If I felt like it, I could posture a state of mild dudgeon from the title of this article. This worthy venture by the Places of Poetry team is not slightly mad, and its uniqueness is not something to be highlighted as folly. Quite the opposite, in fact: if I had my way, this kind of industry and unique use of the online space would be far more common. I’d see welcoming environments where poets could contribute, regardless of age or experience, and all be embraced under the same, literary umbrella.
This is a place where winning is not the point.
My hero’s right: the real point of any artistic endeavour is translating that stuff within you into something more than just the pictures in your head. That means, as a neophyte poet, a couple of choices. I can publish my own stuff on the internet until I’m blue in the face, and hope someone might notice, or try entering the almost constant stream of prizes, awards or events that encourage new writers to take part. The problem is, of course, not everybody can win.
This month, I crossed a magic threshold: 100 poems have been rejected from events as varied as the BBC Proms contest to the Poetry Society’s own flagship quarterly publication. The problem, such as I see it, is knowing how to pitch your work to fit the brief those publishing work or deciding ‘winners’ looks for, and no two judges/editors are the same. Without a decent brief or a clear idea of what an individual enjoys to read, I may as well just stick poems to my wall and throw darts at them to make reasonable choices.
Like David says, you don’t learn truths until a lot later on.
What makes the Places of Poetry so joyous as an exercise was the complete lack of entry restrictions. The brief was beautifully, nay poetically simple: write about a place you love. Unique then becomes a totally apposite description of this project, because 65 people from age I can use a pencil or tablet so I can be a poet to age whatever you want write about the exact same place and they’re all relevant. No longlisting, no shortlisting, no weeks of hanging about hoping you’ll get an email telling you that eventually, a poem stuck.
The only entry criteria is you, in effect: are you prepared to write yourself into a piece of history? Where else can my 24 poems on Southend stand shoulder to shoulder with the work of the Poet Laureate? I didn’t need to pay to do so, and there’s no expectation that somehow, you’ve been specially chosen or this is a particular honour (though I acknowledge the work being done by specific groups in key locations to encourage the writing of poetry celebrating place). This is the most level playing field ever, our country, and we get to make it whatever we want it to be.
I’ve had a quite interesting journey in the last twelve months: my poems co-incided with mental health counselling, brought me into a far more significant relationship with the town I’ve lived in for over thirty years. I’m also pretty confident my style of poetry means this collection would never be accepted by a publisher looking at current trends and interests. It’s so niche, utterly subjective observation from a poet who is still finding her feet. At 52, I can be a realist about my chances.
However, what the inclusion of these poems has done for me personally I may never be able to accurately quantify. For the six weeks it took to write, photograph and organise the project, I felt more alive than had ever previously been the case, and being mentioned in that article above was just glorious, because I was finally a part of something that mattered. It isn’t always the money and the glory kids, never forget this. Sometimes, you just need to feel you belong.
We need to encourage more people to participate, and yet our entire existence as artists pushes commercial success as a goal. Maybe that’s not the way we move forward on a planet whose obsession with consumerism is driving slow, irreparable destruction into the DNA of every living thing. Perhaps we could, every so often, decide that nobody wins and try and encourage everyone to take part. Projects like this are very simply constructed: you put something in, and then your reward is what presents itself afterwards.
Satisfaction, achievement and belief are far better prizes for those of us who just want to let our voices be heard.
[Edit: in a tweet on July 20th, Places of Poetry have clarified that their site is curated: there is an effort made to ensure poems are not just relevant to the locations pinned but suitable for a general audience. These are rules that don’t restrict entry, simply guidelines that ensure the final work is accessible to as many individuals as possible.]