New year, new stuff

Happy new year to all. One of the things I sort of like about the UK is that businesses (not shops and restaurants, of course) close down over Christmas and New Year, which can be relaxing, but on the other hand if you are waiting for money or need to get something done, you can basically kiss an entire fortnight goodbye.

However, I accomplished many things over the holiday period – not as much as I would have liked, but that’s probably standard.

I read ten books, two of them from the Poetry Books Society which I love to bits because I get 20 books of poetry a year for £160 (which is about the price I’d pay for them anyway, but it’s far more convenient to have them arrive in the post) and they are all the new stuff so I’m not perpetually years behind. More like months behind, really.

I wrote the first of 52 poems prompted by Jo Bell’s Fifty-Two project (the other 51 are to follow on a quasi-weekly basis).

I wrote a grant application, and put a new chapbook manuscript together specifically for a competition (which worked much better than I thought it would), and edited a poem that wasn’t working as a poem into something else it works much better as. I sent out at least 25 submissions. I, er, ate more M&S All Butter Viennese Biscuits than one person really has the right to eat.

And I made soup and lasagne and risotto (not in the same pan), and did multiple loads of laundry, and caught up on the Doctor Who specials, and backed up my hard drive. So there’s some virtue in there along with the butter cookies.

Also, I’ve been off Facebook for two months. I was getting annoyed with how much time it was sucking out of my life, and haven’t found a reason to go back yet, though I probably will if only to adjust all the notification settings. I have, of course, found a new time-wasting site, that being Twitter, but at least there I see many poetry contest notifications and alerts about lost teddy bears. If you’re over there (and even if you’re not), I’m @tsrosenberg

Hopefully I will blog a bit more this year.

Published in: on January 6, 2014 at 3:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Mountaineering Council of Scotland 2013 Poetry Prize

My week of many events was fantastic – people actually came to the events, which always surprises me even though it really shouldn’t. I had eight at my Leith Library reading, and the Dead Poets Slam drew about sixty people, based on a rough estimate and some frantic head-counting. The winner was W.B. Yeats, followed by Siegfried Sassoon and Norman MacCaig, which is partly why I love Dead Poet Slams because where else are you going to find a line-up like that? Many thanks to Shore Poets, the Scottish Book Trust and Book Week Scotland, and Blind Poetics.

And things have continued to be great. I knew about this a couple of weeks ago, but it’s now officially announced that I won the Mountaineering Council of Scotland 2013 Poetry Prize with a poem titled “Shabbat in the Rockies”. I wasn’t even sure it would work for the competition, since most of the previous winners are about mountain climbing, whereas this is about a Jewish family fleeing persecution in the Carpathians – which probably explains the comment that it was “an unusual but definite winner”. Hey, I’ve been unusual all my life; why stop now?

It’s particularly amusing because, being from the American middle west, I’m not used to mountains. When I’m on a plane to the states, I know I’m home when I see the water towers. But then again, the images that crop up in my poems are overtly different from what I assume about myself – I’m a cat person, but I only ever write poems about dogs; I am not particularly fond of gardens, but they cropped up constantly
The poem isn’t currently available online, though I think it will be at some point. I’ll link to it then.

Published in: on December 3, 2013 at 3:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Book Week Scotland and me!

Book Week Scotland is nearly here, and I am involved in many events (both BWS and not), so here’s a round-up of events you might want to go to if you’re in Edinburgh. If you’re not interested in these, there are zillions of others, so hopefully you can find something you like!

Sunday 24 November, Shore Poets (Henderson’s @ St. John’s), 745pm (bar from 715pm), £5/£3: Shore Poets November: Gerrie Fellowes, Christine de Luca, Tracey S. Rosenberg. Also, you can put your name in the hat for one of two open mic spots! And you could win the lemon cake in the raffle. (I am also writing a poem about the lemon cake which I will read for the first time ever during my set.) All in all it is a pretty cool event.

Monday 25 November, Edinburgh Reads, Leith Library, 645pm, free: I’m appearing at a Book Week Scotland event at Leith Library, discussing my novel, poetry, and anything else the audience wants to hear about. According to the blurb in the Edinburgh Reads brochure, I am “a much-loved contributor to the Edinburgh spoken word scene”, which may be one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said about me. Copies of The Girl in the Bunker and Lipstick is Always a Plus will be available at a discount!

