A Piece of my Mind | Mark Goodwin

I’ve been very lucky in my encounters with poetry editors. It concerns me that not all poets have the same experience: by now I’ve heard quite a few tales of publishing horrors. I say I’ve been ‘lucky’, but that’s the wrong word – it’s much more to do with my publishers’ careful consideration, integrity and respect for poetry and poets.

Photograph by Nikki Clayton

Photograph by Nikki Clayton

For years I’ve worked as a community poet, encouraging people of all ages to speak and write creatively. I have also worked with more experienced poets and their souls. For me ‘soul’ is where mind, world and body meet. This meeting can happen in various ways; for example, through making art, or through engaging with other people or creatures, or simply through physically moving through landscapes. However, I believe that one of the most powerful locations for this meeting happens through the mystery called ‘poetics’; and often happens when humans write, read and hear poetry. Both Freud & Jung, and so many others after them, took / take so very seriously the study and care of the psyche. So, for reasons of health, it’s obvious to me (and, fortunately, to many others) that whenever we go near anyone’s poetic sensibilities we must be extremely careful regarding their soul, their psyche, their consciousness at the point where world, body and mind complete. Any negligent or cruel activity near this point can and does cause a huge amount of damage; psychic damage.

Now, this is not to insist poets are frail creatures we must pussyfoot around (indeed many of them can be formidable beasts!). But there is danger for any poet, be they a bullish Byron or a meek novice. Anything that is unrelated to the nearest a poet can get to their ‘true’ poems is dangerously destructive. Any acts that do not hold the poet’s rights to their own poems as sacrosanct are morally wrong. (And this perhaps goes for the poet themselves, denying their own rights.)

So, where does this leave a publisher of poems? How should a poetry publisher proceed to get what they want to publish whilst not following these sentiments: ‘I expect and know that the publisher [of] poetry books will be […] interventionist in approach.’

Well, it’s very simple … if not at all easy!

I believe that the two following statements should be attended to with great care:

No poet should be expected to publish what they do not wish to publish.
No poetry publisher should be expected to publish what they do not wish to publish.

If they wish to publish, this means that poetry publishers have to take risks (they of course do not have to publish, and may decide the risk is too great). If a poet and publisher can negotiate through a relationship that does not have one exercising POWER over the other, then all to the good.

When I was going through the process of publishing my first book with Shearsman I was told by Tony Frazer that I would have to cut the book down – it was too long, would be too expensive for a debutant and so would be bound to sink from the outset. It needed to sell at under ten quid and so it needed fewer pages. Simply as practical as that. He also said (and I can hear his laidback and friendly tones, although it was written in an email): ‘I tend to let the poets get on with deciding how to cut it.’ And the spell was cast – it was my problem, my charge. I was trusted, and the simple ease with which Tony delivered the statement declared to me that Shearsman had no doubts that I would deliver. I then worked very hard, sought further advice from poet friends, and even some not so friendly, and as a result I (under Tony’s spell) improved the book vastly. I hugely enjoyed the whole process! And of course, I grew as a poet.

Here’s Brian Lewis, of Longbarrow Press, another of my publishers:

It’s the editor’s job to be surprised and challenged by the poet and startled out of his/her complacency. I like to be given poems / sequences that won’t easily fit into a readymade format. It demands that I find the necessary resourcefulness and inventiveness to meet the poem on its own terms.

The poets I work with would, of course, expect me to let them know if I felt that something wasn’t working as well as it might (or at all), and to make suggestions where appropriate. This, however, is a conversation between poet and editor. Sometimes the poet will rework the poem; sometimes not. It’s not the job of the editor to demand or impose changes. Similarly, design is a conversation. I recently proposed two cover designs to Alistair Noon (for his two pamphlets). He liked the first one but felt that the second one lacked focus. I went away and designed a new one, which he and I both liked. The pamphlet was better for it. It’s the poet’s pamphlet. Why would I (or any publisher) want to publish something that the poet was unhappy with?

