Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Rules, you say?

I wasn't sure what to post this week and then I just read this post at Niamh's about breaking all the damned rules (OK, they call them 'tips from last year's judges' – see here) that the (UK/London-based) Poetry Society have put up for their poetry competition this year. Can I just say one word..? And can that word be wankers (though actually I quite like some poems by Neil Rollinson, one of aforementioned judges...haven't read any Daljit Nagra...seems like a nice bloke...but Ruth Padel, I mean, after the recent Oxford mash-up...is she really in the tip-giving category...?). They actually use the phrase 'lower the tone of your entry' in amongst these tips which leaves me almost wordless. I did say 'almost'. And who am I anyway...so obscure.

But it's totally not about the personalities involved here... it's more about the rules/tips/hints mentality that has infected poetry over recent years and would smother it with good intentions, I think, if it could. I even know and like some poetry folk who send out lists of rules and tips (you know who you are...) but I really don't like that side of them and I wish they wouldn't do it. I mean if someone wants to send an entry to the National Poetry Competition on multi-coloured paper, handwritten in crayon and scented all over with eau de KFC what the hell does it matter to anyone else? Doesn't the entry money help keep the place running? Doesn't the unexpected approach keep things interesting and not totally predictable? Are judges so bland and dull that everything must be presented perfectly for them (and if possible using only those nice, long words, please)? Do they really think that the kind of person who sends in an entry on green paper with pink spots is going to change and blandify their life just because they're told to by (gasp) a successful poet? This person may not be successful (dreadful, I know) but do you know what they just might be? How about a free spirit or an eccentric genius or perhaps even just a daft loser on some very heavy medication...and what the hell does it matter anyway because whichever they are they're almost certainly not going to be a person who follows rule (or tip) lists (and I'll tell you that for nothing... telling them what to do will probably make them more extreme in their weirdness if anything...). And don't the judges wonder what it says about them that they even think that a list of hints can do anything to change this (might it show a poor understanding of the human psyche, for example)? Might someone write a poem about that?

For me the endless rule-making and hint-proffering leads to this world (please stand and salute - that or die lonely and unpublished):

Poets and wannabe poets, you will go to workshops! Only there can you see the true path.

Yes, generals. (sorry about italics, judge people).
You will care far too much about the academic viewpoint! Ordinary readers are not important. I repeat, ordinary readers are NOT important!
Yes, generals.
You will be obssessed with competitions, literary magazines and all-round toadying to famous poets in the hope that some of it might rub off and you might enter the inner scrotum...sorry sanctum and become...(intake of breath)...a workshop facilitator yourself! (sigh).
Yes, generals.
You will obey poetry rules at all times! Otherwise you only have yourself to blame for your sad and meaningless existence.
Yes, generals.
You will never mention the Beat Poets and any other layabouts who broke rules and still managed to scrape by (they are forgotten/evil/work of the devil)!

Yes, generals.
Women poets especially beware – you're only really allowed in to Poetry World on a special pass and privileges can be removed at any time!
(In high voices) Yes, generals.

I could go on with this for weeks...but really, it's the holidays and I have books to read and housework to ignore. Also I am aware that this is the kind of thing that gets blogs a bad name (and I'm usually so well-behaved!). I don't have a poem about poetry competitions in particular...but I do have this one about sending poems to poetry magazines and it covers some of the same ground we're dancing on here. It's from a few years ago (and I don't always feel like this but I do now and then). So bitter.

We enjoyed these but…

Could you make them more obscure
Metaphors more, funny bits fewer?

And could you make them long and boring?
Our aim in life is to get folk snoring

Perhaps you could take out all that's real
Honesty, directness, popular appeal

Could you rewrite them in language poetic?
Get out that dictionary, don't be pathetic

You should read our stuff and see what we like
Something more like that, that's what to write

You see we want everyone writing the same
The poetry business, a funny old game

RF 2005

And yet really, I'm quite mellow you know.



NanU said...

arrr arrr arrr
I'm writing my next poem in chalk on the back patio. They'll just have to come to my house to read it. And then I will set the ravenous Bandersnatch upon them. She probably won't eat them unless they're made of kibble, but she will get hair all over -ALL OVER- their neatly pressed suits.

Free Poetry! (to be read as an imperative, in a firm voice, no giggling until afterwards)

Niamh B said...

Excellent - your poem is so true too, why they couldn't just admit they want you to get their mag so that someone/ anyone buys it?

NanU - I love the direction for how to read the last two words of your comment. :-)

Rachel Fox said...

Patio poetry...if only I'd thought of that for Dominic's 'write on something' Poetry Bus the other week!

Might do one anyway. Postage will be hellish for the competition though.


Rachel Fox said...

Niamh...snuck in! And look what you made me do (i.e. this post...).

The Bug said...

