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Shape Up and Send: an interview with Rishi Dastidar

Rishi! Hello! You’re running a new course for us this term, ‘Shape Up and Send’, can you tell us a little bit about that?

Rishi: Well, at the moment I’m still plotting what we’ll be up to; but what I really want people to come away with over the five weeks is a) that the poem’s the thing, and so that needs to be as *good* as it can be; and b) knowledge is your friend, especially when it comes to the submissions process.

So, we’ll hopefully do some intense ‘polishing’ of a poem, and what that means; fine-tuning, looking at microscopic details… And on the other side, talking about things like where to send and when: what editors’ feedback and comments really mean; and yes, we’ll try and de-mystify covering letters too.

Obviously, the quality of the work is the most important thing, but how important are other factors – cover letters, proof reading, alignment, following guidelines, even fonts?

Rishi: Some of those you mention are more important than others. Briefly:

  •  Fonts: Legibility is key; 12pt Times New Roman is normally the default as its easier to read, a key consideration if you have a folder of 60 poems in front of you. No one’s saying ‘don’t use Comic Sans’… no, actually, I am saying ‘don’t use Comic Sans’; but font choice doesn’t matter as long as your poor, squinty-eyed editor (ie me) can read it without straining.
  • Alignment: I think if you’re writing in English, and right aligning, you’re just being deliberately weird…
  • Proofing: I get obsessive about this, more than others I should add; for three reasons: 1) if there are obvious spelling errors, then it suggests the poet hasn’t cared enough to read the poem – so why should your readers; 2) intentions – I get that sometimes, for effect, syntactically, rules are being broken. But for that to work, for your deliberate error to shine, everything else needs to be right; 3) Everyone likes their name being spelt correctly; especially when you’ve been called ‘Rikki Dastardly’ down the years.
  • Cover letters: Why do we get into such knots about these? Suffice to say for now, these do not need to be long screeds explaining your aesthetic view of the world – your poems should be doing that.
  • Following guidelines: They. Are. There. For. A. Reason. The reason being that, most editors, most publications, are made out of hours, on evenings and weekends – basically, the near majority of the UK’s poetry ecosystem is a goodwill economy. People are giving up their time for the furtherance of your art. The guidelines will have been developed so that they can work as efficiently as they can in looking at, editing and considering your work, and still have the semblance of a normal life. So meet them halfway. If the guidelines say 6 poems max, it’s 6 poems max, not a 6 plus a cheeky short one as it’s short. Another way of thinking about it is that your sending poems is the first stage in a potential collaboration, with an editor – why would you want to start that by making your collaborator narky?



Image Credit: POP


Have you ever had a submission that broke all the rules, but still got in?

Rishi: Well, if I have, then the editor(s) concerned have been tactful enough not to point that out to me! I like to think that, while the work might be a bit more challenging, I’m generally good at sticking to processes (cue a 1,000 people moaning about missed deadlines, no bios etc etc!)

Generally, if you are breaking rules – e.g. sending 10 poems when 5 have been asked for – you have to be pretty sure that you’re so good, that the poems are so desperately good, that editors won’t mind those breaches of etiquette. Candidly, those poems and poets are pretty bloody rare. That’s not to say a genius doesn’t appear every now and again, through general submissions. But I would stress the ‘now and again’.

Care to wade into the debate about simultaneous submissions?

Rishi: Is there a debate? It’s better if you don’t, clearly, but I understand why it happens – and whisper it quietly, I might have been guilty of it too – forgetfulness, mainly, and 6 months is a hell of a long time to wait for a thumbs up and down. The better thing is, of course, is to follow the submission guidelines of your chosen publications. Some do accept simultaneous submissions, some don’t – so be guided by that.

And a meta-point: if you’re finding lots and lots of your poems tied up in submissions, and not circulating – maybe that’s a sign you should write some new drafts? 😉

You took part in The Poetry School / Rialto Editor Development programme.  Was there anything that particularly surprised you about the editorial process? And has it changed the way you write?

Rishi: First question: not so much surprise, as much a pleasant re-affirmation of the fact that everyone involved in The Rialto (and I suspect this is true of all magazines) really does care and give a damn. And we all start from the positive – we’re looking for poems to include, to positively reach out a grab and say to our readers “Look, you really need to read this!” I think writers sometimes forget that – our bias is to be inclusive, rather than to exclude. But, of course, to be included, you have to be doing lots of things well – and things that it’s often hard to articulate quickly and concisely.

