Accidental Poet

Robin Cowlings Poetry Review

How I Wrote My Latest Poem

March 17, 2017

Poetry, review

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The Writing Process
I started writing these poems as a batch. The theme seems to have evolved from when I was thinking about Hardcore. I was reading some biographies at the time and wrote poems that told a life story of an American girl. I wrote them in the order the events would have run in in the course of her life. I am not sure what attracted me to the subject matter of pornography, except the urge to answer some questions. Some subjects you don’t choose, they choose you, which is the best way I can describe it. Once I began these poems, it felt like a quest to understand, to depict a human being beneath the power of image, to show the ordinary way extraordinary things happen. One of the reasons I chose an American girl was that I felt I had explored my routes in Sex With Elvis. I felt the urge to do something different. I wanted to show that yes I am a writer from the North East of England, but that I could also reach beyond it. Setting work in America was a useful tool for me to ask questions about a language I take for granted, that is my dialect and write something outside of it.

Publication
I had poems about a porn star, and a good few of female icons, I was starting to think about the fact that they would need a publisher- but since it was not a finished collection at this stage, I didn’t do anything. I did send poems to magazines however for the first time in years, a fair few rejections, but Staple, Ambit, Dreamcatcher, Iota liked the new poems and published some (I’d certainly had a lot more acceptances from magazines with this batch of poems than previously, which was encouraging. Was it because without dialect the poems seemed more universal? I have no idea.) I set up a myspace and did nothing more.

One day I got an email off Salt Publishing, Chris Emery asking if I’d like to send some poems for them to look at. I sent about twelve; three hours later I had a reply saying they would like to bring a book out next year and enclosing a contract! Funny, I had heard of them, and was toying with the idea of sending them some poems when the work was complete anyway. To use the phrase ‘shit a brick’ about covers it at this point! The book wasn’t finished, Sex With Elvis had only been out a year, what if I couldn’t get it finished on time?… Shit, shit, hurrah, fuck, get in, shit! (It is impossible to celebrate and panic in standard English.) I joined the author’s society to get a right eye on the contract, signed it and popped it in the post with my fingers crossed.

I continued on the poems, ordering, re-ordering, writing, cutting, editing. I started off with 120 pages and got it down to 70. I sought advice. I wanted a second on eye on the work because I was aware that this was my one chance with this publisher. I benefited from mentoring by Paul Batchelor who didn’t seem to like the quietest poems I had in the book (I did win an iPod on the net with one, though, so can’t have been all bad!) Surprisingly; he liked the voice ones. At times the mentoring process was tough, and I went away thinking ‘I’ll show him.’ I worked twice as hard and wrote some new poems, I only wrote to prove that a) I was a good writer b) I didn’t need another year- I knew this book, and I could work hard. Sometimes working in opposition to an authority figure gives you the drive you need.

I had been fighting against my voice poems for the whole writing process, putting me on the suspension to lose dialect. But I went away from the mentor and wrote a first person poems as an American girl. I cut all my female icon poems, which saddened me a little because I felt I was onto something with them- but there was room to only do one world justice. This made the way I approached this collection different to previous ones, not a case of including most of the poems you like, more seeing what fits in this story- asking of each poem what is it doing? It meant developing a little faith that the poems you had to cut aren’t lost forever- you have to say to yourself ‘This doesn’t fit in here, but it can go in the next one.’ It takes a belief that there will be a next one, that someone will want to publish it because the work will be good enough- which is hard to sustain (so fingers crossed.) I certainly spent a lot more time on this collection than any previously, because of the narrative. It was more ambitious altogether.

What is a suitable subject for poetry?

There were a lot of ups and downs in the making of this one which I had never had before. On the one hand, I had a publisher that was becoming more and more successful. On the other, I was aware of my future at stake if I messed this one up! I started to have worries about the subject matter- I couldn’t remember seeing poetry collections about this subject before- would people be put off by it? Would people just judge it on the subject rather than the writing? Was this a huge mistake? Surely, I should have written something about something more reputable- to play it safer with my first opportunity to impress this press? I had cold feet a fair few times, because even though I’d put work in, and had reasons for wanting to write these poems, and write them how I did, I wasn’t sure how it would go down (I’m still not!) I had to try and have faith in the words even if I’m not sure of their reception. I believe any subject is suitable for poetry, as long it is written well, but still, I couldn’t help being concerned about prudishness being a barrier people could not overcome enough to give the work a chance.

Have doubts as a writer certainly, but follow your instinct- and have guts to see it through, right or wrong.

Cover

Again my contract with Salt stated that the author doesn’t have a say on the cover (fair enough, they pay to print it.) I took this as written in stone and deliberately didn’t think about the cover I would like, since I may not get a say. In retrospect, though, I should have given the publishers the benefit of the doubt, and provided images I liked early in the process- to see if they would consider them. In the end, there was a lot of work put in on the cover, which could have been avoided if I’d communicated more about the cover from the outset. I learned a simple lesson- even if it is written, it doesn’t hurt to ask (especially if you can provide concrete images of what you have in mind.) The publishers were very good about the fact that I queried their first cover choice (which was very good but didn’t look like this book.) I am very grateful- as it was my fault for not daring to contribute suggestions.


Lessons Learnt

1. Sometimes do something before you are 100% ready
2. Sometimes re-work poems that don’t seem bad
3. When a collection seems finished sometimes write more
4. Cut things you like for overall picture and function
5. Try to think, ‘ah well, in the next one’ about poems you had to cut
6. Ask yourself what, how and why about each image

During this process I was reminded about some of the laws of feedback- being, you can’t please everyone. The rule is to ask why you want something to stay, and if the reason is good enough please yourself!

Titles I considered for the book

Show
The Porcelain Dollhouse
Sweethearts
Life of a Porn Star
Trash (suggested)
The Gentleman’s Lounge
Little Darling’s
Postcards from a Porn Set
Showing Pink

Gutted: That Courtney Love called her book Dirty Blonde – since it would have suited this to a T!


COVERS I DIDN’T USE

I had to race around last minute to think of a cover- ideally, I’d have liked a photo of a beautiful trailer in America, glinting in the sun, or an outside shot of knickers on a washing line, or a doll in a sunny back yard- including American sky. But since it was autumn, and I wasn’t in America- and I’d never seen these images anywhere it was unlikely! I had to change tack. I didn’t have the cash to commission someone. I didn’t have access to a beautiful blonde model, so it had to be something else. These are the covers I didn’t use.

Read My Work on Google Books

Latest Music From Accidental Poet

March 17, 2017

music, New York Times, Poetry, review

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