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Re: Drafts – “Start lying about your age”, and other thoughts on biographical notes

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 someone 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.

Poets Rishi Dastidar and Holly Hopkins are working closely with The Rialto editor Michael Mackmin on a programme designed to teach them about the process and philosophy of poetry editing. Each month, on a new series we’re calling Re: Drafts, they’ll share their findings on CAMPUS.

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