Posted by: noelwilliams | February 27, 2014

Reading writing

On Sunday I’ll be reading with a dozen other great poets at the Wordsworth Trust (the Jerwood Centre in the Wordsworth Museum at Dove Cottage, Grasmere). This is the grand climax of the Poetry Business’s Writing School, in which we “graduate” through a public reading of some of the poems we’ve written over the last eighteen months.

Come along if you’d like to. It’s a public event, free, from 2.30 to around 3.30, Sunday 2nd March. A good way to spend a Sunday afternoon if the rainclouds open up over Helm Crag and Rydal.

I’ve read there once before, and felt very privileged to do so. In fact, I’ve been lucky enough to read in several very special locations, and I think the place always adds something to the experience for me. My work seems to mean more when read in a special setting. Foolish, perhaps, but that’s how it feels. As a prizewinner in the John Clare competition a couple of years ago I was asked to read both at John Clare’s cottage, which was humbling in several ways, and also at Westminster Hall (part of the House of Commons – we were also given a behind the scenes tour by Helpston’s MP  and ate in the Commons refectory, quite a treat). We read on the steps where both Guy Fawkes and Charles 1 were condemned. How can that not make your own work feel special?

On another occasion, I read in the fifteenth century half-timbered hall of St William’s College, York. This is the only occasion, so far, where I’ve injured myself reading poetry. In my haste not to be late to read my piece, I missed a step on the ancient uneven staircase, fell, and dislocated a finger. Fortunately, I was so anxious to read that I simply shoved it back into place, and had to grin in agony when shaking the hand of George Szirtes, who was presenting the session. So that lives in memory, too, and colours that poem whenever I read it. Whilst the finger, remaining slightly crooked, reminds me that poetry is a dangerous sport.

But I suspect the place in which we read always affects the way we read. There are obvious things, of course, like the acoustics, the distribution of the audience, the background noise. But there’s also a – what do I call it without being new-age fuzzy? – a sort of psychic echo (ok, I don’t seem to be able to avoid the new-age fuzziness) to do with what the place is, how it has been used, what happened there before and what will happen after the momentary flow of your words.

I’ve read in several galleries, for example, and the best readings have always been when the poems and the exhibition somehow touch each other. Art seems to seep into the words, and the words can hang like a commentary on the paintings or installations. Whereas in a library or bookshop (I’ll be reading in Waterstones in a few weeks) I become conscious of all the other names on spines and displays and top ten lists, and find myself aligning myself with the great names, identifying with other poets and authors. Somehow, there seems to be a continuation, a connection, a sense that, in a very, very small way, my own words belong here, in this place of a million million revered words. It doesn’t change the character of my own words, of course- they remain, for good or ill, what I fixed to the page and happen to voice in the moment (have you ever misread your own poem, and never noticed?) but they also seem to belong in such a place, flowing into and out of L-space, (Terry Pratchett’s concept of all books being interlinked and inter-influencing).

In such a context, whilst it’s uplifting to identify with all the other names on the shelves, it’s also enriching – as if the senses of all else that has been, and might be, said with the words I’m using are linked together, just as in a dictionary, where every word exists by virtue of its relationships with all the other words in that dictionary – and none can live without the others.

I’m not saying it’s true, of course, just how it feels. In some ways, even the most isolated poet is not writing alone, and public readings in revered spaces reinforce that feeling.


PS The next issue of Antiphon is less than two weeks away.

