Update, October 2018

This year there’s been various Twitter threads about working class writers. I’m one of those – from a council estate in Leeds. I’m proud of this background, even though my schools were nothing special and there weren’t any jobs when I left. But I was always aware of writers from the working class because our local ones were published by the blockbuster firms and they were interviewed by the Yorkshire Post. I klobster  potsnew about the poets too – Tony Harrison, Ted Hughes, and incomers who worked at the university like Geoffrey Hill. Keith Waterhouse was local, Barry Hines wasn’t far away. We studied these writers at school, so nobody was in any doubt that working class writers existed. Some traded on their background, others didn’t. But their names were common currency and their works were available.

Nobody curated them; anthologies weren’t micro-managed on their behalf. Project grants weren’t held by someone else while the little working class writers jostled and begged for attention. The working class writer got published, performed, written about. BBC/ITV producers were available, and newcomers could send their work in direct to the regional centre. You didn’t pay for expensive courses which promised a fast-track towards publication, routes which cut you out because you were on the minimum wage. You didn’t have to know anyone when you started off. The conditions were therefore right for a working class person to get a foothold on Parnassus. Lots of routes in, from different angles; not much financial outlay needed.

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Now there’s social media call-outs and projects for ‘working class writers’, because apparently there aren’t enough of us. We must be rare, or not intelligent/successful /ballsy/in the know enough to get on. Perhaps we haven’t realised that only certain types of people can become writers, and it’s not us. And of course, we need an expert to show us the way, we’re not able to handle it ourselves. And hopefully we write about raw real life and people having fights in pubs, not pitch-perfect mood pieces about divorced architects. How exciting we must be, with our unusual working class habits. And hopefully we’re so grateful that we don’t realise we’re being exploited, that the brief run of special access will end as soon as the grants are gone.

If you’re a struggling new writer, you sometimes have to balance your need for progress with this willingness to be put in a category. I minded this very much back in 1985, and it just made me more determined to be a poet on the route I was following. My best incident involved being told by a writer-in-residence that I was a typical ‘northern clown figure’ because of a student drama workshop I’d just been in. Overnight, I decided: ‘right, I’m taking those serious poets on at their own game’, and it pretty much set my direction for the next 20 years. I obviously appeared like one type of thing on the outside, and ‘the experts’ thought I was that type of thing, yet my brain told me I was something else.

Now of course, I don’t care. But it mattered back then, and being categorised due to my accent and background was simply not on. It’s no accident that more comedians come from the ‘working class’ – it’s one of the traditional ways they get noticed for their creativity. But surely, access to an arts career haIMG_1336.JPGs moved on since the early 1900’s. Surely all this access to technology and part-time jobs, grants, projects, and higher education has levelled out the playing field for those of us who didn’t have the playing fields at prep school. I’d like to think so – but when I attended a litfest recently, there was a row of carefully intense posh people on the stage while I sat in the audience listening to them. The signal was clear: these were the spokespeople on behalf of Literature as far as that festival was concerned. I could have been a character from Dickens sat there, pressing my nose against the bookshop window. The problems persist, and if you’re not writing in the blockbuster genres, it’s like chipping your way up a mountain with a slot-headed screwdriver. If I was a new ‘working class’ poet I would be clinging to those promises put about by special project advocates. But I’m older and I’ve learnt. I want the same projects the other poets are into, not special ones devised for my class and background as others see it.

Meanwhile in the real world, remember there’s always more of us than there are of them. It must be true therefore, that a greater number of people with backgrounds like mine are doing their writing and succeeding at it. So I’d like to think we’re all out there, like the ironic points of light in the Auden poem, holding up our torches so that other working class writers can see where we are.

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Update, September 2018

Much against my better judgement I sent in some work for a couple of competitions. I’m usually a comps duffer, having an ability to avoid even the longest runner-up list in my pursuit for better visibility as a poet. But some of the newer anthologiespoetry trusts are connected with the heritage of poets I admire a lot, and therefore I felt it was okay. I’m not supporting a remote arts committee whose efforts never touch the provinces, I’m putting a bit of sponsorship directly into projects and events, ones which involve local communities and aren’t just about hiring headline writers.

