Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Pet Poet Laureate

I've had to stay shtum for a while now, but can finally share some happy news...

I've been chosen as the UK's first ever Pet Poet Laureate! Big thanks to Blue Cross and The Poetry Society for donning me with the laureate crown (I'm still waiting for it to arrive in the post).

This means I'll be writing 10 pet-themed poems over a year, helping to promote the positive impacts of pets on our human lives.

The first poem, "A Tempest" was inspired by a cat (Ella) and her kittens. Ella was abandoned but her kittens were rescued by Blue Cross, and eventually they were all reunited. I was interested to find out that "Ella" actually means "Beautiful fairy" and so I was reminded of Shakespeare's The Tempest and all those cast-aways seeking better lives.

Watch the video of "A Tempest" here!

Find out about Blue Cross here!

Learn more about my role as Pet Poet Laureate here!

Russell Jones

Monday, 30 July 2018

Dark Matters - my new SF poetry collection

The wonderful people of Tapsalteerie have published my newest collection of sci-fi poetry! It includes a love poem from Doctor Who to a Dalek, people transforming into horses, a villanelle by Judge Dredd, robotic bees, lizard alien sex, post-nuclear fallout geriatrics and more!

Pick up your copy of Dark Matters from Tapsalteerie, it's just £5!

The special edition of the pamphlet (the first 50 copies) also includes a comic version of my poem, "Whatever Happened to the Blue Whale in 2302AD?" by renowned comic artist, Edward Ross. Here's a brief sample!

And whilst you're here, why not listen to one of the poems from the collection, recorded by Channel7A?   
Listen to JUPITER here.
* Listen to WAGGLEDANCERS here.
* Listen to TO HIS COY DALEK here.

And and I spoke to Colin Waters and Sarah Stewart about all sorts of SF poetry things in this interview at the Scottish Poetry Libary.

Pick up your copy of Dark Matters from Tapsalteerie, it's just £5!

Russell Jones

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Poetry review: Jonathan Bay (House of Three)

Poetry review
By Jonathan Bay
Published by House of Three

Straight off the proverbial bat, I feel I ought to announce my bias for Jonathan Bay’s work. We’re good friends, and we meet up almost weekly to discuss poetry and drink expensive beer. That said, I don’t think this is an over-exaggeration: Jonathan Bay is one of the finest poets writing in Scotland today.

Let me unpack that a little before I get into the review of this pamphlet. I have spend several years reading Jonathan’s poetry, and in one sense it has a fatal flaw in terms of gaining public attention: it’s probably not immediately going to smack your head against the concrete. It may not instantly appeal to poetry competition judges, for that reason, too. Bay’s work is subtle and deceptively gentle, but once you actually sit down and start to think it over, you realise you’ve unearthed some truly outstanding, impactful and excellently-crafted poetry.

It’s bad science to start with the conclusion and then follow up with the evidence, but that’s what I’m going to do. Bay’s work can easily be overlooked, but that’s a big mistake, so I want you onboard before we get going. Ready? Okay.

For me, this pamphlet is about re-examination and transformation. Whether it’s through poems about travel, surgery, emotion or family, Bay doesn’t shy away from the complexities of challenging topics. Nothing is easy here, there are few “answers”, but there are explorations and questions. It doesn’t ask you directly, it plants seeds in your head and waits for them to grow. In that sense, this collection is outward looking but through an inward lens. It’s overtly personal, but never to the degree that it feels unapproachable. It’s alien without being alienating.

Jonathan is a Californian transman living in Scotland, so links between travel and the body are particularly relevant to this collection. In the opening poem, “Riding America”, we follow the narrator on a bike-rider across the US:

Remember the feeling of straining metal
between your legs

Hopeless miles in sticky heat
my mind has forgotten who we were then

The body and mind, like the bike, has migrated. Taken as a literal reading, we envisage a sweaty bike ride in the sun, but through another view of mind and body transformation, the poem takes on new potential: “straining metal / between your legs” evokes surgical connotations. “Straining” and “hopeless miles” also infer mental struggle and a feeling of futility, with the near-pleasure (or perhaps the partial alleviation of psychological pressure) brought about by a mind “[forgetting] who we were then”. Whilst the speaker suggests the mind “has forgotten”, however, this truth is complicated by the plural address of “we” – perhaps more than one rider, but perhaps more than one self. Is the old self ever truly forgotten, even if we will the mind to forget them? This concept doesn’t only apply to people who have undergone physical change, but to anyone who feels they have changed (which is to say, everyone).

