Tag Archives: StAnza

How to Build a Poetry Community

Poets love to gather together and talk poetics. It is something we need; it’s like oxygen to us, to find others who care about the same things and are happy to share ideas for magazines to submit to, places to read, courses, who’s up for prizes, which new collections have blown them away etc. We hunger for it. Social media has played a massive role in facilitating this kind of talk, but it can be ultimately dissastisfying to be typing on threads and encountering offensive and irritating people who love to stir things up negatively. I have made many poetry friends through social media, but nothing beats meeting them face to face and having conversations with them.

Here are some ideas for building your own network of poetry friends.

1) Go to poetry festivals. Many have a central space where poets can meet and mingle. StAnza at St Andrews every March is particularly good for this, as The Byre acts as a hub as well as a main venue. Wenlock has its cafe where anyone can obtain snacks and drinks and bump into guests and punters alike. I’ve never been to Aldeburg Festival but from the comments I see, it appears to be great for meeting others. Sally Evans’ Poetry Weekend in Callander is excellent for meeting others – I have made many friends there – because there is only one event on at a time and only one venue, with lots of readers doing short slots.

2) Run your own open floor night. All you need is a venue and some people who’d like to come and read. Often poets who don’t live too far away and have a new book out are willing to come and do a guest slot for the chance to sell some books. Or if you make a small charge or pass a jar round for a collection, you can pay a small honorarium. If they come from a little further away, offer to put them up for the night and feed them. A poet staying overnight has often given me a great opportunity for poetry talk with them. I’ve  made friends by running my own local group and by helping to run Zest! in Chester.

3) Depending what stage you are at, join a local writers group. The danger with these is that they can easily become cosy and turn into ‘praise groups’, which is not going to develop you as a poet, but rather keep you stuck in your comfort zone. But they can be great for finding some fellow beginners and making initial friendships. You can always meet up with like-minded friends aside of the group meetings for in-depth discussion.

4) Go along and support open floor nights in your locale. You can find out about these from Facebook, flyers, or searching Write Out Loud and other similar sites which offer listings. There are often email lists you can subscribe to as well. If people like your poem, they will often come and speak to you about it. Friendships grow that way, especially if you return when you can.

5) Offer to read at open floor nights who feature guest readers. Sometimes organisers can be wary of asking you, if they cannot pay a fee, but are only too grateful if you approach them. The worst that can happen is a ‘we are fully booked for the foreseeable future’ but it could be a gateway to a new friendship.

6) Accept that the poetry community is scattered, but make the most of any trips you are making to other parts of the country to ask if you can meet for a coffee while you are in the area. I recently made a new friend this way, whom I had only known from facebook previously. She was actually staying in my village for Christmas and we had a smashing two hours chatting in the local pub.

7) Connect with The Poetry Society Stanza groups. Information is on their website. You do not have to be a member of the society to join one of these outreach groups and it’s a great network to be part of. If there isn’t one near you, consider starting your own. Contact membership secretary Paul McGrane to find out how to do that. He will give you contact details for Poetry Society members in your area so you can let them know about your plans.

8) It’s worth checking to see if any of the poets you know on social media actually live near you! It’s easy to overlook the fact that someone whose work you know might live in easy travel distance. I discovered someone whose work I’d admired for years and who had been in many of the same children’s anthologies only lived 3o minutes drive away. We met up and got on really well, and though she has now relocated 200 miles away, we will keep in touch.

9) Go on a course, a residential one if possible. If you can’t afford a week at Arvon or Ty Newydd (though it’s well worth saving up for or looking into the possibilty of a grant) then consider a shorter course. On a residential course, a community develops naturally, and there are always attempts to keep in touch. Success can vary with the whole group but there are often one or two people who really strike a chord with you.

10) Find some day workshops, for example The Poetry Business offer one day writing workshops in Sheffield, The Poetry School’s workshops can be pricy but I hear they are very good, and they are increasingly offering them outside London. The WEA and LEA often include evening writing courses in their programmes. These can be very reasonable and tend to run for 10 week sessions. I used to tutor several of these locally. You will meet like-minded people while honing your craft.