Posted by: noelwilliams | February 15, 2014

Poetic emergence

I’ve just read an account of ‘poetic emergence’. The authors are clear this is different from poetic development – emergence is about the profile and public presence of a poet, development is about their poetic expertise and, I suppose, experience. See here

I recognise the conventional stages they’ve identified as making sense in the UK at least. Initially, (1) local and limited publication in very few magazines, then (2) more extensive publication in more magazines, then (3) publication in the most widely recognised magazines, some anthologising and possibly producing a pamphlet, leading to invitations to readings. Stage (4) is full blown first collection, with more readings, perhaps a few reviews in major places. Stage (5) is where we all hope to be, I think, with a well established and wide geographical profile, and a second collection, perhaps also becoming established as essayist or reviewer, and possibly recognised through awards and professional position. Stage (6) is probably beyond most of us: “ the poet might be on the syllabus for GCSE, A Level, and degree-level study; there might be academic conferences with papers on their work…..  there might be radio interviews, appearances on TV book-shows or arts programme.” (There is no stage (7), so that, I guess, will be the Nobel prize for literature).

I guess, I can see where I sit within the stages they outline, though I think I’m an odd case in some ways. I wonder if most poets will actually feel that way, faced with such a schema. Clearly what this describes is something like the normal way that a poet becomes known in the current cultural context of UK poetry, but does that mean it’s inevitable it should be like that?  (I think the model doesn’t apply quite so well to the US context, so I imagine other countries actually would say the process is rather different. Maybe you’ve a view on this?)

Whilst it’s obvious that this is not about quality in poetry, and poets can also clearly decide that this sort of professional progress is not for them, for the typical poet this is probably close to how it goes. Consequently, somewhere along that line of emergence, most of us have to settle for being “a local poet in little magazines” or a poet with “one collection and a couple of pamphlets” – or however it turns out. Which is fine, of course, for everyone except the over-ambitious.

However, this is now rather complicated by growth in the electronic presence of poetry and, related to it, the growth of self-publication. I’ve not yet heard of a poet who only works online, or who has solely self-published, who finds themselves magically transported into this more traditional process. But we’ve heard such stories from other genres (typically erotic work, it seems) so there’s nothing to say it’s not a possibility for poets to. It may even be that some online presence becomes a logical stage in the typical poet’s emergence, too. Your appearance in Antiphon may well be an important step in getting an international audience, for example.

What perturbs us, here at Antiphon, is the apparent number of poets who do achieve success (at least according to their bios, which we’ve no cause to doubt) but who nevertheless send us work which we cannot or would not publish. Obviously our taste simply does not accord with that of many other magazines and small presses, because many poets come to us with a long list of publications, but offer us nothing that we feel is of even reasonable quality. We pride ourselves on trying to select the highest quality of work from all that is submitted, as close to perfect as we can find (although we do sometimes allow ourselves a small “well, it’s got flaws but we still like it”). There’s relatively little correlation between the length of the bio and the quality of the work.

Indeed, in some cases, there seems to be almost an inverse correlation. We know sometimes when a poet says “I’ve been published in over 73 magazines” that the work itself is going to be problematic. We’re simply mystified on occasion by what appears to be mediocre submissions supported by extensive bios. According to the “emergence” model, such poets would be at stage 3 or 4 or maybe even 5, but in quality terms, we’d place them as 2, at best, and so we’re puzzled about how work which seems undeveloped or loosely imagined or unmusical or not thought out or unoriginal can establish such a substantial resumé.

So in our view there’s a clear difference between quality of work and the level of emergence of the poet – the bio is largely irrelevant – we’d much rather publish completely unknown and unpublished poets if their work is tight, musical, clever, imaginative, stimulating, rich.


Posted by: noelwilliams | February 9, 2014

Are e-poems real?

I was looking at my shelves full of poetry books and pamphlets. They take up quite a bit of space, but when I went through them, there weren’t that many I thought I could part with. A couple I might give away. A couple I’ve been sent for review and don’t really like, so will never read again so may find their way to recycling. But almost all of them still have something to offer me.

This made me wonder about e-chapbooks. Obviously, they take up only virtual space. Shouldn’t I buy more of these, and avoid the space-consuming real thing?

