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.


Posted by: noelwilliams | August 10, 2013

Image and imagination

A few days ago I had the exciting task of approving a cover for my upcoming collection. It hadn’t occurred to me that this would be a difficult task. However, if I’d thought about the continual debate Rosemary and I have about images for Antiphon, I’d have been better prepared. It turned out to need quite a bit of consideration, as the book cover has to stand out without being brash, give some idea of the contents without being too literal, fit, in this case, Cinnamon Press’s idea of what their lists area all about, be visually interesting in itself and, ideally, reflect the book’s title in some way. As well as being an image that both I and my editor like.

Antiphon’s appearance always depends on a similar juggling act. Readers seem to like how it looks, and much of this is down to the images we’ve chosen to escort the poems. To be fair, the bulk of the design work has been Rosemary’s, though I’ve occasionally had useful ideas and between us we’ve come up with some good images that, we hope, add to the poems without distracting from them. The key purpose of Antiphon is to publish poetry. We’re not a photographic or art magazine. But the page-with-only-words can be a little dull. Online, particularly, people tend to expect visually crafted pages, where a well chosen image supports the words, even though I expect if they saw the same thing in print, they’d feel it was over the top.

But such images need some thinking about. If they are too obvious or too literal, they will distort the words. For example, if you’ve a poem about love on the rocks, and illustrate it with a picture of a rock, what does that tell you about love? And don’t we know what a rock looks like, in any case? (If we don’t, then the imagery in the poem won’t work in the first place.) The image that sits by a poem shouldn’t interpret the poem. Nor conflict with it. Nor distract from it. Nor undermine it with some complex meanings of its own. The images in Antiphon are more like marginalia or graffiti, pictures we’ve chosen which we think have their own visual interest, but which are not so demanding that they draw the reader away from the poem. And they can safely be ignored by those who only want to attend to the words.

We also use our images to create visual unity through the magazine. Again, we don’t want to do that in a heavy-handed way. So far we’ve avoided grandiose nature panoramas or close-ups of different writing instruments or dramatic waterfalls and seascapes. (Perhaps by the time we get to issue #100 we’ll be reaching for these tired resources, but it’s not happened yet). Instead, we’re looking for a bit of style, a bit of intimacy, a bit of quirk – the sorts of things that we tend to find in the poems we publish.

They’ve mainly come from our own cameras, some taken with Antiphon in mind, others accidentally captured during some trip or other. I’m rather fond of the seventeenth century sundial used for Issue #4 (photographed in Paris) because it might say something about time and transience, about light, about stone – but actually, it’s simply an interesting set of lines, shapes and textures. I also like Rosemary’s intriguing combination of ammonite and musical score we used in issue #2, because it’s slightly odd, raises some questions (what is this piece of music, exactly?) and yet as an image is quintessentially itself, a specific image that readers might now remember as something like an icon of the magazine: slightly odd, but studied, cultured, meaningful, aesthetic, unusual, crafted, a hint of nature, a dash of skill.

Good poems, we feel, can work in the same sort of way. They can offer somethings which have shape and texture, which are uniquely themselves, unique objects or experiences made from words, and, whilst they don’t need to be histrionic or to call attention to themselves flamboyantly, they’ll nevertheless use images, and language, which is special, different, original, striking to the mind’s eye and hopefully resting there in memory for a long time after the first encounter. Issue #8 looks like it’ll have it’s fair share of these: though there’s still time to submit your masterpiece to join them.

(If you’d like to see the cover of my book, Out of Breath – and, yes, this is a rather obvious plug, but the book isn’t out till March – it’s on my blog at: )


Posted by: Rosemary Badcoe | August 5, 2013

We apologise for the inconvenience…

Just wanted to say ‘sorry’ to those of you whose work we’ve been sitting on for a while… we have some submissions from before our special issue that are still under consideration, and I know it’s too long. We’ve had tons of poems this time, particularly many of the ‘can’t quite decide, must read again’ sort, so please bear with us for another week or two and we’ll make a decision, particularly on the oldest submissions.  If we haven’t let you know yet, then your work is still under active consideration.

Posted by: Rosemary Badcoe | August 4, 2013

Long or short?

