Poetry: words of wisdom from a British Poet Laureate – part 2

As we saw last week, Mark Niel is a well-established British poet who recently won the accolade of “Poet Laureate” for England’s most recent, and (in my opinion) most progressive new city – Milton Keynes. Although “Poet Laureate” status is awarded quite widely in other countries in the UK it’s quite a rare status, so we must be conscious of just how much of an expert Mark is. We’re fortunate, therefore, to share his advice and views in this two-part interview…


How many “rules” are there in writing poetry that an amateur poet should know and follow?

 

That depends on the type of poet you want to be. There are lots of different forms of poetry you can write: sonnets, sestinas, villanelles etc., which have rules about the number of lines, syllables and where rhymes fall etc. There’s also free verse which has no rules. If anyone is looking for an excellent overall guide, I can recommend Stephen Fry’s “The Ode Less Travelled”.

How important is the conventional “grammar” of poetry nowadays?

As you tell from my previous answer, my personal view is not at all. I’d rather read an idiosyncratic poem that conveys some thought or feeling rather than a technically perfect poem that doesn’t say anything new. Most of my exposure has been to performance poetry where how the poem is presented to the audience counts for as much as the quality of writing. Some of the most exhilarating nights have been down to the originality.

In your view, what makes a “good” poem?

It has to engage me either in the beauty and simplicity of the language, or the originality of the imagery. It could carry emotional weight or just be witty. Above all, it has to show an original thought either in its theme or in the way it’s expressed. I like to get to the end of the poem and find a delicious twist. If I want to immediately read it again, I know it’s a good poem.

What forms of poetry would you say are most appropriate for beginners to write?

Whatever form interests or inspires you most. It’s easier to start with something that engages your attention rather than force a certain form out as an exercise (thought poetry will require a certain discipline from time to time.) If you are starting out and want a starting point that is based in classic forms, you can learn lot from writing iambic pentameter (lines composed of five sets of double beats with the accent stressed on the second of the beats)

What do you think an individual gains from writing poetry – even if it isn’t very “good?”

I think it is always positive to play with words and helps you love language more. A simple verse can express deep emotions and mean so much to someone. It can help you distill a central idea into very few words.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to try writing poetry for the first time?

Don’t worry about form; whether it’s good or not. Write for the pleasure of capturing a thought in beautiful words

What are your key tips for successful poetry writing?

 

  1. Read poetry. See what you like and how it speaks to you.
  2. Go to poetry readings and see the range of poetry that is out there.
  3. Write about subjects that stirs your passion or interest or anger etc.
  4. Look for courses or writing groups. It helps to meet with people who share your interests and it can help in knowing you have to bring something next week.
  5. Always have a pen and notebook with you. You never know when inspiration will strike.
  6. Writing is re-writing. Be prepared to redraft, shape and mould as necessary.
  7. Finally, it’s your poem. When it says what you intend, in the way you want to say it, don’t tinker with it anymore. You may sometimes get the “it would be better if…” comment from a well-meaning member of the audience. Have an open mind to see if the advice helps you say things better. Also be prepared to politely ignore it if it doesn’t.

Would you be prepared to answer readers’ questions for us about writing poetry?

 

I’d be happy to.

Mark, thank you so much! And let’s have your comments and questions here please…

Follow Mark on his website, “A Kick In The Arts” or on his blog, “Pawhouseboy

Some help to make you  write poetically:

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

“The English Language Joke book”…hundreds of laughs about this crazy language of ours

Poetry: words of wisdom from a British Poet Laureate – part 1

Mark Niel is a well-established British poet who recently won the accolade of “Poet Laureate” for England’s most recent, and (in my opinion) most progressive new city – Milton Keynes. Although “Poet Laureate” status is awarded quite widely in other countries in the UK it’s quite a rare status, so we must be conscious of just how much of an expert Mark is. We’re fortunate, therefore, to share his advice and views in this two-part interview…


When did you start writing poetry, and why?

