Write Poetry

Today I interviewed Rebecca Tamás about writing poetry, asking the 10 (or maybe 12, I was really keen!) questions you really want to know if you’re interested in writing poetry. She studied at the University of Warwick with me and she also studied at the University of Edinburgh where she won the Grierson Verse Prize. Her poems have been published in lots of poetry magazines and journals, including Magma (which I really recommend having a look at, I love it), Oxford Poetry and The SHOp. Right now she’s doing a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia. You can buy her first book of poems, The Ophelia Letters, published by Salt Modern Voices here. I bought it and it really is beautiful, raw and vivid with poems that I couldn’t help going back to again and again.

What was your route into poetry?

I got interested in poetry at around 11 or 12 when I read some Phillip Larkin and thought ‘Wow, here is this incredible medium I’ve never really thought about before.’ So I started writing a few juvenile poems around then. I was also really lucky to have an amazing English teacher at school (shout out to Mr Harkins) who ran a creative writing club every Wednesday lunchtime. He encouraged me to not only write poetry, but also to take myself seriously as a writer, which was a huge encouragement for a teenager to have. From then on I just read more and wrote more, and ended up studying English and Creative Writing at Warwick which helped developed my writing a lot and led me to doing an MA, and now a PhD in poetry! Those courses gave me the space to become a better writer, and to develop the poems which ended up in my first published pamphlet.

What made you choose poetry as your primary medium?

Well in some ways I don’t think I had much of a choice, poetry was all I could ever seem to do! Whilst at Warwick we had to write some prose fiction and it was like pulling teeth, I just couldn’t do it. It isn’t how my mind works at all, though many poets I know are happy in multiple mediums. I also spent most of my life, up until the second year of university, thinking I was going to be a director, and then after that trying to write plays. So I spent lots of time working on theatre until I finally had to confront the fact that I wasn’t any good at it, and it wasn’t making me happy. So I had my ‘Harry met Sally’ moment with poetry: it was there all along, but it took me a while to realise that it was what I really wanted.

How did you get the confidence to say to yourself ‘right this is what I want to do let’s go for it?’

I think it was probably whilst I was studying for my MA in Edinburgh, where I was getting pretty good feedback from my tutors, that I gained that confidence. I’d won a scholarship and a poetry award, which was enough to overcome my natural self-criticism and force me to confront the fact that I might actually have something worthwhile to offer as a poet. It was the first time I’d ever been able to focus wholly on writing, and I realised how much I loved it, and that I was prepared to fight for the opportunity to make a life as a writer. That passion made me ‘go for it’ more than any clear sense that I would succeed.

Do you have to have studied English at Uni or have done post-graduate qualifications to think about becoming a poet?

Not at all. Those things helped me, but only as ways to gain responses to my work and the space to write- you don’t need a university to get those things! All you need is commitment to putting time aside, and the enthusiasm to search out a poetry community. That is something which is easier than ever before thanks to the internet, where an online poetry magazine, poetry tumblr or poetry blog can carry your work to the eyes of hundreds, if not thousands of new people.

I know lots of writers who didn’t study English but did science, engineering, art, and philosophy, as well as those who didn’t go to university but worked instead. Having experiences outside of the academy makes your poetry more interesting. It would be terribly boring if every poet had lived the same sort of life. Many poets I know would have hated the structure of a postgraduate course, they fit their poetry into the rest of their life, and often are much better for it. A lot of poets started with rap, or music and spoken word, and this thriving live scene was their way in to writing. There is no right way, and that’s a good thing. If anything poetry is more open to people from a variety of educational and cultural backgrounds than some things (such as becoming a lawyer for example) because there is no formal qualification for becoming a poet. You are a poet if you write poetry, that’s all that matters.

What is your role as poet? Does poetry do anything?

I’m not sure if I have a specific role as a poet, apart from the responsibility to write the best work I can. However I do feel that as a poet you can speak in a different way to most of our contemporary cultural output. You can slow down and think deeply in a way that goes against the grain of a fast paced Western capitalist society, one that doesn’t always encourage us to look intensely at anything but to be distracted and fulfilled by transient experiences. Don’t get me wrong, poetry isn’t an antidote to Capitalism or anything else (if only!) but I do think it provides the opportunity for real thinking, for using language as a tool to understand ourselves and the world around us.