As a person who writes for her own pleasure (I haven't entered any poetry contests since college) I look at a list of rules & go running the other direction. There is no way I can write anything from MY head if I have to pay attention to rules. It was hard enough to rhyme Monday's poem (makes my head hurt to rhyme, which is why I don't do it often).

Love your poem about the problem though - that's something I could get my mind around!

Rachel Fox said...

Pleasure, Bug, did you say pleasure? You're beyond help then...

And NanU...did your comment start in Orkan? Well, no surprise really...


NanU said...

nah, just my Facebook language being set to "Pirate" (though arr there is a good thing).
it did actually start with Dom's write-on bus, but never got done due to the chalk being buried deep in moving boxes. wrote on the kids instead. send -that- to the judges!

Gwei Mui said...

This made me laugh so much. I really enjoyed this poke at the rules

Rachel Fox said...

Living entries, N, I like that idea even more! Free childcare?

GM - always pleased to provoke enjoyment.


Liz said...

Hey, great post!

Rachel Fox said...

Good to know you're still about, Liz.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Agree with every word! The only criterion for poetry is that it should come from the soul! I love the John Cage quote ' I have nothing to say and I am saying it...and that's poetry.'

Elizabeth Rimmer said...

I've been wrestling with this one a bit,and come to the conclusion that it's an English thing. Poetry publishing is like joining in a conversation, and the English one is restricted to People Like Us, people who have read the things we've read, and write the things we write only better if possible. The Scottish poetry conversation is like the sort of party where the kids put it on facebook and everyone came and they're all talking at once and playing all their different music and getting off with each other and starting revolutions and it's crazy but it's live!

Rachel Fox said...

Good woman that Weaver.

And Elizabeth...you may have something there...maybe...except I have had stupid, thoughtless arsey comments from poetry magazine editors based in Scotland (more so than from editors based in England in fact). That's not to say, of course, that those editors in Scotland are all English (many of us are such a mixed blend anyway). I don't think it is as simple as a national divide...and yet still I know what you mean - Scotland does seem to have a more positive attitude to poetry on the whole (than England). That's a bit of vague comment but then generalisations can't help that!

hope said...

Ironic that creativity dies when smothered by rules trying to make it grow.

Keep being a rebel...makes for more interesting reading. :)

Marion Mccready said...

I think it's at least partly do to with the intellectualisation of poetry through creative writing degrees. There are so many people out there who can write polished, word-perfect poems.

swiss said...

oh i can;t disagre with any of that. except that scotland is more positive. if that's true i think i'll have to emigrate or shoot myself!

at the moment i'm bathing in prose. what a pleasant change...

deemikay said...

Some of the reasons why I've never, ever, ever submitted a poem for publication. :)

Titus said...

So obvious why I love you.

Rachel Fox said...

Rebel, Hope? I feel too tired to be a rebel...

Marion - I so agree! I have thought about going near Creative Writing courses/degrees but then that thought always makes me feel ill. Also I think I might kill people or something. I know all those courses give writers reliable paid employment and I know they allow people with, say, very busy lives some time to concentrate on writing and all that but beyond that I struggle with the whole idea. I've made my writing time in other ways... not so good for the dreaded networking of course. Networking! Even the word makes me laugh... and want to go and drink heavily.

Swiss...maybe I was trying to be nice about Scotland. Not sure why...it's probably the same as anywhere (people is people and all that...). Poetry does seem to attract a certain type of person who wants to tell other people what to do all the time. But then there are all the others...all you lovely people! And I've met most of you...so I know this is true.

D - yes. Can't we have a parallel poetry universe or something (where there are no Poetry Societies or competitions or arsey editors...)? Could you arrange that?

T - et moi je t'aime aussi.


Jim Murdoch said...

I responded to a comment a couple of hours ago made by author Gary Shteyngart who said: "[P]oetry …now exists almost entirely inside the walls of academia." Since he’s quite active online I’m sure he’s well aware of the plethora of poetry that exists here. All I can assume is that he doesn’t regard what we do as poetry.

I had a look at the rules on The Poetry Society’s website some of which I think are reasonable, some not. The bottom line is that it’s their game and they can decide who plays. If you’re not willing to play by their rules don’t enter. The chances of them recognising something that falls outside what they regard as “poetry” is so negligible as to be pointless. I sent poems once to Philip Larkin and got a nice form letter from his secretary saying that he didn’t read unsolicited material. I’m rather glad looking back because what I’d sent were photocopies of handwritten poems. Not very professional.

I think the rules/general advice/tips here are aimed at the lowest common denominator, the people who have never sent a poem anywhere before, kids like I was when I wrote to Larkin. I hadn’t a clue. They must be inundated with stuff like that. In some respects it would be easier for them if them didn’t tell anyone and simply had a trainee go through the letters and just chuck all the ones on coloured paper into the bin or anything entitled ‘Ode to a…”

I’ve rarely entered my poems into competitions. And if a magazine’s guidelines are too involved I don’t submit to them. It’s fair enough saying “Don’t send attachments,” or “Please submit in RTF format” but that’s about it.

