Monday, 24 March 2014

Is poetry a feminist issue? Part 1



Last week I had the pleasure of being one of the support acts for performance poetry star Hollie McNish. The event was a special one for International Women's Week, organised by my friends at Stairwell Books, and advertised to a largely (but by no means exclusively) female audience.

The material performed by the singers and poets covered a vast range of topics. Motherhood featured prominently, as did tributes to women who were inspirational in the lives of the performers. But so did nature and the turn of the seasons, love, sex and heartbreak, and one or two more outlandish subjects – a song about tapeworms, for example!

I was struck by the fact that this wasn't an evening of “women's poetry” – it was an evening of poetry, pure and simple. It's possible that some of the subject matter may have been more appealing to female listeners than to males – one male audience member did comment to me afterwards that there were slightly more poems about childbirth than he was entirely comfortable with! But on the whole, it seemed to me that the idea of “women's poetry”, as sometimes raised in critics' circles, was a pretty much artificial one.

This does not appear to be the view of the literary establishment, however, according to one recent article. Poet Angela France, writing on the Litro blog, reports a positive disdain from poetry critics towards female poets who write autobiographically or in the first person, particularly about subjects such as childbirth and parenthood which were traditionally considered as being of interest mainly to women. Such poetry, she says, tends to get dismissed as “confessional” and treated as if it is of lesser worth than more intellectually centred poetry. Worse still, she claims, a double standard exists which allows male poets to write autobiographically to great acclaim (in the case of, for example, Christopher Reid), but exposes female poets who do so to derision, sometimes of a disturbingly misogynistic nature.

France's hyper-awareness of this critical disdain, she says, has inhibited her own approach to her poetry. She's almost scared now of writing in the first person, anticipating what she sees as an inevitable critical backlash if she does.

These claims seemed far-fetched to me when I first read them. All poets take it personally when their work is rejected, after all – so was this just an attempt by the writer to shift the blame for a bad review away from herself? Sadly not. What makes this article particularly galling is that France presents compelling evidence that what she perceives is actually going on.

To take just one example: publisher Neil Astley and blogger Fiona Moore have both surveyed reviews of poetry books in the Guardian over a period of several years. It turns out that in 2012-13 only 25% of the poetry books reviewed were written by women. The situation was even worse a few years earlier; in 2003-5 only 10 out of the 66 books reviewed were written by women, and all but four of the critics actually writing the reviews were men. This in a climate where women significantly outnumber men as readers of poetry, and (judging by the newsletters and emails I receive from poetry publishers) as writers too.

France's article is detailed, and contains a sorry catalogue of evidence that I needn't reproduce here. The picture it paints is of a culture – endemic amongst the more traditional publishers and critics of poetry – that's stuck in a patriarchal, 1950s-esque mindset and hasn't actually noticed that society has moved on. It's the literary equivalent of WH Smith filing their science and politics journals under “Men’s Interest” while “Women’s Interest” is restricted to magazines about baking and knitting. And this bothers me intensely.

As a (male) writer of poetry, I often instinctively use a female narrative voice – or else try to explore the male response to issues that traditional thinking would categorise as “women's concerns”. A Long Way to Fall, the title poem of my recent collection, revolves around a terrified father-to-be coming to terms with impending parenthood. At the other end of the scale, my prize winning Separate Taxis reflects the guilt felt by the partner of a rape victim for not being there to prevent the abuse inflicted on his female partner.

These days I read far more female poets than males. The three local poets I've most vigorously championed in York are all women. And when I've judged poetry competitions, the poems I've selected as my First Prize winners have to date all been written by women. If this reflects a bias on my part, it isn't a conscious one; poems are submitted to competitions anonymously, after all, so I have no idea of the gender of the writer.

Am I reading (and writing) “women’s poetry” then? I don't think so. As far as I'm concerned there's no gender label on good poetry. It's just poetry, and should be celebrated as such. As last week's event showed, a poem about a tapeworm can be “women's poetry” every bit as much as one about childbirth. But if Angela France is correct, there’s an outside chance that my fascination with the female poetic voice may just explain one or two of the bad reviews I've had when submitting to the more, shall we say, highbrow journals...

