This was a very nice surprise. The Vine Leaves Literary Journal is a weighty Australian hardback packed with vignettes of fiction and poetry, one of which is mine.
Sadly this is the last volume in the series. It’s available on Amazon though.
it’s hanging in your parents’ house
this one thing that made you happy
brought us closer
taught us much
about each other,
things that if i’d known
I would have scribbled
in a corner
of the scene.
it should be there, nestling between
the brushmarks and the
broad slabs of white on your shirt;
the story that
this picture should tell.
one day I may whisper these colours
in your ear
like the caress of a brush
just the right shade
to make things clear
I struggle with sonnets. I’ve been writing them for years and have had a good few published. I won a cup in 1978 at college – The Bruce Brown Trophy for Poetry – with a sonnet in fact. However, I still feel that the majority are lacking that essential sonnety sonnetness.
They tend not to rhyme although I dare say they might have done at some point. The Bruce Brown one did certainly. I find rhyming sonnets a little clunky, mine anyway. Others have produced fine rhyming flowing pieces of magic but mine don’t seem to evoke a sense of spontaneity.
Anyhoo, I continue, my usual practice having been since about 2006 to write at least one a month, one of them always being named after the month itself and attempting some kind of mood and overview of the current situation.
Consequently I have a hundred and something sonnets only a few of which have been published and fired at the unsuspecting public.
What I feel is that in the main they work better as a group of poems than as stand alone pieces. Does this imply that the sonnets are somewhat weak?
They’re a set of things I keep revising. They often go back into my revision process and there are at least two in my Revision file at the moment. The ones I have abandoned or may have been published end up in this blog, as it gets to the point where I have become so familiar with them that I can’t judge them objectively, coupled with the fact they have usually been rejected a number of times by editors whose judgment I have learned to trust.
I have just been working on one in fact, and finding this one quite exciting after a few changes. I’m toying with the question of whether it needs an overall metaphor and/or more ambiguity. Could I add an extra layer of meaning to it?
If I had to find a metaphor for my relationship with sonnets, I’d choose watercolour painting. I love the medium but I have never mastered the art of it to the point where I am often satisfied with the results. It’s a difficult skill to achieve. You can edit the sonnet, but like a watercolour there is the danger of overworking it to the point where the freshness and vitality of the first draft is lost, and one is left with something dull.
However, I persevere, as I can not stop.
You can view a selection here, or just click the sonnet tag at the foot of the post. Please feel free to leave comments as feedback is good and it’s always helpful to know why someone liked or hated certain pieces.
I was watching television
though my mind was looking elsewhere
when a voice said ‘Yes, Delores’
and a face was dredged from under
all the scree of things forgotten.
I had worked with a Delores
and had buried her at some point
with her corkscrew mop of ginger,
crazy shoes and bright green jacket
under a patio of years.
Now she’s resurrected with her
baggage and her sister’s phone calls,
arguments that raged relentless
days on end while she sat typing
multitasking rage and wages.
This is clawing to the surface,
bits of her in different bin bags.
I’ll have to have her round for tea
to ask how quick she buried me.
helen is terrified of anaphylactic shock
to the extent that she screams when
people mention peanuts
latex, she claims, can bring it on,
defence turned to lethal attack;
deadly condoms waiting in packets
for that special moment
to send her into spasms
she runs from wasps and bees
through potential trees
though she’s never been stung
or been shocked by anything
apart from that scene in ‘game of thrones’
and the price at which they sell fridges
she may not be suffering at all
apart from a condition
a substantial proportion of sufferers
have no cause found
despite all efforts
even in the most expert clinics
doctors call such unexplained
symptoms ‘idiopathic phantom anaphylaxis’
the word ‘idiopathic’
in practice means
we just don’t know why she does it
From Revision Part I
Most of my revision is done either on my phone or my tablet, and is a lengthy process.
I use Evernote, which has become completely invaluable, since all one’s notes are saved in a cloud and one can access them from tablet, phone or laptop. The free version has a limit of three devices but a paid upgrade is not excessive if one needs it.
If you’ve read Part II (see the link above) your poems should be in a physical folder (or an Evernote folder) with the letters V A W C M R A I P L B R E printed at the top of each poem. Work through the poems, dealing with one letter sequentially for each poem, crossing it off and moving the poem to the back of the file. Add new poems to the back of the file as they are ready for revision.
Evernote is handy like this, as if you always start at the bottom of the list, it gets moved to the top once it’s been edited.
OK. Here we go.
This is the initial run through the first draft in which I am looking at the Voice of the poem. Whose voice is it? Is it consistent? What mood is the voice in? It’s surprising sometimes how many obvious changes can be made just by asking these questions, and indeed any others that may arise
V is a twofold exercise. It is, in the first instance, a chance to look through the first draft, considering it as a finished work. Minor changes or excisions often happen at this point. It is also your chance to look at the Voice. Who is speaking these words? Is it their voice? Would they say this in this way and is it consistent throughout?
A is for ‘and’ and other small words. ‘and’ is one of my most persistent cliches. It should be excised if it serves no purpose. There are occasions, especially within reported speech when it can actually be beneficial however. It depends very much on context.
Look at all the small words, the ‘and’s and ‘the’s and any other words that may have lazily slipped in and check if there’s a better way of saying what you are saying.
I am unsure why this was ever W. Feel free to change it to whatever you want. I suspect it was because I didn’t want too many As. A would the obvious choice as we are looking at adjectives and adverbs. Look at every one. Shout at them. Make them justify their existence. If they can’t, expunge them from the scene!
I found that additional considerations tended to bleed in here and sometimes entire lines and phrases start to look suspect. Deal with them in the same way. Rid yourself of clutter.
C is for cliché.
For me clichés come in two sorts, the public sort and the private sort.
The public sort is just lazy phrases and worn out metaphors and similes.
If you find yourself describing clouds as fluffy balls of cotton wool then stop right there. It’s a cliché alert.
Personal clichés are more difficult to spot. They are the path of least resistance on your word journey; things you write regularly and have become blind to. Your friends won’t tell you because they love you and hate poetry. The ones that love poetry may tell you but it’s no use waiting for them.
M is for metaphors and similes. I look at this in two ways. Is there an overall metaphor? Is the poem itself a metaphor for something else as many poems are? Are you subsidiary metaphors consistent with each other? Mixed metaphors are a little messy but can work if there is at least some relationship between them.
The same goes for similes. With similes I tend to check if they can be upgraded to metaphors. I’ve always found the metaphor to be a superior form of beast. That’s a metaphor.
‘Her head was like a train
huffing down memory’s rails.’
The first line is a simile. The last contains a metaphor. Taking out the word ‘like’ converts the simile and presents a far stronger image.
The first R in the sequence is for rhythm.
Read the beast aloud. Look for bumps, things which impede the flow. Even free verse has some sort of rhythm.
Examine the pauses, the breaths, the dadadada of it all.
This second A is for ambiguity. I love ambiguity. It births dual meaning like new growth branching off into a separate understanding. I seek if possible to change words in order to bring additional or alternate meanings to the work. This is – I must emphasise – just a part of my own personal process and not a mandatory thing.
It’s hard to spot though.
Sometimes it leaps out at you in a moment of serendipity. These are rare as hen’s teeth but sometimes twice as sharp.
In most cases it’s a question of lingering over every word, pondering alternatives.
I’m finding this frustrating, although rewarding when it actually happens and – one has to be sure that it has – improves on what it replaced.
I can’t think of a better strategy I am sorry to say.
I am working on it though.
I is for internal rhyme. You may have formal rhyme anyway but I do like a bit of rhyme relationship within the body of the piece. It’s a useful thing to look for since one has to inevitably look at words that can possibly be changed to accommodate something that might resonate with a word somewhere else. Very often while doing this I find better words, more often than not they turn out not to rhyme with anything. Go with them if they work better.
The next two revision points are related to how the piece appears visually and also controls its pace, the way it would sound in your head or if read aloud.
P along with L is one of the most important stages of this process. P is for punctuation and L for line breaks, which we’ll come to.
They will determine the way your poem looks on the page, as well as determining how it is read, the breaths and pauses.
This is the presentation of the poem.
For a long time I wrote in lower case only. This wasn’t simply an affectation. I felt that the words were somehow freed up from the constraints of capitalisation and punctuation. I know other poets wrote in this way but no idea of their justification for it. This was mine alone.
I have moved on since then, and capitalisation has returned for the most part.
You may or may not choose to employ either, but whatever your choice make it consistent. Here, I would consider what style of punctuation you wish to employ and make it consistent within the piece, unless you have a very good reason for not doing so. Some might.
Whole books have been written about line breaks, which is our L consideration. At least one book anyway, ‘The Art of The Poetic Line’ a copy of which is well worth the investment.
Glyn Maxwell also has some very useful things to say about line breaks in his ‘On Poetry’.
For me, they are about time and pauses, functioning for the most part as replacements for full stops and commas.
One line break is a comma. A stanza break is a full stop. However this just a current experiment of mine and does not cover the full diverse purposes for which line breaks can be employed. Check out one or both of the books mentioned. You’ll thank me for it.
This section is aimed mainly at free verse rather than formal structures, although in something like the sonnet you may wish to introduce stanza breaks either formally or randomly.
Here, you will look at where each line ends and consider whether this is the appropriate break.
Some words may need a line to themselves if one wishes to highlight it for instance.
Read the beast aloud and consider whether the slight pauses at the end of each line are in the right place. Should there be long pauses, short pauses? It is up to you to decide how to communicate the pause to the reader. I consider line breaks to be the best option, but use what suits you best.
The last three letters are the most intense in terms of scrutiny. To a certain extent we are looking at aspects we have already covered, but fine tuning what we have edited. It demands concentration and a little ruthlessness.
B is for best word. Examine every word. Is that the best word you can think of? Interrogate them all. Make that word justify its place.
R is for redundancy. This is your final chance to look at the elements of your poem and remove anything that does not need to be there. Words, phrases, lines, stanzas.
Examine Every Line! Is the line necessary? Is it doing its job?
This is your final chance to check – line by line – whether your poem works or not. By now you should have rid yourself of cliches, redundancies and anything else that does not add to the work. If there is something missing, it should have been picked up before now but here is a final chance to add something that might make your poem shine brighter, or remove a line that was hiding it back. Make this section count.
Once you’re happy with this, make the amendments and your poem should be in a far healthier state.
I am afraid of France.
I fear it will look down on me
with a nose-up glance
once I have landed
and finished looking down on it.
I fear its gravity will be different,
that I will be surrounded by mostachioed
men in raincoats who will
force me into a heavy beret
to stop me floating away.
I fear its skies
will be composed of giant brush strokes and that its weather
will be contrary
to my every choice of clothing
except the beret.
I fear its streets will
beat the soles of my feet with every step.
I will be stalked by accordionists
playing ‘La Vie En Rose’.
Cafe Owners will glare at me
from behind bloody striped clothes,
a Gauloise smoking from the corner of a downturned lip
and I fear
that my legs will adopt a british accent
while I am inevitably
running for the border
pursued by older men
with beards, torches,
ropes of garlic.
We wait to see who will make the first move
offering dual sacrifice and threat.
It is a game some say but this is just
a convenient tag to honey life.
This is the bedrock of the human soul,
the war we carry with us from the egg,
embedded in a checkerboard of genes.
I am sometimes white, you often black,
our thoughts in negative across the board
in some antagonistic harmony.