I think there’s a place for all kinds of poetry and online is the best place for most of it. That’s the best place for free spirits too.

Rachel Fox said...

I think most competitions do have someone who goes through and chucks a lot of the poems straight in the bin (and that's why some comps now state 'judges read all entries' to differentiate themselves from others and to ensure entrants that they are not completely throwing their often quite significant entry money away). I once heard a magazine editor joking at an event about all the 'bunny poems' they had to throw away when they had a competition (whilst at the same time admitting that the competition was a huge and vital earner for the mag). I always wonder what they might miss one day when they do this... a bunny poem that hides something really clever... or a fantastic piece disguised by its multicoloured paper. Unlikely some might say... but not impossible.

And I know who they think they're aiming at with these tip lists... my point is that it's pointless and small-minded and almost anti-creative in some ways. Maybe it's the whole overuse of the idea of creativity... certainly it was at a creative writing group (I went twice) that I witnessed some extremely uncreative thinking and uses of language!

Rachel Fenton said...

What guffy tips!

Love your poetic response! You do satire so well.

Eryl Shields said...

I love your style, Rachel.

I've been looking at magazines recently (in libraries, can't afford to buy them have you seen the prices?!) to see if my work might fit into any of them. The answer so far seems to be no it won't. So your poem definitely resonates. I do wonder why I'm doing it, why I want to be published I mean. I do know, though, that I don't want it enough to change my stuff to fit current fancy.

Rachel Fox said...

Enjoying guffy, Rachel!

Eryl...there's a whole 'well, you have to support other's poetry if you ever want your own to go annywhere' argument (re buying those magazines) but of course the only reason to buy them should be that you find them interesting and you want to read them/keep them/read them again. I have tried quite a few of the poetry/literary magazines (and some of the less obviously lit ones too) but I can't say there are many that make me want to subscribe and read them regularly. Many of them do seem very similar to each other (and more arriving all the time!). Maybe it's the very idea of a magazine (paper version - not online). I read a lot of magazines in the '80s and '90s (and worked for some too)and maybe the whole idea is just old. They are so slow to respond to anything compared to this fun new game!


Rachel Fox said...

And as for changing the way you write or want to write... this is another subject I find bizarre! So many editors/poets talk about wanting different and experimental work (say, for a magazine) but when it comes to it what they really want is their idea of experimental (often closely resembling what they themselves write or being at least in the same area). It's human nature I suppose but it does bemuse me. Experimental? Yes, but only if it's experimental in the way I like... Eh? How we love to put ourselves in little boxes.


swiss said...

you'll be liking this


Rachel Fox said...

I have to say that I too have struggled to see the brilliance of the authors mentioned in that piece, Swiss. I've read, for example, a good handful of Ian McEwan novels and just felt flat at the end of each one. Yes, they carry you along...but for what? In the end I hate them, feel kind of used, wish I'd read something else instead.

Often it's the writers a step below them who I like more. I have just finished Rose Tremain's 'Sacred Country' (first publ 1992) and absolutely LOVED it. Also A.S.Byatt's 'Children's Book' that I read earlier this year is really, really good. Maybe it's the old thing...women have to try that bit harder... I tend to think McEwan etc. have been told so many times 'you're brilliant, darling' (by agents, journos, eejits) and they're not...they're just writers (soon to be forgotten I'm quite sure). Is it that we feel we must have 'marvellous men of letters' to look up to? No thanks! Bloody patriarchy...mumble, mumble...


Totalfeckineejit said...

Rules? Meh!Top poetry tips? Pah!
Poetry competitions? Bleugh!!

Rachel Fox said...

Sound FX? Smashing.

Pearl said...

NOW you tell me you're mellow.

So glad I stumbled in.


Rachel Fox said...

Hi Pearl.
Hello and welcome.

Emerging Writer said...

Just catching up. Love your comments on the 'rules'

Especially the WOmen one (Women poets especially beware – ... and privileges can be removed at any time! Yes Generals
for which I read Yes Genitals. Sorry!)

You have to put a huge amount of trust in competition organisers that every poem, whether written in an unusual font or handwritten on loo roll, is actually read and considered.

I got into a discussion with George Szirtes who often judges as to the proportion of women v men poets appearing on competition shortlists but we never got to the bottom of why there is a slant. Fewer sent in by women? Or do women in general write poems that don't fit into the litterati-rules competitions.

One size doesn't fit all so write what you want, rewrite and workshop in a group you trust.

Rachel Fox said...

Ah yes, the Poetry Genitals...fundamental.