How to get your poetry published with Heidi Williamson
Prize-winning poet Heidi Williamson answers Mum Poet Club member Flora Cruft's questions on the ins and outs of becoming a published poet.
Heidi’s first collection ‘Electric Shadow’ (Bloodaxe 2011) was a Poetry Book Recommendation and was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Poetry; her second collection ‘The Print Museum’ (Bloodaxe 2016) won the EAW Book by the cover award, and the 2016 East Anglian Book Award for Poetry. Her third collection ‘Return By Minor Road’ was published by Bloodaxe in 2020. All three books are available to buy now from the Bloodaxe website
Heidi is also an experienced writing tutor and mentor. She teaches a monthly poetry seminar at The Poetry School, and mentors poets worldwide by Skype through The Poetry Society, The National Centre for Writing, The Poetry School and The Writing Coach.
Questions from Flora Cruft @poet.therapist.baker, Mum Poet Club member and existential psychotherapist, creativity coach, poet and author of I am a Spider Mother, available for pre-order now via The Mum Poem Press.
Q: Can you tell us about when you first started writing poetry, and your journey towards finding your poetic voice?
I started writing when I was at school, and had a poem commended in a local competition. I stopped when I was a teenager, and didn’t come back to it until later in life. When I hit thirty, I started to wonder what I wanted to focus on. By then I was a copywriter, and loved working with words. But my own writing had gone by the wayside. I took some time out to work for a local charity and started to attend writing classes and tentatively go along to readings. I joined KickStart Poets in Salisbury, who were wonderful – very experienced and supportive. They helped me to start thinking about how my own words might find their way out.
When we moved back to Norfolk in 2001, I signed up for evening classes at the UEA. I started to go to more readings, make friends with other writers, find out about magazines and competitions. I tried to take part as much as I could, and learnt so much from all the other writers. I also found a wonderful support network. I still regularly swap writing with my friends from that time. It was a huge boost in helping me find what I wanted to do.
Q: What does poetry mean to you?
It used to mean a short piece in a book that connected to me somehow on a level I couldn’t fathom. Reading poems always affected me deeply when I found a good one. Now I write as well as read as much as I can. Over time, it’s come to mean a way of being in the world.
Q: How would you suggest new and emerging poets develop the skill and practice of writing poetry? What courses, workshops etc would you recommend?
Poetry Society have local Stanzas, which are free, where you can meet and talk with other poets. Poetry is a weird occupation, and other poets get that. You speak the same language. Spending an hour a month with others who enjoy/endure poetry as much as you do is hugely beneficial . Often they’ll share poems, invite guest speakers, chat about what’s happening with magazines or competitions. It’s a great source of support.
Also The Poetry School have lots of online and in person groups – ranging from a couple of hours, to weekly, to annual groups you can join. The tutors they have are fantastic, and the people that sign up are all trying their best to find their poems and their voice. It’s a very supportive community.
I absolutely love ModPo too. It’s completely free, an online MOOC run by the University of Pennsylvania. It starts officially each autumn, but you can join anytime. It charts the history of US poetry from Whitman and Dickinson, through lots of innovation and changes in styles, voices and themes. It charts important developments and experiments that influence so much world-wide contemporary writing, including the UK. It’s a fabulous, free, low-risk way to dip your toe in and find out more.
Places like MMU also have online courses periodically introducing you to poetry and poetic techniques. They’re often free.
Keep an eye out for local sessions in your library, at a college or uni, WEA and U3A too. There are often free places encouraging people to explore their creativity, writing, and poetry.
Q: How do you write a poem? Do you use writing exercises or prompts, or free writing?
All of the above. Exercises were a revelation to me. It hadn’t occurred to me you could deliberately try and draw a poem out. I was set loads by teachers, friends, groups, courses, and it invigorated my writing. I suppose my copywriting background means I love to work to a brief. But I also like trying to feel what’s out in the ether, a sense of something I’m trying to land that I don’t know what it is yet. I joked to a writing friend the other day that I also use echolocation. I like to play with sounds – echoes, rhythms, repetitions, consonance, assonance, near-rhyme. I never really know what I’m trying to write about until it starts appearing on the page. If I do ‘know’ what the poem is about, I try to distract myself from it, find something more surprising within myself, and test that out. Prompts, exercises and free writing all help me get there.
Q: How do you edit your poetry?
I’m a mean editor. I get frustrated and chop lots of words and ideas out. I also used to throw a lot away. I’m trying to hold on to more now as I sometimes threw out too much. I tend to say that if there’s a job of ‘harshest critic’ for my poetry, I’d like it to be me. Though I do enjoy editing. Once you have something, it’s there forever. No-one can take it away. You can work through it in different ways, shape-shifting it into something that feels truer to what you didn’t necessarily know you were going to explore at the start. It’s absorbing, fascinating, frustrating and fun.
Q: How did you start the process of getting your poetry published?
When I’d started to get published in the odd journal, even placed in a competition or two, I focussed more on my writing. Over time I dropped one day a week at work to concentrate on it and applied for some Arts Council money to work on my first collection with a mentor. I asked the Poetry School who they’d recommend, and they put me in touch with Tamar Yoseloff. She was immensely encouraging and helped me finalise my first collection. The affirmation of her support, and the financial support from the Arts Council, was a huge step in helping me think I could keep going.
