Sophia Blackwell answers five questions about a career as a poet.
I’m not going to tell you how to write poetry.
I have my opinions – of course I do, having loved poetry in most of its guises since I was a child and written and performed it for over fifteen years. I know what I like to read, and I know I’m not bad at writing it myself.
I also know it’s very subjective. Some poets may love to use form; some don’t. When I talk about success as a poet, I am not talking only about mastering poetic forms, or performance, which I think is just as worthy of attention as the writing. I am asking you to think about what success means to you, whether it is getting a contract with a particular publisher or performing on a specific stage, or just improving on the poem you wrote yesterday.
Let’s stick with that last one for a minute. I opened my recent workshop for Writers & Artists with a quote from Queen Elizabeth II, which I had seen for the first time over the previous strange weekend: ‘It’s worth remembering that it is often the small steps, not the giant leaps, that bring about the most lasting change.’ Certainly, this is true for the writer. A lot of my book focuses on determining what you can and can’t control when it comes to managing your poetry career. I spend a lot of time worrying about things I can’t control, but I can control whether or not I take that next small step.
The Poetry Writers’ Handbook is as much about keeping your mind open and limber, and yourself sane, as it is about being a good writer. One thing that puts the aspiring writer off is a sense that they are in a vacuum, that no one is responding to them or hears what they say, and a lack of clarity about different publishing options and what to expect from each one – and there is plenty about that in the book, because if there’s one thing I love as much as poetry and performance, it’s publishing.
Five questions from the workshop stuck with me, and so I thought I would turn them into tips for poets who are starting out. Hopefully, they will put you on the right trajectory and give you the mental permission you need to take that next step. Good luck!
Do you have any recommendations for anthologies to submit poems to?
There have been a few brilliant anthologies recently from Flipped Eye Publishing and Bad Betty Press, and I have always had good luck with the Birmingham-based Emma Press, though they have pivoted towards children’s books recently (no bad thing – we need more children’s publishers too). Broken Sleep Books have just released a great-looking anthology, The Plum Review.
Do you have to have any specific qualification to be taken seriously as a poet?
I did not do a Creative Writing MA, but when I decided to improve my writing I took classes at City University, and then at the Poetry School, which seems to be going from strength to strength. A lot of us do not undertake further study, but it can be a great way to feel more connected, as well as improving your craft.
Do you have any recommendations on how to get started doing performance poetry?
Perform at open mics and meet people in real life if possible. Forging relationships will be one of the most important ways that you can receive meaningful feedback and performance opportunities, as well as online cabarets and workshops.
Do publishers prefer themed collections?
If you have about 20 poems with a very strong theme, that might be more fun to do as a pamphlet. Publishers do seem to like a collection with a coherent theme, and it is certainly easier to write marketing copy for them – but it is not a given, and you do not need to have a theme to find a publisher!
Do you think there is any place for form poetry to get published these days?
I think there are a lot of great contemporary poets using form – Terrance Hayes, Jericho Brown, Natalie Diaz, and Danez Smith to name but a few. If a magazine or publisher does not seem to take form poetry, then bear that in mind, but my main piece of advice is: if a poem is written well and is authentic, if it says what you mean to say, then that will come through.
Sophia Blackwell is a performance poet with three published collections of poetry and the author of a novel. Her poetry has been anthologised by Bloodaxe, Nine Arches and the Emma Press among others, and between Autumn 2019 and and 2021, she hosted the LGBT+ radio show Out in South London on Resonance FM, showcasing gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans authors, musicians, comedians and other creatives like her.
Recent notable gigs include four times at Glastonbury on the Poetry & Words Stage, Women of the World (WOW) Festival at the South Bank Centre and headlining a national tour with Hammer and Tongue. She is a Literary Death Match champion, Spread the Word LGBT Hero and Diversity Role Model. She was the Former Chair of Poetry London and is a freelance editor and the current Chair of the Pride Network at Hachette UK.