Colleen Higgs on getting poetry published

Modjaji Books publisher Colleen Higgs has written a useful post on how to publish poetry on BooksLIVE. From her article:

1. Buy and read the work of poets who have had their work published. Do this regularly. See what is hot and happening. Subscribe to AT LEAST ONE literary magazine.
2. Attend live poetry readings – Some South African examples: Off the Wall in Cape Town, Poetry Africa in Durban, the Jozi House of Poetry and the Melville Poetry Festival and the Reddits monthly poetry reading sessions in Grahamstown. Also attend the launches of collections of poetry. You will hear about these by joining the mailing lists of independent bookstores, such as The Book Lounge and Kalk Bay Bay Books in Cape Town; Love Books in Joburg and Ikes in Durban.
3. Send your work to the literary magazines. Google the following names to find their contact details: New Coin, Litnet, New Contrast, Carapace, Dye Hard Press, Incwadi, Baobab Literary Journal, Kalahari Review. There are other literary magazines, and sometimes you can find lists online.

There’s lots more, go read the full piece here.

Poetry in my postbox: English Alive and Carapace

Two poetry magazines I admire greatly both arrived in my postbox today: English Alive and Carapace.

English Alive is an annual anthology of writing by South African school-goers, and this is the last issue edited by the legendary Robin Malan, who is retiring from the editorship after many years. Robin deserves several lifetime achievement awards for his contribution to South African literature, because for many writers, English Alive is the first place they are published and recognised for their early work.

Go and order your copies on the English Alive site. If you’re at school, you can also find out how to submit your work to English Alive.

Carapace is edited by another giant of South African literature, Gus Ferguson. I believe for consistently high-quality poetry Carapace is unrivalled in South Africa. My subscription to Carapace costs me R200 for six issues, which is ridiculously cheap. (To subscribe, write to PO Box 12020, Mill Street 8010, Cape Town South Africa.) This month’s issue includes writing by a range of top local writers, including Mike Alfred, David Attwell, Sue Clark, Patrick Cullinan, Gail Dendy, CJ Driver and others.

If you aim to one day be published in Carapace, read every issue you can get hold of. You’ll learn a lot from these amazing writers. And, a bonus, Carapace always includes lovely drawings, too.

On taking a course

Acclaimed editor, writer and academic Helen Moffett has some excellent advice for aspiring writers. In a post on BOOKSA, she begins:

Everyone in the book business is familiar with the Sidle Query: you’re at a party, lecture, bar mitzvah, wedding or memorial service when someone sidles up to ask if you have any ideas on how they can get their novel/poetry/memoir published. There are a number of responses: one writer asks, “What are you reading right now?”, and if she gets a blank look, she makes a hasty getaway.

My preferred method is to ask what local authors the Sidler reads, and which local publishers they see as a good fit for their MS. Nine times out of ten I get either the blank look or a frank demurral – “Oh, I don’t read local stuff!”, at which I become very stern, and the unfortunate Sidler scuttles away.

Read the post. Really, read it now.

How to read poetry

From time to time I meet someone who seems interested in poetry in principle, but doesn’t know where to start reading. Of course in most cases they’re just feigning interest, because they want to please me or are playing me like a Singing Teapot. Nonetheless, it has helped me think about what I’d recommend, and why.

The first thing to remember is that ninety per cent of the poetry we read at school (who hasn’t read Yeats’ “An Irish airman foresees his death” or Blake’s “The Tiger”?) puts us off poetry. Those poems are good and interesting if you understand their historical context, albeit as interesting as studying cross-stitch techniques of the late 18th century. Historical context gives teachers and children something to talk about, because the teachers themselves usually don’t know enough about poetry to spot innovation, or to explain why a particular image or use of line breaks or internal rhyme is special. Or as kids we haven’t got the intellectual equipment to handle subtlety or get irony and innuendo.

Also, those who pick “school poems” usually want us to think that poetry has great social and historical significance. And the thing is, no one really knows this for sure. Only a few truly believe that poetry can change the world in any meaningful way. Perhaps occasionally a poem might tweak the zeitgeist, but usually it tweaks our recollected impression of a time, not the time itself. Reading poetry as a history lesson is a terribly narrow way to read poetry. Good poetry is good for how it fizzes and sloshes in the ear and the mind, not for how it teaches history.

A last suggestion: read slowly so you can take in the details. It’s like those metal flowers made from old cool-drink cans. Prose is like the can. It’s practical, it serves a purpose, and even when well designed it’s not something you take a moment to contemplate, unless you have the time and are interested in cool-drink-can design. Poetry is the flower made from the can. The most colourful, intense parts of the can are used in a particular combination, often borrowing the essence of the can’s design, distilling it, and presenting it in a form that is carefully chosen for maximum effect. It is something you might keep and return to, because it shows that someone cares about the details, and that it’s possible to carve something beautiful from the ordinary.

Poems to look for

Obviously everyone likes different stuff for different reasons. These have been important poems for me since I was very young.

  • Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”, “Out, Out–”
  • Philip Larkin, “Church Going”
  • Howard Nemerov, “The Blue Swallows”
  • W. H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts”
  • William Carlos Williams, “Danse Russe”
  • John Agard, “Poetry Jump-up”
  • Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
  • Hugh MacDiarmid, “Perfect”
  • E. E. Cummings, “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond”
  • Robert Graves, “Love Without Hope” (and most of his poetry, especially his love poetry)
  • Douglas Livingstone, “Gentling a wildcat” (one of South Africa’s greatest poets)
  • Theodore Roethke, “Root Cellar”
  • Robert Lowell, “For the Union Dead”
  • James Wright, “I Try to Waken and Greet the World Once Again”
  • Adrienne Rich, “The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at Last as a Sexual Message”
  • Sylvia Plath, “You’re”
  • Seamus Heaney, “Death of a Naturalist”, “Limbo”
  • Craig Raine, “A Martian Sends A Postcard Home”
  • Carol Ann Duffy, “Warming Her Pearls”
  • Alice Oswald, Dart (This is a short book, a single poem. It’s the most astonishing thing I read in 2004.)