On Your Marks….

Let’s get this out of the way. Can we teach someone How to be a Poet? The answer is crystal clear.


And yes. This project isn’t called How to Write a Poem, or How to Get Your Poetry Published, though we’ll talk at some length about both. It isn’t called Get Rich Writing Poetry because nobody knows how to do that. We called our project How to Be a Poet because it’s not just a writing manual. It’s an offering up of our own thoughts on the practice of poetry; a consideration of what poetry reading and writing can mean to a thoughtful person seeking to do both with pleasure and skill.

Certainly we can and will teach you useful things about technique. Certainly we can give shortcuts that will save you a lot of time in hitting your stride on the page, and help you to avoid the common pitfalls of writing – the traps of cliché, of being derivative, of sloppy editing. We’re well qualified. Between us we have helped hundreds of people to write like their best selves, and there is a stream of award-winning work from the poets we’ve worked with to prove it. We have also made (and continue to make) the mistakes we’re going to try and talk you out of. In poetry as in life, no-one stops learning.

These blog entries will become a book, and our book is only one of many you could read. Stephen King’s On Writing, Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry, Joyce Carol Oates’ The Faith of a Writer, Ted Hughes’ Poetry in the Making, Robin Behn’s The Practice of Poetry* –there’s no need to rush at the reading list. You will never get to the end of it, because some blighter always writes a new one just as you tick off the last one. Above all, as Jane has said, read poetry. Jane, by the way, is a much nicer person than me. I’ll be the bad cop for much of this project, chivvying and poking you to push yourself further and confront unpleasant truths. She’ll be right along with soothing advice whenever I offend you.

We’ll help you approach your own writing in such a way that you aren’t bowled over by its little disappointments, nor by its little successes. We might also help you to redefine success, and to use poetry in a way that bleeds into every minute of your day. For us, poetry is a map to navigate by, a tool to use in tackling daily dilemmas. It’s a way of sharing the experiences that go beyond small talk, and exploring the places that hurt, or shine, or sing.

That’s why we called this project How to be a Poet. Come on in.



[*As we publish these blog entries, we welcome input that will help us to make the eventual book better. Tell us what you’re reading, what books have been of most influence on you. In particular, help us to broaden our own field of reading.]

22 Replies to “On Your Marks….”

  1. After reading all three blogs I spent some time looking out of the window at the drops of distilled mist on a naked shrub and a blackbird which uses my gate as a lookout post, thinking about them. And I remembered that looking out of the window is what Billy Collins says, in his poems, that poets do.

  2. Part of being a poet is to stop ‘minding.’ Don’t mind the rain, being alone, going hungry for a while, not sleeping, being disappointed. You see where I’m going? Because all these things either offer time or experience that can be employed during writing. We know about writing about the big things that we ‘mind’ going wrong but the little things-finding the extraordinary within the ordinary- make up the other bits. Not every sentence can be marvellous, or profound but the bits around them can be worthwhile . If you don’t ‘mind’ putting them in as a foil for your main points.

  3. Writing on a daily basis is helping me improve. Last year I wrote a poem a week which wasn’t easy. I didn’t have the luxury of ‘wait for inspiration’, but Instead, dug deep and came up with something. Occasionally a poem would emerge which felt like the seventh wave – ‘bigger’ than those that had gone before. Having such a large reservoir of poetry, I began sending them to competitions and 50% of my entries were shortlisted – no big wins, yet, but I shall carry on practising my craft on a weekly basis …

  4. One of my favourite ‘how to’ books is ‘Becoming a Writer’, written by Dorothea Brande in 1934. In fact, with chapters like ‘The advantages of duplicity’ and ‘The critic at work on himself’, a lot of what she says could be applied to any creative pursuit. She’s funny and practical, like a hybrid of Dorothy Parker and the American baby guru Dr Spock.

  5. We often carry several roles through our lives. My life has been defined by being a nurse, since 1980, a mother, a wife etc etc, and more recently I carry the title of ‘poetry practitioner’ – taking poetry into residential care as part of a research project looking at the effect of taking the arts into residential care (currently dance, drama and poetry) – this in itself is hard work and rewarding, is making me read very widely (to find the right material on themes to take in each week)
    I mention this because I have noticed the cyclical nature of writing poetry: some times it is necessary to be absorbing life and it’s ups and downs, and getting on with something else: the actual writing of poetry takes a back step. Maybe the creativity required for another role in your life takes over for a while, sapping the energy for writing, but overall, even when you are not actively writing keeping the mind set of being a writer is important, and allows a return to it when your mind and life are ready.

    1. I think you’re right Sarah, that poetry is a part of the whole person and it goes in cycles of necessity. Your work with poetry sounds wonderful.

  6. Recently, I read ‘Singing in Chains’ by Mererid Hopwood – although it’s about the Welsh _cynghanedd_ form, I’ve learned more from this book than any other about why I love the poetry I love and how to steer closer to that in my own writing. I don’t speak or read Welsh, and I probably never will, but this book has filled a keenly-felt gap.

  7. For prompts/ideas my favourite is ‘Write Poetry And Get it Published’ by Matthew Sweeney & John Hartley Williams. That, and other poetry. And Angela Carter’s short stories – I raid her language. Workshops (including the well-known Jo Bell), and regular classes too – my choice is Sally Baker in Hebden Bridge.

  8. I’ve got a very long list to take to the library – thanks. Recently I have started approaching/developing an idea using anything I can get my hands on – photographs, TV programmes, sketches, information sheets, etc, etc. Eg the other day I went for a walk round a reservoir – took photos and then stumbled upon a little book in the library about the building of the reservoir. I never use all the information but sometimes a little nugget jumps out.

    1. Brilliant, Sarah – I will be doing another post on exactly this sort of thing later. When we say ‘read’ we don’t just mean ‘read’, really – we mean ‘use any source of information, any part of your life, any single experience as raw material.’ Sounds like you’re doing so already.

  9. I’m enjoying Stephen Fry’s ‘The Ode Less Travelled’. Lots of exercises, which is why I’m still working my way through it.

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