Why Art and Inspiration Matter

In my previous post, I wrote about reading widely. I also want to write about the importance of being a cultural omnivore and looking beyond your own realm of specialism as a poet to what we can also learn from other artists. What we’re talking about here is cross-pollination between art forms and approaches – and how it can be of value to your own perspectives on writing.

When I left school I took a year to go and study an art course at my local college; I wasn’t particularly great at art, but I did make some wobbly pots, completed some passable paintings, and experienced things that opened the doors for me in lots of other ways.  We went on trips all over the place, turned up late and worked late, created things that went terribly wrong, made and broke friendships and were trusted to find and make our own way, for better or for worse.

We also learnt how to take our craft seriously; we were taught think about scale and starting points, and how to study the techniques of other artists. Magpie-eyed, we mixed high and popular culture, learned to ‘get our eye in’ and look at things afresh, take oblique angles, seek parallels, contracts, points of reference.

I’m not suggesting that you pack it all in now, forget writing poetry and hurry off to sign up for your nearest arts course, but I hope that this illustrates how our cultural commonwealth can be a resource of ideas and inspiration, and provide us with sage advice and manifestos for making. Keeping our wider creative radar tuned-in can help us to be fully-fledged not just as writers but as creative beings. Culture isn’t just in galleries and museums, or on arts courses or programmes of study. It’s in our cinemas and record shops, in small venues and on stage, on our streets, in daily conversations, outdoors in our landscapes, on TV and online and anywhere else it can find you.

Art and culture is invaluable to the writer because we can learn so much from it about the minds’ eye (or even the minds’ ear, if we’re talking about music) and how to stimulate and appeal to it.

For instance, as Jo was recently talking to you about looking carefully, let’s think for a moment about how film and television teaches us to think about detail, particularly the kind of subtle detail which is about imagination and ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ (we’ll come back to this topic later on). The very best films or TV work beyond the screen, involving our own imagination and playing with our attention, making active participants of the viewer. Through visual motifs and the power of image and metaphor, we are able to approach and reflect in parallel on the ‘big themes’ of human existence. Here, in a short clip from The Sopranos, death is party for which we all have an invitation, a place where ‘they’re waiting for you’.

What can a writer take away from this? That metaphors, similes, motifs and images allow us to find a subtle, sideways approach to the big, life-and-death matters of the universe which are, in their own right, just too vast to set down on the table in front of your audience like an immovable monolith. And that by involving and innately trusting your reader (viewer / audience ) to take the leap with you, you will not only involve them imaginatively in what you’re doing, but reward them for bringing their own imagination to the table.

Also, the way in which artists think about what they make, their advice, the ideas they propose and more can help motivate and shape our work as poets and writers, too. The short clip of David Bowie at the start of this article is a useful provocation for creativity, putting exactly into words that complicated out of my depth / frankly terrified / rather excited feeling we get when we create something that might actually be close to our best work. It also touches on how we should learn to instinctively go with this reaction, and come to know and trust where it is taking us if we want to get out of our comfort zones and make work that consistently challenges and changes us.

There’s a reason too that I put certain music on when I’m trying and failing to write; I find that it provides me motivation and reminds me why I want to write in the first place, where I’m coming from and what I want to say.  In music, we will often find the soundtrack to bring our own imaginings and visualisations to. When writing about the city I was born in, I went back to The Specials to find the right atmosphere, and found the sensation of a place in time coming to me vividly. I responded by writing not about the music itself, but the shared connections I have with it in a physical place, the city’s people and its story. What would be your own writing soundtrack? And what might you write if you were to listen to a piece of experimental electronica, grime, or a choral piece?

This is to say nothing of form, rhythm, sound and so much more that music can teach us about. Or the way that a perfectly placed punchline in comedy teaches us about the importance of timing. And what a pleasure it is to learn techniques and ideas through things we can enjoy participating in hearing, seeing, laughing, feeling…

So do read widely, yes, and read beyond poetry. But also be active in finding inspiration and approaches within all that art and culture can offer you. Try thinking like a dancer about the rhythms of your poetry – where will you next put your foot, and how will this matter? Think like an architect as you build the stanzas or rooms of your poems. Raid art’s make-up bag and come up wearing some kind of brand new drag, if it helps you to get closer to what you need to say and how it needs to be said. Look at the poem’s scene through a view-finder – get the distinct angle, perhaps even find your own Fibonacci spiral in unlikely places.

Reading poetry, and why it matters.

A Good Poet is a Well-read poet.

Let’s say that loud and clear and in large letters at the very start of proceedings. No good poetry can ever be written without also reading poetry widely first.

One thing far too often heard by creative writing tutors in workshops or mentoring sessions is the plaintive cry of ‘oh of course, I don’t read other people’s poetry in case it influences my own’. This is exactly why you should be reading poetry other than your own.

What results from this kind of monocultural and self-informed diet of poetry, where the only poetry being read by the poet is their own, is a thin gruel of a poem which an editor will always spot immediately. Like a wonky bicycle wheel, it is doomed forever to be out of kilter and lacking balance; it is fundamentally flawed. Without fail, these poems will display a lack of craft and a lack of awareness of how hard each line and every word must work to earn its place. It’s okay to write these kind of poems to get started, but a good poet is one who strives to move on and write better,  and seeks to take up an apprenticeship with the master craftspersons of their trade.

Can you imagine a great artist who never looks at other art, or the great musician who never listens to anyone else’s’ music, lest it influence their own ‘style’?