Monday 25 November, Doctor Who Open Mic Night, Blind Poetics, 730pm, free: A charity fundraiser for the Lullaby Trust. I’ll be headlining (after I rush up from Leith) alongside Dalek-master Kevin Cadwallender and sf poet extraordinaire Russell Jones, and there will be plenty of open mic entertainment.

Saturday 30 November, Dead Poets Slam, The Bongo Club, 7pm, free: rounding off Book Week Scotland, it’s a Dead Poets Slam I am organising in conjunction with Inky Fingers. It’s a poetry slam with a difference! Every slammer performs the work of a dead poet. Props, costumes, and over-the-top theatrics are encouraged, and prizes will be awarded to the top performers. Will Sylvia Plath go head-to-head with Emily Dickinson? Could William McGonagall trounce William Wordsworth in a nail-biting final round? Come enjoy three rounds of classic poetry brought to life!

Adjudicatory, part 2

And so I judged a poetry competition, and since I always like seeing how things work from the inside, here’s my judge’s report (though unfortunately none of the poems themselves are available to be read, except one of the commendeds, which had unknown to me at the time already been published). The report has been sent to all the finalists, if not all the entrants, and apparently was deemed helpful.

Judge’s Report: Thynks Open Poetry Competition 2013

Winner: Picture the Moment
Runner-up: A Walk in the Wood
Commended: A Closing, Masters of the Air, So Many Obstacles to Overcome

This was my first time judging a poetry competition, and I was quite excited! I received nineteen poems which had been selected from over a hundred (judging from the numbering system) by Pam Brindle and Christine Michael. I’m grateful to them for making this selection, and to Christine for keeping in touch and sending the final poems to me in a timely manner. Of course, I’d also like to congratulate all the poets who entered; writing is difficult enough, and to send your work out to complete strangers can be terrifying, so submitting work to a competition is in and of itself an act of bravery.

First, I read all the poems carefully without making notes or doing any mental sifting. Then I let them sit for a day, read them again, and began separating out potential winners. I ended up with seven, and considered those as a group. I eliminated a further two, leaving me with a shortlist of five. I made notes, I circled phrases and words of interest, and I made my selections.

A few things I noticed:

- Birds! Lots and lots of birds. As someone whose main connection to birds is watching the local seagull population tear open rubbish bags in the street when the council doesn’t collect them swiftly enough, I was intrigued by this avian overload. My own lack of bird experience didn’t prevent me from appreciating the poems, as two poems with birds as their central images made my top five. In addition to those, we had quite a few New Zealand birds (some of which I had never heard of before), three different poems invoking skylarks, and a chaffinch.

- A range of geographical settings. In addition to New Zealand, there were poems set in Ireland and Japan, and one which began and ended in Ireland with a wide-ranging journey to Morocco, Babylon, and Malta in between. As a expatriate and traveller myself, I appreciate glimpses into other countries, though the mere fact of a foreign setting wasn’t enough to propel a poem into the final round.

- Punctuation at the ends of lines. Many poems – even those who made it to the final five – failed to use punctuation for end-stopped lines (lines in which the natural pause comes at the end of the line). This sounds nitpicky, but as I was reminded in poem after poem, it is crucial not to be lazy. Don’t assume that simply because you have reached the end of the line, you don’t need any punctuation there. Enjambment is a powerful tool, but if the second line doesn’t continue the idea in the first line, consider carefully whether you need to indicate that mental pause. If you don’t include punctuation where it’s needed, the reader keeps mentally stopping and restarting, because they are expecting the thought/image to continue on, whereas they actually find themselves moving to a new thought or image.

In the spirit of the competition I will use an example from a poem about birds: John Greenleaf Whittier’s “What the Birds Said” (the full poem can be found at Here’s the penultimate stanza:

So to me, in a doubtful day
Of chill and slowly greening spring,
Low stooping from the cloudy gray,
The wild-birds sang or seemed to sing.

There’s no punctuation mark at the end of the first line because the first two lines are a complete thought. If you were reading this aloud, you would not stop after “day”. The second and third lines do end with punctuation marks, though, because we pause, maybe take a breath, let the image sink in before continuing on. Remember that even if we read a poem silently, it still speaks in our mind!

