04 September 2017

Experimenting with poetry, part 2

It has been some time since I posted the first part of my socio-poetic experiment, attempting to analyse the poetry that appeals to the contemporary online market.  I have now expanded my 'research' sufficiently to update my findings.  Once more, I note that this is purely subjective, with no scientific or statistical validity.

The first expansion of the scope of my experiment has been to include online magazines and reviews, as well as online competitions.  The second and possibly more significant expansion has been to probe the trends in the UK, as well as in the USA.  In expanding like this, I have had a handful of publication successes (more on that below).

My two main sources of input for my entirely subjective conclusions have been: 1) comparisons of winning or published work with work that I know was not successful, such as that which I submitted myself; and 2) where available, published feedback from judges or editors, although this is too rarely available and tends to be fairly generic in nature.

I will jump straight into my impressions at this stage.  These may, of course, change or continue to develop over time.

1. For the United States, I have strengthened a couple of my original opinions.
  • The predominant point of view taken in competitively successful poems is first person. I have little way of knowing, of course, if this use of 'I' is mostly truthfully autobiographical, or if first person is simply used as a technique to make the content appear more intimate or more real.
  • Whereas I noted last time the overwhelming use of grammatically standard prose, formatted into the appearance of poetry, I would now take this idea further.  Beyond the prose poem, it seems to me that online poetry has been largely taken over by flash fiction.  Given the preference for the use of the first person, this often leads to the surface appearance of a textually complex journal entry, sometimes confessional but more likely describing an event or another person seen though the author's eyes.  I have come to think of this as 'reality poetry', if narrative in form; or as 'show-and-tell poetry', if it is more condensed as a scene or character sketch.  
  • (At this point, I should note that these principles often do not hold true for poetry that reaches mainstream book form, of the sort that you might find on the very limited poetry shelf of an actual brick-and-mortar bookshop.  In these cases, the publishers or editors seem to work with different criteria, but I am not attempting to analyse those here.)
  • Another apparent ingredient for success is the shock of the new or the weird. A weirdness in language use or a weirdness in turn of events, for example, seems sometimes to be enough to merit publication.  There seems occasionally to be the view that if the narrative of a poem is wrapped in unfamiliar packaging, such as in phrasing, contextual positioning, or metaphor, then the whole work must have intrinsic value.
  • Beyond general online poetry competitions and generic online poetry publications, where an unfriendly characterisation of many successful entries may be 'soap opera in poetic form', successful submissions to topic-based online publications, such as for politics, which is currently a hot theme, also tend to follow the principles above: first person, vers libre-cum-flash fiction, with an element of weird.
2. For the United Kingdom, I have started to form separate opinions.
  • Successful entries in general online poetry competitions tend to be thematically diverse, encompassing wider social issues more often than in the USA.  It is notable that the one success that I have had in an open UK competition was political in content, whereas in the USA (so far), this theme has only been taken up in places that are specifically looking for it.
  • There is more of a focus on what you might call poetic stylistics.  While free verse remains very much in pole position, some winners that I have seen in general poetry competitions have taken quite strict forms in terms of rhythm or, less frequently, rhyme.  One open competition that I entered was even won by a sonnet, which I could not see happening in the current poetic climate in the USA, other than in a competition specifically for classical forms.  
  • Within this, however, the preference for a first person point of view seems to be similar to that in the USA.
  • The key point in the UK seems to be uniqueness: a unique point of view or a previously unconsidered setting in history or society, for example.  This is similar to, but different from, the weirdness that seems to be sought in the USA. Within the terms of this comparison, I would describe uniqueness as having less of a shock factor than weirdness, and more of a sense of exploration and discovery.
3. Finally, I have to appraise critically my own sense of what is 'good poetry'.
  • I have had four pieces published online in just over a year: one in the UK and three in the USA. Links to these are here (UK), here (two poems in one link), and here.  (Note the use of the first person in all four published pieces.)  This is not a huge number, so I obviously have some way to go in being able to craft something that is successful. However, ...
  • I have submitted poems that I know to be inconsistent in quality.  Let's say that I mentally grade my poems as A, B, C, or Fail.  Contrary to the popular and predictable notion that you should only ever submit your best work, I have experimented by submitting poems from all four of these grades.  Unsurprisingly, all the poems in my self-defined grade of Fail have failed.  More surprisingly, all the poems in my self-defined grade of A have also failed.  Of my four publication successes, three have been from my own grade B, and one has been from my own grade C.  (I won't reveal which one of the above I consider to merit only C.)
  • This leads me to conclude that my own sense of quality for a poem is somewhat out of whack with that of many judges and editors.  So the big question remains: do I try to work to their (probably more professional) standards, or do I try to remain truthful to my own educated but fallible sense of quality?
Based on all this fluff and supposition, there are a couple of hypotheses that I will take forward as I continue with this project:
Hypothesis 1, if you will, is that my style is overly 'poetic' for the US market.  Part of my next step may be to experiment with a style that you might term the 'flash fiction poem'.
Hypothesis 2 is that my content is insufficiently unique for the UK market.  This is less easy to test as a hypothesis, because conjuring uniqueness in poetry is not a simple act.  Heck, you might even consider it to be art!