I could go on. In this briefest of sections, there are so many layers to peel away. At times the poems are much more obviously visceral and cause a near-physical reaction when reading them. In that way, Bay keeps us on our toes. We predict a gentle complexity, only to be hit by something much sharper; it cuts. In “Pap Smear” for example:

she couldn’t put the speculum
in and hold it

my degenerated vagina only
wanted to spit it out

We both felt badly
about the way my hole hurt
but I didn’t say a thing

how could you

To someone uninitiated to this world (and I expect to others) this felt intrusive in many ways. I felt as though I was intruding on a private procedure and reflection, and yet there are people (the nurse) present, and the poem itself is a public document. The real kicker, however, is that final line, isolated (which to me also implies something of the speaker). It simultaneously evokes several questions, none of which is necessarily obvious or absolute:

  1) “how could you” say anything about the practical problems faced by nurse and patient? That’s just how things are. There’s a sense of acceptance here.
  2) “how could you” do that to me? The patient might ask of the nurse, or vice-versa.
  3) “how could you” – a question potentially uttered by those on the outside: how could you change your body? How could you go through that? And so on, and so on…

There’s a sense of discomfort, intrusion, accusation, acceptance, struggle, all in three short words. I bow to the master.

That’s not to say the pamphlet is always serious or always so intense. There’s lightness, too, and though we might be swayed into reading through a single lens, that shouldn’t be the case. The more you read these poems, the more you take from them. They’re physical, emotionally poignant, asking questions and forcing the reader to ask questions.

Poems such as “Support”, for example, in which the narrator realises family support isn’t always the “big things” but also helping fill out forms or helping to “do math / at the kitchen table / with the light dimming” can, and perhaps should, be taken at face value.

This review could go on forever, so let’s draw to a close.

If you agree that poetry should challenge and affect us, I suggest you check out Jonathan Bay’s work post-haste. His poetry is approachable but complex and impactful, with layers which reveal themselves with time and patience. Whilst the publication itself is a bit strange (three poets in one collection, but none of the collections are titled) I whole-heartedly recommend the poems therein. 

Russell Jones

Poetry Review: Bone Ovation by Caroline Hardaker

Poetry review
Published by Valley Press
RRP: £6.99

Don’t judge a book by its cover, so sayeth the saying. But in the case of Caroline Hardaker’s Bone Ovation I think it’s an appropriate judgement. This engaging and (for lack of a better word) creepy collection, with its macabre cover (an insect, I think a bee or wasp, half-stripped of its hair and flesh to reveal a part-skeleton, akin to a dissection) is a surreal dive into the darker end of human psyches, and our skeletal binds to this mortal coil.

This pamphlet is full of mesmeric poems which force their music into your skull, and then break it apart. There are poems about love and mountains, clans, feet and rice, to name a few, but what particularly struck me was Hardaker’s unusual use of repetition. The poems often repeat images (bones, skin, breaking/destroying/reconfiguring, butter and bodies) and sounds to create an almost chant-like or invocation-like quality, a spell-binding. This is what lingered with me, and will be the focus of this review.

I’m a peculiar fellow and repetition has a profound affect on me. Let me expand on that to give you an idea of why Bone Ovation’s repetitions of sound and content led me to a sense of ‘madness’… Sometimes I dream of repetitions, in numbers or patterns, layouts, blueprints, sounds or phrases. When this happens, it makes me physically unwell (or, the repetitions are a form of delirium caused by an illness, I haven’t quite decided). Bone Ovation is a short collection (23 pages of poems) with frequent repetitions which, in me at least, stirred a feeling of instability, obsession and even tangible insanity. I don’t feel this was accidental or even simply a product of my own mind, though, as the constant references to mortality, bones, breaking and reassembling, link our bodies with our psyches, as well as the erosion and reconstruction of the world and our perceptions of reality.

