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Sailing ship seen through open window.

Photo by edastrauch

If you like Wishful Thinking, you might be interested in some of my other projects — here’s a sample of my recent online activities.

Lateral Action

This is the site I co-create with Brian Clark and Tony Clark, about creativity, productivity and creative entrepreneurship.

Here are some of my recent articles: [Read more…]

Listen to My Poems on Poetcasting


I’m the latest poet to appear on Poetcasting, an innovative site featuring recordings of contemporary poets reading their work. Visit Poetcasting to hear me read four of my poems.

Thanks to Alex Pryce for featuring me and for creating such a great resource. She has assembled a great collection of poets and I’m proud to take my place among them.


Did I mention I’m working on a new project for you? It’s all very hush hush for now, but I can tell you it will be in partnership with one or two other people you may have heard of.

If you like Wishful Thinking I think you’ll enjoy this…

Magma Poetry No.40 – ‘Passions and Obssessions’

Magma 40

It’s that time of year again, when I interrupt our regular schedule with an advert for the latest issue of Magma Poetry.

Magma 40 has been guest-edited for us by Roddy Lumsden, one of the leading lights of the UK poetry scene. Roddy is well-known for mentoring younger poets and has taken the opportunity to showcase the work of writers in their teens and early twenties alongside more established poets. Many of the poets have responded to Roddy’s invitation to write on the theme of ‘passions and obsessions’ – you can read a selection of the poems and articles on the Magma website, with plenty more in the print edition, which is available to buy online.

The launch reading will be on Monday 3rd March, at the Troubadour in Earls Court. The headline poets are Matthew Caley and Martina Evans. I reviewed Matthew’s latest collection The Scene of My Former Triumph – it’s a stunning book so I’m really looking forward to hearing him read from it. Hope to see you there.

If you’d like to know more about Roddy Lumsden’s poetry, you could do worse than read my review of his selected poems from Magma 31.

Disclosure: I’m on the editorial board of Magma Poetry.

Why You Need to Be Disorganised to Be Creative

Magnetic Poetry

Photo by Mami

I ruffled a few feathers over on Business of Design Online when I wrote about Why You Need to Be Organised to Be Creative. In the comments I was accused of writing ‘LIES!!! ALL LIES!!’ and ‘rubbish!’ because ‘Organisation and routine destroy creativity’ and ‘if you are organized you are probably not very creative’. It’s true that organisation and discipline are probably not the first thing that spring to mind when we think of creativity, but if you look at the actual working habits of highly creative people you’ll usually find these qualities in abundance. Hugh MacLeod puts it more pithily (and poetically) than I can:

Like making a fire from rubbing sticks together, creativity’s heat comes from work. Work requires dedication.

So I wrote that post (which became the first chapter of my e-book on Time Management for Creative People) to highlight the often-overlooked factor of organisation in the creative process – and I stand by it. But now I’m going to follow Roger von Oech’s advice to look at things in reverse and argue the opposite point of view.

Inspiration – the magic 1%

It’s all very well being organised and disciplined, but there comes a point where you have to let go of your carefully crafted structures. Creativity may be 99% perspiration, but without the magic 1% of inspiration, all your hard work will count for nothing. Just ask Salieri. And by definition it comes as a surprise, even a shock – we’re working away on a project or problem, and something unexpected pops into our minds: a line of poetry; a vivid image; a new idea; a catchy riff or rhythm.

Creativity is difficult, unpredictable and often frustrating – but once you’ve experience that ‘Eureka!’ moment of inspiration, it’s hard to imagine why you would devote yourself to anything else. That 1% makes the other 99% a worthwhile investment of effort.

[Read more…]

Magma Poetry 39 Launch Reading Tonight

Tonight is the launch reading for Magma Poetry issue 39, at The Troubadour near Earls Court.

If you love poetry, you’ll love it – and if you’ve never been to a contemporary poetry reading, it’s a great place to start. We have excellent headline poets in George Szirtes and Anna Woodford, and the reading will feature lots of other poets from the magazine – so with a wide range of readers there should be something to appeal to you. And The Troubadour is a great venue, invariably packed for Magma readings.

Magma 39

Magma is one of the best poetry magazines in the UK, always featuring major contemporary poets alongside new and up-and-coming writers. We take it in turns to edit the magazine (I edited Magma 34) – David Morphet has done a terrific job with this issue, which you can sample on the Magma website for free.

Let me know if you’re coming tonight, I’ll wear a red carnation or something so we can say hello.