Far from it –  great artists and musicians will always first find and expose themselves to a wide palette of inspiration and influences, and in the early stages of discovering their own styles, will emulate, learn from and then ultimately grow up and beyond the various influences they absorb. The more influences (and the wider the sources of those influences) you take on board, the richer, more adventurous your own writing can be. Learn from the best. Reading poetry widely gives us a chance to ask what works, and how – and allows us to also take a poem apart, see the moving parts and the understand techniques, approaches, form and language at work, and get an idea of how it all adds up.

That is why our one of major pieces of advice, alongside writing the thing, and finishing the thing, is that you must read, and read widely and voraciously.

Read poems from your contemporaries and understand what the current poetry landscape looks like. Who is writing now, what do they write about and how? You don’t need to feel you have to copy or replicate the styles and approaches they have, but you should think about where your place is on this landscape, and which kind of approaches speak to you most directly.

Read also great and classic poems from across time and place, and from cultures and languages other than your own. Read Li Bai and Hafez and Sappho as well as Blake and Keats and Dickinson. Modern poetry in translation, and indeed the superb magazine Modern Poetry in Translation, can open doors to some incredible poetry and give you not just a local view of poetry, but a fully global one. The widest range of influences will ensure that no one single style or voice becomes a dominant inspiration in your work.

And in enjoying and discovering poetry, also allow yourself to like and dislike things. It is completely permissible to dislike a poem, or find that you don’t enjoy a particular poet’s style or approach. You should never feel that you  ‘have to’ like a poem,  or that you have failed if you don’t ‘get it’. So long as you always interrogate this reaction, work at it, find out perhaps if the poem does work, but is complex and rewards being poked and prodded and pondered over. Or perhaps, you will discover that for all its interesting and acute angles, you and the poem still don’t quite get along, but you know why and will come to understand something of yourself and how you want to write by this. These conscious moments of realisation of why something doesn’t quite work for you are just as valuable as the ones where a poem will come to you one day, make itself at home and worm its way into your thoughts and become a part of your daily living and being.

As a publisher, I should at this point declare that I have a professional interest in you reading (and buying) poetry. But I also recognise that not only is there a mind-boggling amount of poetry out there to choose from, but it can be expensive and that many of us don’t have the budget to buy as many books as we might like to. Libraries, where we remain fortunate enough to still have them, can be invaluable, and our borrowing helps them to stay open. Though not all will have extensive poetry collections, there are some notable exceptions and enthusiastic, poetry-loving librarians out there.  If you’re lucky enough to live near the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre, it’s free to join and there is an embarrassment of poetry riches in its collections – many of which (non-Londoners, visting for the day, take note) can even be borrowed and posted back.

Other ways to read poetry on a shoestring or non-existent budget is to browse the wealth of resources at Poetry Foundation and the Poetry Archive. Both feature recordings, articles, interviews and more; the quality of the work you will encounter is guaranteed to be high, and their overview of poetry’s contemporary and modern landscapes is fairly comprehensive. And if you’re looking for an excellent introduction to contemporary and modern poetry, but are limited in funds and bedazzled by the plethora of possible books to buy, investing in a copy of the  Staying Alive anthology from Bloodaxe Books, with its myriad of poets, themes, forms and styles,  is  a really sound place to begin. And you can’t go far wrong with the subsequent anthologies Being Alive and Being Human either.

One last thing. Poetry needs Good Readers. Most of us are happy to go to the Tate without feeling a need to become a sculptor, and few members of any theatre’s audience are there because they are aspiring actors – yet each healthy-sized audience makes sure that theatres can continue to be viable, that galleries remain open and stage new exhibitions to throngs of appreciative visitors. If ever an art form needed more audience and appreciators rather than participants, it is certainly poetry. Be an active participant wherever you can, not just a passive contributor.



Welcome to How to be a Poet

Hello there, fellow reader and writer. Allow us to introduce ourselves and explain what  How to be a Poet is all about….


In 2015, Jo Bell (poet, project-begetter and internaut, author of Kith and founder of the phenomenal 52 Project) and I (Jane Commane – poet, tutor and editor of Nine Arches Press)  got our heads together over a good cup of tea or three to discuss the idea of a project to follow on from 52.

We settled on the idea of How to be a Poet – a very useful handbook which would gather together our combined knowledge from our perspectives as poets and editors, a unique mix of ideas and advice from both sides of the writing and publishing process, as well as some choice essays on a variety of topics from selected poetry experts.

How to be a Poet is a manifesto of sorts. It is an exploration, both practically and creatively, of what it is to write poems, read poems, share poems and publish poetry. It is a guide to writing well, and aims to be bold and upfront about the realities of writing poetry and being a poet in the 21st century. It contains advice, but also a healthy dose of myth-busting, plenty of challenging ideas and some thought-provoking proposals that are designed to stretch both new and more experienced writers of poetry. It won’t pull any punches. It is a Poem-Writers Guide to the Galaxy.

What isn’t How to be a Poet about? It isn’t a step by step fail-safe plan for poetry success. It won’t write the poems for you. It doesn’t aim to make you an award-winning poet by the power of its pages of advice alone, and that’s not what poetry writing is about, anyway. It won’t guarantee it can get your first book of poems published, though that may come to pass as a happy offshoot of helping to making you a better poet more generally. And there will be plenty of thoughts on what exactly that means, and how we can strive to write, read and participate better as poets.

The book, How to be a Poet, will feature our complete essays, and those from our special guest contributors. It will be published in July 2017 by Nine Arches Press.

Hopefully, this first post whets your appetite. Check back in soon for our first mini-essay, in which I will look at why being a Good Reader of poetry matters.

Stay tuned!