As a result I feel slightly better about the whole competing-for-a-place thing, but I’m glad to say I didn’t download any advice guides about competitions, or read anyone’s article, their blog, or any books about creative writing beforehand, or beat myself over the head about it. No, we really don’t know what the judges are looking for – in many cases, they choose a winner by personal feelings once the initial ‘can they write’ question is answered. I know, because I’ve been a preliminary judge for three competitions and I’ve see the lack of logic going into the process. The person who hates poems about cats isn’t going to choose a poem about a cat even if it happens to be a brilliant one. The old guy on the panel who thinks women can’t be funny is probably not going to award a woman in a funny poem contest. And so on. I worked on a competition where the main judge was a prominent literary figure, except the panel members lower down the food chain were doing the selecting, and sending him a shortlist to choose from. He got a substantial fee, the rest of us didn’t, even though we’d done the work. Did I feel like putting loads of effort into the selecting process? Guess.

It was agreen manlso the same year when a literary prankster was passing off others’ poems (slightly ‘deconstructed’) as his own, and while his folly was blazed across the media, he’d sent a work in to our competition which was probably genuine. But we couldn’t take the risk, and although he’d ended up on the shortlist, we had to disqualify him. It happened before, too, when I worked on a short stories project; a different local prankster decided to chance his arm and forwarded a story which was actually written by someone else. I found out because it was broadcast on Radio 4 one afternoon, attributed to its original author. I pulled the pranksters’ effort out of my files and read along, paragraph by paragraph, just within enough time of the printing date to halt our selection and find a replacement.

Occurrences like these make it all the more annoying when I send work out and get nowhere. In the resulting postbag there’s going to be absolute first-timers, people sending the same poem each year, people who can afford to send 30 separate entries, and maybe even a canny prankster who thinks he’s onto a good thing with his brand of homage and re-appropriatio20170526_162811.jpgn. And maybe the judge has a sore head that morning or she fell out with her partner and immediately wants an ‘I Hate Men’ rant to win. You just don’t know. You look at the glossy promotional literature and the list of sponsors, the well-known judge at the head, and it’s all down to how they feel on the day. Therefore, never imagine that you are a bad poet because you don’t win. It’s all accidental.

Update, August 2018

Newark Book Festival is worth looking out for –  a new-ish annual book bash with an eclectic remit. They have the ‘serious’ stuff, sure –  but also plenty of family-relevant activities, and a glorious Literature Quarter in the market place, filled with stallholders and street acts. I was there on Sunday 15th July with my wares, and although this wasn’t the full-on experience enjoyed by the Saturday marketeers, newark.jpgthere was a warm and friendly atmosphere and I feel it will develop into something special for the East Midlands. It’s not expensive to hire a stall, and I can recommend it to any nervous first-timers who might have self-published their work. You’ll need to get on the mailing list though, if you want the details in good time: already, plans for 2019 are under way. You can sign up using their website at Newark Book Festival.

Meanwhile, I can’t speak too highly of the Shrewsbury Poetry crowd – a well-organised evening with excellent open-mic readers, and they even had the decency to invite me over there as the headliner for August 2nd. The signpostvenue was first rate (thanks, St. Nicholas’ Cafe!) and I had a spiffing time meeting the organiser & poet, Liz Lefroy. My travelling expenses were refunded, and several booksales (hooray!) meant that I came away with a decent ‘wage’ while at the same time not having sent my poetry colleagues spiralling into deficit. Which, as you will see, is a theme this month.

I spent several days around rural Shropshire, enjoying its associations with Mary Webb, Housman, and Wilfred Owen; not to mention the eerie borderlands I find wonderfully recreated in the Merrily Watkins novels by Phil Rickman. However, some of the eerie borderlands are not due to an evocative landscape with its image of ‘the land of lost content’. At the moment it’s also the land of lost and failing businesses. I know Shropshire reasonably well as a visitor – but the last time I was in some of those small towns, the shopfronts were selling goods and the best-known tourist trap wasn’t wall to wall eateries with tiny tarts costing £3.50. Places have to reinvent themselves in the wake of recession, but I’m not sure we need 53 coffee shops within walking distance of each other. What happens out of season? Do they have scone-throwing competitions, or open up their premises to the homeless? Is the throughput enough to guarantee a years’ worth of income for a new deli next to another deli with a slightly different pastry in the window?