6 Tips for Dealing with Feedback on Your Creative Work

Critics page

There’s an art to listening to criticism or praise of your work without getting carried away by elation or despair – and let’s face it, without stomping off in a huff. Having looked at How not to give feedback on creative work, 5 tips for giving feedback on creative work and what Seamus Heaney taught me about giving feedback, it’s time to look at what it’s like to be on the receiving end of all this constructive criticism.

This has been a hot topic for me this year, as I’ve been attending Mimi Khalvati‘s advanced poetry workshop at the Poetry School. Feedback is my main motivation for doing the class – not only is Mimi one of the most sensitive and helpful readers of a poem I’ve ever come across, but the class is full of talented and experienced poets, who always offer insightful critiques of the poems on offer. And the thing is, it’s usually much easier to appreciate this while we’re discussing other people’s poems. As long as we’re looking at someone else’s words, it’s easy to see the aptness of the comments and the usefulness of the suggestions.

But when it’s my poem on the table, it’s a different matter.

Now, I’ve worked with hundreds of artists and creatives on how to deal with feedback and respond to it constructively. I know I shouldn’t take it too personally and remember that the comments are about the work, not about me. Obviously.

But that doesn’t stop my heart being in my mouth when I stop reading and wait for the first response.

And it doesn’t stop that little voice that sometimes starts up in my head, that wonders “Why did you read out such a load of rubbish, no wonder they’re sitting they’re in silence they’re embarrassed at how bad it is and wouldn’t you be I mean what can you say about a poem that etc etc”.

It really feels like a lottery. Sometimes I’m pretty sure there’s at least one good stanza in the poem, and it’s almost comical how often that turns out to be the utter rubbish, while the one bit I was on the verge of cutting at the last minute turns out to be the best thing in it, the bit that’s crying out to be centre stage and needs to be given more space.

Occasionally, a poem comes through unscathed, apart from a few minor tweaks – and I feel like Buster Keaton when the house has fallen on top of him, leaving him standing with a window-frame around his feet.

The thing is, it’s phenomenally hard to get enough distance on your own work to assess it anything like objectively, and to make meaningful judgments on how to develop it into the finished article. Arguably that’s the difference between a real artist and an amateur. Writing looks a pretty solitary activity, at least in comparison to making things like feature films or computer games, but it’s interesting to note how many successful writers have been members of a tightly knit group of fellow-writers, who were fiercely supportive of each other and fiercely critical of each other’s work.

And arguably, we writers have it easy compared to creatives in an agency or studio. At least we have the luxury of deciding where we get our feedback. We don’t have clients who have never written a word in their lives tearing our work to shreds. We’ve never been asked to “make the logo bigger” or heard the magic words “I’ll know it when I see it”.

So if you’re ever faced with unexpected or unwelcome feedback, here are a few tips for deciding what to do with it:

1. Don’t just dismiss it!

One of my pet hates in writing classes is when someone reads their work, scowls through the (usually) well-intentioned and insightful comments, and then shrugs and says “I guess I just write for myself”. When obviously they don’t, or they wouldn’t have shown it to the rest of us. You might not like the feedback – but being purely selfish about it, you owe it to yourself to consider whether there is anything in it. You can dismiss the feedback, but don’t dismiss it without considering it.

2. Remember who is speaking

Different people are qualified to give different kinds of feedback. Always bear in mind who they are, and what perspective they are coming from. Are these the kind of people you are trying to reach with your work? If so, you should be all ears for what they have to say. If not, you may decide their viewpoint is irrelevant.

In some ways it’s easier to accept criticism from a fellow professional, and it’s tempting to value their praise more than that of others. But a ‘naive’ reader or observer can often show you something the experts might miss. And most of us aren’t just creating for our peers – we want our work to make an impression on everyone who encounters it. If we’re happy to accept praise from any quarter, we should be prepared for the catcalls from the cheap seats.

3. Listen for the criteria

Disagreements often arise because of different criteria for judgment. The classic example is the creative team who want to produce something edgy and remarkable, while the client wants something safer and more predictable. If they can’t agree on the criteria, they will never agree on the work, so the first thing is to establish the criteria people are using to judge your work. Once you have done that, you can decided (a) do I consider these valid criteria? and (b) if so, are they right in their assessment of whether the work meets these criteria?

If you’re lucky they will make their criteria for judgment clear. If not, you might have to infer them or have a conversation to establish them. “Make the logo bigger” might mean “I’m not sure how this will help my company – will people really get the message by looking at this image?”. “I’ll know it when I see it” means “I don’t have any criteria” – so you need to define some quickly or (if possible) walk away.