I seem always to have written for my own amusement. I used to be a singer/songwriter and some of the lyric ideas worked better as poems than songs. I wrote poems as a way of expressing myself at times of high emotion or for special occasions. I also write sketches and plays and humour figures strongly in my work.

Three years ago I submitted poems to a local magazine and they published a couple of them and encouraged me to go to an open mic event and read. The poems were well received and the audience reaction was very pleasing. This led me to seek out further opportunities to read and I found a world I didn’t know existed but where I felt I belonged. I made a decision to devote time and energy to writing and performing (a lot of my poems are performance pieces) and I went to a lot of open mic events and poetry Slams.

Three years on, I’ve made over 200 appearances and started to be booked at festivals and events as well as featuring on local radio.

What poems have you had published, where, and in what format? (Anthologies, your own books, etc.)

I have been published by Monkey Kettle magazine, United Press, Forward Press, South Bank Poetry and in the Wenlock Festival poetry anthology. I also compiled and published “Reflections from Mirror City” last year which is an anthology of local and guest writers that have read at my event “Tongue in Chic”. I have also self published a couple of small pamphlets to sell at gigs and produced some poems on postcards.

In addition I’ve had work broadcast on BBC Radio and some of my performance pieces can be found on Youtube.

What connections do you have with Milton Keynes, and how did you become its Poet Laureate? What does this involve?

I first came to Milton Keynes nearly thirty years ago as a voluntary church worker. Though I travelled extensively at that time Milton Keynes was our base, to which I always returned. After the two year scheme finished, I decided to stay here, then met a girl, fell in love and been here ever since. All my creative endeavours have been based here.

I’ve been working over the past three years to give a platform and voice to local writers and encouraged them to seek audiences further afield. Our anthology was launched by the then-Mayor, Debbie Brock, last year and she really enjoyed the event and loved listening to our poems. This led to invitations to read at civic events and earlier this year, the Mayor asked me to help run and judge a competition to find a poem to celebrate the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. I also feel proud to have played a part in helping Milton Keynes to make an impact on the national poetry scene as I travelled the country and won various competitions.

The Laureateship is a new role and I think it will be up to me to shape it. I will continue to read at some civic occasions such as the annual Civic Service and on special occasions. I would like to write a collection based on my experience and appreciation of Milton Keynes.

I will get involved in activities to promote poetry in particular as well as literacy in general. I will consider commissions from the Mayor’s office and also write as I feel inspired. I hope to do some educational work to plant seeds for the future.

What contribution do you feel contemporary poetry makes to our modern culture?

Globally, I think it makes a significant contribution though the UK still has to catch up. There is a surge of interest here in more populist poetry with an increasing number of Festivals including spoken word stages. Tim Key won the Edinburgh Comedy Award two years ago and a genre of “Stand Up Poetry” seems to be emerging which I hope is a way of attracting more people who use it as a gateway to more serious writers.

Some poets are issue-driven and use poems to make their point and the complexity of some live literature events means poetry is just one strand of multi media presentations. By being at the cutting edge of new media, we stand a good chance to reach more potential converts

People seem to turn to poetry at emotional high points in their life and at their best, poems capture a thought or feeling within an economical, beautiful, surprising way. I don’t think that will ever change. As long as there is love and other big emotions, there will be poetry.

What would we lose if poetry were no longer part of our lives?

A powerful lyricism that can’t be replaced by any other form of writing.

What pleasure should “ordinary people” gain from writing poetry of their own?

Write for the joy of words and use of language. Write to express a thought using the fewest, simplest and most beautiful words you can. It can be a cathartic experience but you can write to express joy and as well.

Would you be prepared to answer readers’ questions for us about writing poetry?

I’d be happy to.

Mark, thank you so much! And let’s have your comments and questions here please.

Next week … Mark shares his views on how you can write poetry that means everything to you…

Follow Mark on his website, “A Kick In The Arts” or on his blog, “Pawhouseboy

Some help to make you  write poetically:

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

“The English Language Joke book”…hundreds of laughs about this crazy language of ours

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