Free Verse Poetry Book Fair

I had a great day last Saturday at the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair at Conway Hall in London, launching my new pamphlet, Selfie with Waterlilies, published by Paper Swans Press, a labour of love of Sarah Miles. It was so good to finally meet Sarah after all our correspondence around the pamphlet, with all the editing and proofing that went on both on the Word document and the PDF proof, and thereafter, the extensive dialogue by email about the cover image and design. These conversations also involved Jill Munro, the judge of the competition who kindly chose my pamphlet from a long-list containing a number of very fine poets.

It all happened so quickly from entering the competition on 27 June to finding out I’d won on 4 August. How’s that for an amazing turnaround in poetry? From late August, there were several weeks of back and forth by email with (what must have seemed endless to Sarah and Jill) my re-reading, re-ordering, tweaking and fine-tuning. I did worry that I had seriously annoyed them in the process (as I remember worrying about this with Nell for the Paris pamphlet).

But the strangest things happen when you win a competition and somebody picks out your poems. First, you re-read the poems (which you have read so many times) and feel this massive wave of self-doubt pass over you. Second, you start thinking of the poems out there in the world being reviewed and critiqued (which feeds the self-doubt further…).

Once you get beyond that, tell yourself to get a grip, that the judge must have seen some merit in the poems, you start to read them again, but as a cohesive unit of one, i.e. of one pamphlet, one series, one reading experience of a person new to the poems processing the ideas and images within, and physically turning the page, being segued from one poem/place/idea/engine/conceit /world to another.

And this leads to a third stage where you become almost hyper-aware of the poems and how they are speaking to each other, in terms of themes, voice, vocabulary, but also how the eye is picking up the poems, in terms of shape, text versus white space, contrasts in shape and black/white on each page. And how is the mood/tone of the poems alternating…are there too many serious or humorous ones? It’s important to vary it so that the reader each time has to decide their response to the next poem and does not become too conditioned by the emotional flavour of the preceding poems. The cumulative experience should be one that is varied, containing surprises, highs and lows, easier and more difficult poems, shorter versus longer pieces.

Part of this third stage involves testing the poems again, checking how they sound, if you could deliver them effectively at a reading, seeing if the poems work rhythmically, what the sound sensation is for the listener. So, much of the energy that goes into the poems happens in this second editing stage – they have been edited once as self-standing, lone poems, but need editing again as component parts of a bigger poetic whole.

I take a very critical perspective on my poems and, admittedly, become a control freak because I feel a kind of fear that the poems might somehow creep out into the world without them being less than ‘perfect’, or rather, ‘less good than they could be’. No poem is perfect. No poem is ever finished. Of course, I read the poems once in print and see the flaws, or rather, identify new weaknesses, parts that could be stronger. But anyway, luckily no typos (you can check time and time again but they have a tendency to linger), and for the time being I’m more than content.

The pamphlet itself looks really fantastic. I hadn’t seen a hard copy until the day of the launch. Sarah was running to a tight schedule. I couldn’t be happier with the look and feel of it, from the dark greens of the cover with the detail from a Monet painting (more about how we arrived at that cover in a separate blog post to come), the title in violet, the light blue end papers, the light cream paper (which I think adds to the aesthetic experience and gives the poems a certain gravitas), the choice of font, and the light-weight feel (lightweight without being ‘lite’). It is very much a pamphlet I want to pick up to just open and close, admiring the pamphlet as object, container, vessel, envelope etc, regardless of my poems inside.

It was a privilege to be able to stand there and sign copies for those who came up to the Paper Swans Press stand to have a chat and talk about the press. In the morning I also attended a fascinating workshop on poetry and translation run by Michael Schmidt. There were eight of us in the group and we all engaged with the Gilgamesh tablet, attempting our own translation by adopting a contraint or strict form. In the evening, I read three poems from the pamphlet as well as my poem that won the book fair competition. I am very grateful to Joey Connolly, Chrissy Williams and Daljit Nagra for choosing the poem.

The evening readings were really enjoyable, varied and entertaining. I heard some excellent new voices and came away in high spirits and weighed down with 50 copies of my pamphlet for readings and lots of new Carcanet titles: well how you can resist with books half price? Books by Sidekick, pamphlets by The Poetry Business, a new journal from Sine Wave Peak… until next September.

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