4. Be honest with yourself

Whether or not they express the feedback well, ask yourself whether there’s something in it or not. You don’t have to be graceful about it, or even acknowledge it publicly. But deep inside, there’s a part of you that knows whether there’s something not right with the work – check in with that part and see what feeling you get from it.

5. Don’t take it personally

Yes I know, this is easier said than done. You put your heart and soul into your work, it’s hard to pretend you haven’t. As Flaubert said, “A book is essentially organic, part of ourselves. We tear a length of gut from our bellies and serve it up”. Yet if we are really serious about our work, we have to learn to step back from it and see it more objectively. Leonardo puts it better than I can:

We know very well that errors are better recognized in the works of others than in our own; and often by reproving little faults in others, we may ignore great ones in ourselves… I say that when you paint you should have a flat mirror and often look at your work as reflected in it, when you will see it reversed, and it will appear to you like some other painter’s work, so you will be better able to judge of its faults than in any other way.
(Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks)

6. If you don’t get the feedback you need, look for it!

Note I said ‘need’ not ‘want’. If you’re only after praise, it doesn’t really matter where you look for it. But if you really want to get better at your art, you need to find someone who knows what they are talking about, who will give you an honest appraisal of your work. It could be a teacher, a mentor, a famous practitioner, your peers, an editor, an agent – or all of them. So if you’ve not found those people yet, keep looking.

Well, there it is.

How about you? How do you deal with feedback on your creative work? Has feedback ever helped you make a dramatic improvement?

What Seamus Heaney Taught Me About Giving Feedback

About 15 years ago I was lucky enough to have a one-to-one writing tutorial with the poet Seamus Heaney. This was before he won the Nobel Prize, but he was still an acknowledged superstar, someone whose poetry I had been reading and studying for years. So I felt pretty nervous as I sat waiting in the corridor with my manuscripts. When it was my turn, he ushered me in and patiently read through the three poems I had brought.

Obviously, my heart was in my mouth. It was so quiet I could hear him breathe.

Then he looked up with a smile on his face and picked up the first poem I had shown him. “If I were you,” he said, “I would have shown me this poem first as well”. He then went on to talk about what he liked about the first poem, enthusing about the promising bits and encouraging me as much as he could. Most of all, he got me to notice the points at which I was clearly enjoying myself, delighting in the words themselves, rather than hammering away at trying to get a ‘message’ across.

It was only gradually, through hints and asides, that he made it clear that the other two poems had virtually none of the redeeming features of the first one. But by that time I didn’t really mind, I was so pleased that he had found something he liked and was showing me how to improve it. He also mentioned in passing that he was currently accepting submissions for an anthology of student poetry.

Ever since then, whenever I’ve been asked to critique a poem (or other creative work) I’ve tried to follow his example: focus on what’s working and encourage the person to do more of that. The aim, of course, is to help the artist maintain their enthusiasm for the work while giving an honest judgment. If you’re lucky, they’ll take the hint. If not, you’ll need to be more direct about what doesn’t work.

Heaney made it easy for me. He was charming, tactful and funny, while making it very clear where my writing had some promise and where I was wasting my time. I left the room with renewed enthusiasm for writing and respect for the craft. Unfortunately, not everyone is so good at giving feedback. Whenever I think of this meeting, I also thank my lucky stars I wasn’t the young composer who asked the great Rossini to appraise his compositions. According to the story, after hearing the first piece Rossini said “You needn’t play any more. I prefer the other one”.

So what do you do when someone gives you ‘constructive criticism’ that sounds anything but? Or when you simply can’t see what they are talking about, and wonder whether you are both looking at the same work? Continuing the theme of at How not to give feedback on creative work and my 5 tips on giving feedback on creative work, my next post will look at how to deal with feedback constructively.

As for my poem, I took Heaney’s hint. I went back to my room and reworked it, addressing the (now glaring) weaknesses. By the time I had finished I was much happier with the poem and very grateful for his feedback. I was even more grateful when I received the letter saying he had accepted the poem for the anthology.

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Listen to My Issue of Magma on the Poetry Library Website

I’m thrilled to say that the issue of Magma Poetry which I edited is now available online at the UK Poetry Library website – including audio recordings of many of the featured poets.

Magma 34

Magma is one of the UK’s leading poetry magazines – its unique feature is its rotating editorship, which means every issue of the magazine offers a fresh and different perspective on contemporary poetry. I’m one of the magazine’s directors and edited issue 34 in 2005.