11) Collaborate with another poet, or someone from another discipline, such as art or music. This can bring deep and enriching friendships, as you nuture each other’s work. I have had a successful collaboration with artist Maria Walker, which is still being shown in art galleries and appeared at StAnza last year (The Lightfoot Letters) and I am currently collaborating with Sarah James, to produce a pamphlet of paired poems called Hearth, to be published by Mother’s Milk Press in March 2015.

12) Contribute to an anthology and attend launches if possible. I’ve got to know a lot of my poetry friends by contributing to Split Screen and Double Bill (Red Squirrel Press), Heavenly Bodies (Beautiful Dragons) and from editing and c0-editing several of my own.

If you want to make more poetry friends, because let’s face it, most of the time we are writing, we look deep within, not outwards and so being a poet can be a lonely pursuit. Poetry friends keep us rooted, we can be warmed by their successes and encouraged by their knowledge. One caveat: avoid those who are only interested in making you a follower of their fame, not an equal. In my experience the best writers are generous and love to encourage others because they are secure in their own skills. Friendship is my its nature, mutually beneficial.

Angela Topping

December 2014

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StAnza 2014: My highlights

I went to StAnza this year for the first time, invited up with the poetry and art exhibition, ‘The Lightfoot Letters’, in which I had collaborated with the wonderful Maria Walker. I went with no idea what to expect, except from what poet friends had told me about it: that it was friendly and celebratory. I’d have loved to have gone to the full day workshops with Jacob Polley and Vickie Feaver, which were leading up to it, but with other commitments and the need to mount the exhibition on our first day, it wasn’t possible. So my first event was the launch in the Byre. It was great to immediately find the redoubtable Sally Evans, who was with Colin Will and someone I didn’t know. She showed me where to hang my coat up and where the free wine was (she knows me so well). The launch was excellent: Eleanor Livingstone made a welcome speech which did its job perfectly, and we listened to some short performances. The soprano Angharad Rowlands, who sang exquisitely in Welsh, and the gentle-voiced Louis de Bernieres read us some of his poems. I hadn’t known poems were his first love. Afterwards I persuaded my husband to come to see Rime with me, which turned out to be incredbible, as young people performed heart-stopping acrobatics to portray the tale of the Ancient Mariner in a new way. I particularly liked the folk singing within this show. I think it is touring now so catch it if you can.

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On Thursday 6th March, I attended a workshop with Brian Turner, American war poet, which I had booked in advance, as workshops are limited places and do tend to be sold out quickly. Brian was excellent, sharing the techniques used to write about war in a range of ways, and inviting us to try them out on a topic of our choice, after looking at poems which deployed them well. I really wish I’d been able to attend his reading in the evening, when he was sharing a stage with David Constantine (whose work I have liked for a very long time), but we were both exhausted and took a night off.

The next day I went to the Poetry Scotland showcase, with four terrific readers, two of which I had heard before and wanted more, and two new discoveries: Giuseppe Bartoli and Nikki Magennis. It was great to bump into Red Squirrel poet and friend, Elizabeth Rimmer, and indeed StAnza is a glorious meeting place of poets, greetings and hellos filled every venue. Katrina Naomi and Tim Ridley’s artist talk was interesting – I loved the way Tim had become more serious in his responses to his partner’s work, while Katrina’s poems became more playful, and I particularly liked her crocodile poem alongside Tim’s superbly sinister drawing. I read a poem at The Quiet Open Mic at Zest juicing bar, which was very ably run by Jim Carruth. The standard was high but it managed to be a relaxed event. It was great later on to hear John Burnside but such a pity I missed Tishani Doshi, who was reportedly brilliant. I’d hoped to read at the late night open mic but once again I was all out of stamina.

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Saturday was a very full on day, and each day that passed I was more and more at home. The day began with a great workshop with John Greening (whom I had wanted to meet for ages as we have both written books for Greenwich Exchange). Again I got the start of several potentially good poems. I do think it’s important to go away from a poetry festival with some new work started. After soup in The Byre (where yummy food was served all week), I had a great time at the Poets Market, bumping into lots of friends including Pat Borthwick, Sheila Wakefield, Colin Will, and finally getting to meet Gerry Cambridge. Had a great natter with him about Norman MacCaig, swapping memories, and I bought a back copy of The Dark Horse with Gerry’s article on MacCaig, the old charmer. I bought lots of books – couldn’t help myself – to add to the three I got from JG Innes on the first day.