Discrimination exists. That seems unarguable. But to play devil's advocate for a minute, it can cut both ways. I can remember one rather snide review of Oz Hardwick's excellent collection The Illuminated Dreamer, in which the (female) reviewer took great umbrage at the sensuousness of Hardwick’s imagery. The subtext of the review appeared to be that only women had a right to write sensuous poetry, and that for a male poet to do so was somehow in bad taste. This seemed to me to be imposing a rather warped extreme of feminism onto a collection of poems which had nothing to do with the politics of gender identity. The poems in question were about love, no more and no less.

So should female poets (and those like me, who aspire to match the great female poets) give up the female narrative voice altogether? Should they write only material with which condescending male critics are comfortable (about cars, or football, or abstract philosophy perhaps?) Wouldn't the world be a much duller place if they did? Much better to shake up the establishment altogether. These sneering male critics are pompous arses, and the best way to deal with them is to deprive them of the oxygen of attention. They are only arbiters of taste because the establishment allows them to be.

So here's to a new establishment – or maybe better yet, no establishment at all. Here's to sisters (and brothers) doing it for themselves: writing and promoting work that actually speaks meaningfully about life, to those who are crying out for it.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Creative writing courses - are they really a waste of time?

Hanif Kureishi, the grumpy old man of modern English literature, ruffled a few feathers at the Bath Literary Festival recently. Kureishi, who is Professor of Creative Writing at Kingston University, was reported in the Guardian to have told his audience that creative writing courses are "a waste of time" and that the idea of a one-year MA in Creative Writing was "madness".

Kureishi's comments concerned his experiences teaching prose fiction, but they touched a few chords that were familiar to me as a poet. He criticised the unrealistic expectations of his Creative Writing students, their preoccupation with the style of the writing rather than the substance of the story, and above all the idea that writing talent could be hot-housed in the compressed timescale of a university course. "After about five years [students] really realise something about writing," he said. "It's a very slow thing. People go on writing courses for a weekend and you think, 'A weekend?'"

I have to admit I find it hard to argue with his line of reasoning. I've always taken the view that poetry is a craft that requires patience. Just as poems need time to mature, so poetic talent isn't something that can be rushed. I blogged not that long ago about my concern that Creative Writing courses were trying to rush people into publication before they, as poets, had really found their voice. I can't help but suspect that many Creative Writing graduates are the literary equivalent of forced rhubarb. Quick to flourish, their output is full of flavour, for a short time; but take away the supports, and they collapse.

There are other agendas at work here too, over and above the largely benign one of hot-housing literary talent. Universities are commercial enterprises now. In the wake of the Dearing Report, the imposition of tuition fees, and the constant 'reforms' of the academic sector since the 1990s, universities can only survive if they bring in the cash. Universities can only bring in the cash if they can show measurable output. And churning out dozens of aspiring writers with Creative Writing MAs and premature publications is a way of demonstrating 'measurable output'. It's the only way the institutions can justify the frankly astronomical price tag that the ConDem government has imposed on university education.

This is where I start to feel very uncomfortable. It would be a sorry impoverishment of our cultural life if the only way for an aspiring writer (in whatever genre) to develop their craft was to fork out £9000 a year for a Creative Writing degree. Much of society already accepts the lie that writing and literature is something a little bit elitist. My socialistic instincts balk at the thought of education only being available to those with the means to pay for it.

We are not yet at a point where the dominance of the Creative Writing degree is absolute. There are plenty of grassroots, amateur writers' groups (our own York Writers, for instance) willing to provide ongoing support and instruction to writers for a tiny fraction of the price tag of a university degree. There are individual writers and promoters who give unstintingly of their time and expertise to nurture the talents of the up-and-coming poets and authors who will be packing out the festivals of tomorrow – and often do it for nothing. There are writing programmes designed to take creativity into the streets, even into Young Offenders' Institutions, to improve the quality of life of people for whom a £9000-a-year tuition fee bill would be inconceivable. And long may it continue to be so.

Don't get me wrong. It's the system that's at fault, not the Creative Writing degrees – and not the fantastic tutors, poets and authors who teach the courses (several of whom are friends and colleagues of mine – all of whom I admire and respect). Where I think Kureishi misses the point is by reducing the Creative Writing degree to a purely utilitarian concept, a production line to turn people into marketable writers. It's more than that. Any university course is more than that.

