How to be a Poet

I received my contributor’s copy of what I suspect will be a very important book — for me, surely — and perhaps for others. How to be a Poet strikes me as not only “a twenty-first century guide to writing well”, but also a guide to living well as a writer.

I also quite like the alternative title proposed in the introduction: “A Poem-Writer’s Guide to the Galaxy.” After all, we contain multitudes.

It features the wisdom of two of my favourite poetry people: Jo Bell and Jane Commane, interspersed with excellent guest contributions by Mona Arshi, Jonathan Davidson, Clive Birnie, and many other well-known names in UK poetry. I thought I’d spend a moment or two thumbing through it on the couch when it arrived. I couldn’t put it down.

My own essay represents a manifesto of sorts — again, not about how to write, but how to be as a writer in this mad, mad world. It is called “Making Peace with Poetry”.

If you’re writing poems, or have secretly wanted to, know someone who writes, or are just curious to lift the curtain on the writing life — I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

The book is available from Nine Arches Press, with options for international shipping.

Young Student Filmmakers Respond to “Buttons”

I received an email the other day that delighted me.

A teacher in the UK found “Buttons” online and use it, and the accompanying storybook, to teach both poetry and filmmaking to her year six students. The results are wonderful, showing an understanding of poetic technique, inventiveness, careful observation of the everyday, and a good dose of humor.

It occurs to me this might be a great way to reach the smartphone generation with poetry, and gives me greater hope for the emerging genre of film-poetry as well. I am also grateful to see teachers championing creativity in an educational system increasingly obsessed with standardised testing.

Do check out the short films.

January Poetry Surgeries in St. Albans, Hertfordshire

Following on from last year’s success, I will again be offering a limited number of one-to-one “Poetry Surgeries” through the UK Poetry Society in St. Albans, Hertfordshire on Sunday, January 31st. This is a great way to get new perspectives and reinvigorate your writing for the coming year.

Valerie Morton, author of two full-length collections of poetry, had this to say about our time together:

Having never done a ‘poetry surgery’ before I was a little apprehensive, but Robert Peake immediately put me at ease. He had done a lot of work on the poems I had sent in advance and helped me to look at them with new eyes. His thoughts and ideas helped me free up my language and inspired me to be braver with the material I had. I felt I was getting into a bit of a rut with my writing but I left this surgery feeling uplifted and encouraged to be unafraid to experiment more. It was one of the best value hours I have spent with a poet who I trust and whose own work I admire. It certainly helps lift a writer’s block.

These one-hour sessions take place in a central location in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, near to parking, train, and bus links. Last time, all sessions sold out, and this time there are fewer sessions available. So, if you or someone you know in Southeast England might be interested, please do have a look at The Poetry Society website to book your place.

Here’s to a year full of great writing ahead!

Why Poetry Workshops Matter

The following reflections appeared in the recent print edition of the Ver Poets newsletter.

“Revision is not cleaning up after the party; revision is the party.”
-Source unknown

“Sometimes the best revision of a poem is a new poem.”
-Marvin Bell

“You must be careful not to deprive the poem of its wild origin.”
-Stanley Kunitz

“You must revise your life.”
-William Stafford

Poetry can be a lonely art. Yet the best poems are rich in influence, and poets seeking to improve their writing (that is, all of us) do well to read widely and solicit feedback. One place we can all help each other is in workshop groups the likes of which I recently attended at the home of Ver Poet Simon Bowden.

The appreciation of poetry is largely a matter of taste, and therefore ultimately only the poet herself can decide what constitutes a “better” decision in relation to her poem. And yet, paradoxically, it is through input from other self-aware readers that poets can often develop most quickly, learning through feedback how their decisions affect a receptive reader. Through both giving and receiving input on poems, the poet also increasingly learns to act as this receptive reader for herself in both composing and revising her own poems. It is useful, therefore, not only to the poem in question, but to the poet over time.