Perhaps. But it doesn’t feel the same to me. I bought Sinead Morrisey’s Parallax, winner of the T.S. Eliot prize, for e-reader (I’ve an Android machine, a Nexus, which can run both a Kindle app and pdfs). Now, this is a good book, which I’ve been enjoying. But on the machine it somehow doesn’t seem as powerful as when I’ve the physical book in my hand. In fact, I’m even thinking of buying a hard copy for that reason, to get the “full experience” of the book. Is that mad?

For the poet and the press, producing an e-book is easier and cheaper than the physical book. And distribution is cheaper, too. At Antiphon we’re currently contemplating the different ins and outs of chapbook production. In terms of costs, it’s a no-brainer. And, of course, e-books would make sense for us in terms of our international audience – the costs of sending a physical book to the USA will probably be greater than the cost of the book itself. But are e-books what the readers of poetry want?

So perhaps the logical thing is to produce both – perhaps using print on demand, too. Then readers could choose to obtain the e-book, or print it off locally perhaps, or send away for the printed copy. However, does the availability of e-books undercut the sales of physical chapbooks? In other words, if a press makes the same book available in both modes, will the availability of the e-book reduce sales of the traditional book, which effectively increases its cost (assuming the idea is not to lose money on the deal).

In one sense, these questions are nothing to do with poetry. Poems will be around whatever media are available for them to live in. But on the other hand, it might be a crucial question. If e-books stop traditional chapbooks from being created, because of the economies, then the best chapbooks may drown in a sea of lesser publications as everyone who can rhyme moon with June self-publishes their e-book.

And we’d lose that special feeling of the physical object, the scent of paper and ink – for me, at least, the sense of engaging with the words directly within an object which may be intrinsically aesthetic. 

Posted by: noelwilliams | January 25, 2014

A poem a week

Rosemary alerted me to Jo Bell’s excellent idea of writing a poem a week. She’s set up a blog here with a weekly prompt for a new poem. As we all seem to find it hard to discipline ourselves to write, and we all know that inspiration only strikes when we give it chance, it seems to me a great idea. At the very least, it will push me (or you) to try something I might not otherwise have thought of.

Perhaps this will mean that Antiphon is inundated with (on the Jo Bell’s current list) poems about Travelling in Style and Exposing Yourself – but that’ll be a great thing for us, if the poems are good. We’re always greedy for more good writing. Never get enough of it.

Of course, you could invent your own version of Jo’s exercise, giving yourself a different writing task each week of your own making – perhaps out of your current reading, or an encounter during the week, or by identifying some other event or document which has struck you during that week (an anniversary, an overhearing, a memory, a glimpse in a shop window, a piece of junk mail). The key thing is to write. No matter what.

(Whilst I’m here, I hope you’ll also forgive me a small personal plug. I’ve now the launch date for my own collection, Out of Breath: March 25th. If you’re interested, details here.)


Posted by: noelwilliams | January 14, 2014

Not your usual blog post

What poets do is remake the things we find as if they are something else. This counts as meaning in a meaningless universe, because it places what seems, as we encounter it, random into a wider setting, like a stone made a jewel by being set in a ring, or a ring enriched by being placed on a finger, or a hand given purpose by opening a door, beckoning a child.

That setting places us, or our accidents, in worlds we can be gratified are greater than ourselves, consoling solitude and chaos with connection.

Such connections come from the eyes we educate, the fingers we reach out with, the worlds we build from words, the hope woven from our previous despairs. The poet’s an illusionist, filling silence with the solace of the beauties of irony, learned from experience, lusting for innocence. Beneath each line, the raving of Lear.

If poets are supposed to find truth, do they have to settle for the truths they find, and simply hope others can make more of them? Andrew Motion’s account of Keats suggests he had a core dilemma. He wanted to do good in the world, to remake it, with words his only instruments, but all he could do with words was show that good could not come from words alone. And perhaps not come at all. For all the poet might hope to do is to console suffering, as words may, but have no way to heal or remove that suffering, because that exists in a material world of entropy, of loss.

