Sunday, 14 September 2014

The spaces between

On Friday I went to the Gulbenkian to see Carol Ann Duffy perform as part of the Wise Words Festival. I knew it would be inspirational to hear her read (last time I saw her she made a comment about how the sonnet was the ‘little black dress of love poetry’, which inspired the form of a poem I’d been struggling to write – Little Black Dress.)

I was impressed last time I saw her, and this time, even more so. Last Friday she had musician John Sampson on stage with her. He plays various wind instruments, ranging from Sopranino recorder, to a Chinese woodwind instrument that I’d never heard of. He seemed a genuinely nice guy, with a quick witted sense of humour delivered in his Scottish accent.

Listening to poetry live, especially in a great performance venue like the Gulbenkian, is always powerful. Hearing a poet lift words from the page, and project them out into the world, adds a new dimension. When we read poetry in a book, the formatting is important, the shape of the lines, the white space on the page change how we interpret a poem. When listening to poems read aloud, it’s the silences that affect us, the inhalations, the exhalations, they are as important as the spoken word, they give shape and definition, they give us space to reflect, to absorb what’s being said.

Silences around music are important too. A silence provides an edge for us to collide with. I used to play in school orchestras and bands, and my favourite moments in a performance were those split seconds of silence, when the music has stopped and the moment seems to hang in the air, just before the applause starts.

Combining music and spoken words multiplies the effect of these silences. The spaces between the words and music become deeper and more intense, and by contrast so do the words and music. Carol Ann Duffy’s performance was full of those moments of silence, concentrating the resonance of her work.

I am in awe of people who have that kind of power over words. Using everyday language she gave me goosebumps, tingles down my spine and choked me with tears. It reminded me of what’s possible.

I tend to get embarrassingly star-struck around good poets, my tongue just won’t say the things I want to say to them, and I struggle not to sound like a gushing teenager. But at least this time, as she signed my book, I managed to tell her how wonderful I thought the combination of words and music was without drooling on her shoes

Thursday, 4 September 2014


As a writer, rejection is something you have to get used to if you want your work out there. At first you may hesitantly show some writing to a loved one, then you may tentatively show a few more people, if you go to a writing class, you’ll be reading your work to other people there too. These are the baby steps that are often necessary for us to begin feeling like we are actual ‘writers’.

Of course anyone can say they are a writer, but I feel it takes a leap into that relationship with a reader that turns tenuous scribblings into something more tangible. Of course we can all journal, write down our angsty/gorgeous/poetic/catastrophic/whatever words, and that’s totally fine if that’s all we want to do, it’s a way of expressing ourselves, just getting it out of our system. But, if you have something to say, it’s good to feel that someone will listen to it.

By doing that though, we risk that people won’t like what we write. That we won’t be good enough. I think all writers have that critic on their shoulder at times, the one that says you can’t write, you’re rubbish/boring/predictable, no one will want to read anything you write etc etc, the critic that stops us writing, and keeps everything we do write private. It’s hard to take the risk of hearing that voice from real people – it’s bad enough if we think it, if other people do, then it MUST be true.

And the thing you learn, when you do start getting out there, when you do start sharing your work, is that most people will be kind, most people will like something in your writing, but some people won’t. And that is ok. Reading and writing is such a subjective personal thing, that just because someone doesn’t like what you do, it doesn’t mean it’s rubbish. It may mean it needs more work to realise its potential, or they may just not like your style. Of course sometimes there will be things that just aren’t working at this point in time, pieces it’s worth putting to one side, or even abandoning. But that’s just one piece of work, it’s not true for everything you write, and it doesn’t mean you are a crap person.

And when it comes to sending your work out for publication and competitions, the rejections come in thick and fast. It’s disappointing when your prize poem doesn’t make it into print, or doesn’t quite get placed in that competition. But it’s important to remember that these are often a numbers game. If a journal receives hundreds of submissions and can only print twenty, or ten, or if that judge has to pick only 3 winners – then you’re more likely not to be successful. It may be that your work isn’t up to the necessary standard, but its also possible that it didn’t quite fit what they were looking for, or they’d had something on a similar theme last issue, or they just didn’t like your style (remember the subjectivity thing we’ve got going on).

So I think the message is to take on board constructive criticism, to not take rejection personally, and to keep on submitting. The more you send out, the more you risk rejections, but also the more chance you have of being successful.

And on that positive note, I’ll share what sparked the idea for this post. The Wise Words Festival asked people to send in short poems to be selected to be displayed in shop windows throughout the festival, and one of mine is going to be up in Costa’s in Canterbury. So all the time I’ve spent sending things out over the last few weeks has paid off.