After I chose my top five poems, it took me a little while longer to settle on a winner. I narrowed it down to three, and examined each poem closely to consider its strengths as well as the places it didn’t work as well as it could have. My three commended poems all displayed good images and interesting language. “Masters of the Air” offers some lovely pictures of the ways in which birds possess the sky, though in the end I felt there was little more to the poem than description. “So Many Obstacles to Overcome” (which, from its epigram, is modelled on work by the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz) is a sonnet which doesn’t stick to strict meter, and as a result the structure echoes the uncertainties of the speaker, who is trying to gain stability in a relationship which has caused upheaval. However, although the sky, the road, and the glass of wine all demonstrate the stability which has been lost and is sought for again, in the second stanza the imagery becomes vague, and I would have liked a closer look at the implied destruction. Finally, “A Closing” settles into a quiet repetition, simple without being simplistic, but the beginning and end could be stronger; in fact, I wondered if removing the first four lines wouldn’t improve the poem considerably.

My runner-up, “A Walk in the Wood”, made me laugh out loud. It’s cheerful nonsense with many funny images and rhymes. (It also reminded me that, as someone whose native language is American English, the voice in my head doesn’t rhyme “prawns” with “thorns”.) This poem, like “A Closing”, could have been shortened a bit – the spaceman stanza suddenly removes the poem from its woodland setting, and the characters aren’t nearly as nonsensical as the animals which have already been introduced, so there’s a weak point in an otherwise charming poem.

My winner, “Picture the Moment”, brings birds to life with carefully-considered and exact similes. I felt as though I were present alongside the speaker, watching the school field and the birds who take the place of the absent children. Although the final lines lack the immediacy and striking alliteration of the earlier stanzas, the poem overall uses the metaphor of birds to develop a narrative of a speaker moving from isolation in a late cold winter afternoon towards a place of brightness.

Again, my congratulations to all the entrants, and especially to the winner.

Published in: on October 9, 2013 at 11:14 am  Leave a Comment  

Adjudicatory, part 1

I always wondered how people got gigs judging poetry competitions. I mean, if you win a major prize I’m sure you get deluged with requests, but there have to be other methods. And it turns out that – as happens often in this life – sometimes you just have to ask, preferably without wanting any money in return.

So, having volunteered, I am judging the Thynks 2013 Open Poetry Competition. Thynks has other competitions to enter, including a poetry competition for poems up to 80 lines, so have a look.

Shortlisted poems are now, even as I type, popping up in my inbox as the organiser forwards them on. Rather exciting – who knows what awaits me?

(Okay, technically, the organiser does.)

I’ve never done this sort of thing before – though I have enough relevant experience that I’m confident of being able to do a good job! – so I’m going to discuss my process here on the blog.

Now, the procedure in this case is that the organiser of the competition and another person have selected the nineteen shortlisted poems from the full set of submissions. (Judging from the numbers on the documents I’m receiving, there were just over a hundred poems.) In other words, there were filter judges and a final judge. From my experience, this is fairly standard though not universal. Personally, I prefer when the final judge reads everything – such as in this year’s Yeovil Prize, when Neil Astley read all 386 submissions. (Oh, and yes, that is one of my poems he commended. Huzzah!) But it isn’t always possible, sometimes because of the sheer number of entries, and of course the final judge might prefer to have a smaller, already-filtered selection to choose from. In my case, the structure of the competition was already in place, and as it’s my first time judging, I thought I might as well start with a smaller number and see how it works.

And now all the poems have arrived! I am going to print them out individually (on the backs of old drafts) and read them without making any decisions or judgments, or making any notes. Having only nineteen means I can probably do that in one sitting, though of course I’ll take a break if I start feeling as though my brain is tired. For better or worse, these are the poems I have, and it’s inevitable that they’ll end up being compared to each other, so I want to get a full sense of the range.

Then I want to set them all aside for at least a day and see which of them stick in my mind. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win, but I strongly suspect that the poems which end up in the top three will be the ones with strong imagery, narrative, and word choice. If a poem haunts me, or makes me want to grab the nearest person and say “listen to this!”, it’s worth further consideration.

Once I come back to the poems, I’ll start making decisions. Honesty time: I’m not entirely sure how I’ll do that. Scary.