Poetry isn’t a machine which can provide an effect or an outcome, but it can, at its best, create a kind of space for original and truthful thought. That is what poetry can ‘do.’

What inspires you?

So many things inspire me, the works of poets (past and present) whom I admire, novels, plays, art, film and so on. I’m also inspired by travel and history, and by interactions with the natural world. Anything can be fodder for a poem, it all goes in.

How important is form for you? How do you learn to use form?

I’m not a particularly formal poet, I write mostly in free verse, but I was introduced to various poetic forms and how to use them whilst studying at Warwick. That was a great opportunity to experiment with what form can do, and though I don’t use it much now, I think it’s important to know how form works and what it can do before you decide to ignore it! Also of course free verse is formal in its own way, except that a new form is born to fit each new poem.

How do you know when a poem is finished?

You never really know, but I think I feel like it’s time to stop when the poem seems to achieve a kind of unity and clarity, a coming into focus of each element. Also of course when someone else agrees that it’s finished! I wouldn’t put a poem out into the world without someone else having read it and given their advice and criticism.

What is your new pamphlet about and how is it different to a collection?

The pamphlet is a mixture of elements, there are poems which are roughly about place and journeys in the first half, and in the second half there is a long sequence of poems written from the perspective of Hamlet’s Ophelia. The Ophelia poems mess with the story and the character to look at the repression of the female voice. It’s a sort of feminist elegy, I suppose, to unheard female expression and life.

The main difference to a collection is that it’s shorter, about half the length. It’s something like a calling card, a small expression of where you are as a writer and where you might end up.

How do you go about getting published and noticed?

Well, I was lucky enough to be spotted at an MA reading by the Salt poetry editor Roddy Lumsden whilst I was at Edinburgh, and be invited to his poetry group in London. Through this he saw my work, and gave me the fantastic opportunity to have a pamphlet published. But more generally I think that the best way to get published is simply to get your poems in high quality poetry magazines and online poetry journals. No publisher will consider you for a collection unless you have a history of magazine or small press publication. Also competitions can be a great way to get your work noticed.

The other key thing, and something that helped me a huge amount, is becoming part of a poetic community in some way. This could be on an MA or PhD poetry course, or it could be linking up with poets in your area, going to readings and workshops and sharing your work with other people. Not only will it make you a better poet, but you’ll meet people with whom you can collaborate on projects with and make your own opportunities. There is basically no money AT ALL in poetry (unless you are Carol Ann Duffy) so poets help each other to get noticed and published through small magazines, live poetry nights and the like.

What is the deal is with putting your work up on a blog? Does that counts as self-publishing? 

Having a blog is fine but you can’t put up any work you want to get published. I never put up any of my own work, only in online journals and so on.

How do you survive financially and how do poets in general survive?

As I said, poetry is not a lucrative career. There are a minuscule amount of poets who can actually live off their work. I’m talking probably less than 5 in this country. So either you can get a completely different day job, or you can try and use writing to support yourself in other ways. Many poets are also freelance reviewers and journalists, and even more are creative writing teachers, running workshops as part of university courses, or for schools, community groups, The Poetry School and so on.

I survive because I managed to get AHRC funding for a Creative and Critical PhD at the University of East Anglia. This means that I can write nearly full time, and that I have opportunities to teach undergraduate students. Sheltering within a university for a long as possible is a good way to have the time and space to write.

Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring poets?

The most important advice for any aspiring poet is READ, READ, READ. Read old poetry and contemporary poetry, read poetry in translation and from around the world. Become familiar with the classics, but also keep abreast of all the exciting new magazines and journals springing up online. I am still learning to become a poet, and I am learning through reading. It’s the only way.

Also don’t be put off by how ‘unpopular’ or un-lucrative poetry is. More people want to do poetry than ever before, and there is a glut of great current poetry to be discovered, it just simply isn’t covered by the mainstream media and arts press. It is an exciting time to be a poet, and a privilege to be involved in something that people do for love, rather than financial reward. From my perspective anyway, it’s very much worth the effort.