Yes, it is ‘the poet’s pamphlet’. And, thankfully, as a very young poet (attending Hobsbaum-style workshops) I was taken care of by the likes of Rob Hamberger and Michael Tolkien, who so often would say to me: “It’s your poem, Mark.”

Brian’s question at the end of his declaration, about why a publisher would want to publish against a poet’s wishes, begs some answers – because regrettably there are editors who do not hold a poet’s right to their work as sacrosanct.

I enjoy encouraging others to write poetry, but it is tainted for me; by knowing that should I ever help to get someone to become a poet they will very likely end up entering any of various literati-combat zones where their creative rights are far down the agenda.

I used to be a climbing instructor. I had to make sure that people learned and enjoyed themselves whilst at the same time coming to no harm. Mentoring a poet can be far more of a challenge than any climbing or outdoor pursuits session I’ve ever had responsibility for. It is a shame to say that, as a mentor of poets, it is my responsibility to help the poet shed (or at least knowingly engage with) any delusions inflicted upon them by the various cultural machines that construct and project competing notions of what poetry should or should not be. (I have no problems with debated notions of could-bes.) In some cases this obstacle has to be passed before I can get anywhere near my responsibility to help the poet dig out of themselves the only kind of poetry they could’ve ever written. As my ultimate responsibility is towards my mentee’s safety and peace of mind, I feel immensely angry towards people and edifices that threaten a poet’s right to that peace of mind.

Mark Goodwin’s Layers of Un recently appeared from Shearsman Books. An extended interview with Goodwin (conducted by Elaine Aldred) appears here.

4 Comments on “A Piece of my Mind | Mark Goodwin”

  1. Matt says:

    Mark, reassuring to hear these points being made so well. I’d really love to hear the role of the ‘psyche’ being discussed more in creative writing debate.

    How did you start mentoring? How are poets ‘paired’, and who pairs them?

    • mark goodwin . gone ground says:

      Thank you, Matt! Yes, more debate around ‘psyche’ and linguistic creativity would be good. The word ‘soul’ is often shied away from, and also often, I think, designated as ‘twee’, by way of diversion, and avoidance. It is a word that has been so mis-used and so mis-understood, so I understand in some ways why some writers avoid it; but I do feel really it’s up to poets to point out all the possibilities of a certain word, and certainly to try to debunk the misuses of words, rather than shy away and make out a word is ‘redundant’. It is worrying when poets start considering certain words to be ‘redundant’, and when its a such a profound and possibility-laden word like ‘soul’, it is even more worrying. ‘Psyche’ is perhaps less troublesome to some because of its ‘scientific’ connection, but poor old ‘soul’ is still often found on those absurd lists of ‘words modern poets must not use.’ ‘Seagull’ is often on this list too – hence I now never write about the sea or coastland, and when I’m out walking I no longer see any white birds with plaintive squeaky voices soaring in the sky! Just like ‘soul’ …‘seagulls’ no longer exist, and probably never did exist … 😉

      Regarding mentoring. I’m not sure I can answer adequately your question – ‘how are they paired?’ I have been involved with trying to make such decisions. There was much discussion about the aesthetic sensibilities, experience and personality of a mentee, and how the qualities of the available mentors might or might not work when paired with that particular mentee. On the occasions I’ve been involved with such ‘pairing’, I think on the whole we got it right, but inevitably there must be an element of ‘luck’.

