Advancing your poetry: Time to read, time to write. | Arvon

Advancing your poetry: Time to read, time to write.

22 Feb 2024 / Poetry

Jane Commane

If as a poet, you are looking to advance your skills, what is one the best pieces of advice I can give you? Firstly, I’d say: read. And secondly, I’d add, make reading a part of your everyday creative practice. This may sound simplistic or obvious, but in reality, all good writing begins in us as readers and in spending as much (if not more) time in our mode as ‘receivers’ as in the mode of being ‘communicators’. In an age also when so much else competes for our time, giving our attention to our own individual, mindful practice as readers is precious. Attention is perhaps one of our most valuable natural resources, and our best writing will come, similarly from this place of giving attention.

I can’t escape reading; it’s part of my everyday. I am often asked how much reading an editor typically might do each year, and I see on average 300 manuscript submissions a year, which roughly translates into 6,000 individual poems.  Magazine submissions can typically involve reading a further 4000-5000 poems a year. This is of course a very specific type of reading – one that is central in my work life, and one which is by its nature a process with a purpose, focus and deadline in mind. But it also, vitally, is about openness – I love reading submissions because of the element of surprise, not because I set out knowing what I am looking for, but rather that I will know it only when I find it.

Beyond the reading in my working life as a poetry editor, I do read in my free time. And here I read as both reader and writer, driven perhaps by what may be best called a form of creative curiosity. What I get from this is the continued refreshment of what the artforms of poetry and literature can do, what might be possible within them.

I try to also read not only the poetry of the now and immediate, but also poetry from across time and across cultures. In recent months, I’ve been reading poetry by CP Cavafy, DH Lawrence, Osip Mandelstam, Naomi Shihab Nye – often because I’ve read other poems which refer, relate to or draw from the work of these poets. So continues the joyful spiders’ web of connected reading of poetry – one poet draws influences, and sends me onwards, backwards, forwards again to read the work they’ve found so interesting in turn. And in this process of interconnected reading, I come to understand the contemporary poem better, and to discover or rediscover the work of other poets that may have led another writer to their own moments of epiphany and discovery.

And if that all sounds rather poetry-centric, my reading for pleasure also often ranges beyond; fiction, biography, non-fiction. In recent months I’ve been reading Roger Clarke’s spectral A Natural History of Ghosts, Andrey Kurkov’s Ukraine Diaries documenting protest and uprising, Katherine May’s perfectly seasonal Wintering, and Kit De Waal’s sad, funny beautifully written memoir Without Warning and Only Sometimes. Maybe some of these influences, experiences, and ideas will appear in my poems. It’s possible, like the ghosts and spirts of Clarke’s book, traces of them might knock on the plaster walls of future poems and haunt their lines a little.

Reading is a process of encountering; of being alive in our imaginations, in our consciousness, being alongside and within so many other voices, experiences and lifetimes. As humans, reading opens us up to empathy and discovery; as writers, reading opens us up to the formal possibilities and wonder.

For me, this kind of free-ranging reading also opens up things in terms of permission – and bringing this into our lives as writers can be vital in helping us to write boldly, giving us the confidence to trust in our own voices, and to tell the stories we need to in our work.

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