How should we handle good poetry news?

In the last two weeks I’ve had two pieces of good news about my poetry.

The first reaction was to whoop and run around the room. Eventually though, the adrenalin fades.

And the questions return – were my poems really worth these accolades? Surely not. And what happens next? Should I be writing something better, and will I ever be able to do that?   

I know this sounds really ungrateful. But I think many of us don’t actually know how to accept praise and acknowledgement. I suppose imposter syndrome is a natural condition for many poets, especially female poets and it’s hard to shake that off even when someone says yes to our poetry.

I wonder how other people track their successes. One poet suggested that we should write each piece of good news down and fold it up, put it in a jam-jar which we could look at on the desk.

I simply note down rejections or acceptances on an Excel spreadsheet for submissions. Perhaps that doesn’t make me feel happy enough about a success.

Part of the issue is about expectations. Will expectations for our future work be inflated by what’s happened, and can we measure up to them? Will the subjects we favour run dry?

It is tempting to think it is easier when there are no expectations. No one gets disappointed.

But that’s just defeatist. I am, deep down, very happy that someone believes in a number of my already-written poems. It means that I can keep on writing, can change what I’m doing, grow and develop and hope there is still something there worth the reading.

And of course, having any success is a rare and lovely thing in a crowded poetry market.

I know what my late mum would say. Ditch the humility, and thank your lucky stars.  

‘The Crow Gods’

I live in Devon, and I love its red soil, its deep interior and its scintillating coastline. For that and many other reasons, I have been looking forward to Sarah Connor’s collection ‘The Crow Gods’ from new publisher Sidhe Press whose editor-in-chief is Annick Yerem.

In this collection, Sarah’s focus moves between Devon’s countryside and wildlife, to the subtleties of relationships and family life. The book has been called ‘sensuous, wise, surprising’. 

If you love nature and striking poetic imagery, please go and order it immediately from

Here is a poem from the book, which Sarah and Annick have kindly allowed me to share with you.                                    #thecrowgods @sacosw @missyerem @sidhepress

The swimmer

Rook slips into the air
like a child slipping
into water, trusting
that she will be held.
A current carries her
or, at least, she rides
the current and rises,
circling, into the cold sky.

It’s that first dip I love,
that drop, halted
by out-stretched wings – 
fall, interrupted –

so brave, to trust
the emptiness.


The Poetry of Trauma and Regret

Is it the natural tendency of poets to write about grief, damage, abuse and all kinds of decline?

Perhaps my view is deeply jaundiced. If it’s even partly true, maybe it is a symptom of our increasing focus on our identities, our mental health, and on climate change and environmental decay.

I find it hard to write poems whose progress ends on a note of hope. Of course, that is not something we can aim for. It has to occur naturally as the grain of the poem is shaved and shaped.

There is a view that we, as poets, are drawn to portray the worst things in our personal history. Is trauma a grisly attraction that draws the eyes and ears of publishers and readers? Or, given most poetry readers are writing poetry themselves, perhaps this is a doom-loop that we fly around, as a flock.

There’s no question that I am part of the flock. I have written about how my mother was forced to give away her first (illegitimate) child, and how coercive control affected female members of my family, and me.

And yet when I read ‘uplifting’ poems (forgive the churchy word) I see that it is often the poignant contrast between dark and light that makes them sing. There is (always) dark there too.

I remember what Jo Bell taught in a brilliant, thoughtful course during the pandemic called ‘Finding the Best in Challenging Times’. She suggested we might find celebratory ways of thinking about our bodies and spirits, to express longing and wonder, to affirm the good as well as recognising the bad. Her teaching generated some poems for me, which are about to be published in a pamphlet by Nine Pens.       

Of course, leavening all that pain with a little joy may be healthy for our psychology, as well as our writing.    

Brain food

If you haven’t discovered the Hedgehog Press and its ‘Stickleback’ editions, please go and find them. These are slim volumes of four poems from a single poet, or sometimes two poets. They are beautifully- produced, colourful gems. My favourite at the moment is by Jules Whiting and Vic Pickup.

It’s about four responses to an EEG, a method of recording brain activity. In one poem, the technician shines lights at the patient, which become a fairgound ride, the sun glinting on trees and a glass bird. It is a fine way of showing how our imagination creates glorious things out of what is a technical but scary procedure.          

Another disturbing poem deals with falling in love – how the radiologist ‘holding her head in his hands, whispered reassurance’ and how he watches ‘this electrolysed Medusa’ and imagines her convulsions.

And in ‘Sleep EEG’ a wonderful conceit unwinds, where the patient asks if the technician can press a switch to ‘restore factory settings’.

The last poem ‘What Colour is My Brain?’ is a tender portrait of the interaction between patient and a radiologist who has himself had cancer. The patient touches his arm and wishes him a long life. ‘He cups my hand in his, smiles’.

If, in future, I have an EEG, I will carry these images with me, these human interpretations of what is a unsettling but necessary intervention.

I can’t recommend the Sticklebacks highly enough – they give huge bang for a poetic buck.

Choosing our poetry subject matter

I’ve been thinking about how we choose who to write about, and what risks we take.
Some of my poems are about my family. I wonder if it is right for me to reveal things about their lives that are quite personal and sometimes upsetting.
How do we decide that kind of thing? When does a portrait of someone that may have real meaning and value for many readers, become exploitative, distasteful, or just one-dimensional?
Poets and writers have grappled with this for centuries, and there are no clear rules to follow. But the poetry that can born of these family stories is sometimes brilliant and unsettling.
I have loved reading the poetry of Pascale Petit, much of which addresses the lives of her parents and her traumatic relationship to them. Julia Webb has painted a vivid poetic portrait of dysfunctional family life in ‘The Telling’ and Chris Laoutaris has written an exquisite extended elegy to his brother George, in ‘Bleed and See’. These poets, to me, do an amazing job of making the personal rich and touching and universal.
I wonder though, how easy it was for them to decide to portray their family in poetry?
I suppose some poets might want to ask permission of the people concerned, though that would not always be easy.
I haven’t had to do that, because all the close family I’ve written about are no longer alive. I try to respect their memory while being robust about the things that hurt them and damaged their lives, because their situations were not uncommon and a lot of readers will identify with what happened to them.
I suspect it may be easier to write about babies and children, than adults. And perhaps it is hard to encompass someone’s experience in one or two poems – maybe we need a chapbook or pamphlet or a collection to expand the different parts of their characters, to be fair and also truthful.