He's forgotten (or perhaps it doesn't bother him) that, for many people, the impulse to write is a lonely, misunderstood state of being. We're lucky, in York, to have so many writers and a great support network for those who choose to tap into it. But not every writer has that. I've met many who confess that friends, families, even partners are indifferent to their urge to write, or downright hostile to it. An aspiring writer who grows up laughed at, belittled and shunned for his – or her – passion will find, in a university, acceptance, support, encouragement and the chance to expand their horizons. They will find people who are genuinely interested in what they are writing, and why. People who get that it matters. They will, in all likelihood, find themselves – or at least find how to start out on the journey.

And even if they never sell a single piece of their writing, that's still something you can never put a price tag on.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

For Your Eldorado - a tribute to Graeme Miles

It's always a rather awe-inspiring moment when a poem escapes the clutches of the poet and takes on a life of its own, beyond the creator. A few days ago I had the honour of hearing my poem For Your Eldorado read out at a packed concert in celebration of a great songwriter, social chronicler, and one of the first people ever to champion my own writing.

In his inimitable, quiet way, Graeme Miles is something of a local legend in the north-east of England. In a period of just over 20 years spanning the 1950s and 60s, he wrote 300-odd songs chronicling the landscape and the changing way of life in the Teesside where he grew up, lived and worked. A disciple of the Folk Revival, Graeme's songwriting was heavily influenced by the traditional music of the area. Many of his songs are shared and passed around Teesside today as if they were true folk songs, or nursery rhymes.

Graeme Miles passed away earlier this year without ever becoming a mainstream name in the arts world. He'd never have wanted such recognition. He was humble, dignified and self-effacing. For Graeme, the created work mattered far more than the creator. When traditional ways of life were coming to an end, and changing economic fortunes were dealing hammer-blows to the established industry of the region, Graeme saw his songs as his contribution to a shared heritage, a collective memory capable of withstanding the changes all around.

I had the great privilege of getting to know Graeme very early in my journey as a poet. Some fifteen years ago, I became a member of Jackdaw, an informal little poetry circle in Durham, which was attended by Graeme and his artistic collaborator Robin Dale. Graeme was the quiet member of the group, but his creativity was clear from the start. He was an aspiring poet, striving to write “good, bad and indifferent verse, but not necessarily in that order” (his words). He produced a series of wonderful illustrations for the first Jackdaw anthology (including the magnificent cover picture that graces this article). And it was through Robin's haunting performances of Graeme's songs that I first got to know his incredible back catalogue. Pastoral poems, work songs, chronicles of changing times: it seemed Graeme had written them all.

I had no idea how far Graeme's music had travelled until I started to venture into the idiosyncratic world of the region's folk clubs. It was a surprise to me just how many musicians – from fireside amateurs to bona-fide, touring professionals – had Graeme's songs in their repertoire. They had a natural home in north-east England, but many were known across the length of the UK (and even beyond; another exponent, Martyn Wyndham-Read, has exported the Graeme Miles songbook all the way to Australia!). I once heard Bob Fox sing The Shores of Old Blighty to a field of 10,000 people at the Cropredy Festival – and most of those 10,000 joined in the refrain.

What makes Graeme's songs special isn't just their role as sociological record. These are songs with immense heart: poems-set-to-music which are filled with love and loss, dreams of peace and hope for a better tomorrow. As a writer, Graeme was always among the people. He took on back-breaking manual labour in order to celebrate the labourers in song. He slept rough in the bitter winter of 1963. He walked the long march from Aldermaston with the original Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. His songwriting was political, but not in any contrived or self-important way. His depiction of the wind across the North York Moors in Horumarye may have been intended to salute the timeless pilgrims of the Lyke Wake Walk; but when he sang “Cold blows the wind over Fylingdales”, it was impossible for a listener not to form a mental image of the frightening outpost of Cold War paranoia that dominated the landscape in Graeme's own lifetime. He could discuss world peace in grand allegory in The Eagle and the Dove, or through the simple dreams of a conscripted squaddie wishing for The Shores of Old Blighty.

