Advice on biographical notes or “Start lying about your age now”

As I write this, the latest edition of The Rialto is at the proofing stage and the last of the biographical notes are slipping in by the skin of their teeth. It feels a bit strange, having spent months getting to know poems, to now have a task focused on poets.

In most cases the bio note is everything (external to the poem) that I know about these poets, so they were read with particular curiosity. It seems a little unfair to give bio notes such scrutiny when I know how often poets are unsure what to say in them. How can anyone sum themselves up in a couple of sentences?

It raises the question of what makes a good bio note. Personally, I have only ever received one piece of guidance on the subject. When I was starting to write poetry as an adult, I was fortunate enough to meet a well-known female poet whom I greatly admired. I asked what advice she would have for a poet starting out. I thought perhaps she would know of a daily regime that would hone my metrical skills until fully formed sonnets would drop out of my head. Or perhaps from her great height she could see the course of 21st century poetry laid before her and give me directions. Instead, her advice regarded bio notes and was surprisingly simple: ‘Start lying about your age now.’ Her reasoning being that opportunities are squared towards the ‘young’ and that men can string out being ‘young’ in poetry until their mid-40s while women had until 30 at best. I didn’t take her advice and have remained honest if reticent, but since then whenever I’ve seen biographical notes starting ‘XXXX was born in 19XX’ it has always made me pause.

Maybe the best approach is to think about what the biographical note is actually for. Usually when I am reading the bios in a magazine, it is either because I’m having a quick skim to see who is there or because I enjoyed a particular poem and I want to find out if the poet has more poems I can read. If it is a tool for finding more poetry then a workman-like list of publications remains extremely useful. The formula of poets listing magazines before they have a publication, and publications afterwards, does do the job. Meanwhile, including prizes reassures the reader that the poet they’ve just read wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

There is a school of thought that the bio note should be more advertising hook than information board. With pressure to add something completely unrelated to poetry that makes you stand out. I do enjoy it when a note feels like it gives a glimpse of the poet’s life, even though I’m aware that with so little space and so much conjecture these fragments are as likely to mislead as they are to paint an accurate portrait. I have read notes in the past that went a bit overboard, ‘So-and-so lives in an exotic location where they have an exciting job and are having a much more fun than you’ can make the heart sink. Are you applying for a job as a professor? No? Then don’t send an academic CV in miniature. The trick, as ever, is to think of your reader.

Remember that biographical notes have a tendency to breed. I once wrote a bio for a schools project in which I focused on my work with children, only to find that event organizers copied and pasted it without permission for about a year afterwards. The result was that no matter the context, in pub or anthology, my poetry was recommended purely on the basis of my experience working with children.

Finally, when in doubt – keep it short.

Fall of the Wall of Hill: Assistant Editing The Rialto

The assistant editorship of The Rialto is helping me let poems take over my flat. I recently finished teaching a reading group for The Poetry School so my Wall Of Hill (entirety of Mercian Hymns photocopied and arranged on my bedroom wall so I could scribble notes) has come down. Things might have felt a bit empty had all available surfaces not then been filled with submissions to The Rialto along with associated envelopes, folders, headed papers and a small infestation of paperclips.
Wall of Hill
I have done mass poem reading before, mainly for competitions, so the slab-like stacks of submissions are not as overwhelming as they might otherwise be. I’ve learned to pace myself, the importance of cups of tea, and I’m used to managing the inevitable anxiety that I might miss something and the sometimes painful knowledge that someone poured themselves into the piece of paper you are holding. In this I am well prepared.

I know reading for a magazine is going to be different. A lot of the competition work I have done has been early-stage where anything approaching reasonable competence will go through to the next step. For the largest competitions this can be communal work, around a table or on office computers, with readers occasionally stopping to share a particularly brilliant line or to shout out a daring title. Meanwhile, reading for young people’s awards has often meant looking for a curl of potential, a mixed entry with real ambition being noteworthy, even if the author hasn’t yet learned to edit the less successful lines.

Moving to a magazine the biggest shift may be that in competitions the poems are vying against each other: as a judge I am looking for the best, as a sifter for the better than average. Poems can be held up against their neighbours and, while sometimes it is an extremely close call, there is always a fixed limit to the work. A magazine with rolling submissions isn’t like that, the question isn’t ‘is this better than the last poem’ because there is no finite limit to the poems – they will and do keep coming. The question is do I want to read it again? Is it something I want to share? Would other readers enjoy it too? The safety blanket of direct comparison is less applicable, the poem has to excite by itself.

I feel the responsibility has changed too. It’s not just about the people who are sending in their poems anymore, the focus must be on the readers. I imagine them looking over my shoulder and wonder what they would make of the poem I’m looking at. I’m not sure who my imagined reader is, are they cover-to-cover readers or do they dip? Does my imagined reader have a stack of poetry magazines in their bathroom or are they trying a single issue for the first time sat at a table in the Poetry Library? I can’t predict them, but I hope in the next few folders of submissions I’ll find some poems that will thrill and mesmerize me, that I can share with this unknown reader.