Poetry Notes

imageI’ve been writing down my recent thoughts about writing and publishing, some gleaned from doing and some from conversations with poets and publishers, and thought I would post them in case they’re useful for anyone.

Poetry Notes by JL Williams

“Nothing forced works.” Kay Ryan

  • Don’t think about who you’re writing for, but consider why you are writing.
  • Explore other forms (art forms, poetic forms, literary forms, styles, voice and tone) and decide what you like working with at this point in time. That might be everything, one thing or something in between. Do what challenges and excites you. If you like working with other people, find other people to work with. If you like working on your own, work on your own.
  • If you feel the desire to write, write.
  • Write now, edit later.
  • Edit when you’re in the mood to edit.
  • Send poems out to magazines when you’re not in the mood to write or edit.
  • If you’re stuck, read a poem.
  • Read old poems. Read a variety of poems. Read poems you like. Read some poems you don’t like and learn from them.
  • Give yourself assignments. Give yourself deadlines. Give yourself little, do-able tasks.
  • Have a look at the poems published in magazines before you submit to the magazines.
  • Wherever possible, use the editor’s name when you’re sending them poems.
  • Decide if you are writing for yourself, for your loved ones or to share your work with the public. If you want to share your work with other people, decide if you want to perform it or publish it or both. Go to events, meet other poets, join workshop and reading groups if this is useful for you. Support other poets.
  • You may find that you prefer to stay in and read and write, and send poems out to publishers directly without marketing yourself online and in person, and that’s okay too. You may find that at different times in your life you need to explore different ways of being and doing.
  • Listen to other people, study, explore and find your own truth. You will hear many answers to your questions, but you have to find the answers that feel correct inside you.
  • Trust yourself and your own instincts and intuitions. Defend and stay true to that which feels original and important to you. Learn to bend when it’s useful, when the point being considered isn’t that important to you. Pursue that which tickles your fancy. Find editors, publishers, poets and supporters who understand your work and like it. Nourish these relationships. Listen to them but come to your own conclusions and don’t ask too much of them. They’re busy and asking for feedback on work is really personal and can be awkward. Trust yourself to edit your own work, but work with others when they want to work with you and when it’s useful to both parties.
  • Don’t feel you have to be ‘in the scene’. Don’t feel you have to market yourself in ways that turn you inside out. Don’t feel you need to work with other poets or read all contemporary poets. Don’t feel you need a photo or quotes from other poets or critics on the back of your book. Don’t rush.
  • There’s a time to push and a time to be patient. The trick is figuring out what time it is.
  • Pursue natural connections with other writers. Tell other people when you enjoy their work. Read work that inspires you. Seek to understand the traditions of various writing styles and modes.
  • You might try writing a little each day. You might try not writing for a while. You might try reading something very different from your usual read. You might try going to an art gallery. You might try going to a building site. When you’re stuck, try something different. When something is working for you, keep doing it. Listen to other people’s advice, but only respond to the advice that feels useful for you.
  • Don’t expect a creative writing degree to get you published. Don’t expect personal relationships with editors to get you published.
  • Don’t worry about rejection, it comes with the territory, but find ways to make it less painful. (One poet keeps a special bottle of port called the port of rejection and has a sip every time a rejection comes in. One throws her rejection slips straight into the recycling bin. One keeps hers to poke fun at when she does get published.)
  • Have a look at your poems when they are rejected. Are you really happy with them? If so, send them out again. If you see obvious improvements you can make, make them. Send the poems out again. If they are rejected by a variety of editors, have another look at them – decide whether the problem is with the poems or with the editors.
  • Keep your drafts. Keep your edits in a trash folder – they might come in handy later.
  • Write down your dreams. Remember that your dreams and memories are often more interesting to you than others, but use them as inspiration when you’re stuck. If it’s useful to you, carry a pen and notebook around, keep one by the bed. If it’s useful to you, designate a particular time and place for writing.
  • This may be changing but I still believe that self-publishing for those wishing to be professional writers is a last resort (in most cases). Online publishing and magazines are definitely worth exploring.
  • Explore yourself. Some people like working with material from their own heart, some with material from their own mind, some with triggers from other works of art and writing, some with triggers from science and the news. Some people write in the first person. Some people hate that. Find out what sort of writer you are. Don’t feel that you have to be one thing only, but if you recognise something about yourself that feels distinctive, write it down. Hang on to it. Explore that.

Potentially Useful:

Scottish Poetry Library


Poetry Library Southbank Centre


Poetry Foundation


By jlwpoetry

Books by JL Williams include Condition of Fire (Shearsman, 2011), Locust and Marlin (Shearsman, 2014), House of the Tragic Poet (If A Leaf Falls Press, 2016), After Economy (Shearsman, 2017) and Origin (Shearsman, 2022). Published widely in journals, her poetry has been translated into numerous languages. She has read at international literature festivals and venues in the UK, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Turkey, Cyprus, Canada, Hungary, Romania, Montenegro and the US. She wrote the libretto for the opera Snow which debuted in London in 2017, was awarded a bursary to develop a new opera with composer Samantha Fernando at the Royal Opera House and was a librettist for the award-winning 2020 covid-response Episodes project by The Opera Story. Williams curates writing events and creates workshops and professional development activities for poets. She is hopeful about the simple and mysterious power of poetry that allows us to know ourselves, each other and the world more deeply.

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