I didn't know it at the time, but Graeme had known his share of romance, and romance gone wrong, in his younger days too. His first love song – the enigmatically titled Exercise no. 77 (only recently re-catalogued as the much more poetic Amouret) – is one of the finest pieces of romantic poetry I know. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Graeme and I first became friends. At a turbulent time in my own private life, Graeme understood the subtext in my poetry, and encouraged me not to be afraid to express what I was feeling. He even illustrated a couple of those early attempts.

And this is where I owe Graeme a real debt. I'd only been writing poetry a couple of years when I joined the Jackdaws. But very early on, Graeme found a point of connection with my writing, and became a generous champion. I was still far from the point of actually submitting my work for publication; but it's in no small measure down to the confidence that Graeme always placed in me and my writing, that I was eventually able to do so. Perhaps it was because we shared subject matter – the natural world, love and heartbreak, occasional political comment. More likely, it was just because he was a generous, thoughtful man, keen to nurture creativity wherever he found it. He was scathing in his dismissal of the fake and the superficial. But when he found something genuine, he was passionate in his nurturing of it.

Graeme and I corresponded for several years after I left Durham, and gradually became what I hesitatingly describe as “a serious poet”. One of my most treasured possessions is the signed copy of Songscapes, his first published volume of songs, which he gave to Kath and me as a wedding present. I've watched – admittedly at a distance, but with pride and delight – as Graeme's work has attracted serious recognition (notably from the English Folk Dance and Song Society) and new generations of musicians have declared their allegiance. The Unthanks, the master reinterpreters of north-eastern traditional music, and up-and-coming rabble-rousers The Young 'Uns, are just two of the bands who have found inspiration from Graeme's work and his outlook on his art.

News of Graeme's death earlier this year was, of course, a great sadness. But it was a fitting tribute to the man and his music that his devotees were able to fill Cecil Sharp House on 23rd November for a celebration of Graeme's legacy. The Unthanks, The Wilsons, Martyn Wyndham-Read, The Young 'Uns and even Robin Dale performed a wondrous mix from the vast Graeme Miles repertoire, from the simple solo voice (Robin's haunting rendition of Exercise no. 77 still sends shivers through me) to avant-garde arrangements with brass, fiddle and sample loops of Graeme's own voice reading his poetry.

My poem, For Your Eldorado, played a small part in the proceedings. Written in 2008, and taking its title from one of Graeme's best loved songs, the poem was my thank-you for his wonderful music and for the encouragement and inspiration over the years. By a circuitous route, the poem had managed to find its way into the hands of Martyn Wyndham-Read, who judged it fitting to be shared during the evening, and contacted me out of the blue to ask for permission for it to be read out.

I probably won't ever know what Graeme thought of the poem. I sent him a copy, back when it was fresh off the printer, but we had already lost touch by this point, and I didn't get a reply. I hope he appreciated it. For now, it stands as my tribute to a generous hearted, intelligent, wise and creative writer, and a gentleman of the first order. For me, Graeme Miles was and is a poet among poets. If my creative work can in some small measure live up to the example he has set, then I’ll be a very proud man indeed.


(All illustrations in this article are by Graeme Miles and appeared in the Jackdaw writers' anthology in 2000. The text of my poem For Your Eldorado can be found at http://www.graememiles.com/lyrics.)

(For more about Graeme and his music, visit http://www.graememiles.com)

Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Poetry Society: 6 months in



Regular readers of the Soapbox will remember that earlier this year I joined the Poetry Society. I've always had misgivings about this particular organisation, and promised to keep Soapbox readers updated on whether or not I got my money's worth from being a member. 6 months into my membership, I think it's time to assess the state of the union.

What have I got from the Poetry Society so far? And what’s missing?

The first sign that I was a bona fide Poetry Society member was the issue of Poetry News that dropped through my letterbox back in February. The Society's broadsheet comes out four times a year and is Society members' window on the work the Society does nationally as an advocate for the art of poetry.

As a news sheet, it has strengths and weaknesses. Coverage of the death of Seamus Heaney, as you might expect, was thorough, sensitive and had suitable gravitas to it. But the Society seems a little selective as to what it considers ‘news’: the plagiarism scandals, for instance, haven't merited a footnote.