The UK Poetry Library is a distinguished institution that houses an unrivalled collection of modern poetry published in the UK. Its Poetry Magazines website is an online archive of back issues of leading poetry magazines, including Magma. Audio editions of selected issues form a new feature of the site, and I’m delighted that Magma is one of the first magazines to have its contributors recorded.

The audio edition of Magma 34 includes the text of most of the poems and articles in the issue, as well as MP3 recordings of many poets, including Mimi Khalvati, David Harsent, Susan Wicks, Lorraine Mariner and Alison Brackenbury, as well as Quentin S. Crisp reading the first UK translations of Machi Tawara, who is a huge star in Japan.

The issue also includes my article Poetry in Practice: Creative Flow, for which I interviewed several well-known poets about their creative process. Alastair Campbell is featured in the Guest Choice article, for which he wrote about his favourite poem.

Thanks to the staff at the Poetry Library for doing such an excellent job of the online edition. More details on my poetry blog.

Magma issues 29-33 have also been added to the Poetry Library archive – they include my poem Babel and my reviews of Roddy Lumsden and Tim Cumming, and of the Poetry Book Society’s Quarterly Selections.

The London Poetry Game – This Weekend 11-13 May

A couple of people have alerted me to the London Poetry Game, which will be played around the capital this weekend. I’m otherwise engaged so can’t join in – but I’m intrigued, and thought it might appeal to some of you… if you play, please let me know what it was like.


What Do Poetry and Advertising Having in Common? Paul Feldwick Provokes

Hot on the heels of the Is Blogging Killing Planning? debate, Paul Feldwick has bravely stepped into the ring by suggesting that poetry and planning have things in common, and that poets and advertising folk have things to learn from each other. He recently gave a talk on Poetry and Planning at the Account Planning Group, the gist of which is available to download from the APG site, as well as his ‘Fine Frenzy Manifesto’ about “poetry as a force for change in organisations”.

Here’s the basic (ahem) proposition:

Poetry and advertising are usually thought of as remote from each other, with a good deal of distrust or ridicule often expressed on both sides – even in an agency world that prides itself on its ‘creativity’.

Despite – or perhaps even because of – this, I find there is a lot of latent power to be released by bringing these two worlds together.

Having seen eyes roll, both in poetry classes when I’ve talked about working in ad agencies, and in business seminars when I’ve mentioned poetry, I can testify to the “distrust and ridicule”. So I’m very interested in what Paul’s doing. Creativity often happens at the point where two worlds meet – sometimes it’s a conversation, others it’s more like a flashpoint. It’s amazing how conservative so-called ‘creative’ disciplines can be when invited to consider an alternative worldview, so I’m intrigued to see what happens when Paul introduces poetry and advertising to each other.

Here’s a paragraph from the ‘Poetry and Planning’ pdf that caught my eye:

my experience of poetry has led me to reconsider some of the popular ideas we have about ‘creativity’. In advertising, and in business generally, the idea of creativity is often associated with innovation or originality for its own sake. Poems do generally I think strive to seem fresh and express things in new ways. But innovation for its own sake is really the least important thing that makes a great poem. Surely it’s all rather to do with getting every detail right, getting the structure and rhythm and balance right, the nuances and for want of a better word, the ‘artistry’? I’m sure that this is just as true of ads as it is of poems. Yet we routinely devalue all this as a mere ‘craft skill’, and celebrate instead the originality of the ‘creative idea’. I don’t think, however that great ads are just ideas dressed up to go out, any more than poems (or plays, or pictures) are. This thinking is based on a desire to reduce something complex and organic to a simple essence that can be analysed, owned and controlled. I don’t believe that’s possible and it has damaging consequences.

I love this as I get tired of hearing creativity equated simply with idea generation, when that’s often the easiest and least interesting part of the creative process. Shakespeare wasn’t interested in creating ‘original’ plots, but his execution was pretty good – he was so intent on “getting every detail right, getting the structure and rhythm and balance right” that the originality took care of itself. In my own humble way, I know that when I’ve made a conscious effort to write an original or new kind of poem, the strain shows in the writing – the most interesting things happen when I’m focused on something else, on trying to capture something accurately or tease out the little animating goblin in a word or phrase.

I was disappointed to miss Paul’s APG talk so I’m grateful to Russell Davies and Mark Rapley for inviting me along to an evening last week where Paul entertained a group of (mostly) planners with readings from poets including Rilke, John Hartley Williams and Billy Collins. As well as having good taste, Paul is a terrific reader and has lots of interesting things to say. Have a read of his talk and manifesto pdfs (on the APG site) – they’ll bring a bit of inspiration to your day and maybe even your business.