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Reading poetry: where to start?

To all creative writing students: hands up if your tutor has ever recommended you read outside your comfort zone and explore the work of a writer you’ve never read before? 

As writers, it’s essential that we read widely, in order to get a sense of what’s possible in the genre and form we’re working in, and to come across viewpoints, backgrounds and traditions other than our own. A tutor of mine once told me that the relationship of writing to reading is like breathing – we need to breathe in before we can breathe out. 

But what do you do if you’re told to read widely in a form that’s completely new to you? Your tutor should be recommending further reading, but beyond that it can be hard to know where to start. So, in my next two blogs, I’m going to suggest a few places you could turn when beginning to explore two forms: poetry and short stories.

Poets rarely become international superstars. You won’t see many anthologies or collections on the bestseller lists, so it can be hard to come across new poetry without being proactive. Fortunately there’s lots out there, including online. The best way to get a handle on what people are writing now is to read a poetry magazine. Generally this means subscribing to get the magazine delivered to your door or to download an electronic version, but the bigger magazines also put a selection of each issue on their websites so you can read it for free. 

This is the case with The Poetry Review and Poetry (Chicago), leading journals from the UK and US respectively. They include reviews and criticism as well as lots of new poems in each issue. For an obviously international, cross-cultural poetry experience you can look inside the latest issue of Modern Poetry in Translation for free. Some magazines are online only, and free to view: have a look at The Compass Magazine and The Clearing  – the latter concentrates on writing concerned with nature, landscape and place.

As well as dedicated poetry journals, there are lots of online archives containing poetry from particular countries or periods in history. These are easy to browse and often include introductory articles about each poet. It’s easy to spend hours going down rabbit holes on the websites of the Poetry Foundation, Poetry International or the UK Poetry Archive (which is an online audio library of poets reading their work). These are fairly general directories, but there are more place-specific websites too. You can read poetry in English from all around the world; websites include the African Poem Archives, the archive of the Indian Review and the directory of the Scottish Poetry Library

The strength of magazines is that they tend to include a diverse range of poetry. You won’t like it all, but if there’s a writer whose work resonates with you or seems formally interesting then that’s a new avenue to pursue. And if you get tired of browsing magazines, another good way to come across leading contemporary poets is to look for the winners of major poetry prizes. Among the many awards in Britain and America are the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Forward Prizes, the National Book Award for Poetry and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Is that enough to be getting on with? If you’re appetite for poetry hasn’t yet been sated, the National Poetry Library’s magazine catalogue has an extensive list of print and online resources. There’s a huge amount of poetry out there, so have a browse and, once you’ve found some writers that you like, get hold of more of their work and take it from there!

library image free to use from Pexels.

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Posted by author: Garry MacKenzie
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