Every so often something happens in the margins of our lives which seems unjust, unfair, unnecessary, unkind, even evil, and there is nothing that can be done but write about it. Or stay silent.

Perhaps silence is the wisest choice, but poets are often fools. We can wish the universe different, and, indeed, make it different in our heads and on the page. It’s maybe our duty to do so, as the only way we are able to limit suffering.

Posted by: Rosemary Badcoe | December 29, 2013

Call and response

Don’t forget that in the spirit of Antiphon we’re happy to receive poems in response to those published in issue 9. Just add a note to your submission letter saying which poem you’re responding to.

Antiphon hopes all its readers had a great time over the Christmas period and are looking forward to the new year.

Posted by: noelwilliams | November 25, 2013

This has more than one meaning

On my personal blog, I’ve just noted Kim Moore’s kind comments on my poem Sunburn. I don’t dissent from anything she says about it (probably because her comments are all pleasant ones). But she notes it’s “one of those rare poems – a poem about work!” Which it is, of course. However, another poet who, like Kim, I greatly admire, said it was a poem about sex.

Now, I’m not entirely sure that either of these topics was uppermost in my mind when I wrote it. I’m not sure exactly what was in my mind, in fact. Probably I was just writing, to see what might appear. Perhaps I can find the first draft and see if there’s any clue what I thought I was on about. I can remember part of the impulse, which was to write about a particular summer I remembered. However, it’s clear to me that the poem was hijacked by imagination to mutate away from the reality of what I remembered, and become something else. Something unanticipated. Something which has, in fact, meaning that surprises me. If it is about sex, that surprises me. Maybe even embarrasses me a little, to discover that’s where I was led in the writing.

One thing we like to find in poems we choose for Antiphon is poems with a second meaning: an undercurrent or interpretation that only reveals itself with very careful reading, perhaps not until the second or third attempt.

Sometimes when Simon Armitage runs a workshop he asks “what’s the poem about?” And, when he receives an answer, he then asks: “Now tell me what the poem’s really about.” A good poem, we might say, has a surface meaning, one that is readable and appreciable with relative ease, but also offers further, deeper, hidden possibilities. This may be created by the poet in a relatively intellectual way, where a puzzle of a kind is set for the reader. For example, in my youth I wrote a long poem which went “forwards” in five poetic sections and then “backwards” in five prose sections, each of the latter five mirroring something in the first five, yet the whole thing making a continuous narrative. The aim was that it could be read as a personal story of a protagonist and as a pair of contrastive philosophical positions. Surprisingly, it didn’t really work. It’s the sort of thing you do when you think you know it all. But, as an intellectual construct, it was an interesting exercise and did produce some moments of creative impact. I believe.

More often such puzzles are delivered through metaphor, perhaps an extended metaphor which governs the whole poem. For example, a poem about a falling tree may turn out to be an extended metaphor for a failing relationship. And the reader, once she twigs (sorry!) this, simply has to map equivalences from one situation to the other. Such a poem may give no clue at all as to its second meaning, leaving it up to the reader to “read in” the second interpretation. Or the poet may feel it necessary to offer a suggestive flag or pointer, perhaps as title or last line to guide the second reading. A clever poet might find an ambiguous word or phrase to do this job. “Moving Pictures”, for example, might be a poem about rearranging the iconic artwork in a gallery, and at the same time each picture mentioned could have some emotional resonance of the poet. (I’ve borrowed this idea from an album by Rush, in fact, which could maybe add even more resonance to such a poem).

More subtle, I think, are those poems which are not simply two situations yoked together (which is essentially what the extended metaphor does) but which uses one to give insights to the other, or which slides between different comparisons to yield insight that might not be found in any other way. Perhaps this might be done through radical imagery, such as that used by the Metaphysical poets (e.g. Donne’s compasses in A Valediction Forbidding Mourning though this image is largely explicated by the poet) and by contemporary poets who draw on science for imagery (e.g. Diana Syder’s “The Tuna is an Interesting Fish”). The chosen image may be emblematic or even deliberately (apparently) unconnected from the intended literal meaning: our love is like a pair of compasses, poverty is like the rings of Saturn.

