Our poetry roadshow in Sheffield

Each year we take to the road to spread the word about the Northern Writers’ Awards, visit new places and meet writers. It was a genuine pleasure to head to Sheffield last weekend for a special poetry-themed Roadshow run in partnership with pioneering publisher, the Poetry Business. As our expert speakers arrived for the day, I was tempted to abandon the planned programme and rapidly instigate a series of poetry readings. Clare Pollard, Degna Stone, Anna Woodford, Suzannah Evans and Mark Pajak formed a striking gathering of poetic talent in a single room, but we kept to the script and stuck to prose.

Our opening session explored the realities of the publishing climate faced by poets looking to get their work out there: the long publisher waiting lists, limited number of spaces for collections by new poets and what can be a daunting and disorientating variety of possible paths ahead. Our panel agreed that poets should always aim high, but also research their options and selectively build their portfolios. Pamphlets can play a central part in establishing new work and the growing opportunities offered by innovative smaller presses are a source of optimism. It was fascinating to hear about different aspects of the poet/editor relationship, which our versatile speakers were able to explore from both sides. Clare’s enthusiasm for and commitment to her mentoring role for the New North Poets Scheme, which we’re lucky to run alongside The Poetry School, were a joy to hear and it was galvanising to learn how much she’s looking forward to embarking on her role as this year’s Northern Writers’ Awards judge.

Our two middle sessions allowed us more depth to explore certain key topics. Anna Woodford and Mark Pajak shared some invaluable practical advice on how to shape and structure a collection of poetry. Seeing many participants nodding in agreement when Anna spoke about the need to, literally, ‘get the poems on the floor’, I realised how tangible and visual creating a body of work can be. Mark had everyone laughing when he told us about the stop-start process of choosing a title for his first pamphlet before he eventual settling for the perfectly named Spitting Distance. We discussed deciding what to leave in and leave out, ways of ordering poems and how publishers tend to recoil at the first sniff of a zany typeface.

20161119_125525Degna Stone and Suzannah Evans then took us through a forensic dissection of the ways to approach magazines and prepare poems for prizes, drawing on their own experiences both as poets and editors for Butcher’s Dog, The Rialto and The North. If you’re like me and have an uneasy relationship with Excel, it may not fill you with joy to know how vital it is to keep track of where your poems have gone off to through a detailed spreadsheet. More heartening though is that you can make the process of sending off your work and receiving responses enjoyable, finding ways to reward yourself and celebrate achievements. One of the writers in the room told us she handwrites details of all of her submissions in a nice notebook and gives herself a gold star when work is accepted for publication.

Using the resources at your disposal is essential, and The Poetry Library, the Scottish Poetry Library, and the Northern Poetry Library were warmly recommended as ideal places to begin. When you’re entering prizes, you should always make sure your work stands out for a refreshing turn of phrase or a subject that hasn’t yet been explored, Degna citing Zaffar Kunial as a great exponent of this.

Central to making our trip to Sheffield such a rewarding day was meeting the participants who had given up their Saturday to be with us. It was apparent from the very first questions we received in the opening session, and the many conversations we had during the day, that there was a wealth of experience and talent present. For me, this is a key part of why we run the Roadshows. Every writer carves out his or her own path and faces individual challenges. Sharing their stories with us both informs the work we do and enhances our own body of knowledge as we evolve and shape our opportunities for writers.