The Modern Market
For many, Wales is synonymous with poetry. Our most famous son, Dylan Thomas, is an international icon more than half a century after his death. His contemporary R.S.Thomas was widely tipped to win the Nobel Prize for Literature during his lifetime and remains a towering figure in the history of twentieth century British poetry. Today, talents such as Gillian Clarke, Robert Minhinnick, Stephen Knight, Oliver Reynolds, Fiona Sampson, Samantha Wynne Rhydderch and Owen Sheers continue to create work of scope, ambition and accomplishment both in Wales and outside of it.
Nonetheless, the lot of the poet in the twenty-first century - in Wales as elsewhere - is not an easy one. Great artistic endeavour in poetry offers comparatively little, if any, tangible material gain - and often even less public recognition. Every other day in the arts pages of the major UK broadsheets another story announces the death of the poet’s art (most frequently just below a scoop on the latest debut fiction writer to land a record-breaking six figure, four-book deal before their eighteenth birthday). But wait just a minute: the death of poetry? That may well come as somewhat surprising - not to mention very depressing - news to the poet who has spent many years in their apprenticeship, agonising over composition and revision, struggling towards the completion of a first collection. And it seems to be entirely at odds with the wealth of accomplished contemporary practitioners out there - or, indeed, the sheer volume of unsolicited manuscripts that publishers, large and small, commercial and independent, receive in any given week. No, there is no death of poetry. There is only the death of a general audience.
For a lot of very good and relatively successful poets, what audience there is will amount to anywhere between 300 and several thousand readers (though for the most part this will generally tend towards the lowest end of the scale), with only the most famous, such as Carol Ann Duffy or Seamus Heaney, for example, breaking into the popular mainstream market, establishing large general and specialist readerships, and making the serious money (though even then this will often amount to far lower than their similarly distinguished peers in Fiction can expect). Many other very fine poets will perhaps not even tip over the 300 mark in sales. And a big part of the problem lies simply in how difficult it is for the audience to find them in the first place. Publishers have to make very special pleading to buyers to get poetry stock in the bookshops - even if they’re the London-based commercial big hitters like Picador and Cape. Contemporary poetry as a whole has slowly disappeared from the field of vision, increasingly limited to no more than a few shelves. What there is of poetry stock represents the major sales in the market: anthologies and works by very great but very dead poets.
Such is the audience, it only follows that if a poet manages to reach book publication, he or she will soon discover that their labour of love has netted them a very meagre advance indeed against sales (most often between £200 and £400). And their royalty statements would be enough to make even a hard man cry. The truth is that many a poet will actually incur a financial loss to their publisher and may never sell enough books to make up the advance, let alone start to generate any royalty income. The poet’s fate has more than a touch of the Catch 22 about it. If you don’t make money, then of course you lose your stall in the market place. But if you’re not in the market place then how can you ever stand a chance of winning an audience and making any money at all? Shortlists for major prizes play their part in highlighting the quality work now being produced, of course, and can very often get the books in the shops and they do help to generate sales. But with just 5 major prizes for poets in the UK annually (and 2 of these earmarked exclusively for first collections) and with variable degrees of public and media interest, shortlistings are not something for the poet to be banking on.
The lack of a healthy commercial market has not only had a knock on effect for the established, published poet of reputation and distinction but also continues to provoke anxiety for the future of contemporary poetry, despite the sheer amount of work being produced across the spectrum of quality. How will promising newcomers get to the next level and on to the publication of a collection? And with so many odds stacked against them, will they give up altogether? Of all the publishers who retain poetry on their lists, only three commercial outlets remain open to unsolicited manuscripts and retain what could be truly considered a poetry ‘list‘: Picador, Cape and Faber. Fine though they are, headed by committed editors and replete with poets of dazzling international profile, with profit margins and corporate pressures brought to bear their publishing record for new poets can be understandably erratic. Picador and Faber have recently released a small clutch of debut collections. But it’s the major independent poetry publishers like Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Salt, Enitharmon and Wales’s own Seren which provide the main outlet for new poets in the UK today. And their poets have achieved critical acclaim and award nominations aplenty, proving that in poetry the lack of a market proves something of a leveller. Independents can and very much do compete with the metropolitan houses.