The biggest laugh-inducing discrepancy happened in one tiny town in the middle of nowhere with half-day closing held up as a tradition. Most of its independent shops were gone or going, yet local funding had been lavished on a building that wasn’t offering anything unless you wanted tourist souvenirs. I stood in its brand new space looking out of its artfully restored windows at a rundown three-floor unit which used to be a thriving hardware store. Nobody wanted it, I was told. A wool shop had closed only ten days previously, yet around the corner you could still get militaria and Army surplus from a well-stocked curio shop.

All prepared for the apocalypse. Thankyou Shropshire; your future as a museum is assured. You have some of the UK’s finest heritage, great views from your unusual landscapes, and you’re perfect for low-fi visitors like me. But I’m not sure vegan delis and Discovery Centres are going to carry you forward, post-Brexit.

 

Update, July 2018

DOLC spines

I’ve been and gone and done it! A suitable printers’ quote came in, and I had a no-frills deal for an initial 50 copies with a reliable local firm (GP Printonline, Peterborough). It involved no proofs so there’s a couple of things I must alter in future; but the end result is saleable, and that’s what matters. The 9-day turnaround time was also appreciated, because it’s ready for the Newark Book Festival now. I’ll be taking them around at the next three events, to see how it goes; meanwhile, if you’re interested you can order one for £7, including p & p within the UK mainland. Please use the form on the Shop Stop page, or enquire through Twitter @rennieparker, or ww.poetrypf.co.uk. Once I’ve got my seller’s information on Amazon, you may order through there also. The title is Daughters of the Last Campaign, and the press name is Demeter, after the classical goddess. As it’s a trial printrun I’ve included some artycrafty inserts –  you might find ’19th century adverts’ and a small print as a bookmark.

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It’s been a long haul with this particular book – at first I wrote it as a radio script, which is why the whole thing is dialogue-driven –  and I tested it while working on a community arts project where the main art was playwriting. Then I submitted it to a BBC department in the days before they changed to the Script Room system; and it was quickly rejected. But I could see how womens’ comedy (and comedy written by women) had gathered momentum, with many more delivering standup routines and older ones like me experimenting with different media. I kept faith with my idea, and re-wrote it as a collage text, with a cacophony of voices both male and female, some of them from the early 20th century. I was able to capture the period feel because my PhD reseach was on the pre-WW1 generation –  and like a lot of people fascinated by the intricate layers of Edwardian life, I’d read the explorer literature from the same period.

IMG_1304I suppose the lesson I learnt was: ‘don’t dump your ideas’. Yes, creative writing teachers will exhort you to murder your darlings, cut, cut, cut, fillet and slash. But I’m not one of the people who writes like that. I nearly always revise up, not down, with scripts gathering interest and detail until they’re done. If you’ve tried out your work in a public format like a class or a local open mic night, the audience reaction is all you need to convince you maybe it’s best to carry on. I would have binned the project if people hadn’t laughed, or if a few independent script readers hadn’t said it was worth doing. I can’t spend years on a vanity project, throwing good money after bad –  and neither can anyone else. But sometimes, you have to pursue an idea until it becomes real.

Update, June 2018

Well, I had the verdict at last – and it was a rejection from the press I had waited nearly a year for, under a competitive entry system involving readers’ panels. I came somewhere in the final 23 out of a script pile of 600, which means I did pretty well to get that far – because writing talent isn’t rare in the UK and thegarlic bulbsre’s a lot of us around. However it was still disappointing to realise I’d tied up a possibly viable script for a long time, making it ineligible for other things, only to get the useless-to-me unpublished runner-up thing.

Weeks afterwards and I’m still wondering about it. So near and yet so far; some of the readers thought it was funny, others thought it was irritating. Which, when you think about it, adequately sums up the reaction to most niche literature and comic writing. For each person who decided it wasn’t worth printing, another one said it was. So it’s time to focus on the positive and put my money where my mouth is; I’ve got the experience and I’ve run other people’s projects – two of them a good deal bigger than mine. I could publish it myself.

Therefore, dear readers, I’m in the process of asking around at the local commercial printers and working out how much I can put towards the cost. I don’t need a fancy print job, largely because I can add my own illustrations and other documents to make it more of an artwork later. And to this end, I’ve just spent the May bank holiday with a set of art papers and print blocks, creating little anagram poems to insert at the back of the book.

