Ahead of the publication of Dark Angels: Three Contemporary Poets published by Paekakariki Press, John Simmons reflects on his case for writing poetry to make you a better writer of any kind – copywriter, business writer or novelist – and the influence of poetry in his own book about business writing.
Why poetry? Why, at a fairly advanced stage of my life and writing career, would I take to the writing of poetry?
The first thing to say is that this hasn’t been a sudden development. After decades of writing for business and brands, I’d distilled my thoughts into a book We, Me, Them & It (‘How to write powerfully for business’ as the sub-title explains) that was republished last year by LID in a 21st anniversary edition.
“This reacquainted me with my own book. I was surprised by the influence of poetry in this book about business writing.”
This reacquainted me with my own book. I was surprised by the influence of poetry in this book about business writing. Having always read poetry, having studied it at university, perhaps it’s not surprising that it had seeped into my working life. So in the book I used quotations from poets I loved, and realised afresh that my message was inspired by the thought that writing poetry helps you write in other genres too.
So I co-founded Dark Angels and 26, two writing organisations that draw on the inspiration of poetic techniques for workshops, events and projects. And my creative writing took me primarily into fiction, with three published novels.
My case for writing poetry is that it also makes you better as a writer of any kind – whether a copywriter, a novelist or a writer in the business world. It’s the most distilled form of writing, forcing the writer to assess, select, edit each word, phrase, line, aspect of the whole to make the greatest possible impact.
I measure impact in emotional terms. Poetry reaches our deepest feelings and connects to our needs as human beings. As a result we feel more intensely through poetry, as writers and readers. Poems take residence in our brains, they become memorable, so we reach for them at times of heightened emotion. I’ve always argued that business writing needs to make such deeper emotional connection.
“What emerges are words that you would not otherwise have produced. It’s the writer’s holy grail, a kind of magic.”
Poetry is the form of writing that relies most on the creative effect of constraints – a theme I’ve pursued in books and workshops. Constraints liberate us. A particular form – limitations of lines, syllables, rhythm, rhyme – force our words naturally in unexpected directions. What emerges are words that you would not otherwise have produced. It’s the writer’s holy grail, a kind of magic.
Because the poet has given so much thought to every detail, the way in which poetry is set before an audience demands particular attention. You have to respect and show respect to the form of the words, their shape and look as well as their meaning. We decided for this book of poetry that it should be produced using traditional printing crafts. Hot metal typesetting, composed by hand, for printing on a technology from last century.
This drew us to Paekakariki Press who have been producing elegant volumes of poetry in this way, making clear their respect for the poems they print with such care.
Writing poetry is, of course, an individual process: one writer wrestling with words until they achieve their best version. But actually we discovered through the process of creating this book that it can be much deeper, richer and joyful than that, when it involves collaboration.
That collaboration was unique to this book because there were three of us involved in it, as well as the support of the Dark Angels network of writers. Forced by lockdown into virtual ways of meeting each other, we gathered a group of alumni into the Dark Angels ‘Circle’ during the pandemic. We met quarterly, some fifteen of us, and shared writing with the rest of the group at Zoom meetings. This had the advantage of allowing us to involve a couple of writers from the US, some from Ireland and all parts of the UK.
From this the realisation dawned, though it wasn’t unexpected, that we had some remarkable writers in our midst. Most of them were writing poetry. So I had the thought that we would initiate a series of poetry books from the ranks of Dark Angels.
Tim Rich, Thérèse Kieran and I began assembling work that could become part of a single volume of poetry, not necessarily to demonstrate a Dark Angels style but to illuminate each other’s work by contrast and diversity. We approached Paekakariki Press, a small independent publisher in Walthamstow, and the possibility of a book became a reality.
“Along the way we have learnt so much about writing and friendship, and that is a unique combination, perhaps rare in the poetry world.”
The further magic that then happened was that each of the three poets shared their poems with each other for comment, selection and editing. It was a life-enhancing approach, with each of us bringing a positive, constructive spirit, built on mutual respect. We pored over each other’s poetry, the appreciation of each other’s work grew, and the finished selection is something we are very proud of. Along the way we have learnt so much about writing and friendship, and that is a unique combination, perhaps rare in the poetry world.
Now we are on the point of releasing our book of poems into the world. We hope it will fly. Come with us, have a read, and then we hope more will follow…