In Wales, the independents are subsided by the Welsh Books Council - through direct core funding and individual literary book grants - and in England, the Arts Council. Without this vital subsidy they probably could not survive - well, at least not to the same standard and level of output. But they, too, are subject to the matter of financial pressures, so there are limits as to what these small but resourceful operations can publish as well. Typically, there will be only one debut in any given year, in a vintage year maybe two, and in some years perhaps none at all. The new poet will have to compete for a publishing slot not only against financial pressures but also against other well established poets already on the list. Therefore, competition to be published remains extremely high. But the smaller independents such as Shoestring or Bluechrome in England have continued to publish surprising and quality talent that has simply been unable to find room at the inn. And despite the difficulties, the establishment and development of Cinnamon Press, along with increasingly strong work from Parthian, and the continued success of Seren, make Wales a still very friendly and hospitable place for the poet.
More people want to be poets and want to be published than ever before. On the basis of slush piles and magazine submissions alone, they must simply run into the many, many thousands. But despite the fact that we live in an age never before so wonderfully diverse in both authorship and subject matter, the figures don’t make sense. The poor sales of contemporary poetry suggest not just an apathy on the part of the popular culture but an apathy from within. Yes, sad to say but contemporary poetry is an art form often let down by its would-be practitioners. What it really needs from them is active participation - not simply in the creation of an end product but in the market for it. If you’re starting out in poetry, please do remember that buying contemporary poetry is not simply crucial to help you to develop your skills now (as well as a keen understanding of the current climate) but is vital for your own future. Being part of the market makes good business sense, in fact commonsense. It’s self investment. By buying contemporary poetry and ordering titles from your local independent or commercial bookseller or online, you’re keeping an audience alive - and thus improving your own prospects for publication in the long term.
Given the market, few poets choose to give up the day job. But while poetry on the page will generally earn you little or nothing, there are related ways in which poets can make some money and at the same time promote their work. Good reviews for a book can certainly bring with them many opportunities for readings. The better and more reliable a reader a poet is, as much as how well their book is received, will to some extent determine the level of readings they do – and, of course, good readings and plenty of them can shift books and can gradually win poets that modest but all important initial fan base. Many poets also write reviews for journals, periodicals and newspapers. As the interest in writing poetry has continued to increase, poets nowadays have also lent their skills set to teaching the practice of poetry, in the adult education or university setting, as well as on residential courses and running workshops in schools and colleges. Poets may apply for fellowships or residencies while they complete their next book, convening workshops and readings during their tenure. Some poets take on editorial positions, are engaged in freelance editing or writing commissions. Most active poets do at least some of these things at any one time, and over a lifetime some may very well do all of them.
Becoming a Poet
So, then, no big market, and the days of patronage are unfortunately long gone. Poetry will most certainly not bring you fortune or celebrity, and it won’t improve your standing within the community, either. Still, poetry has its quite unique rewards, taking language to its very fullest and most inventive, playful, vital, spare, exuberant - an art form of difficult delights so very necessary in the age of the dumb-down. And thankfully, despite all warnings to the contrary, fine poets continue to emerge and endure.
Becoming a poet is in the main a long but intensely satisfying apprenticeship. Most established poets would probably tell you that it never ends. The first rule when you’re starting out is to read, read, read contemporary poetry. And then read some more. Imagine a painter who’s never seen a Picasso. Or a pop singer who’s never heard of The Beatles. For some reason, many people think that they can write poetry without having read any of it. They can’t. In the beginning, seek out anthologies of contemporary poetry from Wales and the UK - and even further afield - in your local library or bookshop. Find poets whose work you admire and go out and buy their books. Develop your taste. Find out what poets are doing now. And find out what publishers are actually publishing. The Poetry Society promotes poetry across the UK through its publications, education schemes and events. Full membership includes subscriptions to its literary journal Poetry Review and newsletter Poetry News, as well as discounts on events, readings and critical services.The Poetry Book Society seeks to advance poetry readership in the UK and also functions as a book club for poetry lovers. The Society offers various membership packages, including quarterly selections of recommended titles and discounts on poetry collections.
Many poets choose to cut their teeth in workshops and many continue to attend them even once they have chalked up some considerable experience. It’s one of the very best ways to develop key skills, polish your style and meet your fellow practitioners. For further details on workshops and adult education courses in poetry and creative writing click here.
Some poets may choose to enrol on creative writing degree or certificate programmes. For more information on studying for a degree or certificate in Creative Writing click here.
The primary goal for most poets when they are starting out is to eventually publish their own book. Building up a steady track record of publishing in magazines, generally progressing from the smaller to larger ones, remains the tried and tested, traditional entry point if you’re serious about a first collection. In all likelihood, it will take a few to several years before you have reached a level of skill and confidence where you are ready to start trying to publish your work in magazines. And it may sometimes take a few years more before they actually start publishing you. Tenacity, as well as talent, is absolutely key.
Fortunately, despite the difficulties of the modern market and the inevitably high mortality rate of literary magazines, there are still ample outlets for new poetry - far in excess of those for short fiction writers. All those worth appearing in are always on the lookout for exciting writers of promise and originality. In Wales, there are the three majors, each with distinguished reputations: New Welsh Review, Planet and Poetry Wales which exclusively publishes poetry, as well as poetry related features and reviews. All have strong track records in publishing new and established poets both native and international. Poetry Wales has uncovered and supported the early talent of Sarah Corbett, Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch and Owen Sheers, and many, many others. Alongside these three, the smaller magazines Iota, Skald and Roundyhouse also remain committed to publishing new voices alongside more familiar names. Outside of Wales, there are a number of highly regarded magazines which publish original work from poets across the UK, including Poetry Review, Poetry London, Ambit and Magma. Don’t overlook the benefits of the web, either. A number of well respected e-zines and journals can now be found online, publishing quality work from new poets as well as the better known, and with a distinctively international flavour, such as Jacket or Nthposition.
For a list of magazines in Wales which publish poetry click here. A comprehensive list of UK-wide poetry magazines or those journals which also publish poetry alongside creative writing in other genres, both in print or online, can be found by visiting The Poetry Library website. The Poetry Library also offers free online access to a growing repository of magazines through its digitisation project.
Competitions such as the Literature Wales' Cardiff International Poetry Competition, as well as those run by reputable organisations such as the Arvon Foundation and the Poetry Society continue to turn up surprising and unfamiliar voices alongside the more established and, on occasion, offer a genuine breakthrough for new talent. However, you should be wary of unscrupulous and shady organisations out to trap unwitting and inexperienced poets, and set up with the sole aim of parting them from their hard-earned cash. Further details on scams and cons can be found by clicking here. Click here for current listings of competitions.
Readings still represent a large part of the poet’s work - and income - once they are established. If you eventually get that cherished book out, you’ll need to do them – and do them as well as possible to ensure that you’re asked back. Open mike sessions for new poets in your area offer no money, and certain local-based readings may offer no more than the chance of an extended floor spot. But grab the opportunity now, test out your material, meet other poets and poetry organisers, and start refining those skills that you’re going to need later on to promote your work. The plain fact is that strong readers of their work can go far. And, by the by, it’s not just by publishing in the magazines that you’re going to attract attention. Readings are also a very good way of announcing your arrival on the scene. For practical advice on how to do readings click here. Literature Wales' What’s On page provides listings for many readings in Wales. You should also check your local arts centre and library for details of readings and open mike nights in your area.
Once you’ve cracked the magazines (with around twenty or so poems placed) and hopefully gained some experience of readings, and have completed or are close to completing a manuscript of around 50 or so poems, you may well be ready to start wooing publishers - and they are more likely to take you seriously. Evidence of sustained commitment and some achievement as well as promise will make you stand out from the crowd for a weary editor. Coupled with which, many publishers, such as Seren, have often talent spotted those they’d like to publish by reading their work in magazines - long before those poets have even submitted to them. Sometimes, publishers make direct approaches to poets whose work they‘ve read and admired. Therefore, be seen to be keen. Be familiar. Poetry is an astonishingly small world, after all. In Wales, it’s even smaller. Buzz about new talent spreads faster than wildfire; well judged submission to magazines is very, very important. In order to increase your chances of acceptance by magazines and publishers, it’s important to ensure that your submission is professional and polished. For more information on how best to make the approach click here.
Partly because of the current climate for poetry and the sheer level of competition to be published, some poets - whether they have a track record in magazines or not - do choose to go down the self-publishing route. With the advent of e-publishing opportunities for self-publication at a reasonable cost have increased still further. It is, however, important to be well informed and to be wary of scams and cons in the vanity publishing industry. For advice on self-publishing, both print and electronic click here.
Literature Wales Support for Poets
For a very modest fee, the Literature Wales Critical Service can provide a detailed critical assessment of your poetry by an established poet, providing you with useful tips on how to improve and develop your work.
Literature Wales offers support for both new and established Welsh-based poets seeking to buy time to complete a collection or who require financial support towards any associated costs involved through its Bursaries Scheme. In addition, an enabling bursary is available to disabled writers and can provide help with travel costs, secretarial assistance and specialist equipment.
Academi also annually invites applications for its Mentoring Service, providing new writers of great promise currently engaged in a work in progress in which a publisher has expressed an interest to work one on one with experienced practitioners who can help them to progress.
From 2008, the Jerwood/Arvon Mentoring Scheme offers free year-long guidance from leading poets for the most promising new voices discovered on Arvon Foundation courses.
