touching evocation of paternal love. Brilliant – especially so when it floated into my mind lying awake waiting for my just-eighteen-year-old daughter turning the lock downstairs, back from late-night clubbing in Shoreditch. She’s back safe and sound; that big world out there.

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Gwyn notes that Giannuzzi’s narrators are often caught gazing through a window at the big world out there. In one case, what is observed is only an “indistinct appearance”, fragments, colours, a suffering, “tangled up in itself”. The poem imagines a million other similar windows, each framing its “failed theologian” and for Giannuzzi the adjective makes the point here; divinity is only present “by gloomy delegation”, though even that is probably too strongly put. Desertion, perhaps would be better, more truthful. Giannuzzi’s is not the best of all possible worlds, it is the “only possible” and ‘Theologian at the window’ ends by suggesting the human animal has little choice but to suffer “a corresponding headache”.

These are a great poems, short, modern, dark lyrics (that would knock most of the 2015 Forward shortlists into a cocked hat) by a poet compared by Jessica Sequeira in the Glasgow Review of Books to Montale, Auden, Pavese and T. S. Eliot. Richard Gwyn has done a magnificent job of translating him for us – the least we can do is go and buy it.

Joaquin Giannuzzi is interviewed (in Spanish) and reads his poem ‘La desaparición’: