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What C-19 is doing to poetry publishing

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Last week four poets wrote offering me the opportunity of publishing their work. When I read the first email, I was gobsmacked. The message (the same was true of the other three) made no reference to the current C-19 situation. Just the usual I have been writing for 4 years. I attach X poems on the theme of revenge/archery/cryogenics/dementia. I believe they will appeal to a wide range of readers. Do let me know if you would be interested in publishing etc. etc.

Numerous poets are at home at the moment, social distancing or self-isolating, or checking their stock of paracetamol. Clearly some of them are also pitching to publishers. Is this a good time? Ho-hum. Think about it from the publisher's point of view. In fact, that's what our best-selling title How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published suggests. It also says that 'strategy' is vital in getting work published. But it doesn't explain what you're supposed to do in the middle of a global pandemic.

What are publishers doing right now? Apart from looking for toilet rolls, there's a good chance they're worrying. About book sales. About new titles, and forthcoming books. About cancelled launches. About closed bookshops. About postponed events (where poets would normally shift some books). About having already printed too many copies. Will their distributor keep distributing, and if so (with most bookshops closed) to whom? Will their printer go under?

Meanwhile, printers are worrying about publishers. Will planned print runs go ahead? Will publishers want fewer copies? Will they defer printing until later in the year, if at all? Will they be able to service the loans on their fiendishly expensive print machines?

Everybody's doing their best. Big print companies are still running so far, with distancing protection for their staff. Publishers and event organisers are doing online launches and live streaming. Online sales are being brandished. The Poetry Book Society is working hard to turn a drama into a growth opportunity.

But the key factor is uncertainty. Nobody knows how all of this will affect the tiny niche that constitutes the poetry book market.

Whatever each publisher's long-term plan may be, the current priority is selling this year's titles. New proposals can wait.

Here, we have a mountain of boxes in the hall and under the stairs. The mountain contains new pamphlets (Nancy Campbell's Navigationand Annie Fisher's The Deal) and two books to be launched in May (Alan Buckley's Touched and Charlotte Gann's The Girl Who Cried). We have no room for more boxes.

Can I find readers for these new titles? Over the next couple of months (when, yes, I will be doing online launches) we will see. It's a fascinating chance to do things differently, and the publications are fabulous. I believe we will manage it. But there's a lot to learn. Every day the powers-that-be (or the powers-that-were) tell us something we aren't expecting.

On the good side, poetry's a long game. Publishers plan for posterity. But we need to sell books right now. It's essential to keep the cycle moving, which is how we afford to publish the next poets.

So back to your poetry publishing strategy. Perhaps you hope to place a book or pamphlet with a good publisher in the next year or so. How doyou plan round the current situation? Here's a suggestion for the next three months.

Read. Read poems. Old ones, new ones, winning ones, unnoticed ones. Make your own anthology of your favourites and notice who first published them. Learn a couple off by heart (while out on your daily walk). Get right inside them like an old coat. Note down tricks you can try yourself, lines that you love, and why. This feeds into your writing. It's the holy grail, the creative source.

Write. Make poems. Ditch them. Make more. Work on old poems and make them stronger. Send to magazines that are still going strong. Get them, if you can, accepted by top online (and paper-based) outlets, so somebody (not you) may notice and share them on social media. By all means enter competitions: the organisers need the money now more than ever, and if you win, or place, it's another good profile-raiser.

Review. You may not be confident about writing reviews, but anybody can manage two lines and a star rating on Amazon. Or a whole paragraph on goodreads, my favourite social media site (even if it is owned by Amazon). Or try an OPOI on a poetry pamphlet. Poets notice who reviews their work. Publishers notice who reviews their poets' work.

Buy books. Select judiciously. Feed your reading programme and publishers at the same time. If you think publishers don't notice who buys books from their own website, you're wrong. What's the magic factor in getting a collection published? It's when the publisher already knows your name (for the right reasons) before you make an approach.

If you absolutely cannot resist emailing publishers with proposals, at least remember to ask after their health, since they (and their loved ones) may not be in great shape. Check out the submissions page of their website first. Don't send uninvited poems (they'll delete them). Ask whether they might possibly be in a position to look at some.

Good luck —but good planning is better. After three months, review the situation and revise your strategy. You can find free planning sheets here.

p.s. If you'd like an invitation to HappenStance online launches, the first of which will be in a couple of weeks, please make sure you're signed up for notifications on the home page of the website. 


Unwrapping the WrapperRhymes

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So the WrapperRhyme exhibition DID happen!

It happened at STAnza, Scotland's poetry festival in St Andrews.

