#PoeTips are back! This time bigger and better, with more advice from your favourite poets. This blog post is one of a series in which we interview poets in order to uncover their golden nuggets of wisdom. In this post, we interviewed Rebecca Tamás, Creative Writing lecturer at York St John University, and author of the pamphlet SAVAGE (Clinic) and the collection WITCH (Penned in the Margins). She also co-edited Spells (Ignota) alongside Sarah Shin.
Q: What is your advice for a poet starting out?
A: There are two things that particularly come to mind. One is probably blindingly obvious – read, read and read some more. Make sure that you’re reading far outside your comfort zone as well as within it – read widely across time periods and genres, give room to the hyper modern and the ancient. Read work in translation. Think about the ‘tradition’ and structures of literary power or canon you’ve inherited, and make space in your reading for work that powerfully challenges that tradition, or which comes from a totally different world than you’re used to. It’ll expand your voice, knowledge and confidence.
The second thing is, if you can, find a community of poets. Poetry can sometimes feel like an isolating pursuit, so seek out other poets or aspiring poets in your local area and build connection and collaboration. I wouldn’t be a published poet if it wasn’t for the support and wisdom of amazing peers. Writing takes place, usually, alone, but it’s made possible by the sharing of work and ideas that comes first.
Q: How do you find inspiration?
A: For me, my poetry usually begins in intellectual/political/philosophical ideas that I want to bring together with feeling and bodily experience. I’m ‘inspired’ by the challenge of trying to put intellectual ideas into specific and sensual language – finding that way through writing where ideas and emotion meet and meld.
Q: How do you overcome writers block?
A: I don’t! Usually writers block for me means that I’ve run out of ideas, and I have to read and think and read some more to ‘re-fuel.’ That does sometimes mean that I go for a long time without writing, until I feel like I have something potentially worthwhile and interesting to think through in poetry. It’s a halting way of working, but it’s the only one I seem able to do.
Q: Could you suggest a writing prompt which you have found useful?
A: I don’t work with prompts directly, but I do really enjoy ekphrasis – reading and writing it, even if its ekphrasis of a very oblique kind. So, I might try and capture the frame of mind, or emotional state which a film, exhibition or piece of music left me with, in a poem. When you’re feeling without direction, thinking with another artform can be a great way to re-energise your own poetics.
Q: When do you write? Do you think a routine is helpful?
A: I think if you can get a routine going then it is helpful – if you make mental space available every day for writing, it is very likely than ideas will eventually flood into that gap. But doing so can be tough. I have a full-time job that isn’t writing, so I’m simply never going be able to write every day. But I do try and book in times for myself to write, or to simply look at the page. I prefer to write in the morning if I can, or at the very least before 4pm. I will never be able to create after that time, my will to do anything just switches off. I also make sure to book in hours for writing and thinking – it can take two hours to work up to writing one poem sometimes.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve received?
A: My undergrad university writing tutor David Morley once said to me, ‘Don’t aim for the London Review of Books, aim for the Nobel Prize.’ At the time, I genuinely didn’t know what he meant – especially as the Nobel Prize seemed like a pretty unlikely achievement for me to go for. But over time I understood that he was saying: don’t write something because you think it will please your mates, or the immediate literary ‘trends’ or be glibly appealing on first reading – write the work that means absolutely everything to you, that you’d ideally like to last long after your death. Don’t make it simple, friendly or crowd pleasing unless that’s what you want to do – let it be weird, let it be new, let yourself be challenged by the process even if it’s hard and unsettling.
He also told us to always write with the knowledge of our inevitable death in our minds – so I try and write with that in mind too! It genuinely cuts out some of the bullshit and the ego that can get in the way of interesting writing.
Q: What was the worst criticism you’ve received? What’s your advice on dealing with rejection?
A: I hope it doesn’t show me up to be a terrible narcissist that there’s no particular criticism that comes to mind. I have had bad reviews, of course, but in general I try to just accept that someone sees the work differently, and not worry about it too much. Being honest, if everyone liked my work, I’d be quite worried! It’s stringent and dirty and odd, so it won’t please every reader. As long as enough people I respect do enjoy it, that’s enough for me.
That being said, there have been rejections from literary magazines and editors who I hold in high esteem, rather than criticisms, which have definitely stung. Sending work to a poet-editor who has influenced you, and them not wanting your work, can be tough. My advice would mainly be, just push through it, because you truly will get used to the experience. After years of rejection, it will stop being painful, because you’ll have made other progress which cancels it out. Bide your time.
Also, remember that usually it really is the truth that people reject things from magazines/anthologies etc because they don’t have room for it, rather than that they hate it. It’s never personal. Keep plugging away, and if all fails and you feel like you aren’t finding a space that fits your aesthetic – make one! Start a zine or a poetry reading series in a pub or your front room, and build a community who understand what you’re aiming for.
Q: Is failure important for a poet?
A: It’s inevitable, and important. You won’t write good poems until you’ve written a bunch of bad ones first. Let yourself make mistakes, and accept that getting things wrong, getting rejected etc, is all part of the learning that will eventually allow you to write the work you really want to write.
Have a look at the rest of our #PoeTips interviews for even more brilliant poetry advice from leading poets. Happy writing!
We're delighted to announce that submissions to the Women's Poetry Competition and Pamphlet Competition are now open!
This is the second year we have partnered with Mslexia to bring you two exciting competitions promoting women's poetry. The top prize for the Women's Poetry Competition will be £2,000, mentorship with PBS Selector Sandeep Parmar, and a residency kindly offered by Cove Park. The winner of the Women's Pamphlet Competition will receive £250 at publication of their pamphlet by Seren.
Entries are open from the 1st of June until the 16th of September, 5pm GMT. You can submit online by clicking the Submittable button below, or click here for more information about the prizes, including the terms and conditions, and alternative ways to submit.