 

*If you have 10 questions you want answered about a certain career, email restoflifecrisis@gmail.com and I’ll try and match you with someone*

Swap skills and join the gift economy: Impossible.com

Impossible.com is a beautiful discovery. Join the gift economy and trade random acts of kindness by making wishes and granting others. It’s a new kind of social networking site where most people seem to be anonymous and you help each other achieve the impossible. Sometimes the Facebook news feed and the constant flow of photos and statuses of success and ‘new job!’ ‘new house!’ ‘promotion!’ ‘backstage #yolo!’ can get you down. Your own life begins to feel limited by comparison. At impossible.com the sky’s the limit, and the news feed style homepage is full of wishes being made, granted and thanked for.

Right now on impossible.com: someone is offering free hypnotherapy treatments, free Business Sales and Marketing Consultancy to new companies, free tea-tasting sessions, free vinyl, help to someone who’s suffering from schizophrenia from someone who has suffered, photoshop skills and italian lessons. And people are asking for: a taxidermy wolf for a fashion show (weird), crowd-funding suggestions for a new company, pen-pals, english-teachers, help with their Macbeth essay, tips for travelling in Barcelona and lots more.

Some of the wishes are thinking bigger. People are wishing for the gift economy to take off, for kindness to rule instead of money and greed, for less homophobia in their country, for friendship, for relief from guilt. And the best thing is people are still replying to these wishes, offering their support, advice and their experience. One of the most recurring wishes is that more people will find out about impossible.com, so join! It’s free, helping someone is as easy as commenting on someone’s status and you can make wishes, no matter how personal, under the anonymity of your pseudonym. Finally, at impossible.com, the ultimate wish is possible- you can wish for more wishes, and you can make as many wishes as you like. You can be Aladdin and the Genie all at once, hurray!

Learn to code and make websites of dreams

First of all I’d like you to take a moment and appreciate the beauty of this earth circling this sun. Look at that orange glow around the sun! Look at that greeny blur around the earth! Guess what. I made it. Thanks to a man called Mike at Code Academy I learnt how to use HTML to make this very simplified solar system. I had a bit of an epiphany which was that if you want to make projects happen, however they successfully they exist in real life they need to have an online presence. They kind of don’t exist fully until they are online and it’s how the project/company/initiative will be viewed by the vast majority of the public. Clearly this is not news to you as you have heard of this thing called the internet. In any case, I also went onto peopleperhour.com and loads of the jobs were for web design and they were worth a few hundred squids. The final revelation was that apparently kids are going to have coding as a core part of their curriculum soon, so unless we all want to be like our grandparents trying to find the Start button on the desktop I suggest we start figuring out what’s what. All of these things culminated in a Eureka! moment in the shower, which looked considerably less dramatic than if I’d had an Archimedes in the bath. I decided to try a social experiment.

The experiment involved me going on Facebook and writing this quite sad sounding status:

Dear friends, family and friends of friends and family. I am looking for someone to teach me basic WEB DESIGN AND HTML, can you help me?

I have no money, but can offer my skills in any of the following:

Proofreading, piano lessons (beginners/intermediate), italian lessons (beginners/intermediate), a spoken word poem to promote whatever your venture is (!), English lit tutoring for any friend/family member doing GCSE/A level Eng lit, and if you’re a non-native English speaker I can teach professional English language lessons (CELTA qualified.)

Please exchange any of my quite useless skills for your valuable one, and enjoy the modern twist on medieval bartering. PM me if you’re interested.

Unfooooortunately nobody seemed to want any of my skillz (crying inside), but they did give me shed-loads of free information about web design which I am passing on to you all. The first thing I’ll say is that I am writing this on WordPress. I almost don’t want to tell people because then everyone will snatch up all these web designey jobs I have my eye on, BUT it’s so easy. On a basic level you literally choose a template, fill in the gaps and have the option to by the domain name as a .com if it’s available. Loads of the freelance work on peopleperhour were fine with using WordPress templates.

The above Galileo-inspiring illustration was the fruit of really quite a while spent on Code Academy (link above.) It has free tutorials on html and css and was fun to do. It would take a while to create anything really useful but it made the idea of code less scary and much more accessible.