It happened while gatherings of people were still going ahead (though nobody coughed or sneezed).

How lucky we were! One week later and we would have been scuppered.

I hope the photo-gallery on this page will show some of the preparations (I haven't done this before). The strings of regular-sized WrapperRhymes were suspended in the display area of Innes's bookshop. Outsizes and 'rebels' were in folders.

There were typed versions to read as well (since many rhymers have colossally illegible handwriting) in the folders.

The 3D Wrappers (e.g. boxes of tissues, cheese, chocolates and tubs of ice-cream) were on shelves.

There was a corner for Tunnock's products alone, and a chair to sit in while writing your own rhyme and pinning it to the board supplied (lots of people did this).

Or if you preferred, you could sit in the boat. It was challenging getting that boat up (and down) the stairs, but we thought it was worth it.

Jenny Elliott and I orchestrated two talks on the WrapperRhymes, and some rhymers came along to read their rhymes (once they had located them, in the air or in a folder). At the end of each talk, the audience sang a WrapperRhyme about tinned tomatoes to the tune of Tom Jones's version of 'Delilah'. They sang with such gusto that book-buyers downstairs were slightly alarmed.

Now the exhibition is dismantled so I am in process of boxing and labelling everything and putting it in plastic boxes, which will go into our roof space. Ultimately they will be housed with the HappenStance archives in The National Library of Scotland. So if your WrapperRhyme is in there, a bit of you will be saved for posterity, fully identified and catalogued. They should be there long after Covid-19 is a distant (albeit painful) memory.

We had some merry merchandise too, including WrapperRhyme bookmarks and WrapperRhyme beermats. If you order anything from the website, you're highly likely to find one of each in your parcel.

Huge thanks to everybody who contributed. It was wonderful. 


HappenStance at StAnza

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This weekend it's all stations go preparing for StAnza, the poetry festival in St Andrews which runs from March 4-8th and to which poetry lovers from far and wide will flock. They're packing their bags right now.

An extraordinary variety and range of performers will feature. These include some I know rather well. 

For example, there's Gerry Cambridge,who will read from his new book The Light Acknowledgers on next Thursday afternoon

And there's Nancy Campbell whose HappenStance pamphlet, Navigations, is officially published on the date of her afternoon reading next Saturday (but you can get it right now, if you want a copy before that). She is featuring at a poetry breakfast too, which is live-streamed earlier that same day, so can be watched at home. So even if you can't make it to StAnza, StAnza can make it to you.

If you entered the WrapperRhyme challenge, you too (or your work, at least) will also be on display all week in J G Innes's bookshop (upstairs gallery). If you can't come, I will take photos once Jenny Elliott and I get the whole thing on display. It's looking marvellous even in its disassembled form. 

And if you think poets are not all in the same boat, you may change your mind when you see the boat in the WrapperRhyme exhibition. If you are at the festival, please come to the talk on the Friday afternoon if you can, especially if you have a WrapperRhyme on display. This event will be participative!

There will be a HappenStance flashmob again too. Not Edward Lear this year, but Hilaire Belloc's Matilda, and although all flashmobs are absolutely secret, I can reveal that early on Saturday evening in the Byre café something might happen.

Poets are often a bit intense. But they're also allowed to have fun. 


SONNET OR NONNET?

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During the last ever reading window, there were many sonnets. This form (unlike the villanelle) is close to my heart, so sending some to me ought theoretically to be a good thing. But I've been thinking about sonnets for more than half a century (because I am OLD) and of course I've written them (or attempted to) at intervals. So I may be harder on them than anybody else.

A few centuries ago, when sonnets first became popular in courtly circles, the formal rules were clear enough, though even then not fixed. In the sonnets I most love, which include Shakespeare (of course) and Wyatt and Sydney, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edna St Vincent Millay, Elinor Wylie and Eleanor Farjeon, it's the tension between constraint and experiment that gives me pleasure. I love this particular way of tying up human consciousness in an electric box.

So I thought I might explain — as much for myself as anybody else — how I read a poem that looks like it might be a sonnet. Is it a sonnet or isn't it? And what difference does it make what you call it?

If the poem looks sonnet-ish (size and shape) my mental checklist pops up. If more than one box is ticked, I figure the poem could be thinking of itself as a sonnet. Before anybody gets aerated, I'm not suggesting any of these characteristics are essential. Only that they are to me the most obvious indicators, based on the English sonnet tradition.

