Poetry Prescription: a case study

Sending your writing to an unknown poet may feel like consulting an oracle but Jan Bay-Petersen’s poetical health-check left her feeling invigorated and ready to write more

Poetry Prescription. Illustration by David Sparshott.
Poetry Prescription. Illustration by David Sparshott.

When we begin writing poetry, it can feel as if our first poems are flowing direct from some pure source, almost like spirit writing. They feel remarkable, but then most of us are forced to realise that they’re not very good. We begin the long process of learning our craft and developing a critical eye, and for this we need other eyes too. Looking for weaknesses and flaws in our own poems has something of the same problem as breast self-examination. You’re looking for something you don’t want to find.

A few months ago, as winner of the 2013 Stanza Poetry Competition, I was offered a choice between a Poetry Prescription and a year’s subscription to the Poetry Society. I chose the former, because it sounded exciting to have detailed critical advice on my work from a professional poet. I was nervous about it, too. It’s a prescription from long distance. You don’t see the doctor, you don’t even have a chat on the phone. In fact, the prescription process is entirely anonymous, although I didn’t realise this when I sent my poems in.

The feedback experience

I’ve had the benefit of face-to-face advice from experienced poets several times in the past – at two Arvon courses, at Poetry School, at various workshops and, recently, a Poetry Society Surgery with Helen Ivory. So far, they’ve all been a very good experience. The poets who discussed my work were supportive, and had considerable insight into what I was trying to say and how I might say it better – an instinct for words which seemed akin to perfect pitch in music. But the Poetry Prescription feels different because it comes from people who (presumably) I don’t know.

What to send

You’re allowed to send in 100 lines, which sounds quite a lot, but in my case turned out to be only five poems. There’s the problem of what poems to select, whether to send in your best poems, the ones you’ve already polished and made as good as you can get them, or the problem poems you’ve been struggling with for years. Most of the poems I sent were the first kind. After all, as good as I can get them isn’t as good as they can be.

The critique

I thought the feedback on my poems was excellent and picked up points I’d missed, including my repeated recourse to an archaic phrase I would never use in speech but seem to have adopted for poems. There were useful handouts with information about writing and submitting poetry for publication, plus lists of writing groups, poetry magazines and competitions.

Sending in your writing to an unknown poet feels something like consulting an oracle. You half expect a message which changes the way you see the world. I didn’t get it from the Poetry Prescription and was slightly disappointed. Perhaps I should have been relieved, since who knows what  an oracle might say (Abandon rhyme! Write in French!).

The questionnaire

One of the things I most liked was the questionnaire I was sent to fill out and submit with my poems. Answering the questions was a useful exercise in itself. Most asked me to choose options from a list, and they were thoughtful and interesting choices. They made me think about my relationship to the world of poetry and what I wanted it to be, which is something I hadn’t thought much about before.

Maintaining the energy

A good test of an outside appraisal of one’s poetry is whether it keeps alive the energy that produced the work in the first place.  If the changes suggested are too radical and demanding, the poem can feel as if it doesn’t belong to you any more and you lose interest. The Prescription passed this test; it left me feeling full of enthusiasm and ready to do more work on the poems along the lines recommended.

The finished poem

Two of the poems I sent in didn’t need any tweaks. They were finished! I have a problem recognising this point. Years of experience have taught me that you can edit a poem too often, but in my heart I don’t really believe it, and sometimes end up with a poem like that grey lump that small children produce when they’re working pastry. There’s a valuable German word for this, “schlimmbessern”: to make something worse by improving it.

And since the Poetry Prescription is in writing, a final advantage is that I retain every word of its good advice! During face-to-face feedback, I scribble notes but listening takes priority. I’m absorbed in what the poet is saying and promise myself I’ll never forget a word of it. But I do.

Read Jan Bay-Petersen’s poem ‘Owner of an emptiness’, the winner of the 2013 Stanza Poetry Competition judged by Neil Rollinson.

A prescriber replies

he team of established, professional poets who provide detailed, critical feedback on your poetry, as part of the Poetry Prescription service, do so anonymously. Here, one of our team responds to Jan Bay-Petersen’s article

I’m one of a team of poetry prescribers and a working poet, elated by every acceptance, stung by every rejection, relishing and dreading the blank page that is the great leveller. First-time-writer or Poet Laureate, the blank sheet holds the same threat and promise.

Your dreams and aspirations

Prescriptions are usually emailed to me in batches of four. I print them out, feel the weight of them in my hands, and remind myself that I’m holding the dreams and aspirations, the anxieties and challenges, of strangers. My job is to help them write better poetry that will communicate the messages of their minds and hearts with the rest of the world. I can’t discuss their work with them, or see their faces when I say something that elates or distresses. I can only give them the information I honestly believe will help.

Because there is no ‘right of reply’ I have to make sure I impart as much comment as I can in an accessible, unambiguous way. If anyone thinks I’m over-simplifying, that’s fine. If anyone finds my remarks baffling or illogical, I’ve failed.

Responding to the questionnaire

I respond to the questionnaire first. This helps me to paint a mind picture of the poet’s attitude to the craft and expectations of it. Some advice never changes. Tips to help poets achieve their ambitions are the same for every-one. Comments about personal style and habits to be cultivated or broken, elicit more individual responses.

Artistic and technical viewpoints

Each poem is considered from artistic and technical viewpoints. The content and logic should be clear. Complexity is fine, but wilful obscurity will be criticised. The poem should have something to say that rewards readers for the time, energy and intellect they have brought to it. It should add something new to all the poetry written on its theme. It should use appropriate vocabulary and rich imagery drawing focused, specific pictures. It will be checked for a good title, well-paced content, and its ability to be memorable and thought-provoking.

On the technical side, accurate and inspiring rhyme and metre need to be in place if the poem demands them, or slant rhyme devices of free verse coupled with intelligent lineation and phrasing. Punctuation, grammar and syntax should be flawless, unless a poem’s content requires non-standard application of these. 

In the conclusion, I can sum up with general advice and encouragement, doling out the pills with enough sugar coating to make them bearable.

Writing Poetry Prescriptions is a personal business, and it’s all one way. I have the privilege of spotting names in magazines and anthologies. I can only hope the poets find my medicine helps a bit in getting them there.

These articles were first published in Poetry News, the Poetry Society members’ newspaper, in summer 2014. © The Poetry Society & the authors.

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