This w3 online tutorial (html) and this css one are apparently ‘less fun, but ultimately more useful in the long run, especially to look things up when you want to do something you know you can do, but you’ve forgotten how.’ One of my friends said that she used it loads throughout university and swears by w3 schools: ‘All you need to do is open a notepad, copy/modify the codes you get online and then save as HTML.’

If you’re more serious about this then there’s a programme called Dreamweaver (part of Adobe creative suite) which is apparently amazing but quite expensive. I will leave it to you to figure out how to get a copy, but I’m told that student copies are cheap (absolutely brilliant if you’ve graduated, ugh…) I was given this advice which I thought was very helpful: Dreamweaver’s ‘not too dissimilar from using Word or a basic design programme, but it creates the HTML for you without too much code entered manually. Most designers use it or similar suites exclusively or in combination with coding (depending on what you’re making.) Bear in mind that HTML is only a front end language, website functionality is usually programmed using other languages (if you’re looking to get into the industry.)

I hope this was useful and you now realise that you can learn to make beautiful web creations either as a means to an end to make money OR to bring another brain-child to life and to the attention of the world. I also encourage everyone to try a skill swap. Either you’ll swap something you can do for something useful to you, or people will pity you and tell you stuff for free. Either way you’re winning and, as one of my friends told me, you can ‘save your barter goods for when you need food/clothes.’ God.

10 Questions

The idea behind this part of the blog is that I’ll conduct interviews with people who seem to have a clue what they’re doing with their lives, and actually ask the 10 questions that you want to hear if you’re interested in doing what they’re doing. These guys do not have it all sorted- but it would be useless to look at someone who’s super successful and graduated from uni 10 years ago when the conditions for getting a job were totally different. Our attitude towards work and careers has changed, and the routes into jobs have shifted. So these people are a similar age but seem to have more of a clue than the rest of us and seem to be doing pretty well. Hopefully it will be easier to bridge the gap between where they are and where you are so you can picture yourself getting there.

I’ve deliberately called this menu ‘I want to …’ which will then be followed by ‘act,’ ‘teach,’ ‘cook’ or whatever. Specifically, ‘I want to’ will be followed by a verb. You’re not clicking on a link that says I want to BE an actor/writer/chef because I think that this is part of the problem. So much of school and university life was geared towards careers and thinking about what you wanted to be, and towards being defined by what you do. Some of the most interesting people I know aren’t  defined by what they do as their job and there’s also no shame in working because it’s work and feeling truly yourself doing something else. Sometimes these things combine and that is wonderful. The issue with thinking what you want to be is that work becomes all about slotting into the system that’s already in place. Think bigger! WHO do you want to be? What do you want to DO?  I hope these little interviews help give you some of the information you need and set you on the right path.

*** Wherever possible, I will try and match someone who is looking for advice for a certain career with someone I can find who is doing really well. If you are looking for advice, I will do my best to find someone to match you with and you can ask the 10 questions you need to know (so long as you don’t mind your questions being made public!) Get in touch if you have 10 questions or think you have advice to give: email restoflifecrisis@gmail.com ***

Act

Photo by Faye Thomas

Shubham Sharaf is a pal of mine from Uni who studied Economics. But he is also an actor, and you can read all his credits on his IMDB page above. Whilst studying I had the privilege of watching him play some of the most beautifully interpreted roles I had ever seen, and always with a simplicity and humour that became his trademark. His latest film ‘Honour’ is coming out on the 14th April 2014, and he’s currently training at L’École Philippe Gaulier in Paris.

10 QUESTIONS:

When did you decide you wanted to be an actor?

Honestly, I do not know. I can always remember drama class being the only thing I looked forward to, and along with maths, the only thing I could do. Although if I’m really honest, I first really gave acting a shot because I wanted to be good friends with Tim Schneider, the boy I sat next to in class, because I had no friends. So I copied everything he did, and then fell in love with it. We’re good friends now.

Loads of actors seem to have decided they wanted to be actors when they were in the womb. If I’ve only just realised I want to be, do you think that matters?

No, not at all. I think that maybe you’re better off that way because you don’t have all those years of pressurising yourself with different techniques and ideas confusing your noggin.

How do you get the courage to think ‘this is what I want to do, let’s do this’?