IMG_1304I’ll put progress reports on here, assuming I can get an affordable quote. As print costs have fallen drastically over the past 10 years, what looked impossible a few years ago is probably within reach now, even though I’ll be selling it myself and hawking it round at readings. You have to admit, that’s a better fate for a typescript than sitting for another year on somebody else’s script pile.

Update, April 2018

Do you ever get pulverized by the onslaught of social media and its talented way with making you feel small? I certainly do – because there’s so many excitable writers on Twitter just now that a Damien-Hirst multi-layered blatter effect happens as soon as I turn my screen on. And of course, it seems that everyone has something to promote, a new book or a series of events or summat, and I’m quite put out. Where do they find the time? Haven’t they got jobs or families? Why is their level of confidence so massive compared with the 40 watt bulb version I seem to have? Why do they have an army of associates cheering them on when I couldn’t even tell my mates at work that I’m a poet? And so on. Clearly, Twitter is bad for my health as well as my data allowance.

pressureThere’s a verse fest in my town this week, so I went along to a masterclass by a prominent male poet. Now, when I see the word masterclass, I expect some kind of class taught by a master – perhaps I’m influenced by ideas of painting demos, musicians sitting in a line with their instruments, or – yes, even a supercool poet sharing drafts and ‘what not to do’. Sadly, this guy thought a masterclass was 1.75 hours of talking about himself, with a high namedrop percentage and the special places he’s been now he’s at the top. I’m glad for the guy, I love it when writers are big news – but I’d paid £10 for that, and I could have found the same information on Wikithingi for nowt. The atmosphere in the room went strangely off-kilter as several audience members began to question his rationale for the sort of event he was giving us; and I could see the unease in the poet, who’d realised that yes, maybe he should have drawn up a plan before he started to walk onstage, and yes, maybe it is a bad idea to think that any old sentence is a pearl of wisdom because it is said by himself. All I learnt from this ‘masterclass’ was: a) write a plan, you idiot, and b) if you think you can get away with it, you can’t. An audience deserves what is written on the ticket, and if the performer isn’t prepared to deliver it, arts managers should look elsewhere.

Update, February 2018

Waiting, waiting. As ever. Sometimes it never seems to progress, does it? You write stuff, you send it out, and then it’s –    the Void. I’m sure wellknown writers feel the same sort of thing, because trick whenever I go to readings or events, there’ll always be some Big Name outlining how hard it was for them to get started, and how awful it was, waiting for the yes/no envelopes (back in the day –   no email!) and then the WAITING. Like, months. Not even a few days, no. Months. Well, I’m one of those preoccupied waiters right now, thinking of my little manuscript sitting there with all the other hopefuls as it shifts at a glacial pace towards a final decision. I’m glad to have made it this far of course. Past the initial selection, and on through what a film person would describe as Development Phase, even though it feels more like some dreadful half-state akin to a Dantean circle of Hell. Sometime this Spring I’ll get a final decision on that script, and it’ll be either a) cast into an even deeper darker further circle of non-being for all eternity, or b) it’ll be fanfares and a light at the end of the tunnel as another creative effort makes it into the real world at last.

Competition though. That’s a thing. I dislike competing with the other poets out there and I enter the minimum number of comps per year –   two or three. I don’t see why poets should feel as if they must compete like frantic parents for a place at a selective academy, or why they should imagine they might gain ‘edge’ or career traction from being third in line. It’s like we’re all being trained to participate not as writers, but as gameshow contestants; to accept that Prizes Mean Points, and it’s somehow part of the reality of being a poet, instead of something which the market has thrust on us. We’re not at school, for heaven’s sake; you can write whatever you want and there’s probably a magazine or arts project out there which publishes exactly that kind of thing. You don’t have to throw good money after bad and send your poems in to Little Dripping’s Biennial Versefest Competition (1st prize £100). It’s not automatically on the job description of Being A Poet. If you add up a modest £50 which you might spend on comps per year, and multiply it by the number of years you might be active as a poet, you’re looking at 2k and beyond. For that kind of sum you could publish your own collection, hold a reading at an independent bookshop, and kickstart some interest in your actual work. Just putting it out there….