The temptation for the author to explain something in the middle of a feedback session can be great. After all, we often write to be understood — if not intellectually, perhaps emotionally. Yet the greatest benefit a willing author can receive from her writing group is the opportunity to be a silent “fly on the wall” as a group of intelligent readers speak their thoughts aloud in response to the poem. It is a privilege they will not have once the published poem is read silently and more widely in the minds of others.

The best thing a feedback group can do, then, is to reflect their honest experience as a reader. You can reflect on the form of the poem, and what you understand about how it is working. You can try to answer the question, “What happens?” (far more useful than “What does this poem ‘mean’?”), giving insight into where the practical details are ambiguous or clear. You can reflect on what is evoked by the poem, what lines stand out, or where you felt your attention starting to dwindle. You can be curious and inquisitive about what you would do (if the poem were your own) in relation to these observations. All of this can be helpful.

The American poet Billy Collins once quipped that the greatest mistake of the journeyman poet is “being mysterious where one should have been clear, and clear where one should have been mysterious.” It can be hard to tell when and how this is happening on your own. A good group holds up a mirror. The best workshop groups operate in this spirit of confraternitas — all on the journey together, and I saw much evidence of both talent and familiarity in the recent meeting.

[For more tips on getting the most out of poetry workshops, including a list of useful questions, see “The Joy of Revision“.]

The (Poetry) Doctor Is In (Hertfordshire)

surgeryThe chill of autumn brings the start of a new school year, and the beginning of a new venture for me. I am pleased to offer “poetry surgeries” through the UK Poetry Society for the Hertfordshire area. If you’re local, and interested in a bit of encouragement and some fresh perspectives on your writing, you can book your one-hour slot for an individual consultation through the Poetry Society website. I expect them to go quickly.

Since I naturalised as a British citizen just one year ago today, let me explain to my American readers what this is all about. The term “doctor’s surgery” actually refers to a local family doctor’s office, where he or she sees all manner of patients for initial consultations. The term is used exclusively for the operating theatre in America. So, please, think tongue depressors and stethoscopes — not forceps and saws.

In fact, I am a firm believer that, as Wordsworth said, “we murder to dissect”. Which means, far from taking a surgical approach, that at the heart of all my writing, thinking, teaching, and consulting about poetry is the sheer love of poetry itself. This doesn’t preclude incisive perception, but it does mean that I believe we can take our art both very seriously and without pretension.

So if this kind of “surgery” sounds like something that could give you a boost, do have a look at the available slots. I shall look forward to poring over some poems with a nice cup of tea with you in the charming medieval market town of St. Albans soon. No scalpels required.

So Long, Mannahatta!

“New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town! / The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down.”
-“On The Town”, sung by Frank Sinatra

So a book tour that began in the medieval English village of Much Wenlock ends in New York.

We capped off a feasting-our-senses-through-Manhattan city break with a trip to Walt Whitman’s birthplace on Long Island. I gave my “Tactics for Sneaky Poets” workshop to a receptive and talented local group, and was given a private tour of the house and very room where Uncle Walt was born, before taking to the stage.

What a pleasure and privilege it was to read with Peter Cole, who drew parallels between Whitman’s transcendentalist philosophy and ancient Jewish mysticism. He read poems from the depths of his own multitudes as well. Afterward, we answered questions from the audience about translation, displacement, and the necessity of the creative act.

I also marked the fourth anniversary of moving to England while here, surrounded by New Yorkers and ancient Egyptian artefacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York feels in many ways like a midpoint — both geographically and culturally — between my native rural California and adopted London. Yet it is entirely its own place as well. I will be sorry to say goodbye.

I won’t be sorry to get back to a radiator I can control, however, as all the apartment buildings seem to keep them on full-tilt until the end of May. As the street below is waking up, the cast-iron pipes beside my bed are banging furiously, transforming our tiny West Village apartment into a dry sauna.

Val and I have stripped off completely, lounging around like Adam and Eve. We have tasted The Big Apple. I have a feeling we will be back for more.