This sense of sweeping instability is further enhanced by Hardaker’s use of strong rhymes, which establish and then destroy attempts to gains something reliable in terms of form and patterns. Nothing is certain, and Hardaker lures the reader into false predictions. The musicality of the language, whilst tying into the prayer-like / spell-like qualities of the pamphlet, eventually bait the reader into abandoning expectation, unsettling the ground they walk on. We are destabilised further through inconsistent and peculiar sentence structures, breaking down how we process thought on a linguistic, even grammatical, level.

There are many examples to be plucked from the collection. Here is one from “Your Bones and My Bones are Chicken Bones”:

The chicken is a chicken – splaying gnarled bones and plucking skull,
and no new squawks will help that lie be sown.

But our bones are the same, I grant you,
our bones are the same …

Here, the repetition of “chicken” and “bones” in such close proximity not only draws connection between them, but also seems to undermine the assertion that “The chicken is a chicken”. Is it, really? This seems patently obvious until it unravels to suggest that the chicken is, when reconsidered through bone, rather human. So, is the chicken really chicken, or is there a hint of human there? And if there’s human in chicken, is there not also chicken in human? The poem asserts that the claim “The chicken is a chicken” is a “lie” which cannot be true despite our attempts to linguistically (through “new squawks”) prove it otherwise. Language is therefore incapable, or perhaps (more kindly) a somewhat blunted tool, in challenging the realities of physical world. We might squawk “a chicken is a chicken”, but that doesn’t make it true in every sense.

However, the poems build to a more multifaceted set of queries: our perceptions of ourselves, and other creatures (or indeed the nature of reality) unravel through  the poems’ repetitions, which is reassembled and re-explored in various poems through the collection. Rather than drawing similarity from rhyme and repetition, Hardaker’s poems force us into reassessing those motifs to examine them for difference.

I realise I’ve taken quite a personal and philosophic/linguistic approach to this collection (rather than looking at themes and specific poems, and saying how much people might enjoy the collection) but it invites that kind of reading. There’s so much to admire in these poems, not only as particles but as a whole body. This is simultaneously a delusion and a carefully crafted artwork which forces the reader into new perceptions, a feat which is not only skilfully handled in such a short space, but engagingly so.

Bone Ovation is a unique collection of poetry which disturbed me into thinking differently about bodies, history, perception and psyches. It does so with a great orchestral style which invites rereading and reassessment. Go check it out!

Russell Jones

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Poetry interview with Jayant Kashyap


Ahead of the launch of my new poetry pamphlet, Dark Matters: new sci-fi poems, Indian poet Jayant Kashyap has interviewed me about poetry!

We talk about the importance of line and stanza breaks, pamphlets versus full books, staying positive and rejections, bad art, sci-fi and more. It's a long interview but hopefully there are a few tasty nuggest in there for you to enjoy.

Russell Jones

Friday, 6 April 2018

The mathematics of poetry publishing success

Okay so the title of this post is pretty click-baity, but I do come to that at the end. More accurately, perhaps, this post should be called: "How often should you send out your poems for publication?" because the two are - unsurprisingly - very closely linked.

I’m going to try to answer this question my examining my own submissions over the last year. It starts off a bit mathsy, but I hope you make it through to the analysis later, and my points / learnings at the end…

In 2017 I sent out 164 poems to 33 different magazines/books. 23 poems were accepted in 20 publications. That makes a hit rate of around 14% (per poem sent) and 60% per publication approached. It means that most took a poem from me, and a few took 2.

I also submitted pamphlet manuscripts to 8 different publishers, including a few competitions. I had 4 pamphlets looking for homes, and sometimes submitted more than one to each publisher. In total I sent my pamphlets out 28 times. 3 of the pamphlets found some success (one pamphlet was accepted, one has been provisionally accepted, one more is currently in a short list).  4 publishers are yet to respond. Per submission (28 total), that’s a hit rate of 11%. Per publisher approached (8) that’s a hit rate of 38%.