Claire Askew, in her judge’s report for the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition, talks about how she used to divide the poems into no/maybe/yes piles but decided to change to no/maybe, as sometimes poems grew on her with multiple readings. (And can I say how thrilled I am that Claire not only awarded one of my poems second place, but chose a second for her commendeds?)

So that’s one possibility for ensuring that the best poems are selected as winners, but I’d love to hear from other judges. (I promise I will not be using the staircase method.) Poetry judges: how do you do it? Poetry competition entrants: what do you think?

Published in: on September 16, 2013 at 3:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hello Edinburgh Fringe people!

There’s a lot of spoken word on the fringe and I’m glad to be contributing to it and meeting (and watching) lots of new-to-me poets.

Quick beg for votes: I’ve been shortlisted for the StAnza Digital Slam, so if you happen to think my performance is voteworthy, please do let them know. All entries and the voting widget can be found here:

Deadline is 5pm BST Sunday 11 August, so a few more days to go!

Published in: on August 7, 2013 at 9:14 am  Leave a Comment  

The Toy and the Fringe and three footnotes

My flash fiction “The Toy”* is now published, along with a lovely** illustration by my friend Q, at Smokelong Weekly. It will later appear in Smokelong Quarterly, along with an interview.

I’ve booked*** my third fourth appearance at/around the Fringe, so if you’d like to come hear me read (for free, even), here’s the roundup of where to go:

Monday 5 August, 1945-2045: An Evening With Samantha (a PBH Free Fringe Spoken Word event) – guest feature. The Street (2B Picardy Place).

Tuesday 6 August, 1215-1315: Alec Beattie: Animal (a PBH Free Fringe Spoken Word event) – guest feature. Fiddlers Elbow Downstairs (4 Picardy Place).

Tuesday 13 August, 2000-?: Poetry Scotland Edinburgh Reading – reader. Persevere Bar (398 Easter Road).

Wednesday 14 August, 1630-1730: Matt Macdonald: Conversational Tones (a PBH Free Fringe Spoken Word event) – guest feature. The Royal Oak (1 Infirmary Street).

* Is it okay to say “flash fiction” in that way, or must it be a “flash fiction story,” or other?
** For certain values of “lovely.” I particularly appreciate that you have to read the story to fully comprehend the picture.
*** For “booked” read “emailed and/or commented on Facebook status updates of people I knew, or who were looking for guest features, and said, ‘hey, can I perform?’ And they said, ‘yes!’”

Published in: on July 18, 2013 at 11:38 am  Leave a Comment  


There’s a group of poets based in Edinburgh, the Shore Poets, who have been going for over twenty years. I attended a few of their events several years ago (and if anyone knows what the heck ever happened to Eleanor Brown, please tell me, because more than one of us would very much like to know why she is no longer publishing bloody BRILLIANT sonnets among other things).

(Not this Eleanor Brown, by the way.)

Anyway, I’ve started going along again, in the hopes of winning the Lemon Cake – which I did win once, and the next day I was on a long-haul flight, and I never did write my poem The Lemon Cake Travels On A Long-Haul Flight, so I should probably get around to that – and of being picked for the wildcard spot, which is one poet picked at random to start off the proceedings.

(I should point out that you voluntarily put your name in the hat for this. It would be pretty scary if you had no choice in the matter.)

On Sunday, I went along, as it was the last event of the season and the featured poet was Don Paterson. Also, I’d already been invited to be one of the new poets next season, and I like to support groups who think I’m worthy of being asked to read. So I sat with Eleanor Livingstone and Kevin Cadwallender and Pippa Goldschmidt, and chatted, and wrote in my journal, and when the Shore Poets host for the night (Claire Askew) gave the opening spiel and selected the wildcard poet, I didn’t get a copy of Lipstick is Always a Plus out of my bag or act as though I was getting ready to possibly go up to the stage because there were plenty of names in the hat and you don’t want to tempt fate like that.

Which worked, apparently, because she called my name. And they don’t give you a moment to be nervous, because you go straight up to the mic.


(My lord, I have a lot of hair.)

I thought about doing something I’ve done at open mics – namely, asking the audience to choose random numbers and then I read the poem on that page – but here you only get to read one poem and if they chose the poem that’s about twenty words, that would have been me done practically immediately. So I read “The Time Lord’s Job Advertisement”, which is long and gives me some vocal changes and lets me get my teeth in, and usually gets a laugh or two.