There are risks in the approach which completely hides meaning, of course. The image may be too radical to work. It may feel, to the reader, like an arbitrary experiment done merely to be different, to appear original, to disturb or shock for its own sake. But when it works, what it can do is reveal something that was not previously felt or understood, a new union of what were previously (perceived to be) separate.

This sort of exploration is one of the things we really enjoy at Antiphon. Poems which do more than they appear to be. Poems which carry two – or perhaps more – meanings. Poems which can be read one way, and then another. Poems whose imagery is insightful, original, different. Even poems where the poet is not clear how the poem’s several meanings have come about.

Closing date for submissions for Issue #9 is the end of this week, so there’s still time for your latest multi-level magnum opus.

Posted by: Rosemary Badcoe | November 10, 2013

Virtual, but really real

One of the advantages of Antiphon now being over two years old is that poems we’ve published are filtering through into books. It makes us very pleased to find Antiphon in the Acknowledgements sections of some of the most interesting poetry books being published – most recently in Jean Sprackland’s Sleeping Keys, Roy Marshall’s The Sun Bathers and Matt Merritt‘s The Elephant Tests.

We don’t always know about books from poets we’ve published, so if you hear of any, please let us know and we’ll be pleased to cheer them on in Antiphon.



Posted by: noelwilliams | October 13, 2013

Poetry in performance

A few days ago I took part in a symposium (a grand word for a discussion, which seems to suggest everyone should be garbed in togas) on poetry and performance. It was organised by Midland Creative Projects as part of their Being Human tour: This is a tour well worth catching – I saw the performance after the symposium, not sure what to expect, and as both a piece of theatre and a bravura exercise in remembering and delivering poetry. Thirty five poems from the Bloodaxe Being Human anthology, edited by Neil Astley, are performed by three actors,. They’re delivered as something between a play (there’s no explicit narrative, but the sequence of poems admits of story interpretations) and a poetry recital, though there’s no reading of the poems as such, the actors each having learned all thirty five. Whilst the texts are perserved intact, the actors interpret them in their delivery, making them into scripts for action as much as texts for presenting, so there’s no hint of the “poetry voice”.

Both the symposium and the performance were great fun, very entertaining and I learned a few things, too.  But a few issues were also raised, quite significant ones for any poet interested in how their work might be performed, by themselves or by others. Being Human, the anthology, is the most recent of four very popular anthologies, which have done a great deal to bring a wide selection of poems to a public who otherwise would not have encountered them (though a few people have criticised the selection).

The four Midland Creative’s tours have a similar objective, selecting poems from the volumes and bringing them to an unfamiliar audience. So the performance has to do more than read the poems. It has to bring the audience into them. It uses the actors’ and director’s talents to do so, by finding ways of reading the poems which are not merely versions, not merely articulations of a text, but a performance by a person believably real. Sometimes they choose to do this in the voice of a clear character (apparently Andrew Motion was horrified to hear one acted out in a West  Midlands accent). Sometimes they do it in their own voices, perhaps their own persons, but with passion and conviction, with gestures, emphases, intonations and attitude which only the Zephaniahs and Hegleys of this world are likely to use in a typical reading.

And it works. The audience responds to the poems, because they are human voices in a very human guise. The actors have found a way of reading which strikes a chord. The audience are rapt. And after they applaud, they buy the book.

