There's less than a month to go before the PBS & Mslexia Women's Poetry Prizes close on the 16th September so we're on a mission to inspire your writing with plenty more #poetips from some fantastic poets. Next up is Zoë Brigley whose third Bloodaxe collection Hand & Skull was a PBS Summer Recommendation. Order your copy here with 25% off for PBS Members.
What is your advice for a poet starting out?
First, have curiosity and passion for other writers’ work. Read beyond what is comfortable or what you will obviously like, because even if you are never going to be a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, you can feel out how language is being dissected, challenged, or subverted at the experimental frontiers of poetry.
Second, once you know how you want to write, do not compromise. Where does originality come from if it does not have at least some element of an uncompromising vision? You might not be writing the poetry that is fashionable, but, for me, poets that have the most longevity are the ones that don’t sound like anybody else.
Third, take all advice with a pinch of salt. I love this quotation from a New Yorker interview with artist Georgia O’Keeffe: “Oh, if I’d followed people’s advice it would have been hopeless. That man Bement gave me some very good advice. He told me things to see and do, and he was very helpful. But if I’d really done in painting what he wanted me to do, nobody would ever have thought anything about me."
How is form important to you? What is your process when you write using forms?
Form is essential for forcing the writer to use the most essential and dynamic language. In my own process, I pay a great deal of attention to line breaks, seeking ways to shape the poem by breaking for surprise or tension.
We could think about form more scientifically too. My husband Dan Thompson is a mathematics professor, and we often have conversations about the linkages between mathematics and poetry. Thinking from this angle, the numeric aspect of poetic form might speak to patterns that run through the structures of all things.
But poetic form is much more than numbers or counting feet, syllabics, and lines. For me, it is also about musicality – the singing line. Often my poems begin with a musical phrase around which the rest of the poem is built. Afterwards I try to work out what form will strengthen or cement what the poem is trying to say.
How have poetry competitions been helpful to you in your career?
Social media discussions recently have pinpointed the drawbacks of competition culture in poetry. I am very grateful for the competitions I have won or placed in, and they are a boost in terms of reputation and sometimes money too. But people should not feel too depressed if they are not winning competitions, especially if they already have the respect of fellow poets and readers of poetry. Also, there are many great poets who don’t enter competitions, or don’t write the kind of poetry that fits competitions. It’s like the Oscars – how many great actors have been overlooked? And as with the Oscars, sometimes it is women, BAME and minority writers who tend to have a hard time gaining recognition.
How do you find inspiration?
Inspiration finds me. It’s important though to have time without screens: empty thinking-time. Sometimes that means walking in nature or on city streets, and seizing moments for ruminating, maybe late at night when I am lying in bed, or in the shower. This is the problem of all mothers who are writers or artists: these are my only snatched moments of “alone-time,” or time without children, and I make the most of them!
Could you suggest a writing prompt which you have found useful?
Write an epistolary or letter poem addressed to an object that was present during one of the most important moments of your life. Address the object. What part did it play in what took place, if any? If it had been conscious, what would its perspective be on what happened? Does it have symbolic significance, and have you seen a similar object since then? I find this prompt useful as a distancing technique especially if the subject is emotional or difficult. It’s a way of taking yourself out of the scene, and of avoiding sentimentality. I used this strategy in my new collection Hand & Skull, in ‘Letter to a Sheep Skull’ about the suffering of farm animals, and ‘Revolver’ about the gun found next to Welsh poet Alun Lewis when he died by accident or intent.
When do you write? Do you think a routine is helpful?
I don’t have a regular routine as such, and I don’t think it’s helpful to try to copy other writers’ routines. Everyone is different, and writing comes in cycles for me. I try to be in tune with my body and its rhythms. From time to time, I have a restless feeling – I know it so well – and after I put the children to bed, I will stay up late and write.
What is the best advice you’ve received?
I am a shy person. I had some great advice though years ago from my mentor David Morley. He was also shy when he was a young writer, but he trained himself to speak in front of crowds by taking the job of a bingo caller. He reminded me that the self that we present at readings and even in the poems themselves is most often a kind of persona. That sense of separateness can help to overcome the awkwardness of intimacy with people you don’t know, which is inevitable when you are a writer.
What was the worst criticism you’ve received?
I don’t think I have received really terrible criticisms, but I do find it hard if people misunderstand the work, or don’t enter into its spirit. This can be a problem in teaching and mentoring too, especially when writers want their students to write just like they do. When working with students, my aim is not to teach them how to write like me, but to help them to write the best poem that they possibly can.
What’s your advice on dealing with rejection?
I have been a reader for the poetry and nonfiction prizes at the Ohio State University, I am associate editor for Poetry Wales, and I am about to judge the Battered Moons Poetry Competition as I write this, so I see this problem from the other side. I know now that rejection is not personal, and so from the writer’s point of view, it’s best not to take it personally if your work is rejected. Very often I have found myself having to reject work that I admired, because ultimately the list has to be whittled down. I am a great believer in sending out work regularly, but with care – being sure that the publications you submit to are sympathetic, or that it suits their aims. There’s no point sending to an editor who won’t understand your work. Also, if you are rejected once, don’t be afraid to try again (within reason obviously).
Don't forget entries close for the Women's Poetry and Pamphlet Prizes on the 16th September, less than a month away. Find out more and enter your poems here.