There were several great events on in the afternoon, but I had to go and deliver my artist talk at the exhibition, which was great fun. I have a couple of videos from that which I will post at a later date. I’d decided not to try to get into the Carol Ann Duffy reading because I had it had sold out, but there was live streaming in the Byre, had I but realised. I have heard our poet laureate read many times over the years, so I thought I’d let others have the chance. I did go to the Slam though, later on, but was so tired I only stayed for the first round. Great to see Sally owning the stage and the other performers were terrific too – the judges had a very tough time. I’d never been to a slam before.

Sunday was in many ways my best day because I was so relaxed after the artist talk  and had met lots more friends by then, and felt I’d been going to StAnza for years. Paul Muldoon’s masterclass was brilliant. It was interesting to discuss the poems chosen, and he asked probing questions of the audience, but the best part was at the start when he spoke about poetry, saying many things which I deeply feel and agree with. There was no soup left in The Byre, so we had lunch at the Chinese before I dashed off to read a poem about Scotland in the Poetry Tour of Scotland event in the studio theatre. This was hosted by Colin Will (who gave me a warm introduction, and Andy Jackson (of Split Screen fame), and featured an interactive map of Scotland and some really excellent poems by a range of Scotland’s best. I missed Stephen Raw’s events but had several looks at his inspiring exhibition and a chat with him about his process.

Later on Sunday night I went to support friend David Costello who was reading a poem at the launch of Poetry in Protest. I sat next to Paul Muldoon and had a private word with him about his excellent masterclass. Menna Elfyn was the first reader on the main stage for the closing night and she was nothing short of magical. I could have listened to her all night, in both Welsh and English, and her voice is so melodious, her words so right. Paul Muldoon took things slowly and I honestly felt like I was sitting at his kitchen table in Ireland, just soaking up his words and gorgeous accent. He even read some early stuff which I had been familar with for years – ‘Why Brownlee Left’ with one of the best line breaks ever, and ‘Anseo’, before moving on to newer poems. His chat between was both assured and modest. The festival closing party after that was just great, chatting, dancing (I didn’t but liked watching), getting a private look at some of Jean Johnstone’s artist books, meeting even more poets, and the sorrow that it was all over.

It’s just one of the best poetry experiences I ever had. It was buzzing. Poetry was on everyone’s lips. Image

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StAnza 2014

I have never been to StAnza before and had been hoping to fit a visit in this year, so imagine my delight when I was actually invited to attend as a participant, an honour I had only previously dreamed of! Eleanor Livingstone, one of the directors, had seen information and artwork from The Lightfoot Letters exhibition, which was a collaboration between myself and textile artist Maria Walker.  The exhibition has been shown at The Brindley, Runcorn, Visual Arts Cheshire in Northwich (the kind and generous poet John Hegley came to the private view on that occasion) and Waterside at Sale. But StAnza is the first time it has been shown outside Cheshire.

The exhibition will take place throughout the duration of the festival at the Preservation Trust Museum, with the artists talk taking place on the Saturday afternoon. My poem ‘Father, Skating’ will be in the Byre, in vinyl letters (which I still think of as a form of magic), acting like a trailer for the exhibition.

So this week I am busy preparing for the festival, sorting out my itinerary (because I hope to immerse myself in poetry and attend as many events as possible) and making notes of where I need to be and when.I hope to turn up to open mics to join in, bump into lots of friends and drag them back to the holiday house for coffee/wine/supper. I’m going to Paul Muldoon’s masterclass and John Greening’s events. Normally the exhibition has been mounted for us, but for the first time I am going to be involved in the curation, which was the best logistical way to do it this time.

I know that StAnza is a wonderful festival. Everyone has told me how much fun I will have. I am really grateful to Eleanor’s keen eye and awareness of what is going on, even in distant Cheshire. The programme is very full with lots of variety and many wonderful poets. And yes, I’ve been warned to take lots of jumpers and woolies! Image

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