I would consider this a very good hit rate, personally, particularly "per publication" (60%) rather than “per poem” (but 14% isn’t bad). Based on the number of pamphlet publishers I approached (8), it’s an incredible hit rate (38% positive, 12% definite acceptance) which I’d never expected.

Let’s not discuss full manuscripts because I want to keep those cards closer to my chest.

What was my process?

Well, I keep good records of where I sent each poem, when, and whether it’s successful. This means I can make sure I don’t send them same rejected poems again next time. If a publisher says, “nearly, but not quite – please send us some again” then I make a special note of them.

I was selective about the places I approached and what they might want, particularly if they had a theme. I targeted a number of publications I've wanted my poems to appear in for some time (in some cases I’ve been submitting to them unsuccessfully for about a decade!). Magazine successes included Magma, Atrium, Antiphon and Ink Sweat & Tears.

It’s worth noting that my stats might be a little off because I’m also, on occasion, approached to write poems for commissions. So, those are pretty much automatically accepted, rather than me submitting them.

It’s also worth noting that my submissions included about 15 competitions which cost me around £260, and only one poem was shortlisted, with no prize money in return. This is a really poor hit rate (let’s be generous and call it 7% but you could also call it 0%), and in retrospect I should have entered fewer competitions, and only submitted poems which I felt were “competition winners” (that’s another blog-post for another time).

Now that almost all the poems have been returned with rejections or acceptances, it's about time for another round of submissions. I’m sure this all sounds big-headed, but I'm trying to be factual and honest for the sake of understanding a successful approach or where I’ve gone wrong. My points/learnings are these:

1) Poems /poets get a lot of rejections. Therefore, expect to send out a lot to get a little back
2) Keep the poems out there, if they're half decent they'll find a home somewhere, you just need to be persistent. Keep accurate records so you don’t repeat submissions and you can monitor your progress
3) Be more selective about paid competitions. Though it's hard to judge what will do well, the entry fees can add up (and poets tend not to be rolling in cash)

Something of an aside, but I do not submit to magazines and books which expect a submission fee. I don’t think this is a good practice, but if you have the money then it’s up to you (I understand it can support publications, but paying to be read seems wrong as a writer, to me).

And that’s about it! Go forth, and multiply!

Russell Jones

Friday, 27 October 2017

How to get your poetry published: 10 tips from a poetry editor

How to get your poetry published: 10 tips from a poetry editor

Last night I went to a mixer event with current MSc Creative Writing students at The University of Edinburgh. As with any good mixer, a lot of spirit was partaken, which inevitably led to two things: 1) A hangover the next morning and 2) Me going on long rants to students (and anyone else who would, or would not, listen) telling them they need to submit submit submit if they want to be published.

So I thought it might be useful to put some of my advice into tangible, and slightly less slurred, words online for any poets who are twiddling their thumbs and wondering: “How do I get my poems published?”

I preface my advice with a few credentials, primarily so you know I’m not just pissing in the breeze:
   1)      I’ve edited 2 successful poetry anthologies
   2)      I am poetry editor of a magazine (Shoreline of Infinity)
   3)      I have published 4 collections of poetry (1 full, 3 pamphlets) with another due 2018
   4)      I’ve had my poetry published in more than 100 different publications internationally
   5)      I’ve taught Creative Writing at schools, universities and other institutions for years
   6)      I have a PhD (from The University of Edinburgh) in Creative Writing (poetry)

There may be more, but I think my head’s big enough and it’s becoming a bit narcissistic. So, onto the advice, which I shall try to relay in some kind of chronological order…

  1)     Make sure the poems are good, and you’re happy with them
What makes a good poem? That’s pretty hard to answer. I can spot a bad one (or one which doesn’t suit me) within the first couple of lines. The important thing is that you are happy with how your poems function before you send them out. There’s nothing worse than seeing your poem in print and realising you hate it. Well, maybe war. And famine. And racism. Okay, there are lots of worse thing.