Just reading an article here by Gareth Prior on the advantages of poetry pamphlets over full collections. I think he’s right about the comparative ease of selling pamphlets – I’m beginning to believe that, apart from the major publishers, more poetry is sold at readings and other events than formally through booksellers. On the whole I’m still a fan of the small collection for new poets. I like seeing the variety a poet can produce, and production values seem more reliable (though I have seen some very attractive pamphlets recently). Pamphlets come into their own for poems around a single theme, but I’m sometimes left wondering if the work presented is fully representative of the poet’s style. What do you think – would you rather buy pamphlets or a full, even if shortish, collection?

Posted by: noelwilliams | July 8, 2013

Bring us your best

We’ve failed to post for a little while, probably out of exhaustion with the previous issue and the Sheffield Poetry Festival.

But now we’re gearing up for Issue #8, which will mark two years of success. We’re a little surprised. Are you surprised? That a start-up magazine run for the pleasure of poetry by two somewhat opinionated poets has made a go of things in these austere times?

I suppose if we were a print journal, and asking for money, things might be different. As it is, Antiphon seems pretty buoyant, as long as we continue to get good submissions. We’re not going to top Issue #7, of course, but we’d like to try – for which we need your very best poems, and lots of them.

We’d particularly like to see more from UK poets. When we set Antiphon up, we thought we’d be giving an opportunity for underpublished UK poets of quality. And we have, up to a point. But there haven’t been quite as many as we’d expected. We know very well there are lots of excellent poets out there. Perhaps they’re just not keen on online magazines. Or perhaps they’re reluctant to put their poems out into the world. Or perhaps worried about possible rejection.

Rosemary and I know these feelings. We’re reluctant to send out our own work, too. Is it really finished? Is it as good as it can be? What about all those other brilliant poems out there, they’re bound to be better than mine? What if I have to wait for months, and still get told “sorry, not thanks”? Can I face yet another rejection? Am I really any good? Isn’t it safer simply not to make the attempt?

Both Rosemary and I have suffered the pains of rejection. It’s tough as a poet to be told, in effect, that your poem is not the astonishingly original, moving piece of art you hoped it was. At least, that’s how you feel. You’re not being told that, of course. Usually, rejection simply means “the editor is not excited by this poem, and has found a dozen other poems that s/he is excited by”. Or even “we already have a poem on this subject, so don’t really want another one”. Or even “one of our editors was quite keen, but another wasn’t, and we pride ourselves on choosing poems that we all agree on”. Or perhaps even “er – sorry – but I didn’t really understand this poem. It’s coming from a direction outside my experience, and beyond my competence to judge.”

I think that acceptance and rejection are partly down to luck. Okay, the poem has to be good enough. It has to be up there with the best that are circulating, so that it’s in with a chance in the first place. But, if a magazine publishes, say, 20 poems, and receives 100 of that sort of quality, then there’s only a one in five chance that your poem will get chosen. Or, to look at it even more negatively, there’s an 80% chance it will be rejected, simply because of the capacity of the magazine.

At Antiphon we only very rarely reject poems which we feel are good enough to include. Being online, the capacity issue doesn’t really worry us, although we aim to produce an issue of between 20 and 30 poems, because we feel that’s about the right size for a readable issue. If we received 31 really great poems, though, we’d publish them all – or at least ask if one could be held over for the following issue.

This makes us a little more demanding than some, of course. But it also makes us greedy for the very best poems we can find.

And even if we reject you, you shouldn’t take it to heart. One thing Rosemary and I have discovered is that there are some kinds of poems we simply don’t enjoy, so we’re not going to publish them. They may be brilliant examples of their kind, but if they’re a kind outside our pleasure zone, they won’t make it into Antiphon. At the same time, we’ve been educated by some of the submissions we’ve received, and had our horizons stretched on some occasions. That’s one thing that’s important to us as poets, and (we hope) editors too – the willingness to take on new ideas, to learn new things, to find new cultural experiences, to build new poetry on the foundations of what already exists.

