23 April 2008

Poet as Potter

Here it is almost the end of National Poetry Month. I have enjoyed reading the extra bits and bobs of poetry posted in the blogs and forums I frequent. I even had a good dig through some of my old work. Quite a revealing experience, and no, we don’t really want to go there. While rummaging, I found something I wrote for the ancient online version of Bonfire on the subject of publishing poetry on the web. Most of it was mind numbing, but some of it was salvageable. In keeping with the present eco-ethos, I will share it with you now:

I am drawn to commentary by artists of all sorts who talk about why they do the things they do. One point is invariably made: we write (paint, sculpt, photograph, etc.) because we have no choice to do otherwise. We are compelled to express or create or try that thing which our instincts have chosen for us. But how important is it that someone else will ever appreciate the fruits of that inspiration? Like the rest, I write because I must. But when someone else reads what I have written, and drops me a line or two about how they are touched, it is given another dimension.

I wrote this verse to explain what writing poetry means to me:


sometimes I need to make a pot
sometimes I want to play
sometimes I long to wallow
in the wetness of the clay

sometimes I want to watch the wheel
and listen to it sing
or contemplate in silence
why I ever bought the thing

I wonder in amazement
when I wander off in thought
not knowing whether I'll return
as potter or as pot

Carrie Berry
© 1997
There are degrees of skill in poetry as well as pottery. Maybe it's enough to get your hands covered with clay, and see the crude lump turn into something vaguely resembling a vessel. Until one day someone comes along and says, "Hey, you really have something there. Have you thought about selling your work?" You might pull together a few of your pieces and sit in the sun at the next wine and art festival or, if you are clever, talk a local shopkeeper into displaying a couple of your pots on his shelves. If you are possessed of genius, your work might attract the attention of an art critic along the way, or you might win a competition if you can only find out where to apply. But the process is pretty random, and public tastes aren't ready for your style. They can get glitzier looking imported stuff from chain boutiques for only a few quid.

What is the market for poetry? A few of my friends have complained that poets these days are only writing for other poets. I am not sure that is such a bad thing. Poetry has been important since I was a child, but I have read a lot more of it since I started writing my own. The earlier authors may have been better known but, with a few exceptions, I have been touched more by the unknown authors that have crossed my path. Something about the personal writing process made me appreciate how well the successful poets were doing it. I couldn't get enough. I was disappointed in the two foot long poetry sections in my local bookstores, and started pawing through piles of discarded books at flea markets. I found a second-hand book seller who, noticing my tastes, would watch for poetry volumes, selling them to me for no more than fifty cents a piece. I could tell within a minute or two whether I was going to like the collection, and rarely came home from his stall without three or four volumes to read.

The literary magazines I picked up in the larger bookstores were disappointing. In most cases, I couldn't justify spending the three or four dollars asked. There were collections of the more well known poets, but new books are so expensive. I didn't need to own them - I just wanted the opportunity to read the poems. The library was full of older stuff, but there was nothing published after the seventies.

In the course of searching for good new poetry to read, I discovered the internet. Now talk about stuff not worth reading: the web is full of it! But on the other hand, access is easy, and resources abound to point you in a direction, if not necessarily the right one. But it is a path into which you can take the first step. It doesn't take long to glance at a poem or two on a site and get a feel for the tastes of an editor, or the lack of same.

For a while I even edited my own poetry zine: iguanaland: the hottest poetry rag south of the virtual border. I received hundreds of submissions for publication that I felt the need to reject. Better than 50% of the poems I actually published were ones that I recruited from other sources, including the poetry workshop portion of my old site. The only important criterion for inclusion was that the poem had to sing to ME. I received only a few letters from people who wrote to say they loved the mag. I finally reached a point where the time spent in keeping it up didn't justify the satisfaction I received from it.

I am surfing and reading a bit more these days now that I am retired. And I am beginning to feel more like being read. Whether I will do anything about it is anybody's guess.

Those of you who write poetry and want to be read can find a multitude of places that will accept your work. Look for a venue that seems to be selective and features work that sings to you. In spite of your frustration with being told that your work is not right for a particular zine, take all criticism in the spirit in which it is offered. Be especially grateful if an editor takes the time to tell you what seems to be lacking. Even if he or she is "wrong" you can learn something. Don't try to see how many places will take your work. I would rather have my work published in one or two zines whose standards reflect my own, than to have my name splattered all over the web in forums that advertise, "send us your poems - we will print anything."

At some point I hope to give you a list of my favourite spots.


Jim Murdoch said...

It is true there are loads and loads of places where you can submit your poetry to. The problem with online submissions is that these sites can find themselves inundated with submissions and they can only publish a fraction of what they receive so you want to make sure you don't waste your time and theirs by sending to the wrong kind of mag.

One of the best places to start of looking for the right kind of site for you is New Pages Blog and I would recommend subscribing to its RSS feed. That way, every day practically you will get a nice e-mail or three telling you about what magazines are looking for new stuff. It'll also tell you when new sites come on-line. BTW it doesn't just deal with webzines – it covers print magazines too.

Be prepared for a long wait though when you do start sending stuff out. Three months is not unreasonable.

Carrie Berry said...

Thanks, Jim. I had a look and will add the New Pages blog to my list. Their website, newpages.com, gets right into the meat of things and has an impressive set of lists, but there don't appear to be very many UK titles. As for RSS feeds, I am still suffering from posteditorial stress from submissions to the Fandango zines, so for now I will go looking when I need to.

Unknown said...

My acceptance and publication in Bonfire was the high point of 30 years. When I first began writing and sending out poetry, actually my first submission, my poems were picked up to fill out half of the publication. That was, in retrospect an important milestone. For one thing it helped to forge what I think about what I am doing as a poet. The appearance in Bonfire, within the context of your selection and the surrounding writers that I felt truly comfortable with, made me feel that I had arrived at where I had set out for so many years previously, and for so many years of intently not publishing.

I have not sent out, or had any poem published since Bonfire until now at Night Train, where you had recommended that I look. I am slow, yes, but the poetry does not seem to suffer for it.

Regardless, the appearance in Night Train a friend who is not a writer, who is barely a reader, and whom I did not anticipate would even look, read the poem and wrote back to me that it is running across stuff like this that keeps him waking up in the morning. That touch, of a poem to a non-poet (though I believe that there are many poets that don't know it) made my day.

I very much like your pottery/pot poem.

I will keep checking in here to see what you are up to.

Unknown said...

That was Gabriel Orgrease, above... fumbling with the Internet that wants to erase my identity!

Carrie Berry said...

I'd recognise your dot even without your face, GO.