Anyway, I strongly advise sharing your poems with other poets whose opinions you trust. Ego-massaging is, frankly, useless. Find critical readers who understand what you’re trying to do in your poems, and aren’t afraid to tell you what’s not working.

Neil Gaiman has a great piece of advice when it comes to criticism. To paraphrase: “When someone tells you something’s not working, they’re almost always right. If they tell you exactly how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong.”

There’s a blurry line between knowing when a poem’s ready to send out, and if it needs more work. Poets are pedantic creatures and will spend eternity moving commas or changing a single word back and forth. There must be a point where you say: “Fuck it, it’s done.” I think this point is when you feel the poem works as a whole, but you’re fiddling with things which are “pretty much there” and nobody else has a problem with. But as I say, it’s hard to pinpoint this exact moment in a poem’s life.

Go with your gut.

  2)     Keep records
Before you send anything out, keep a spread sheet of every poem you have which you’d like to send out to magazines/books/etc.

When you send a poem out, move its title to a separate sheet and make a note of where you sent it (and when you sent it). If the poem is published, after you’ve recovered from your hangover, remove the title from your spread sheet (and keep a separate list of publications for your CV). If it’s rejected, return the title to your ‘available poems’ sheet.

Why all the admin? Well, for one thing, it’s really annoying for an editor if they spend time looking at your poems and accepts them… only to find you’ve published it elsewhere. You could be blacklisted from any of their future publications simply because you (inadvertently) wasted their time.

And your spreadsheet will also be useful for keeping an eye on when you submitted and when you should expect a response.

Finally, if an editor hasn’t responded, it’s okay to nudge them! If they don’t respond for some ridiculous period of time, I think you’re totally within your rights to pull the poems from their lists and send them somewhere else.

  3)     Read and submit
I won’t go on about the virtues of reading poetry, except to say that editors will instantly spot a poem from a poet who doesn’t read much (modern) poetry. Look, Shakespeare and Blake were great, we get it, but we already have them to read and – I don’t want to be mean here, but – you’re probably not quite as good as them (certainly in the olde English vernaculars). We live in a different world, we speak differently, write something different. Okay? Sorted.

It is useful to be aware of an editor’s preferences, but I don’t think you should let that tie you down too much. In my opinion, a good editor should be flexible, able to identify a good poem whether or not it’s entirely “their kind of thing”. A publication filled with very similar poems is probably going to be a bit dull.

In short, just go for it. The worst that can happen is that an editor doesn’t much care for your poems, and you send them out to a different publication.

PS: the exception to this is with a themed call for poems. If an editor is asking for “poems about worms” and you send them “poems about space ships”, that’s just plain stupid. Doofus.

  4)     Follow the submission guidelines, and be nice
Submission guidelines are a bore, I get it. I hate having to reformat things and include passages about how my poems visited me in a dream on a whaling boat in the south pacific. But, if the editor wants you to jump, it’s a good idea to do so. Ignoring the submission guidelines may irk an editor, and they might simply delete your submission without reading it.

Also, be a decent human being. Editors are people, say hello, say how much you enjoyed their previous work or how you’re looking forward to reading the next issue. Don’t moan, don’t brag or belittle yourself. I’ve a few more thoughts on this in another article, here.

  5)     Embrace rejections
Notice how long this section is compared with the others…

I once kept my rejection letters in an envelope. Then in several envelopes. Then in a binder. Then I stopped keeping them (unless they were emails). For every poem I send out, about 80% are rejected, and this is quite a successful turnaround rate.

A rejection may have nothing to do with whether your poem’s any good. It probably is good, but there are a lot of reasons why it could be turned down:
  1)      They received loads of submissions and don’t have enough room for everything
  2)      It didn’t blend with the other poems they picked
  3)      It’s quite long or hard to typeset (lay out on the page)
  4)      They liked it but didn’t LOVE it
  5)      They were in a grumpy mood because they missed breakfast, then they missed the bus and your poem contained the colour red which subconsciously reminded them of the bus and they hate that bus they hate it and no your poem isn’t going in this publication not ever
  6)      Blah blah blah – lots of reasons

The secret to handling rejection? Get over it.