However, what is life without a challenge?  Onward....

07 June 2015

A socio-poetic experiment

I have just completed Part 1 of an informal, personal, literary experiment.  It has absolutely no quantitative scientific validity, but this is a blog not a thesis, OK?

I identified an open poetry competition (that I will not name here) that allows for rankings and feedback by the contributing writers.  It is largely American (more on that later), and my expectation is that many of the contributors will not be formal judges of competitions and will not be creative writing, language, or literature professors.

I then submitted two different styles of competition entries: one more formal in a classical or quasi-classical manner, and one more modern in form but still with lyrical overtones.  Each 'style' included poems with different approaches, such as in person and subject-matter.  I assume fairly even writing competence across the material.

Now, before defining Part 2 of my experiment, I attempt some rudimentary analysis of my initial impressions.

1. The 'classical' and 'modern' samples both averaged out with similar rankings, but they varied in how they got there.  Whereas the 'modern' was consistently rated on the low side of average, the 'classical' achieved individual scores at the extremes - some people rated these forms very highly, others very poorly.  The comments reveal that the choice of style was a clear factor in these ranking decisions.  There are several references to the 'classical' as being a surprising mode of expression, with many positive notes from that. On the other side of the coin, the following comment stands out as a summary of several of the negative views: "If you were not rhyming you could have found a more honest and genuine way to express something."  As far as the 'modern' is concerned, the most negative aspects are perhaps characterised in this comment: "I thought it all too modern for my liking ... the many modern poems that remain are not to my taste."

It might be tempting to deduce from this that a better-executed classical entry might catch the eye of those who like the form while winning over some of the doubters.  However, the highest-ranked work in the competition tended largely to be a style that I did not touch in my entries: I would classify it broadly as the modern non-lyrical.  Much of the winning poetry appears, in terms of bare syntax, to be largely grammatically standard prose that has been formatted to have the visual form of poetry. This syntactic view ignores other significant elements of prosody, such as choice of vocabulary, but the pattern is so prevalent that it is worth noting. A comment on my own 'modern' entry highlights how the dominant style is somehow seen as the default: "in one of the poems you choose not to capitalize the beginning of each line. This lets me know that you understand to use proper grammar."

2. In both samples, person was important in achieving positive feedback. Poems written as 'I' gained a much more sympathetic hearing in both 'classical' and 'modern' mode.  Conversely, the reaction to work that utilised the second-person 'you' was comparatively defensive, and the material was open to being perceived as "condescending" in a way that did not seem to arise for similar subject-matter in the first and third person. Clearly, 'you' was uncomfortable for readers, over and above the other elements of style.

3. Alongside the preference for first-person statements, there was a clear leaning in comments on both the 'classical' and 'modern' samples towards subject-matter that could be categorised as personal history.  Subject-matter that could be described as 'outside world descriptive' was less keenly welcomed.  The worst rankings and feedback were reserved for subject-matter that could be viewed as political or philosophical. One comment, "This is not really a poem. It's opinion", acts as limited evidence that this ranking of subject-matter is a conscious choice for some.  (One exception to this observation seems to be the military-patriotic theme, which sometimes appears high up in the overall rankings.)

In terms of the subject-matter in relation to the style, there was a clear and voiced difficulty in accepting contemporary themes and vocabulary when presented within a poem written in a classical style.  The readers on these occasions seemed to prefer the subject-matter and style to come as a package: modern style for contemporary themes, with classical style accepted for feelings and attitudes placed somehow outside a time frame.

4.  Beyond the limited scope of this initial analysis, some other areas jump out as being ripe for exploration. Winning entries clearly exhibited, within their sentence syntax, the use of more complex vocabulary, particularly in the choice of adjectives, as well as frequent use of a number of fairly standard literary devices, such as simile. This is not surprising, maybe, but is certainly open to deeper analysis.

In summary, I can make three tentative conclusions about the ways in which I might improve my overall ranking in this particular forum for competitive poetry:

  • the use of an adjective-rich prose style that excludes rhyme and metre
  • a preference for first person over third person, avoiding second person altogether
  • the use of personal and specific family and relationship events, avoiding 'world themes'

Having come to this point, I now face a more existential question. Namely, is this what I want to write? My preference tends to be for writing that I can read in my mind as a performance.  This often means rhythms and word-play, with things that don't achieve this being scrapped or restructured. On top of that, I recently picked up a pamphlet of contemporary British poetry, which at first glance is very different from the winners in this (possibly not entirely representative) American competition. The British poems contain more shorter lines that 'bend' grammatical correctness, more 'outside world descriptive' subject-matter, and a stronger rhythmic presence.  So now I face a decision on Part 2 of my experiment.

