Roger Robinson on breaking into professional poetry

Roger Robinson on breaking into professional poetry

By Katy Georgiou 30/01/15

Today Trinidadian poet Roger Robinson is leading an IdeasTap Spa with Mouthy Poets about poetic form. He talked to Katy Georgiou about dealing with rejection and why poetry is a mission, not a business…

At your IdeasTap Spa workshop, you’ll be investigating the effect that form has on the reader. What effect should a poet be aiming for? 

The effect on a reader should never be guesswork. You need to know about what you’re doing and why things happen. An engine has different component parts that are there for a purpose – it’s similar with a poem.

So if someone has a blank sheet in front of them, how should they begin? 

Ultimately, writing is about reading. Don’t start writing a poem unless you’ve read 40 poems first. Then when you’ve written one, read another 40 poems before you write another. 

Is poetic expertise something you learn or something you’re born with? 

Everyone can write poetry but it takes study like everything else. You wouldn’t expect someone to pick up a guitar and just play – there are of course some who can do that and naturally there will be poets who can just write, but with tools what they write can be better. 

Think of poetry as a score. You want someone to read a poem out like they would a score of music: it’s written to be played in a certain way. That’s why if you have the craft you’ll be in control of pace and tone. A poem is not just a random square of text. There is a definite rationale behind it. 

There are lots of people who write poetry privately but stop at that point. If someone wants to progress their career in poetry, what should they do? 

The first thing is to go to workshops, meet people and establish a critical community. Then, after a year or two, start thinking about sending the work out to poetry journals. See if you get your poetry accepted by them, and, if not, keep going to workshops and keep working on your craft, try sending out to journals again, and keep going until it works.

Go on the Poetry Library website, they have links for all the journals in England. Ask other poets about who they’re sending to and start reading those journals and make sure what you write fits what the journal publishes. 

As well as writing and conducting workshops, you’re a musician and you tour a lot. How do you balance it all?

I’m a person with a lot of ideas, often more ideas than I actually have time for. Really, storytelling underpins everything I do. When I write songs or poetry they are story-based. This is what allows me to switch between different formats. 

Managing it takes discipline. While I’m focusing on something, everything else has to go onto the back burner. This year I’ll be touring music, touring this poetry album and teaching adult workshops and lectures. There are other things I could be doing but I can’t do them this year because I won’t have the time. 

What are the ups and downs as a life as a professional poet? 

It’s a privilege to get to this point; I’ve got to travel to a whole load of great countries. As for the downside, every artist has to deal with a certain amount of rejection, but it’s all part of it. My first poetry book had 30 refusals. The trick is to just keep going. If your heart’s not in it, the refusals you get make you stop. Equally, if you see what you do purely as a business and you’re not making enough money, the refusals will make you stop. But if you’re devoted to your craft, then it becomes a mission and you won’t stop.

How can writers get through that barrier? 

When I work with younger artists, I find it’s often not their skill that prevents them from progressing actually, but their headspace. You have to arm yourself with philosophies to help you achieve things. If your head isn’t right, your work won’t be right. When I got 30 rejections, for me it wasn’t about whether or not the book was good enough to others but about who was going to be the one to put out my ideas.

What about writer’s block?

There are usually three reasons for writer’s block. Either you’ve become so cynical you can’t see beauty in the world anymore, or you have an information deficit where you’ve not been reading enough or absorbing enough from your environment to give you inspiration to draw from, or you have a lack of confidence. 

For any of those three things, the safest thing to do first is to absorb more information by reading. Then, drop your standards. The fear of critique can become paralysing, and this is probably the one thing that makes people stop making art more than anything else.

Get a routine going. Routine beats fear. So start at 6am, do two hours of work and stop without judging what you’ve produced. Eventually you’ll make some great work because you’re working your muscle, which will become stronger.


Follow Roger on Twitter: @Rrobinson72

For more articles, jobs and opportunities, visit our Writing hub.

Image courtesy of Roger Robinson 

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