      I feel that in the end the whole responsibility (really, total responsibility) for the pairing must remain with the mentor – the mentor must try as hard as possible to engage as fully as possible in the moment with whoever they are paired with. The pairing does not happen until the relationship actually begins. (However, I think mentors must accept that they may fail … it can so often be very difficult to achieve a proper, meaningful connection, and such failure will often happen through no-one’s fault, but one can only try to make the connection.) A mentor must try very hard to put aside their own ego and aesthetic leanings, and yet at the same time bring their own experience, practice and prejudices to bear down on the mentee. That sounds aggressive, but it is not, because one’s self should not confront stridently, but instead you should behave with open compassion, and try to makes it as obvious as possible that you are offering ‘trust’, so as to then guide your mentee through confrontation with practices and prejudices, but not confrontation with your personality. Rock-climbing is confrontation, possibly confrontation with ‘rock’, but certainly confrontation with ‘one’s self’ – to encourage and help others to engage in such confrontation, one must provide ‘trust’, if at all possible. Encouraging others to write poetry is much the same, but much more complex, and much more dangerous. I think you have to ‘use’ yourself, pick up your own qualities but try to remain detached from your ego, then use your qualities as a foil to help your mentee get towards being the poet only they can be. So, there should be no intent on my part to try to coax someone into being an extremely linguistically playful poet, as I am … but by enthusiastically demonstrating, but not imposing, my practice and obsessions I could perhaps, for example, actually consolidate a poet’s knowledge of themselves as having a powerful gift for writing in formal verse patterns. As long as the poet throws away all the things ‘projected’ at them by others, and then in the end only picks up again the things that they are instinctively drawn to, drawn to for themselves and for their talents … I feel that is an ideal ending place, but probably an impossible one! Especially, as I’m certain there’s lots I’m still holding on to that I shouldn’t be, and that I didn’t put in my own hands …

      I think the other thing that is vital for a mentor to realise, is how the mentee must in some way also be a the mentor. I remember, many years ago, the essayist Jim Perrin writing about ‘climbing instruction’, and how he put weight, in the religious context, upon the word ‘instruction’, and tried to debunk its modern mis-interpretation. He was critical of how climbing instructors often adopt a sense of superiority and the position of being knowledge-holders, how they too often tell rather than show. The best instructors give their instructees the confidence, information and stimuli needed to work it out for themselves. He talked about a triangle, made by the points of ‘instructee’, ‘the rock’, and ‘instructor’, and how these three were always in play and in flux … how the medium of the rock teaches, and how the taught teaches the teacher … and round it goes … the triangle in the circle … only the medium, the rock, or the poetry, should exercise any power over any one … it is the responsibility of the mentor or instructor to make sure that ‘power’ is beneficial and ‘empowering’. That is how I’ve always tried to ‘instruct’ climbing, and it is the same way I go about ‘passing on’ poetry. One mustn’t even be certain that one’s own death will be the end of one’s learning, otherwise you’re already dead! Anyways, I hope that gives some kind of answers to what is essentially very mysterious. Happy Spring!

  2. Matt says:

    I agree that we need some way of talking about the emotional / internal process that goes into the making of a resonant poem. I’d be reluctant to use the word ‘soul’ myself, as it carries too many conventional religious connotations. I like ‘psyche’; it seems to offer a marriage of ‘soul’ and ‘psychology’; and it’s used by John Keats, which is a good endorsement. I also agree that avoiding discussion or reference to it altogether is a kind of ‘dodge’. I’ve encountered some very intelligent dodges in my time – no doubt performed a few myself. The university culture seems to be getting an ever firmer grip on the language and methods of discussion on creative writing: and discussion in this arena naturally seems to lean towards the linguistic or the technical, not the psyche. No doubt many sensible students plotting an expedient course through a degree or a postgraduate degree learn to avoid the ‘psyche’ altogether. And yet, when writers run into a block or a sense of inhibition within this particular culture, it is often because their own ‘psyche’ (or whatever) is reacting against it. It’s something I’ve experienced myself; and something I try and stay alert to as a teacher. Pushing the wrong doctrines at someone can cause serious damage – and the worse damage I think you can cause is to take away someone’s will and confidence to write, or their pleasure or relief in writing. The quickest way to take away anyone’s confidence is to ignore their particular ‘psyche’.

  3. My knowledge and attitudes towards the expressions ‘right’ & ‘rights’ has changed considerably since I first wrote this piece. I would now amend those expressions to: ‘natural right’ & ‘natural rights’ … but still for want of better expressions …

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