There are many things that help you attain this courage, I feel. Money, parental support, validation from your peers, just to name a few. And many of these things really come down to luck. But even so, sometimes you falter. Sometimes you begin to ask yourself, “Hang on. Is this just all really stupid? Am I being really stupid?”. But I think that’s good, and people from all walks of life should keep questioning their careers anyway.

What is the deal with drama school training? Do I need it?

Ah. This is what I’ve been asking myself for the past two years. I am lucky enough to have an agent, and have worked in a few films, but I have no formal training. I’ve been debating whether to go to drama school or not for a while. I tend to very slightly dislike drama schools. The reason being that I’m generally predisposed to go against the grain, but also because I feel that traditional drama schools have recipes and ingredients that teach you how to act well. And I feel that there really is no recipe, and that each artist must find his/her own way to being beautiful. It means your art is really you and far more unique, and I feel that’s what the audiences of the world really want.

But all that said, I feel that if you want to continue acting all your life, you need to learn how to use your body like a musician can use their instrument. And that needs technical training, such as voice, posture, movement and breathing. And these are only well taught at drama schools. So I’d recommend going to drama school, but whilst there always take things with a handful of salt and always stick to your instincts.

Does it look better if I apply when I’m 18 or when I’m 23 or 35?

I don’t think it matters. I know people of all those ages who have got in.

Any idea how I can pay for it?

I’ve heard of many ways people have raised money for it. Some people do a sponsored run, some people do crowdfunding. My favourite method I’ve heard is writing. I know of an actress who just wrote to friends, family and actors she respected explaining her situation and asking for money. She even wrote to Mark Rylance and he replied with a hefty sum!

Will I pretend to be an apple for 3 years, in all its pathos and glory?

Maybe. But if you’re there and don’t think this is for you, have no fear in dropping out. I don’t understand all the prestige and worship drama schools seem to have. Many students seem to be ruled by them. I think it’s more the other way round: you decided to go there, you’re paying the money, it’s up to you to decide whether you’re getting your money’s worth.

Ok, I’ve been to drama school/decided it’s not for me. What now? Agents? Do I have to move to London?

If you’ve been to drama school hopefully you’ve got an agent. But if not, I’d say your best bet is to write to agencies and invite them to shows and send them some clips of you ‘acting’. Agents make it easier for you to bring bread on the table. But you do have less control over your artistic output, as you may have to do commercials etc. If that’s really not your thing, I have immense respect for those who make their own work. Although the two aren’t mutually exclusive. You don’t have to move to London, but all auditions are mainly in London, so you’ve got to be willing to travel.

Do you ever do unpaid jobs?

Yes. Most of the time. It’s usually the work I enjoy the most: with friends, working on a project we all have a personal attachment to.

Be brutally honest. What is the truth about acting as a career? What do you love about it and what do you hate about it? Why do you do it?

Someone made a comparison once which I quite liked: Asking why you want to be an actor is often like asking a labrador why he wants to be a dog. From my experience, acting as a career is all about failure. You’re failing and floundering, being an idiot, putting yourself out there and embarrassing yourself an awful lot. But you’ve got to really love being in the shit, because otherwise it’s really depressing, and it’s also when you come up with the best stuff. That’s what I love and hate about it: the constant, unending failure. (I mean that in an upbeat way)

Any other advice/words of wisdom (because you are very wise) to someone considering acting but feeling a bit lost?

Sometimes to me it feels like if I don’t pull off an audition, or a line in a certain way, or whatever, that it’s honestly the end of my world. That I have amounted to no worth as a human being. I always wish that I remember some perspective in those moments. Because in the end it is just acting. It’s just a play. It’s just a bloody film. There are far more important things going on in the world. This isn’t heart surgery. Remembering that makes it easier to take pleasure and find the game in your acting, and only then will the stuff be any good.

Escape the City

Once people come across Escape the City two sides of their personality suddenly start fighting. One half desperately tries to conceal all evidence of having found the website, removing fingerprints from keypads and deleting email history so no-one else discovers such a gem. The other half wants to climb out of the window and scramble onto the rooftop with a megaphone and tell every hopeless commuter that they have the answer. Ok, so maybe it’s not the answer to life, escaping rarely is. BUT there are some wild and wonderful opportunities here and some local, more grounded dream jobs too. It claims to advertise the ‘most exciting, entrepreneurial, social good, adventurous jobs in the world’ and it looks to be true. Some of them are abroad, some of them are at home. Furthermore, signing up to Escape the City is free. Ideal.