Sonnet indicators

  1. Calls itself 'sonnet'
  2. 14 lines
  3. Metrical pattern: most likely iambic pentameter
  4. Lines of 10-11 syllables
  5. Shape — an oblong box, perhaps with a gap just below the middle.
  6. Lines of irregular metre but five strongly stressed syllables in each line
  7. Lines of regular length, syllabically or metrically
  8. A structured rhyme scheme
  9. An argument: opens with proposition, shifts to resolution
  10. A 'volta' (or turn in the argument/thought) at or about the ninth line
  11. An 8-line + 6-line structure (octet and sestet) (marked by stanzas or rhyme scheme or 'turn')
  12. A rhyming couplet at the end
  13. A structural pattern created by line-end words (hard to define: may not be rhyme so much as deliberate similarity)
  14. High level of compression/intensity focussed round a single idea


If the poem doesn't have 14 lines but does have a clear 'turn' about two thirds of the way through, it may well be thinking of itself in sonnet terms. George Meredith's sonnets in Modern Love (which was modern in 1862) had 16 lines each.

And if the poem has 14 lines and one (at least) of the first four is in regular iambic pentameter, it certainly suggests something. (Contemporary sonnets with no regular metre will often have at least one such line.)

But if it's in seven two-line stanzas with no 'turn', no rhyme, uneven line lengths, and no metrical pattern, I will wonder whether the term 'sonnet' is relevant.

On the other hand, if it's in seven two-line stanzas rhyming abba abba cdcdcd, I will think SONNET.

If it's in seven unrhymed, two-line stanzas of loose iambic pentameter, I will feel it's going sonnet-wards.

None of this is about being right or definitive or exclusive. It's personal. I am just trying to explain, as a practising poet and poetry reader, my thinking.

Suppose the poem calls itself: 'Sonnet for Eliza'. Eliza's sonnet has fourteen lines of irregular length, no metrical pattern, no rhyme or sound structure that I can detect, and apparently no 'volta' or any of the other features on my list. I might, therefore, assume the poet is offering it as a 'free verse sonnet'. But I find that term a bit of an oxymoron and, to be honest, I'm not convinced a free verse sonnet is something to aspire to. This is not a criticism of the poem as a poem.

However, everything that calls itself 'poem' stands in some relationship to whatever else is called 'poem', just as all visual art asserts itself in relation to a culture and tradition of visual practice. So any poem that calls itself 'sonnet' has a relationship to the sonnet tradition. Being aware of that tradition can give added aesthetic pleasure (in the same way that sampling a good malt whisky is enhanced by intimate and informed acquaintance with other quality malts).

Sometimes the relationship between a poem and its traditions is defined simply by doing none of what might be expected. So there's some mileage (though it is hardly novel) in calling something 'sonnet' when it conforms to nobody's expectations of that form. The most extreme example of this may be Don Paterson's 'The Version', a prose piece with a volta (a kind of joke about a sonnet that vanished) extending over three pages in a book titled 40 Sonnets.

When it comes to learning sonnets by heart (I recommend this to anyone trying to write them), a structured sonnet is the most pleasurable kind. Getting it by heart allows you inside the mind of the poem and therefore the poet. If the sonnet isn't beautifully constructed, you're unlikely to get far. If the manufacture is high-quality and durable, each and every phrase will seem inevitable and, at the same time, surprising.

You might start with some of the HappenStance sonnet cards. Each contains a sonnet I recommend, and we produce new ones regularly. I apologise if one of them turns out to be by me. You'll find these in the HappenStance web-shop

If you learn any one of them by heart, they'll last a lifetime — which is more than you can say for Glenfiddich.


NO COMPLAINTS ABOUT CONSTRAINTS!

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I don't mean manacles or chains. Or dungeons.

But other kinds of constraints apply a kind of pressure that may make the poet surprise her or himself. Think what Shakespeare did inside iambic pentameter, and Thom Gunn inside syllabic forms.

The WrapperRhyme challenge offered some old constraints and some new ones, and it's been fascinating to see how writers responded to these.

Rhyming, for example, is one of the oldest constraints. Generally, I'd say poets are less good at it than they used to be (with notable exceptions) because it's not one of the main tools of contemporary poetry. But still some lovely examples of super-rhyme have arrived here, and I've been tweeting or instagramming some of them.

But simply writing on a wrapper is in itself a constraint. Much of the wrapping material used for confectionery, for example, is that silvery slippery stuff that welcomes no pen. There are pens that will write on it, but you have to go to some lengths to find them. My implement of choice is Staedtler Lumocolor Marker Pen Permanent Special from Cult Pens. (I am on my fourth pen.)

Crisps and savoury snacks are usually bagged in the same silvery stuff but with an added element of grease at which even the Lumocolor Marker Pens jib. You have to wash the wrapping in soapy water (or at least you could, depending on how you respond to constraint).