It’s hard advice to follow, because we all pour a lot into our art and part of us secretly (or not so secretly, in some cases) thinks we’re a goddamn genius.

Also, if an editor gives you feedback – even if you hate it – say thank you. Providing feedback usually means they liked your poem but it wasn’t quite right for them. Editors don’t bother offering feedback on poems which they think have little merit. You were nearly there, good for you!

After a rejection, edit it (or not, if it’s how you want it) and try it on another editor.

Oh, also… never argue or insult an editor because of their opinion (unless they’re obviously being a total arsehole). I once had a prose writer whose story we’d accepted (and written substantial editorial notes for them) under the proviso they edit it. They came back saying that they wouldn’t edit a word and if I changed any punctuation then I’d have to change it back on a reprint. Suffice to say, we didn’t publish them and they’re not on my Christmas card list.

  6)     Resubmit, resubmit, resubmit

Got a rejection? Boo hoo, it’s sad. But it’s just one opinion! Send it out to someone else, or work on it and then send it out again. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. Chances are, if it’s a half-decent poem, it’ll find a home eventually.

Some writers get really hung up on rejections and it stops them from submitting, but this is part of the life of a writer. If you don’t submit, you’ll never be published. Submit. SUBMIT!!!!

  7)     Attend (and organise) poetry events

Poetry began, and continues, as a spoken art. Editors go to poetry events, they listen and network, and offer their business cards, and ask you for poems if they like what they heard.

Go to events to share your work with an audience (it’s an automatic response, gives some immediate critical feedback) and to hear how it sounds and is responded to.

Poetry events also offer you a double whammy because you get to hear other people’s poetry, and to become part of a community of poets (collective noun: a misery of poets). You’ll be surprised by how many more poetry opportunities are presented to you once people actually know your face.

Poetry events are also incredibly important to publishers. Publishing a poetry book isn’t cheap, and poetry doesn’t sell very well. A publisher wants to make sure they’ll get a return on their investment, which means they want you to show that you’re willing to go out there and sell the books.

Where do poetry books sell, apart from online, in book shops and in charity shops? READINGS.

Readings are where many poets make their sales and spread the word about their work. A poet who won’t give readings is a big risk for a publisher, but a poet who has great PR skills and is known for going to events (and organising them) is much more attractive.

In short: a big part of being a published writer is ‘networking’. Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure nobody enjoys it, but it’s part of the job. We all suffer together.

  8)     Have something physical you can sell / give away
This is mainly linked to events again. If you’re giving readings at events, try to have some of your poetry available to sell or give away. This is like a business card and it’ll make sure people can read more of your stuff if they want to.

If you’re not published yet, you could print / design some postcards or pamphlets which people can pick up.

I often advise that poets without a collection should put together a pamphlet and submit it to any suitable publishers (and maybe a few pamphlet competitions). This is a stepping stone on your way to a full book because publishers want to know that you have a publication history, can sell your books, and other editors have trusted in your abilities before.

  9)     Have an online presence

I don’t mean Twatter and Facemuck, though they have their uses…

An online presence isn’t absolutely necessary, but it’s a good way to let people know what you’re doing, how to contact you, and to share some of your work for free. I advise starting a simple blog for free. Add your various details and a few samples of your work.

Note: only upload work which you’re REALLY happy with. You don’t want a publisher to visit your site and see a half-assed, unedited gush which you wrote when drunk. It just won’t give off the right impression.

Another note: preferably, upload poems which are already published and link it to the publisher (you may want to ask their permission, though it is your right to do what you want with your poems). They may share your blog post / page. Sharing previously-published poems also means that you’re not dipping into your “unpublished poems which I’m happy with” pool.

  10)Don’t give up
What are the main differences between a published and an unpublished writer? Resilience and perseverance. Poetry alone won’t make you rich (or even provide enough for you to live, in 99% of cases), you’ll have to suffer through rejections and self doubt, but it’s worth the effort. Publication is just the icing on the cake. Mmm, cake.

That’s it! Nice and easy does it.  

Russell Jones