I was half tempted to go through my first issue, circle every unfamiliar word in red ink, and write a blog article headed “Words I didn't understand in Poetry News.” There were a lot of them – and this bothered me.

Like many poets, I'm largely self-taught. My academic schooling in poetry culminated in O-level English Literature, and what knowledge I've acquired since has been entirely from reading poems myself and talking about them, or reading about them in the journals and websites that I follow. I don't have the luxury of a literature degree or a creative writing qualification. One of the most important things a group like the Poetry Society should do is educate its members. It shouldn't assume that its members are already experts and that it doesn't need to explain what it is talking about.

Happily, I've had no difficulty understanding subsequent editions of Poetry News. And I have learned stuff about poets, and poems, that I didn't know before.

Poetry Review, the Society's journal, is a different kettle of fish. Among my literary friends, it has a reputation for being mainly interested in intellectual, ‘difficult’ poetry. I have to admit that the poems so far haven't been anything like as ‘difficult’ as I was expecting. But for the most part it is the articles about poetry that I've found far more interesting, and which for me justify the existence of the magazine. These, and the National Poetry Competition winners, which are reproduced in full and discussed in detail, giving first-rate insight into the workings of one of the biggest poetry competitions in the UK.

The Society was given a human face when I decided to join our regional group, or Stanza. This meets once a month in York to critique poems, and organises occasional events to raise the profile of our local poets. Our Stanza rep, the indefatigable Carole Bromley, runs the monthly critique sessions. She's a natural, thoughtful hostess and I very much appreciate the effort she put into making me welcome as a new Stanza member. She’s also an excellent critique group leader, with an “iron-fist-in-velvet-glove” approach that makes the sessions fast-paced, lively, and very high quality.

It was a huge privilege for me to be invited to join the York Stanza poets at their recent showcase at the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe. As a newcomer, I could very easily have been passed over in favour of better established names. But this is a truly egalitarian group; my brief membership was no barrier to me taking part alongside everybody else. There were 10 of us performing on the night, in the end; just a 5-6 minute slot each, but I was in the company of poets who have made regular appearances on the prize winners' lists for the Bridport, the Keats-Shelley and other ‘premier league’ poetry competitions. It's a real tribute to the success of the Stanza that I was allowed to feel I had every right to be standing up there in such august company, even if I doubted it myself occasionally!

Now that I have a book of my own to tout, the literary life is all about networking. This should be something that the Poetry Society can facilitate better than anybody. The Stanza, of course, is a great place to get to know poets who are at the top of their game, to share ideas and inspiration and to help me work towards the distant goal of Poetry Collection No. 2. But if it weren't for the Stanza, I have say that the Society is giving me no help at all with the networking I need to do to get myself established as a poet. That's despite the promises that it will host member profiles on its website, showcase members' books, give us opportunities to take part in national events, etc. All such enquiries I've made so far have come to naught. In fact, my emails to the Society don't even get a reply.

So I guess the jury's still out as to whether the Society is worth it. At the moment, I'd suggest probably yes, but that's purely because of the Stanza and the opportunities it has afforded me (which are as much down to Carole herself as the Poetry Society). Other than that, I get the feeling that the Society isn't all that interested in me. And that's a real shame.

It's another 6 months before my membership comes up for renewal. If the Society can convince me in that time that it isn't only interested in the academic, the highbrow and the London-centric, then I'll be only too happy to renew. But I'll be honest. It's still got a bit of a hill to climb.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Where have all the war poets gone? Part 1


My friend and poetic sparring partner Tim Ellis sparked off yet another cracking Facebook debate a couple of weeks ago. In a discussion of his e-book On the Verge – an elaborate satire on the Western world's disregard for the consequences of environmental degradation – he asked the question: why were there so few poets writing about climate change? Are we afraid to tackle the subject? Or are we more comfortable disregarding the issue altogether, and writing about ‘safe’ subjects like love, daffodils and cats – thus proving the truism that most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people?

Tim has a point. Very few of the poets I know in Yorkshire are writing about climate change – or Syria, homelessness or benefit cuts. Those few that are overtly engaging with these issues seem to be writing rants, rather than poems – shouty tirades that fail to have any real impact. The bona fide poems are conspicuous by their absence.