I sent the manuscript to a couple of small publishers, and one prestigious one. It got very nice ‘no’s. I kept working hard at it, improving it as I could. I’d sent an initial sample to Bloodaxe, one of my absolute favourite publishers, and was overwhelmed when Neil Astley said he’d like to see the rest.
Q: Would you recommend that new and emerging poets enter poetry competitions (for which entrants pay a fee), or is it better to start by submitting work free to poetry magazines and journals?
I’d say do both. Choose ones that appeal to you, that promote or support things you believe in. If you open a poetry journal and hate all the poems in it, it’s not for you. If you love and admire and wish you could hang out with the poems/poets in another journal, try that one. It’s always better to aim high and if you get in, you want to dance around the kitchen. Competitions are wonderful if you get a commended or placing – it’s a real boost. And they sometimes come with seriously helpful prizes – writing courses, cash, mentoring. More importantly, as well, is that by sending out to journals and competitions, you’re taking part in the poetic conversation. You’re adding your voice to the mix. It’s amazing how putting together four poems to send somewhere, or one to upload to a competition, changes your relationship to it. You see it as others will read it. That teaches us a lot too. And half the time, the second you press submit, you think of something else you could’ve done to lift your poem that little bit further. So you go back and do that. And next time you send it out, it has a better chance. It teaches us so much about our own work, their place in the conversation. Even if you get a ‘no’, you’ve always got that added in to your kitbag. Taking part in sending out, even if I get nowhere, has taught me so much about my own work over the years.
Q: Journals and poetry competitions generally only accept submissions of unpublished poetry. This means that the poems must not have been published in any form either online or in paper. Given that many of the poets in Mum Poet Club like to show their work online, what advice can you give them on when to share a poem/when to keep a poem back for submission?
That’s a difficult one, as poems (and poets) want to communicate. If you have a chance for readers to find your work, and they respond to it, that seems really important to me. It may not feel like it at the time, but you can always write another one. Themes tend to follow us around. If you wrote an incredible poem about the early days of motherhood that touched, helped and amazed others online, I’d be pretty certain you’d have another in there somewhere. I’d say, take the opportunities and enjoyments as they come up. Celebrate them. There will be other poems and other chances to connect.
Q: What’s the difference between a poetry pamphlet or chapbook and a full collection?
A pamphlet or chapbook is very condensed. You need to think about theme (or not), air, pacing, the reading experience, how it comes over as a whole. All the things you need to also think about in a collection. But there are different considerations in terms of things like – how many lines are your poems, do you have a sequence, do you have a stunning poem the reader will need to ‘come down’ from somehow, and does that skew the pamphlet. In a larger book, a collection, you can have multiple strands, directions, lengths all running concurrently and interweaving. The whole is wider and deeper. A pamphlet also needs to have (for me) depth, range and interest, but it’s tighter, however loose the pacing.
Q: What, in your experience, are poetry publishers (independent and traditional) looking for in the new emerging poets they publish?
I’d say originality. Do you have something to say and are saying it in a way only you can? We each reach for phrases, thoughts, ideas that we’ve seen or heard before when we start to write. How do you write beyond that? How do you make the writing yours, and only yours. If you write a poem about birth and call it ‘birth’, that may work. But there may be lots of other poems called that too. How could you make it more distinctively yours? What kind of language excites you, moves you, challenges and surprises you? Sometimes we’re lucky enough to write a poem, read it back later, and think, how did I write that? Did I write that? That’s a good sign. It means you surprised and energised yourself when you read it. Readers appreciate that too. I think great writing will out. Be the best writing you that you can. Keep pushing it. Keep lifting your work. Make it so that you have to be heard.
Q: Does it help to write thematically ie. publish a pamphlet/ collection with poems on a particular theme?
It’s helped me, but I know it’s not for everyone. And some readers get fed up with it. I like to have something to focus on, something to cohere the poems around. For my first book, it was science – I did it to O level but that was all. I just think it’s astonishing when we think about the world around us: on a planet in space, getting up and having a cup of tea. For my second, it was printing as my dad’s a retired printer. For my last book it was a subject I hadn’t really wanted to focus on, but needed to. For me, writing thematically has helped me get the work done in the first place and has been hugely helpful.
Q: I know that you work as a poetry mentor as well as publishing your own poetry. How can mentoring help a poet in the process of putting together a pamphlet or collection?
Mentoring can help you see your work through someone else’s eyes. What is on the page, what’s coming over? It’s not always what we think it is. They can help you find and develop your themes. Give you advice about how they or people they know got over ‘stuck’ bits – in writing and in the writing life. They’ll have access to resources that can help you. They can point you at other things to develop your work further. I’ve benefitted enormously from being mentored. I’m still mentored, by my writing friends and more experienced poets I look up to and learn from, every day.
Q: I’m in the process of writing my first pamphlet at the moment. Do you have any words of advice for me and other aspiring poets working on their first full publications?
Enjoy it. I know it’s hard, it’s frustrating, it can be emotionally and physically painful. But we’re writing because it matters to us. Being able to focus on something you care about that deeply feels vital. Let that vitality in.