I think, as a poet, the real answer to rejection is persistence. When my poems are rejected – which is far too often – I generally aim to send them out again as soon as possible. I may given them the chance of a review, in case I can see faults that I should have remedied, but usually when I’ve sent a poem out it’s because I believe it’s as good as I can get it, so such a review is pretty pointless. (When a poem has been rejected ten times, I sometimes change my mind, though!)

And I always try to ensure that I’ve several sets of poems circulating at once, so if one set is rejected, I can console myself with the thought that the others may be, at that very moment, finding acceptance somewhere. I also, rather nerdishly, keep a record of how many poems  I send out and how many successes I have and, surprise surprise, there’s a pretty clear correlation between the number sent out and the number accepted or winning something. Roughly speaking, for every five submissions, I have a success – which means I have to bear four rejections for every success. But it’s worse than this, of course, because sometimes an editor will take two or, on rare occasions, three poems. Which means that I’ve nine, or even fourteen rejections to endure to maintain that overall success ratio.

I’ve known some really good poets, certainly better than me, who are shy of sending work out, and so not really known or published, even though almost every time they put pen to paper they produce something interesting or beautiful. I think you need to be not merely creative as a poet, but disciplined, too. Even business-like, perhaps. Two people, really. The open, liberal, creative child who brings poems into the light. And then the spreadsheet operating, record-keeping self-promoter who makes sure that every stroke of genius has a proper chance to get out into the world and be heard.

And, frankly, if your work is any good, why is it not out there? Okay, you may not get instant success, but if the work is good and you’re persistent enough, someone, somewhere will eventually recognise it.

So, send us your poems. Your best, your most brilliant, your beautiful, your sophisticated, your intelligent, your entertaining, your exciting and inspiring work.

Posted by: noelwilliams | June 18, 2013

The pleasure of competitions

Recently both Antiphon editors won prizes in poetry competitions. That’s just as well, really, because it suggests to us that we’re doing something right in our own work as well as our judgements of others.

But it’s made me wonder about the nature of poetry competitions. (This is Noel typing). I enter them quite frequently, though rather fewer than usual this year. And I’ve done moderately well – lots of shortlistings and commendations and, just often enough to boost my flagging sense of  poetic adequacy, the occasional prize. Of course, the money that sometimes comes is welcome, but is this the only reason I go in for competitive poetry? After all, there are as many crossword competitions and quizzes out there as poetry competitions – why not go in for them, too, if it’s only about the money? (Actually, one reason is that I’d not do well at all in crossword comps, though success in quizzes would probably depend how many questions concerned the 100 Days of Napoleon or Scandinavian prog rock).

No, I think poetry competitions bring me the same sort of pleasure as publication or being asked to give a reading. In fact, those competitions which don’t also result in publication or a reading opportunity seem rather a let down to me. I tend not to go in for them. But the key pleasure, I think, is knowing that others, one judge at least and probably a handful of them, people amongst your peers who have experience and skill as poets, think your work is actually pretty good. In workshops we hear all the time “I really like your poem. It’s great. But….” Whereas if you’re up there in the competition rankings, no-one is saying “but…”

And then, as I’ve discovered over the last 24 hours, there’s another pleasure, too. I tell everyone I’m basically shy. I tell as many people as possible, as often as possible. They don’t believe me. That’s because I also decided that, if I was to succeed as a poet, I had to indulge in some self-promotion, too. Can you be shy and arrogant at the same time? Perhaps shyness can be a form of arrogance? Anyway, it seems to me that it’s not too self-aggrandising to let people know you’ve succeeded somewhere. So I posted my success on Facebook and elsewhere – and, wonderfully, dozens of people have come back to me with enthusiasm and encouragement. It’s a great feeling, to find your friends and peers – and especially those whose own poetry you feel is so much better than your own – applauding your success. Almost as good as the prize itself.

Even so, I think competitions are a sideline for poets. It’s the poems that matter. And then, after that, it’s publication. I think having a few competition successes can help with publication – it might make a press more likely to look at your collection, for example. But I doubt that a CV filled with competition winnings counts for much if the poetry you submit to that editor is mediocre. Here at Antiphon we have, on occasion, been surprised by the mismatch between the quality of work poet X has submitted and his or her trail of previous successes. There’s nothing in a competition success which guarantees the next poem, or any of the next twenty poems, will be any good.