I felt duty bound to play devil's advocate. It wasn't, I protested, that we didn't want to write about such things. The difficulty is that for most of us, war and homelessness and climate change are subjects too big to write about. Is it even worth the poet's effort trying to write about such things, when any given 30-second run of newsreel images makes our months of laboured word-craft pale into insignificance? Isn't it better to write about love, and daffodils, and cats, because these things at least give us a moment's escape from the ugly realities of the world?

I don't really believe this theory. Poetry is the stuff of human life. Poets, as a class, have a sort of responsibility to humanity, to reflect and recount all of human life. We need poets who write about climate change, and war, just as much as we need poets who write about love (or cats). Poets, collectively, are failing the world if we decide that any subject is not fitting subject matter to write poetry about.

So why do so many of us find it so hard to write poems about ‘big issues’ – or make such a bad job of it when we do try?

War and climate change are pretty unsubtle things. So there is a tendency, when addressing them head-on, to think that ‘subtle’ isn’t good enough. Why write a sonnet, when you can have a rant instead? But rants on their own are an artform more akin to Party Political Broadcasts than to poems. I'm not saying they don't have their place. Someone needs to get up on the barricades and say what the rest of us are feeling. But it doesn't require poetry to do that. Rhetoric, yes. Oratory, probably. But poetry? The subtlety of poetry is just going to be lost on an angry mob.

So what can poetry do to illuminate, inform and educate about the big issues?

In my opinion, poetry has two qualities that newsreel footage and mob rants don't have. Firstly, poetry is a way of looking slant-wise at the world – of finding meanings and connections that we never realised were there. By looking at something slant-wise, we end up looking at it more deeply – understanding its inner workings, its relationship to the wider environment. We find the new angle that the news reporters and the propagandists miss.

Pete Seeger's Where have All the Flowers Gone? is a prime example. One of the greatest anti-war songs ever written; but it never goes near a battlefield. Its starting-point is the cycle of life and love, as young girls pick flowers to be reminded of their sweethearts. It ends up in the graveyard where all their sweethearts are buried, without us quite noticing how we got there – and then the whole futile cycle starts again.

The second thing that poetry does is to use the microcosm to tell us about the macrocosm. A war poem doesn't tell us about ‘war’ – ‘war’ is too big, too abstract and too grotesque a concept to be pinned down in a 14-line sonnet. But a Wilfred Owen poem can tell us about a single, heart-stopping moment of terror in the life of a single soldier. And it's when we grasp the notion that this awful moment was replicated tens of thousands of times over, in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, that we begin to feel the true horror of the war. When we see its discarded left-overs picked over by the ragmen in Patricia McCarthy’s Clothes that Escaped the Great War – the 2012 winner of the National Poetry Competition – those of us who have been fortunate never to have experienced such desolation can at least begin to grasp the awful emptiness, the futility of what was left behind.

There is an even subtler way that poets can be war poets, or climate change poets. A good poem has many layers. The subtext of a poem often carries a meaning that goes far beyond the subject matter in the written words. Love poets (and love-gone-wrong poets) use subtext all the time, to turn a physical description into an emotional map of the human heart. A whole generation of literature students are currently writing theses on the existential significance of William Carlos Williams' wheelbarrow. So what's to stop a poem about a love affair, a cat, or even a daffodil, also being an unwritten commentary on the folly of war, or the depredations of global warming? All it takes is for poets to be made aware of the possibilities.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Are we all plagiarists now?

Is it just me, or do the poetry plagiarism scandals seem to be getting too close for comfort?

I was shocked when I read the allegations by Carcanet poet Matthew Welton that his work had been plagiarised by his fellow Nottingham poet CJ Allen. All of the plagiarism revelations to date have been scandalous, but this one seemed to hit home in a more – well, personal way. After all, I've entered competitions where CJ Allen has been a prize winner.

I must be clear: at the time of writing there is no suggestion that ANY of CJ Allen's prize winning work is anything other than his own original creation. But sadly, now that he's been tarnished with the plagiarist’s brush I can't avoid a nagging little “What if...?” that creeps into my mind when I hear his name mentioned. And it's depressing that I should think about any poet that way, particularly not one with such a strong track record and hitherto good reputation. If I start doubting one poet, how long before I start doubting them all?

