What poetry do we as poets read?

Last month Tesserae: A mosaic of poems by Zimbabwean women, was released into the world. Working on this book with Samantha Vazhure, founder and editor of Carnelian Heart Publishing,  and the wonderful poets whose voices are featured within its pages, has been an immensely rewarding experience. 

During the Q&A session following the book launch on Twitter/X Spaces, a participant asked: what poetry do we as poets read? It’s an interesting question to unravel. I’ve been thinking how my answer would have evolved  over time.

At my all-girls’ school in the nineteen-seventies, English literature was exactly that: English. It was also dominated by men. We read Chaucer and Shakespeare, John Donne and Andrew Marvell, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Shelley, Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wilfred Owen. Golden daffodils fluttered and danced in the breeze; brooks bickered from haunts of coot and hern, whatever those might be, while outside our classroom the African sun blazed and jacaranda trees wept purple tears. 

For years after leaving school I did not read much English poetry, certainly no contemporary poetry. Very occasionally I still wrote poetry, but it mostly remained in my notebook, unread by anyone but me.

Around ten years ago, after I retired from teaching mathematics, I decided to embark on a creative writing course with the Open University. As part of the course, we were encouraged to read widely (with a particular focus on contemporary writing), to try out different techniques and to experiment with form. 

I joined the Poetry Society, took out subscriptions to various magazines and avidly read poetry online. A eureka moment came when I learnt about the Oulipo movement and discovered the existence of mathematical poetry. The Fib Review! JoAnne Growney’s blog Intersections – Poetry with Mathematics! The poems of Sarah Glaz, and the Bridges Organization, which oversees annual conferences on mathematical connections in the arts, architecture and culture. Penteract Press and Anthony Etherin’s elegant, innovative use of constraint. 

In turn this led me to explore pattern poetry and visual poetry, beginning with the aesthetically pleasing compositions of John Hollander and the work of Bob Cobbing and Brion Gysin. Laura Kerr, James Knight, Richard Biddle, Robert Frede Kenter, Clara Daneri, Alexis Fedorjaczenko and other contemporary visual poets have challenged my assumptions about what defines poetry. Do poems have to have words? Or sounds? Or structure? What is the distinction between a passage of prose and a prose poem? Where is the borderline between poetry and other art forms? Does it matter?

In my own writing I found myself returning often to the images of my childhood and the sensory experiences of growing up in southern Africa.  And I realised, to my shame, that apart from the work of Chenjerai Hove and Dambudzo Marechera I knew very little about contemporary Zimbabwean poetry. Internet searches introduced me to books by Togara Muzanenhamo, Batsirai Chigama, Tsitsi Ella Jaji and John Eppel. I also read and enjoyed the poetry of Mapfumo Clement Chihota, Samantha Rumbidzai Vazhure and Dzikamayi Chando, all published by Carnelian Heart.

As writers it is very tempting to remain happily ensconced within our comfort zone – in my case, mathematical and formally constrained poetry. My best poems are shaped by mathematical structures, and poetry that is in some way informed by mathematics generally resonates deeply with me.

I believe it is vitally important that we read beyond our own comfortable boundaries. Otherwise, we become stuck in patterns of thought and subject and form. If we take time to look, we can see the evidence of this all around us: in cliques on social media, in the echo of voices in magazines, in book reviews and in the allocation of funding and prizes. Expanding my own reading – exploring new voices, forms and techniques, unfamiliar traditions and themes that I find challenging – has been beneficial to my writing and understanding of poetry.

Much of the poetry I buy and read nowadays is published by small independent presses: Black Bough, Carnelian Heart, Hem Press, IceFloe Press, Penteract Press, Sidhe Press, Steel Incisors, Trickhouse Press, to name but a few. It’s a difficult time for the sector, with several presses closing or going on hiatus. Yet small indie presses are vital to poetry’s wellbeing, and to us as poets. These presses are prepared to publish little-known or emerging writers, to support innovation and experiment, and to take risks with niche themes. Many of them are run by one or two people, who are usually poets themselves. They deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated.

I’ve recently posted interviews with Samantha Vazhure of Carnelian Heart and Annick Yerem of Sidhe Press, and in the coming months I will be sharing further interviews with poet-editors of small presses. Meantime, we can support poets and the presses who publish them by buying and reading their books. It will enhance our appreciation of poetry, and enrich our own writing. 

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