Currently advertised on Escape the City:

Travel writer/blogger for Last Minute.com where ‘there’s no salary, uniform or set hours. You don’t have to quit your day job. Instead, there will be up to £50,000 for a year’s worth of spontaneous travel and experiences booked through lastminute.com’ ie. the best sounding job in the world. Don’t apply for that one…

Mars One are looking for a bloody astronaut for ‘the first human mission to Mars in 2023.’ So apply now to fix your mid-life crisis.

I’ve just seen that this one has expired (and I’m crying) but hopefully more like this will appear: Taste Australia were looking for a ‘Taste Master, someone with passion for the study of food, who will be responsible for promoting the extraordinary produce from across Western Australia. You will tour the best restaurants, wineries, breweries, pubs and lobster eateries, while also heading off the beaten path to catch some of the freshest seafood on our undiscovered coastline.’ Holy wow.

Get browsing.

Funding for projects

Often it’s the arts that feel the tightening of the money belt but, luckily, they are something that people will always feel passionate enough about to help bring to life. For info on anything creatively finance-related, from grants and invoices to making money blogging, look at this IdeasTap page: Finance Hub.

Crowd-funding is a brilliant way to keep your project on track, build momentum, and partake in the generosity of strangers. Read this article on IdeasTap, it is full of tips about crowd-funding and lists the various options, which are primarily: KickstarterIndiegogoSponsume and We Fund.

If you’re making a documentary and need some money, then try Brit Doc. It’s founding sponsor was Channel 4. They have the Bertha Britdoc Documentary Journalism fund available for documentaries of a ‘journalistic’ nature, the Bertha Brit Doc Connect fund for films with ‘social issues at their core’ and the Puma fund for docs which will make ‘the greatest positive impact on society or the environment.’

Breathe easy: meditation with Headspace

The New York Times said that Andy Puddicombe, the guy behind Headspace, is ‘doing for meditation what Jamie Oliver has done to food.’ I was a bit skeptical at first, so I am doing a trial and I will let you know what I think. It’s basically full of little guided meditation sessions that are all online, and they even have an app so you can meditate on the go. The idea behind it is that they are ‘on a mission to get as many people in the world as possible to take 10 minutes out of their day, to practice a simple and easy-to-learn meditation technique.’ I am a very restless, excitable, easily anxious person and have always been intrigued by meditation. Christ knows meditation and yoga classes can be expensive, but the idea is that this is that it’s like ‘gym membership for your mind.’ Nice.

They are £3.74 a month, but they also have 10 10minute taster sessions which are FREE. I just did the first one and I feel like I just had a bath and drank camomile tea. The best thing is, you can do these on the bus, on your lunch-break or at your desk.

Go for a run and help an old lady

I really hate exercise, but over Christmas I very nearly turned into a potato after sitting at a desk moping for a few months, and because of a gluttonous family tradition where there’s a competition to see how many roast potatoes people can eat. Eventually, in classic new year style, I decided to join a gym. I know, gyms can be expensive. I’m lucky because my local one has a pay as you go scheme which is cheap, so it’s worth seeing if there are any like that near you. I was surprised to find that the cliché was true, and that I feel much more positive and in control of what’s going on in my life.

Or, the great blustering outdoors is always open! I know right now you’d probably be better equipped with a canoe than with just your little legs, but it might be worth a try. Alternatively, I’ve just found this great scheme called Good Gym. It explains all about it here, but basically you run to an elderly person’s house in your area, ‘deliver something nice, have a brief chat and are on (your) way again. It helps you get fit by providing a good reason to go for a run and it helps the person being visited by providing them with some friendly human contact and a newspaper or piece of fruit.’

Because they focus on helping lonely people over the age of 65: ‘GoodGym has a rigorous safety policy that will ensure that everyone using GoodGym is safe.  Runners are interviewed by the GoodGym team and require a Criminal Record Bureau enhanced check.’ So that’s good.