Porridgeface and the Editor from Hell
by John Beaton
When I first encountered Alan Sullivan in 2000, I was a neophyte and he was the moderator of The Deep End workshop at the Eratosphere website.
I had long been drawn to metrical poetry and I had been writing some of my own, including humorous poems about a Highlander called “Big Ian” and his sheepdog, “Porridgeface”. These had given me something of a reputation as a comedic performer, but I was keeping my interest in serious metrical poetry secret. I didn’t like the isolation of that secrecy, so I began to forage for community on the internet. There I found many mutual praise sites, but I wanted to learn and improve, so I kept exploring.
Then I came to Eratosphere and joined, using “Porridgeface” as a pseudonym. I posted a poem about a man poaching a salmon from a Scottish river. I couldn’t tell an iamb from a trochee, but I thought “Poacher” was all right. Little did I know! Alan minced no words.
He told me it was a metrical mess and that it was too old-fashioned for today’s world. However, he also granted that I might have enough of a metrical “ear” to be teachable.
Feeling challenged, I quickly responded with a different and modernized version of the poem using the same form. That caught his attention. At first he wondered whether I was an experienced troublemaker, or “troll”; then, after a robust but sporting exchange, he accepted the complete revision as a response to his comment about archaism. Despite my flippant nom de plume, he concluded that I had some basic ability, a serious interest in improvement, and a thick enough skin to take hard critique and use it constructively.
That was typical Alan. He would test for those qualities and help you if you demonstrated them. If you failed, he had ways of pointing you to the door. Some people thought this medicine was too strong, and Alan absorbed some member criticism for his tough approach. But that approach, which flowed from induction through ongoing critique, was what kept the standards of The Deep End so high during his tenure. Most of the ’Sphere membership appreciated his insistence on those standards. Eventually, his reputation came to be what Alex Pepple, Eratosphere’s founder and sponsor, rightly calls “legendary”. It was certainly the model I tried to continue when I became one of the successor Deep End moderators. I couldn’t match Alan’s terseness and judgement, but his example made me a better moderator than I could otherwise have been.
Alan cut me some slack on the apparent archaism in “Poacher” and I worked on the original version. (Strong frontal assaults with gradually mellowing follow-through were characteristic of his process.) I could see that his detailed comments were dead-on. I had never had such hard-hitting but accurate critique. It showed me how to improve my writing immediately. I loved it.
I got a Norton anthology and learned some rudiments of meter from the Introduction. Later, I would be pointed to Tim Steele’s All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing as a more in-depth complement to my Deep End education.
Other members weighed in with more help. Before I knew it, my poem had changed significantly and I had developed a strong respect for the people on The Deep End. Like attracts like, and Alan’s excellence was undoubtedly a drawing card for the many first-rate poets, like Tim Murphy, Carol Taylor, and Clive Watkins, who participated there and who enriched my education.
"Poacher" had started out with little metrical control and lots of careless language. It ended up better than any serious poem I had previously crafted. The salmon was netted and I was hooked! And that was to be but the first of many similar experiences.
I count myself extremely lucky to have enjoyed Alan’s mentorship for several years thereafter. His continuing help did amount to mentorship. He taught me much of what I know about poetry. His knack for astute assessment and pushing the right buttons was unsurpassed. My learning came not only from his comments on my work, but from his comments on that of others, from the example he set with his own excellent poetry, and from observing his influence on Tim’s work.
He gave similar support to many other developing poets. To distribute that support so broadly, he gave generously of his time and kept his comments terse. But those terse comments bore uncanny judgement as to pathways to improvement, and they were oh-so-precise. If he used three negative adjectives to describe your work and you pondered his choices carefully, they would invariably point you to curable weaknesses or available opportunities. He made an art-form of prodding poets in the right direction. For instance, if one of my poems needed deep surgery but was not incurable, he would routinely tell me to abandon it as hopeless. I would come back with an improved rewrite and we would work it forwards from there. His call to admit defeat was the spur he knew would make me leap the current draft.
As my experience of Alan increased, so did my respect for him. I could write much more about how that respect continued to grow. But he often told me I was too verbose. In recognition of that guidance, I’ll close now.
I’ll always be indebted to Alan for enabling me to experience the joy of writing metrical poetry to the best of my ability. And I’m fortunate and honoured to be part of his considerable living legacy.