Nor does winning competitions mean that you are producing the sort of work that many magazines will be interested in. All it really means is that you can write the sort of poems that stand out effectively amongst other good poems in a pile on the judge’s desk. So features such as “quirky”, “different”, “striking” and “accessible” may count for more than “originality” or “complexity”, depending on the nature of the competition and its judge.

Of course, all poets are in competition with each other to some extent for publication in any case. Which is where Antiphon comes in. If you write brilliant work, we’ll take it – no matter how brilliant the work of the other people submitting to us for the same issue. So, send it in. If it’s brilliant, it’ll win. And the prize? Your name in print in Antiphon #8. What could be better?

Posted by: Rosemary Badcoe | June 2, 2013

Busy editors

Your stalwart Antiphon editors are sinking slowly under the critical mass of poetry surrounding Sheffield… Noel has been involved in the organisation of the Poetry Festival, and I believe heard at least 6 (or was it 8?) poets yesterday and talked to many more. I attended a most enjoyable reading by Gillian Clarke and Paula Cunningham. Gillian is the National Poet of Wales and well known to many – she read very movingly, amongst other things, a selection from her most recent book, Ice. Paula’s work was new to me – very sharp and witty and yet emotionally involving. I shall enjoy revisiting the poems in her new first collection, Heimlich’s Manoeuvre (Smith/Doorstop), which I think isn’t officially published yet, though the pile on the bookstall sold out pretty quickly. Do poetry books sell? The bookstall at the events I’ve been to seemed to be doing pretty good business. Perhaps those willing to pay to listen to poetry are also willing to pay to read it.

There was a nicely positioned poster for Antiphon, too! The poets we’ve spoken to seem very pleased with the special Festival issue, which is great.


Noel’s postscript:

It was eight poets, actually, and every single one of them had something interesting to offer. I think I, too, probably enjoyed the Paula Cunningham and Gillian Clare reading most, but it was a close run thing. River Wolton was sharp, witty, lucid, and has the great skill of pretty much memorising her own work, making her reading direct and engaging. Julia Copus read some very tender pieces from “The World’s Two Smallest Humans” – they may, perhaps, be imagined pieces, but her reading convinces you that every one  is intensely personal. Paul Batchelor read a brilliant address to a Halfbrick, hardly a topic you’d expect to yield such rich material. Jean Sprackland favoured us with a preview of poems from her forthcoming “Sleeping Keys”, a book about interiors. I’m now reading her “Strands”, a collection of prose “meditations” from walking the beaches of NorthWest England. The two Irish voices of James Caruth (a friend of mine and excellent poet) originally from Belfast, and Bernard O’Donoghue, from Cork, could almost have read anything and lulled the audience with their lyrical tones. A really excellent day – and that’s just the start.

Everyone I spoke to complimented Antiphon. It’s pleasing to hear, especially when the compliments seem so sincere. They like the look and the content – so we’re going to have our work cut out to follow this issue with number #8.

Posted by: Rosemary Badcoe | May 18, 2013

Issue 7 live!

Our special Sheffield Poetry Festival issue is now live! Come and read an excellent mixture of well-known and up-and-coming poets in our extra-large issue. It’s crept up to 47 poems in total, covering nearly all the headline act and a goodly proportion of the other events. The range of styles is wider than we usually encompass – see what you think, and let us know if you enjoy it!

Posted by: Rosemary Badcoe | May 15, 2013

We’re just putting together the special festival issue

We’re just putting together the special festival issue of Antiphon – 45 poems, so nearly twice as big as usual! It reminds me of those special summer editions of comics I sometimes bought when I was a child – excellent value for money, and of course Antiphon is always excellent value! 

Be assured, though, that we are still reading through all the submissions for our usual issue (which will be number 8, to appear late August/early September), so please keep them coming.  Please read some of our previous issues first, though, to get a feel for what we publish – and remember that if you’re going to send poems of teenage (or post-teenage) angst and torrid first love and betrayal, you need to tell it in a pretty special way if you want it published.

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