The choices, as I see them, are to:
a. Change my style of writing, to pursue a technical exercise in creating a 'winning poem'.
b. Strengthen my existing style of writing to try to achieve a break-through in that voice, despite feedback comments that suggest that it's the style that is the problem.
c. Change the audience, and experiment in a British competition using the material recently rejected in the American competition (or maybe just in a different American competition).

I will ponder. One day, maybe I'll let you know what I decide.

24 January 2013

As I like it

Barbers are becoming quite uncommon, it seems. I found a listing for a local barber in the modern e-world equivalent of the Yellow Pages, but he was shut. Hairdressers are beginning to dwindle, too, apparently.  So I passed by the braiding salon and ended up at a stylist. I think that must be vogue.  The lady was not from these parts, so we got chatting about what it's like to live your life in a strange country.

It's a conversation that I've had a few times before. One of the biggest talking points is usually the things that you miss the most.  In this regard, I haven't lived in my own country for a while, so I tend to think about my previous place of residence, too.  I can also give a couple of other places a passing mention.  As such, here are one or two things that I like in different countries.

The UK (my country of birth)

Pubs. Not surprising, perhaps, but true.  I have tried to analyse this, but it is difficult to get to the root of it.  British pubs are somehow unique.  In other countries, they become bars or something similar, and it's not the same thing.  I don't know what it is that does it.  It's not cosy furnishings, because I know several fine pubs in Edinburgh where the only seating is bare wood.  It's not dim lighting, because, heaven knows, I've been into some distinctly gloomy bars over the years. It's not even the beer, because British draught ale has become a popular import in many parts of the world. (Not here in Valdosta, though - where, I might mention, one waitress suggested to me that a local Georgia beer to try would be Guinness. But that's a different topic.) I know a pub when I walk into one.  I just have difficulty defining it.

News media.  This may be a little controversial post-Leveson, but I don't mean the puff-pastry tittle-tattle that replaces real news in some rags. The better news organisations in Britain still know a thing or two about investigative journalism, and many papers report the facts even if they don't sit neatly with the general editorial sympathies.  There is also a variety of views: left of centre, right of centre, and the plain old awkward squad.  I have not found the same breadth, coupled with the same hard-nosed questioning, in the mainstream anywhere else. Pick up a couple of weekend papers, and find a nice pub in which to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon: luxury!

Let's not get into Britain's leaking plumbing or creaking railway system. That would be tasteless.

Finland (my previous country of residence)

Sauna. I'm not sure how well this notion will travel for anyone not familiar with the Nordic countries.  Sauna is not a hot room where you go with your swimming trunks and a vague sense of naughtiness. You wouldn't wear clothes in the bath, would you? Get naked and relax. Get your steam on.  Life is not the same without it.

Doctors and nurses.  Which is not to say that health care is poor elsewhere, and maybe I was just lucky in Finland ... but with a combination of occupational health services and an insurance policy, it all seemed so easy.  Sure, it's not free at the point of delivery, as is traditional in the UK, but one big point for me is the idea of holistic well-being that seems so big in Finland. In some places, you are expected to just get the jab and walk straight out, for example.  I always found the care in Finland to be sympathetic and thorough. Two healthy thumbs up.

We will not dwell here on the long darkness of winter or the lack of air-conditioning in summer.

Bulgaria (a shout-out to some memories from years ago)

Hospitality.  I do not think that I've found any people so eagerly hospitable as the Bulgarians. I was invited into an incredible number of homes, even by hosts with whom I did not share a language.  It goes beyond buying a drink at a bar or a meal at a restaurant.  People opened their lives to me for long hours of nibbling salad and sipping vodka, and usually I couldn't leave without being given a bottle of home-made rakia or a package of meatballs or ... just something to keep that warm feeling alive.

The USA (where I have now landed - for the moment)

Grocery shopping.  I am still building my impressions stateside, but there is already one thing that I find myself thinking about when I'm elsewhere.  That is, how the food shops are always well stocked with a good range of ready-to-eat fresh fruit and vegetables.  This is not to say that the produce in Britain or Finland, for example, is not fresh, but it does tend to be more seasonal. It also tends to be less convenient. Maybe the truth is that I just like it when someone else does the washing, slicing, and dicing of fresh produce.  Perhaps it's my imagination, but cooking seems so much easier over here.