Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Scene and herd? by Veronica Zundel

In the course of doing a poetry writing MA (well, mostly not doing it recently, since I've found it hard to concentrate between hospital visits), I've had occasion to spend more time around what I can only call 'the poetry scene'. Like all specialist groups (anyone watch the wonderful TV comedy Detectorists with its hilarious meetings of the local detectorists society?), it has its own ways and more importantly its shibboleths (if you don't know about shibboleths/sibboleths, check out Judges 12). It's all 'Did you go to X's launch?' and 'What do you think of Y's new collection?', and among its initiates I am a mere ignoramus whose knowledge of contemporary poetry stops around 1965 (well, I  did my English degree in the early 70s so that was contemporary then).

This has made me think about whether, to write in a particular field, one needs to be a member, however loosely, of the 'scene' that gathers writers from that field. If you are a crime writer, do you need to mix with other crime writers? Can I be a poet, a serious poet, without being part of the poetry
A literary pub?
scene? Because really, I don't particularly want to be, if it involves going to a crowded pub on an inconvenient weekday evening and listening to the ramblings of a poet one has never heard of (and outside London, you'd be lucky to get even that). But without doing that at least occasionally (and I am expert at making the most of a tiny bit of knowledge), how can one understand what is currently going on in poetry, or make the contacts that are so useful in getting publication/readings?

It's a live issue, of course, for our ACW local groups, where one is often thrown together with people doing entirely different types of writing: anything from parish magazines through scientific textbooks to historical novels. How well can we understand what our fellow writers are doing, let alone offer informed critique, if we have never written, or maybe even read, the sort of material they are writing?

A poet one has never heard of...
The thing is, we Christian writers are a rare breed (and not all doing something debatably called 'Christian writing') and we are unlikely to spend much time with other Christians in our own area of writing. If we want to 'press the flesh' and pick the brains of those working on similar projects, that
leaves us the various secular 'writing scenes', and inevitably in them we will encounter competition, envy and cronyism (not that these things are entirely absent amongst Christians!). We will have to learn what or whom to stick with and what or whom to avoid like a dairy herd with BSE, because they are bad for our a) self-esteem, b) writing career or c) spiritual life.

So can I be a poet without spending half my life in the poetry scene? Probably not, but as with everything in life, perhaps I have to pick and choose my circles and especially my battles. First of all, though, I have to learn to write better poetry; and in this, hearing or reading the work of others, Christian or not, can only be an inspiration (unless it's a dire warning...!).

Veronica Zundel is a freelance writer whose latest book is Everything I know about God, I've learned from being a parent (BRF 2013). She also writes a column for Woman Alive magazine, and Bible notes for BRF's New Daylight. Veronica used to belong to what was, before it closed, the only non-conservative, English speaking Mennonite church in the UK, and is currently playing at being a high Anglican. She also blogs (rather occasionally!) at


  1. I think I've learned something from every event I've been to, either from watching what people do and emulating it or watching what people do and avoiding it. But another thing one learns from going to lots of events is that it means you're not at home writing .. it's a Catch 22 situation and I don't have the answer. One thing I do think is that poets can learn from novelists and crime novelists can learn from fantasy writers or historical fiction writers or poets, etc etc. We've proved this in our local ACW group and it's been fun.

  2. Thank you, Veronica. That is really relevant and thought-provoking. I love your title. Homophones are particularly interesting to me. They are very useful in poetry-writing too. Sue

  3. I liked what you said about having to pick and choose... 'especially my battles'. Sorting out what is important and what to let go of. Good advice to one who has a number of high horses kicking their heels and snorting with impatience.

  4. Might there be an online poetry scene where one can be virtually scene and herd and virtually see and hear without having to go to the pub at inconvenient times? You could always post a picture of yourself with a pint (of anything you like) in your hand at home.