Second question is easier to answer: no, in the sense of, my style is my style, and seeing all the poems coming in to the magazine didn’t make we want to change that. And yes, in the sense that I resolved to try and only send things that are as tightly *finished* as possible. This is a resolution in the ‘still failing to achieve it’ sense.

With your non-poetry hat on, you’re a copywriter and head of verbal identity – is there any similarity between the two vocations? Or do you keep them separate in your head?

Rishi: Well, there’s a similarity in the sense that it feels like there’s very little of my day which isn’t spent fretting about, shaping, playing with words in some way. And there are some obvious underlying similarities between the day and the night job – for my clients, I’m trying to find a language, phrases that are obviously theirs, that they can own, that no one else but them can say, in the same way that you try and develop a poetics that is obviously your own. Memorability too – there’s an unstated demand that you’re looking for phrases, ideas that you can inject into the language: of course, this is a quicker process if you have an advert or a tweet to help, rather than relying on a poem!

The interesting thing I’ve found is the reaction clients often have, when I’ve been introduced as “…and he’s a poet too.” It says to them, ‘well, he must know about words’, but there’s also a suspicion, in that you can see their eyes, ‘he’s not going to give us something really complex, opaque and difficult, is he?’ Of course the biggest difference is the client is always right; so many’s the nice phrase that has had to disappear, for fear of ambiguity, mis-interpretation. Perhaps as a result, I’m more militant in adding a wee bit of complexity back into my poems.

Two of your courses with us, ‘Call and Response’ and ‘The Lyric i-Pod’ have been concerned with music – how big a part does music play in your life and in your poetry?

Rishi: So the paradox here is that, as music has come to play a slightly less important part in my life, it grows in importance to how and what I write. I should preface that by saying that, music (cheap pop music and skinny boys playing guitars, especially) was my thing for most of my adolescence and the NME was my bible, and where I learnt a lot of my ideas about what good writing is. In comparison, I came to poetry a lot later, when I was 28, 29.

There’s been a switch now, in that I spend a lot of the time that used to go in hunting down new music in reading and hunting down new poems. I think this is fine – pop music as a hobby is very difficult to carry on with the same intensity past a certain age – I suspect my cut-off came a little earlier than I would have liked.

But the more that I’ve written, read and taught, it has struck me that music, popular music in all its forms, is wildly under-written about poetically, even thought of as a place where poetry can dare to tread. I suspect this is in part that idea? fear? lingering resentment? that pop songs have taken the place in a wider collective culture that poetry *used* to have (and no, it’s not as simple as people’s desire for rhyme migrating there from 1963 onwards); but also a suspicion of an art form that can be manufactured in such a way as to deliberately manipulate emotions so openly – I think that makes poets suspicious.

Anyway, my small part in trying to explore this is to try and be inspired to write a poem by a song as I might be by seeing a piece of art in a gallery. I’ve been surprised that more people don’t try it, even as an exercise. Go on – next time you’re stuck, turn on Radio 2, and set yourself a challenge of taking a phrase from a lyric, and see where you go from that.

Rishi, thank you so much! Apart from joining the course, is there anywhere else students can catch you or your work? What’s coming up for you?

Rishi: I’m reading at Poetry Wivenhoe on 24 March – my first gig in Essex! – so if you want some pre-Easter lunacy, come and catch me there. Otherwise, I’m nearly always lurking on Twitter, moaning about something or being all too successful in being sarcastic. @BetaRish.

So you’ve written some poems, and you’d like them to see the world – what next? Give those almost-ready poems a final spit-and-polish and perfect your magazine submissions game on Rishi’s new course, Shape Up and Send. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.

Rishi Dastidar is a member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, and his work has featured in the 2012 anthologies Adventures in Form (Penned in the Margins) and Lung Jazz (Cinnamon Press / Eyewear Pubishing), and most recently in 2014’s Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe). He is also currently part of The Rialto / Poetry School’s editorial development project. Rishi is the tutor for 'Shape Up and Send'.


  • Pam Job

    Just thought I’d check you out Rishi as you are our guest reading at Poetry Wivenhoe this month – really looking forward to hearing your work and I just stole the idea of taking a line from a song lyric . . .cheers, Pam

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