Longlisting – a bittersweet experience

After a great push of submissions in the past two or three months, I tried to damp down my expectations. Good move, I thought, because at first it seemed like every response was negative. I was beginning to think that everything I wrote was trite and babyish and not ‘slant’ enough for most editors’ taste. It was more than a bit disheartening.

Then I got a couple of emails saying I had been longlisted, for pamphlet and magazine submissions and suddenly –  I was smiling broadly! Someone had actually seen something they liked in my poems.  

I tweeted about this experience, asking other people what they thought of the longlist. Most agreed that it is a good boost for the poetic psyche, even if you don’t get any farther than the longlist. When prestigious publishers such as Butcher’s Dog put you on a longlist, it does mean something. It means – keep trying, you are writing something that touches an editor’s critical heart. And the Butcher’s Dog emails, when they let you know you didn’t make it past the longlist, are as kind and encouraging as possible.

One poet came back to me on Twitter and said that longlisting was a bad idea because those longlisted still get disappointed in the end, and the majority of applicants are even more despairing because they didn’t get longlisted.  

I have to disagree. In my case, it helps me move on with some improved confidence.

Sometimes the longlist or shortlist is announced with a fanfare, and everyone knows about it. Sometimes, it comes at the bottom of a simple rejection ‘by the way, you made it to the longlist’. Even that, grudging as it sounds, is helpful.

The oddest recent experience was an email from a poetry competition telling me I was on the ‘Almost Made it to Longlist’ list!  Actually, even that was a boost because the judge was a poet I deeply respect and it was good to know he saw something in my work.    

We all know that it’s extremely hard to get published, because editors may want a specific tone and style for their publication, and want the chosen poems to flow from page to page, and even if yours is outstanding, it may not fit into that vision. So you just have to keep on slogging, churning the submissions out.

Recently, I got a lovely surprise when Black Bough Poetry Press nominated me (among other poets) for Best of the Net. That was more than a smile – it was a giant whoop that made my other half come running.  

However the boost comes to you, however strong or diluted, take it and enjoy it. It is fuel to keep chugging on.   

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.