I've been writing poetry for nearly 20 years. I've notched up a few prizes in that time, and had nearly 50 poems published. But one goal has consistently eluded me: finding a publisher for my first collection.
The vogue right now seems to be to encourage poets to get their debut collections out Really Early. Universities might be partly to blame for this. It's very common for students on those ubiquitous creative writing courses to be set the assignment of "putting together a poetry collection". And in many ways, creative writing courses are a great environment for hot-housing a debut collection. All that concentrated work in a short space of time, with professional feedback from the tutors, can give rise to really focused collections of poetry. And I suspect that the opportunities for networking with publishers and industry insiders play as big a part as the intensive tuition in hurrying these new writers into print.
But part of me can't help wondering if this trend means that some poets are being rushed into print too early – before they've really had a chance to develop their voice? Along with that comes another question: if publishers' lists are full up with early poets hawking their Creative Writing Degree assignments, how on earth can poets get a look in who have never done the obligatory writing degree, don't have the contacts, and have taken the long slow route towards maturing their poetry?
Regular followers of the Soapbox will know my theory that good poetry is like good malt whisky. You can't hurry it. Very few poems emerge from the creative process fully formed. Most need time for maturation. I still find myself tinkering with "old" poems months or even years after the first draft emerges onto the page. Publish too early, and the poem gets "set in stone." There's no opportunity to improve it, even if with the benefit of hindsight the piece is an immature work.
When I first started getting published, I bunged out a lot of work into the public domain in a short space of time. I had quite a few acceptances – and a couple of poems ended up being published, that didn't really deserve it. They may add to my CV, but I don't want them in a debut collection. If I'm honest, I'm probably a bit embarrassed by one or two of them.
I can't help wondering if the graduates of the Creative Writing Degrees and Arvon courses, proudly displaying their debut collections, will still feel as proud of their work in a few years' time?
I have to admit that part of me feels a bit, well, dirty for asking such a question. These people have accomplished what I've never managed to do; and all credit to them. Far be it from me to cast aspersions on their achievements. It sounds a bit too much like sour grapes.
On the other hand, I know at least one poet (whose work I really admire) who confesses that parts of her debut collection now make her cringe.
So how soon is too soon? Maybe there's no easy way of knowing. There are certainly poets who go to the opposite extreme and are never satisfied that what they've written is printworthy, or keep on re-working their poems until all the freshness has gone out of them. Maybe I'm one of those. And if that's the case, I could learn a lesson or two from the eager upstarts of the poetry world. Sometimes, I think, you've just got to take the risk.