What makes it worse is I have a sneaking suspicion that very few poets are entirely blameless when it comes to appropriating other people's work.

We all absorb ideas and images from the world around us. Writers pilfer constantly from overheard conversations, bits of pop culture, lyrics, advertising jingles, politicians' soundbites, and the like. “Intertextuality”, where a piece of writing knowingly references an existing source from the print or broadcast media, is one of the buzz-words in contemporary poetry. If, like me, you go to a lot of poetry readings and open mics, you'll be exposed to a whole barrage of poetic phrases, unusual metaphors and similes, and the like. And the chances are you may be picking them up subconsciously, reworking and reusing them in your own creative work.

I realised – and realised in a very public arena – that this was happening to me too, not so long ago. I'd been working on a new poem, a childhood reminiscence infused with my beloved fairytale imagery. I had a line in my head, which provided a perfect ending for the poem. And I knew it wasn't entirely ‘my’ line. I'd picked it up from somewhere – but where, I had absolutely no idea. Was it something I'd read in one of my books of fairy-stories? After all, I often find ideas for poems lurking within their covers. Had I heard it on TV, or the radio? Or – and this is the tricky bit – was it another poet's line, that I'd heard at a reading or an open mic, and picked up without realising that I'd done so?

It turned out to be the latter. This perfect final line for my new poem was somebody else's work. I used it in the poem. And the moment I realised where I'd heard the line before was the moment I read it out loud to an audience – at the self-same open mic that I'd first heard it, several months earlier.

Urgh.

If the poet who had created that line had been present, I could easily have ended up tarred with the same brush as CJ Allen. They weren't, as it turned out. But I had no idea who had written that line; all I knew was it was someone who might well be in the room, who almost certainly had friends who were in the room. The only honourable thing to do was to make a public confession of what had happened, and ask the original poet’s forbearance on the grounds that imitation, in this case, really was the sincerest form of flattery.

The audience at that open mic are a lovely lot. They were very understanding. They actually applauded the poem (and the confession) – and they didn't come after me with pitchforks afterwards, or ‘out’ me on the Carcanet blog. But I know fine well that I now have no right to use that ‘borrowed’ line in my poem. I could never be comfortable, submitting it for publication in the knowledge that the poem owed its power to someone else's words.

That last line has now been binned. It took me a couple of weeks to come up with the replacement (which is not nearly as good as its ‘borrowed’ predecessor). But such is life. All poets tend to find that, just when we want to say something really profound, someone else has got there before us. We shrug our shoulders, revise our poems, and move on.

The whole experience has made me realise just how close all poets come, at times, to being plagiarists. After all, we'd have precious little source material if we had to rely only on the original stuff that comes out of our heads. But the stuff we pick up from our environment – the lyrics, the headlines, the discarded soundbites – these are someone's creative work too. And the fine line between unconsciously using these as the starting-point for our creative process, and rehashing them wholesale as if they belonged to us in the first place, is finer than most of us realise.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Seamus Heaney: RIP

I don't think my meagre words can add very much to the many tributes that people far more erudite than I have paid to Ireland's most prominent poet since Yeats. I was lucky enough to hear the great man reading at York University just a couple of months ago; and it was an extraordinary experience.

Some poets are performers. They accompany their words with dramatic and flamboyant gestures, music, rhythm, sound effects, or multi-media installations. I have huge respect for those that can do this well. But there is something uniquely awe-inspiring about the quiet simplicity of a single poet reading their words, without embellishment, to a still, rapt audience.

That is my defining memory of Seamus. That, and his self-deprecating answer to the questioner who told him "By brother says that your work can be summed up in the words 'death and potatoes' - how would you describe it?" He simply smiled, and told the questioner that he couldn't describe his work any better.

My final comment on the loss of Seamus Heaney is a wry tribute from the Yahoo! news page which reported his death. A commentator with the alias "Taylor Swift Rules" had made a disparaging remark about how this was typical of Yahoo!, advertising the death of "someone nobody has ever heard of." There's a thesis that could be written about what a sad state of affairs it is that there are English-speaking people who haven't heard of Seamus Heaney. But the best riposte was the one from the wag who replied, "Who's Taylor Swift?"

(photo taken from Wexford Festival Opera)