About eighty have arrived so far. The postie is no longer surprised by the weight of our mail.
Cue nostalgia trip. Do you remember when students did the Christmas post?
In December our regular postman disappeared (there were no postwomen in our town, if anywhere). Students were back from University and they staggered down the streets (in the snow) bearing huge sacks of Christmas mail. We would lie in wait for them, eye them up, wonder how they managed to carry the huge load. We heard they were highly paid, they couldn’t wait to get home to take on the job, from which they quickly became rich. They were people’s older brothers or sons of friends of my mother’s: exotic strangers, former children who had shot into the glory of paid adulthood.
There wasn’t just one delivery a day either. There were at least two as standard. Parcels came tied up with string. You needed scissors to open them. But in any case you weren’t allowed to open them, and you didn’t.
On the Sunday before Christmas there was an extra delivery. We were supposed to offer the postman a mince pie. Those students must have had to trudge back to the sorting office for each load because none of them then had cars and the load was too heavy for a bike. That was when work was work and a letter never arrived lightly.
Back to the submissions, which slide through the door with never a whimper, except the ones that are sent recorded delivery or signed for, a horrible thing when you’re in the shower and the postman knows you’re there because the downstairs light is on.
Three kinds of mail arrive here at the moment. Submissions, Christmas cards, and orders (yeay!). Just occasionally there is a letter – I mean a personal letter. I like letters and although it’s getting increasingly difficult to do it, I like replying to them.
So I log the submissions in my big book, and number them and, as you know, read the covering letter. I read at least one set of poems a day but I’m behind now because Christmas is getting more insistent. Last week, someone (she knows who she is) sent me a letter in the form of my own checklist from last week, with answers on each of the points. It made me laugh for joy. Someone reads this! The loneliness of the long-distance blogger is exaggerated.
So yes, there’s another internal checklist for the poems themselves. And many of them arrive beautifully and clearly wordprocessed and a pleasure to read. Name and address on every sheet. Sometimes on gloriously expensive paper too (this is absolutely not necessary but nice all the same). Such arrivals tick, as they say, every box. But others . . .
On the submission page on the website, it suggests “A4 envelopes are best, so the poems don't have a deep fold down the middle”. Also “please don’t staple or bind”.
People do staple, bind and fold. I invariably take the staples out and if, in the process, I bleed, it is not good for the poems.
In my list of Do’s and Don’ts, I suggest people word-process poems in a plain font – Calibri or Arial, or Garamond, or Palatino Linotype. Even Times Roman. Something that doesn’t draw attention to itself rather than to the poems”. As for the size of the print, I suggest you “use the size of font you’d expect to find in a book, probably a 12 and on no account bigger than 14.” Size 10 is too small.
Often poets vary the sizes of the fonts from poem to poem. If it’s a long poem, they shrink the font to make it fit inside the page. Some poems shrink so small I have to squint to read them. Others suddenly become huge and I'm disoriented.
Line spacing? Poems in books are usually somewhere between single-spacing and 1.5, depending on the editor/typesetter. There's enough space between the lines to look nice. But poems are not double spaced, unless the poet is writing in one-line stanzas (this does happen). Prose submissions are traditionally double-spaced but not poems. They need to look like they're going to look in the book, or roughly. And when some poems are single-spaced and others double, oh oh oh!
Most people send poems on A4 paper, of course, and quite right. It's what I prefer. However, it does mean the author tends to 'see' the poem surrounded by the kind of space A4 allows for. In this context, a lengthy line looks loopingly graceful. You can fit a lot of poem onto an A4 page and still have space to breathe.
But HappenStance pamphlets are A5, and most books are similar. (It’s sometimes worth thinking about this when sending to magazines too – some are A4 in size and can accommodate wide poems beautifully; others are too small to do it easily.) It doesn’t mean you should never send me poems with long lines: it simply means be aware of the difference it makes. Very long lines will end up dog-legged on my pages, and therefore the poem will look different. (When we did Chrissy Williams’ Flying Into The Bear we had to think about this a lot.)
What should you do if your poem runs over more than one page? Of course poems are allowed to do that – they can do just what they like. But often people end the first page at the close of a stanza or line that could represent an actual ending. In this case, I spend ages thinking long and hard about the poem, which has (I think) ended. Only to find, when I’ve written some thoughts and comments, there’s more on the next page. It’s amazing how often, in such a situation, the first ending seems preferable, even though it was never meant to be one.
When I print pamphlets, one of my house rules is to make a two-page poem start on a left hand page so you can see at a glance that it hasn’t ended at the bottom of the page. If it’s a three page poem, so it’s still continuing after page two, I try to finish the page on a line that couldn’t possibly be the end – no full stop – so the reader will naturally turn over to see what happens next.
When it comes to long poems, the easiest thing is just to write at the bottom of the page ‘cont. over’ or ‘page 1 of 2’, or something that makes it dead obvious the end is not nigh.
Should all this matter? No, of course not. The poems should speak for themselves.
It’s just a matter of helping them along.