Pawns lumber shivering to work, heads bowed.
Ranks expand to Linked-in, Facebook. Your move.
Knights and bishops gallivanting out now.
You do not see me slip behind the rook.
OK. Here’s a thing I’ve been doing for the last year or so. You might like to give it a go.
Pick a place you go regularly which has a changing clientele; a pub, a coffee shop, a bus stop, a laundrette, a regular train. It needs to be somewhere where you will be sitting or standing near a stranger for at least five minutes. My particular place is a coffee shop I visit quite regularly, usually to do some writing, although I do confess that other coffee shops are also employed. As long as there is some kind of consistency of background you are allowed to change gyms, laundrettes or bus-stops, as long as you move from gym to gym and not gym to laundrette. This will help to build a collection of work where the subjects are related by the location.
Pick someone and study them closely. Ask yourself questions. What are they wearing? Who are they with? Why are they there? What are they doing? (Many of them will be engaged with a mobile device of some sort, but don’t let that put you off. What are they doing with it?) Be Sherlock Holmes and attempt to deduce from your observations a background to your subject. What is their mood? How do they move and speak? What do they do with their hands? Look at the body language.
What do they eat and drink?
Sometimes they may speak to you, or you may overhear what they say. Try to record not only what they say but how they say it.
Now, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write one poem per visit, of exactly fifty words about your chosen subject. Title each one and number them sequentially in the same format such as ‘Kings Arms Drinker No 6’
It is for one thing a marvellous exercise in brevity and paraphrasing and forces you to make difficult choices in order to present information with the minimum of words.
It’s also (at least for me) fascinatingly addictive. I am up to ‘Costa People No 59’ and may well have chosen number 60 by the time I finish writing this.
You may also find yourself looking at finding different and more interesting ways of constructing your pieces as your collection grows which should have a direct effect on your other work outside of this process.
You will also find that you, as the writer, become an additional character in this disjointed narrative of fleeting lives.
I should, I suppose, provide an example. I like examples. Don’t however assume that you need to copy this style. The people you select will be yours to do with whatever you may.
Costa People 12
god knows how long
he has dozed
chin on armrest
clutching a dumb phone
two carrier bags
rucksack gagged mute
badly turned up for the black books
‘i’m waiting for a friend’ he mutters
when the barista
frothing frustrated steam
wakes him with a
stare of eviction
‘Thank you very much for submitting your work. After careful consideration, we have not found a suitable place for it in our upcoming issue.
We appreciate the opportunity to read your words, and we wish you the best of luck in placing your work elsewhere!
I have been going through one of those periods of acceptance drought. Despite submitting over a hundred poems here and there I have been getting relentless rejection of late. One does get hardened to this, although one cannot help a certain ennui setting in when one has opened yet another of these ‘Thank you for your recent submission but..’ emails.
After many years of this I am somewhat numb to rejection, seeing it for what it is. It’s not personal. There’s huge amount of stiff competition out there and I can at least console myself with over a hundred previous publications.
There’s a but though. Sometimes, just sometimes, it brings you down. It’s not helped by the fact that I suffer from recurrent depression during which times I look at my work and see only amateurish ramblings. I’m wise enough to my moods to now know that this is not the true picture and carry on regardless, knowing that at some point The Black Dog will trot off back to wherever it lives when it’s not visiting.
Having said that I have developed a cathartic process of envisioning myself, just for a few seconds, angrily shaking my fist in the general direction of the publishers in question and shouting ‘Bastards!’
It doesn’t half make me feel better, and no one need ever know… until now obviously. But I trust you. I know it won’t go any further.
Thankfully I had one acceptance very recently of four pieces which will appear next year in the marvellous ‘Obsessed with Pipework’.
The best thing to do is to send out more. I’ll enter the National Poetry competition and there’s half a dozen or more well known mags open for subs this month.
Onwards and upwards.