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Out of the Desk Drawer

Meg Peacocke

Let's suppose you have been writing poems for a while: perhaps a long while, privately - surreptitiously even - to share with a friend or two; perhaps as a way of dealing with difficult events in your life. One way or another, you have found that the processes of writing matter to you. Now what? How to take them further?
Should you try to publish, and if so, where? Would a workshop be a good idea? Do you look for a local writers' group, and should it be one with a tutor or without? What about competitions? What would be the value of enrolling on a writing course? Do you actually need your work to be read by other people?
To begin with this last: yes, you do need readers, because a poem is a communication, and the communication is built up of sounds. It is extremely difficult to judge the effectiveness of either for yourself, because you know what you meant - or at least what you hoped to convey - and how it sounded in your head. (There is a wonderful anthology of bad verse, The Stuffed Owl, compiled by D.B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee and published in 1930; many masterpieces of the ridiculous that it contains were written by masterful poets. If they didn't notice their own howlers and bloomers, there are evidently hazards for us all.)
You need, however, readers who have some experience and critical ability as well as kindness and enthusiasm; best friends may not be your best critics, either because their prejudices are on your side or because they don't want to hurt your feelings.
A local workshop, then? Go ahead, sample what's on offer. If you don't like the feel of it, leave. You don't have to tolerate hatchet jobs, but indulgence won't help either. You need encouragement, but above all you need your work to be heard with critically intelligent ears. A group which provides that is hard to find, whether or not there is a tutor. A group without a tutor can be invaluable if its members have a fair degree of skill and experience; otherwise it is likely to be aimless. A Local Authority or WEA workshop is probably your best bet.
To answer some of the earlier questions, here are some DON'TS. Don't be in a hurry to publish; above all, beware of the "vanity presses" which offer to publish your work in anthologies and beautifully bound volumes. They flourish, and they often disguise themselves with skill; but they are interested in your money, not your literary ability. The same may be said of many competitions, which are often used for fund-raising. Even if you win a prize, you may not be in company worth keeping. Aim high, therefore. Be suspicious of competitions which don't mention the names of judges. If judges are named, have a look at their work if you can, to see if you think they're any good.
The great advantage of the established competitions is that work is submitted anonymously, so that unknown writers have an equal chance with the known and previously published. That may be the case with magazines, but the names on the covers are usually familiar ones.
If you send work to a magazine, read a few copies first; otherwise you are likely to be wasting stamps, time and hope. Send four or five poems, with a brief covering letter; expect a rejection slip, and try not to take it personally if it comes. If it contains a few words from the editor, take note of them. As for sending out a collection, don't bother unless you have already had work in a number of magazines or have won a few good prizes.
About writing courses conducted by correspondence: don't enrol on one which promises that you will "earn while you learn", unless you really want to write to commercial formulae. Where money is concerned, by the way, expect to make an outlay but not an income: the Lottery offers better odds. The only good course in creative writing that I know is offered by the
Open College of the Arts - and here I must declare an interest, because I tutor for them. It costs a fair bit, but for the money you receive the critical attention of a tutor who is a practising writer with a good record of publication. The relationship you develop with your tutor can be constructive, and the course books provide good guidelines along with plenty of freedom to explore your particular interests.
There are various residential workshops on offer, of which those run by the
Arvon Foundation and Taliesin Trust are probably the best known. Expect to be terrified at the outset: you will be expected to produce work then and there and set it naked before the eyes of strangers. However, they are likely to stay strangers only for a day - for the first evening, maybe. You are all in the same boat; most of them will turn out to be allies, sharing many of your interests, passions and fears. They will share also their experience, knowledge and enthusiasm, and you will all be under the guidance of reputable tutors. If you really want to find out more about your commitment to writing, this is a good way of doing it.
Meanwhile, there are things you can do for yourself. First, when you have written a poem, put it away (proverbially, in the back of a drawer) for something like three weeks, until you have forgotten the feeling of being in love with it. You will see it better when you take it out again.
Second, learn the nature of your tools. The English language is extraordinarily complex, and every word carries its history covertly with it, so use dictionaries constantly and especially an etymological dictionary. A thesaurus too. You will have an interesting time, and your work will be enriched.
Finally, if you care about writing, read. (It's surprising how many aspiring poets don't read much poetry). Poetry writing is an ancient craft, and you have to acquire the skills of it just as though you were a potter or a cabinet maker; so do it, but also look at the work of good practitioners. Try all sorts, and when you find work that you appreciate, read and read again with a critical eye. There is always some mystery about a really good poem, but there is also effective craftsmanship which you can learn to appraise. The pleasures of writing and reading can deepen and continue through the rest of your life.

M. R. Peacocke 1998