And now I want to read more! Which I shall be doing at Shore Poets in November, but sooner than that is the Stewed Rhubarb anniversary event on the 14th of July (details here), and lots of spoken word events on the Edinburgh Fringe, so I shall hopefully get some newer stuff out there as well.

Published in: on July 5, 2013 at 3:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Competition review: Poetic Republic

First in an occasional series in which I review some of the competitions I enter.

Poetic Republic. Annual since 2009. Poetry only.

My history with this competition
I entered one poem in 2013. It didn’t make it past the first round.

General information
I love the concept – in essence, it’s a crowd-sourced competition. You must judge at least one set of twelve other poems, in each of the first two rounds, in order to have your own poem eligible for the final. (Apparently you can email them if you are unable to do this and they’ll waive that requirement.) Then everyone judges the final dozen, but this is optional.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite work in practice. I don’t just mean that only two people placed my poem in the top four out of twelve of that particular judging round (sob), but throughout the competition, organizers seemed pretty much absent. The news page wasn’t updated at all during the judging period, over a period of a few months, and although participants were able to submit tweets which were automatically published in the PR twitter feed, there were never any responses – except one which snidely informed us that ‘The short list comprises specific poems with specific merits. The time for discussing the shortlist is after the judging has closed.’ Really? We’re expected to pay and to judge but not to comment and discuss? Way to smack down your entrants. (For the record, there were all of five tweets commenting on the shortlist, only two of which had any hint of negativity, and both of those were disappointed that the shortlist was entirely free verse. No specific poems were mentioned in any way.)

I mean, normally you would have great whopping silence from the organisers during the judging period, so I wouldn’t ordinarily comment, but this competition is rooted in community and interaction.

Also, one of the big draws of the competition is that you get comments on your poem, but there’s no guarantee of this happening. I only got two, and based on the final email sent out after the competition ended, it sounds as though many people get none at all.

Entry fee vs prize money
Entry is a pretty steep £7 per poem. I can’t think of any other competition, apart from the mighty Bridport, which asks for so much. [Of course, 35 minutes after I posted this, I found one that charges £8 per poem....] The only prizes are the top ones, which is £1000 for the best single poem and £2000 for the best portfolio (two poems). Appalling value for money, unless you win. (I do realize poets are not supposed to be In It For Money but many of us balance the cost of entering with the potential rewards.)

Acknowledgement/announcement of winners
PR kept in touch pretty well – far more than most competitions, though that was primarily due to the nature of this one (which, as noted above, required the entrants to judge two sets of poems). They also sent a long ‘Thank you for taking part’ email.

Eleven poets are shortlisted (in addition to the winner). Forty-eight poems will be in the eBook, so that seems to be 36 on the longlist. There were 1346 poems entered, so about 3.5% of the entries will be published.

Final judgment
I pretty much felt as though I’d paid a whopping entry fee to do the competition’s work. PR emphasises a community-based approach to creative writing, which I am all in favor of, but community needs to go both ways.

Would I enter again?
I really doubt it. It was a fun experiment and I did enjoy reading and commenting on the other poems, but that’s nothing I can’t get in a workshop. And £7 will get me three poems in the Mslexia competition, which is a far better deal.

Published in: on June 20, 2013 at 12:27 pm  Comments (6)  

Still here

Sometimes I feel as though I have to have some BIG ANNOUNCEMENT before blogging, when really this should be more of a writing-life-as-it-goes blog.

Which means a lot of rejections, but I suspect that topic has been done to death recently.

My poem ‘Orpah’s Lament’, published in Gutter 8, is now available over at Receiving Notes from Mythical Women. I recommend you stick around and check out the previous Notes.

Weirdly, I don’t have any poems in the publication pipeline (unless you count one accepted over a year ago for an anthology I suspect isn’t going to happen, but that had already been published so it isn’t as though the poem has been kept off the market in the meantime). This isn’t for lack of trying. I currently have 43 submissions out – well, 42, since I just picked up a rejection for Poetry Pamphlet #2 and need to log it. Oops, I guess I just blogged about rejection again.

(One of those things everyone does and no one ever talks about – keeping track of your submissions. I should blog about that….)

Published in: on May 20, 2013 at 8:02 am  Leave a Comment  

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