But how fascinating, when you think of ancient humans painting on the walls of caves, that we can find ways of applying our mark to almost anything! And food for thought too about how easily we pick up another piece of paper, and another, and another. Or a screen. Or a phone. No shortage of welcoming surfaces for us.

Some entrants, defeated by the difficulty of writing on wrappers, 'cheated' by writing (or typing) onto labels and sticking these to the wrapper. Others stuck the whole wrapper to another backing material and wrote on that.

I love all the rebels. That's another thing about constraint: it feeds rebellion. Without something to rebel against, where would any art movement be?

But I haven't mentioned the obvious constraint of handwriting. Is handwriting getting less legible? Possibly. Certainly some excellent WrapperRhyme examples were extremely hard to read, and without the transcript one would have been seriously lost. No spell-check either, so some spelling was ... creative.

There were constraints of length in the rules too (but many people forgot about them, either accidentally or on purpose) and constraints of the size of the wrapper in the rules (some huge envelopes dropping through the letter box showed what many poets thought about THAT).

And there was the constraint of having to mention the product (or some aspect of it) somewhere or somehow in the content of the poem.

For some writers this was a key advantage because it gave them something to play with. Others wrote whatever they wanted to write anyway and the product just got a mention in a free-floating title (and wrapper-rhymes don't have to have titles at all, though of course they may).

I had expected the rhymers to write on the back of the wrapper, simply because it hadn't occurred to me to do anything else (the Ted Hughes prototype was definitely on the back). But some of them incorporated their rhyme into the actual design on the front of the wrapper. Sometimes this worked rather elegantly. At other times, well ....

Right now we're logging the entries carefully (I'm up to number 88 so far but there is a huge box of them waiting) and beginning to work on making all of them into something else, namely an exhibition/installation. It's going to be really interesting working out how to display a two-sided product in multiple sizes and materials.

But Jenny Elliott and I have a million ideas for handling this constraint. Constraints are great. 


WrapperRhyme Challenge DEADLINE approaches

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23 days, 11 hours, 18 minutes and 29 seconds until Christmas Day which means 24 days, 12 hours, 31 minutes and 29 seconds for WrapperRhymes to arrive at my door.

If you haven't heard about the international call-out for WrapperRhymes, where have you been? Entries have been being shared on Twitter, Instagram and FaceBook ever since 8 June 2019 when the whole idea was launched. (To find them search under the hashtag #HapWrap.)

Since then many envelopes have tumbled through the door here containing wrapper-rhymes of all shapes and sizes, many of them flagrantly and deliciously breaking all the rules. We have even had wrapper-rhymes that didn't rhyme.

But there's still time left for you to join the fray, if you're reading this before Christmas 2019.

Please do one, or more, and share the idea with as many friends as possible. They don't have to be poets. Just people who like rhyming.

Plans are afoot to display them in all sorts of different ways, suspended in strings, on shelves, tables, floors, walls. It will be a memorable event reaching its highpoint at StAnza in St Andrews with a marvelous display of the entries. At 15.45 on Friday 6 March, if you're there for the festival (and why would you not be?) you can come along and hear me talking about them and sharing some aloud.

The genre (as you can read in the original blog) was first thought up by Ted Hughes, with a nonsense rhyme in the vein of Ogden Nash. But since we launch the WrapperRhyme challenge other sub-genres have emerged. There may be some singing....

Why? Well because of the genres that have emerged. For example, there's the song-lyric WrapperRhyme, also known as The Cornetto (launched by Walls in 1982, though alas not written on a Cornetto wrapper). Song-lyric WrapperRhymes have appeared on the wrappers of tins of tomatoes (Why, why, why, tomato) and on wine labels (The Wichita Wine Man). The most recent was on Cadbury's Darkmilk (King of the choc).

Then there is the noble-poem-parody WrapperRhyme, to which Emily Dickinson, W H Auden, Robert Frost, John Keats and William Wordsworth have all fallen victim. It is not their fault.

There is the Deliberately Bad Wrapper-Rhyme of which McGonagall would have been proud, and the Comment-on-health-benefits Wrapper-Rhyme (we have had rhymes on food which had almost nothing harmful in it, as well as the polar opposite).

Some of the very best WrapperRhymes received so far have been short, sweet and extremely pithy. The WrapperRhyme couplet should never be underrated, nor the WrapperRhyme epigram.

In fact, the WrapperRhyme is a unique celebration of the fact that poetry is allowed to play and absolutely everyone can join the game.

(Entry form and rules here.)