This made me think. A lot. How do I perform? Do I, in fact, perform, or do I merely read my stuff, slowly, carefully, neutrally? I try and avoid that common poetry singsong, but do I always achieve it? So I do try to find a way of reading that fits the poem, though I guess there’s a fair bit of similarity between each poem I read. I’m not an actor. I haven’t thought of “acting” my poems. But perhaps there’s a case for a more performative reading, for something which tells the listener more about who I am, in the poem, who that protagonist is. As a poet of the page, which is my view of myself,  I choose the words and the cadence, the rhythm and the sound, until they sit happily under my hand and in my head. I don’t choose them to be read out loud. I don’t think of a live audience listening, but a reader internalising and perhaps re-reading.

The live audience has only one chance to get each word, and needs to be taken along from line to line. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a poetry reading and found yourself suddenly wondering what has just been read – your attention has wandered, you’ve lost the gist, and you’ve no way to go back and gather sense. Well, you may never have had this experience, but you may think I have. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Nor have I momentarily dozed off in a late night reading. Nor have I lost the thread in a long narrative poem. Nor has my attention been distracted from his language by the poet’s eyebrows. Nor have I been bored by a poem so much I’m thinking ahead to the next poet or the comfort break or the beer. I mean, wine.

Actors and directors know about audiences. They know that attention wanders, that people need variety, excitement, interest and engagement. So shouldn’t we pay more attention to such things when we write, when we select our work for a reading, and when we perform it?

But there’s a cost in this, I think. The more performative we allow our work to be, taking the audience into account, then the more we are likely to choose humour, to find subjects which are either titillating (sex and violence generally get more attention than text and violets), to look for ways of presenting our work which make it more ordinary, more human as we read, which may move us away from the endstop, the caesura, the rhythms and breaths built in to the work. What was noticeable in the theatrical version of Being Human, enthralling as it was as theatre, was that the poems lost some of their poetry. At times, the reading could have been a prose script, the flow of the poem (as written) overwritten by the interpretation and character of the actor. Perhaps in popularising poetry this way, getting the audience engaged, we limit some of the features of language that make a poem a poem.

Posted by: noelwilliams | September 19, 2013

Bizarre Ideas

Sheffield University hosts an annual Ideas Bazaar. It aims to bring academics and community artists together, to come up with creative links between the two. It’s a fun event, well managed by the university, including such incidental delights as Speed Dating (for creative partnerships, not any other kind) and Communicating through Music. The bulk of the day is something like an intellectual and artistic tabletop sale, with people laying out their creative wares in booths exposed to the view of all and sundry for comment, connection and collaboration.

We met many interesting people at the Antiphon desk, all of whom were open, friendly and communicative, even though there was probably quite a lot of hidden shyness drifting around, too. But to get the best from such events you have to pretend you’re someone else, someone who naturally gets on with the whole world, who is not self-conscious or worried that their interests are weird or pointless from other people’s viewpoints, and who have something they think is worth offering that others can latch on to.

Which we have, of course. Antiphon is already quite a bit more successful than many other online magazines (not that we’re counting, naturally) and we’re pretty ambitious for our work, too. What we were looking for was an artist who might inject some visual dynamism into the mag. Our ideas have been well received so far, but we’re the first to admit we have no artistic training (since my Art O level in 1968) and rely pretty much on instinct and personal preference. If we’re going to get another eight issues of beautiful presentation; if we’re going to fill our Exhibition Space (you must’ve seen it? tucked away in the corner of the magazine site?) with the exciting, the stimulating or perhaps just the simply unusual; if we’re going to take the step we keep talking about of building a new small press around Antiphon for e-books and paper collections, we need someone with great visual ideas that we can react to and use.

We met, amongst others, a dancer who is interpreting The Wasteland, a maker of violin bows who is looking for new materials, a metallurgical engineer who is using 3d printing of metal parts, an artist working in 3D who wants to use that 3D printing to realise scientific concepts, someone interested in (I think) the make-up of bones, an organiser of concerts, a museum director, a film-maker looking for subjects, directors of community arts organisations, and even a couple of poets. Not that many visual artists, though.

So, if you’ve any ideas for images that Antiphon could use, or even create, let us know.


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