The Society of Authors’ Eric Gregory Awards offer a cash prize to poets under 30 whose work shows outstanding promise. Poets must submit a collection, either published or unpublished, and must be British by birth and a resident of the UK or Northern Ireland. Click here for further details.
Performance Poetry and Spoken Word
Simply put, Performance Poetry is poetry composed with the intention of being performed in front of an audience. Now, all good performance poets must be engaging, entertaining and powerful declaimers of their own verse - no doubt about that. But such a definition does seem rather inadequate to take in the sheer variety of approach and material that makes up a really very varied scene. Some performance poets come from the mainstream of poetry, some from the avant garde. Performance poetry may incorporate comedy and cabaret. Some performance poets develop alter egos - even building an entire act around them. Others play it ‘straight‘. With the best performers, boundaries and expectations are pushed. Great performers can delight, shock, amuse - and often provoke a very refreshing sense of unease in their audiences. At the grassroots level, open mike nights and performances in pubs provide the main outlet for Performance Poetry in Wales and the wider UK. However, battle-style Poetry Slams, first popularised in the US, where poets compete against one another in fixed time slots and are then judged by members of the audience, have come increasingly to prominence on a local and national level, with BBC Radio 4 even running its first nationwide Poetry Slam competition in 2007.
Performance poetry has evolved dramatically over the past 30 years or so and is becoming ever more popular. Good performers and open mike nights now often attract large audiences - far greater, if truth be told, than most of their page poet peers can generally expect. But performance poetry has also come to be less marginalized within the Arts, too. Poets perform at major literary festivals, at theatres. They work with children and young people in educational settings, they workshop with adults. The divides between page and stage seem to be gradually but surely diminishing as well. Many performances straddle the two; most now very regularly produce self-published books, as well as CDs, of their work. Some, such as Clare Potter and Christopher Brooke at Cinnamon or Ifor Thomas at Parthian, can find a home at an independent publishing house, despite such opportunities being still quite limited for the most part. Welsh raised Patience Agbabi, one of the most well known performance poets in the UK, scored a place on the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation Poets promotion in 2004, and UK performance poets have found their way onto the Forward Best First Collection Prize shortlists in recent years. The John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry offers a prize for the best spoken word artist in Wales, with both seasoned performers and newer voices making an impression. Performance poetry doesn’t simply have audience credibility, it’s gaining ever-growing artistic credibility.
How to get out there
Observe a performance poet master their domain and it looks easy enough. After all, that’s what precisely artists do - they make the difficult seem effortless to the rest of us. But performance poetry is difficult. Along with poetic talent, it requires much practice and practical experience before an audience - not to mention persistence and huge reserves of self-confidence - to develop it. Wales has a flourishing performance poetry scene, with open mike nights regularly taking place in pubs and arts centres. It would seem obvious enough but if you’re interested in getting involved in the scene, then it’s crucial to immerse yourself in it - go to as many gigs as possible. Learn from others. Observe what they do and how they do it. The open mike scene - whether as prelude to the main attractions of the night or as exclusive stand-up opportunities for new performance poets and / or new material - offers the invaluable chance to get out there, the way everybody has to begin. A two or three minute slot - or less - will give you the chance to show others what you’ve got, as well as offering invaluable practice and the chance to find out what works and what doesn’t. And it may be a lively scene but it‘s small, too. Networking plays a very big part in Wales as elsewhere. Going to events will help connect you with other performers as well as organisers. Impressing as a performer and as a person can win you longer slots. The Academi publishes details of events and regular open mike nights in Wales on itsWhat’s On page. And Writeoutloud provides comprehensive listings for performance poetry events and festivals in Wales and elsewhere.
But, of course, practice isn’t limited to performance in front of an audience. You’ll need to do plenty of that on your own. You should pay particular attention to pacing, tone and expression. You’ll need to think about body language and how to use it to your best advantage. Some performers find recording themselves, both on audio and video, can do wonders, particularly when they’re starting out. But whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of forgetting the poetry itself. Attend poetry workshops, for example, and do read contemporary poetry widely - the best performance in the world is unlikely to distract the audience from poor, monotonous or ill thought out material.
With the growth in popularity of Performance Poetry, a number of ad hoc courses and workshops specialising in the creation of material for performance and improving your delivery are available in Wales and elsewhere. Check the Opportunities for Writers page regularly for details.
Outside of Wales, the Arvon Foundation sometimes runs courses in the practice of performance poetry, while Apples and Snakes provides regular Masterclasses in London, as well as many handy resources and tips on performance poetry regardless of where you are based in the UK.