Monday, 18 April 2016

Testing times, hard choices

I don’t often write on the Soapbox about my day job. I spend so much time and energy talking about it offline that my readers who know me in the non-cyberspace context are probably fed up of hearing me bang on about it.

But every now and then, the day job overlaps with the concerns of the Soapbox, and sometimes I have stuff to say that is very uncomfortable indeed.

This is a story about Bradford Metropolitan District Council, who have just approved a programme to slash A MILLION POUNDS from the budget they provide for advice services across their district. That’s 27% of their advice budget axed in one fell swoop.

It may not be a very ‘poety’ subject to blog about, but I REALLY believe in advice services. I have a legal qualification, and during the day I work as an adviser with some of the most complex, most vulnerable households in Yorkshire. These are the people who are going to suffer the most from a cut like this. People who don’t have the resources to hire solicitors to represent them when trouble comes in their lives. People who very often don’t have the level of education necessary to represent themselves in court, or pick their way through the maze of the benefits system. People who lack the confidence (or the bloody-mindedness) to stand up to mistreatment at work. People with disabilities. With learning difficulties. People at the end of their tether. People, in short, who would get Royally Shafted By The System if it wasn’t for the fact that there are advice agencies that they can go to, for free, to access help with getting their lives on track, and legal representation to help them fight for their rights.

Advice agencies have had a hard time of it in recent years, thanks to the Tory-driven austerity agenda. The Legal Aid cuts which took effect in 2013 have decimated the services which used to provide advice to the vulnerable. Many agencies (including big national agencies like Citizens’ Advice Bureaux) have relied on local authority funding to keep afloat in the face of government cuts. Others have had to make large-scale redundancies, or even close altogether.

The massive cuts to the advice service budget in Bradford are inevitably going to be a hammer blow to a region which is one of the most deprived in the UK, with a high proportion of residents who do not have English as their first language and so face even bigger difficulties accessing help when they need it. Organisations will close. Committed and experienced advisers will be made redundant. The chances are that because of it, there will be families who lose their homes. Employers who will get away with discrimination and bullying. Victims of crime who will never get redress for what they have suffered.

What has this got to do with poetry, I hear you ask?

Well – leaving aside the obvious answer that poetry is born out of the stuff of human misfortune – I bet quite a few of my readers are followers of the Ilkley Literature Festival. A number of you will have been to events there. Some of you may even have performed there. A year ago you will have got the same string of emails as I did, warning the Festival’s supporters that Bradford Metropolitan District Council were proposing to end their regular block grant to the Festival, and urging all its supporters to sign their petition asking the Council to protect the Festival’s funding.

The petition succeeded. Ilkley Literature Festival kept its Council grant. But when that is set alongside a 27% cut to the advice service budget, am I alone in feeling that there may be a case of distorted priorities here?

Yes, the arts are important. I stand by what I said in an earlier Soapbox article about how in a time of recession, the value of communal participation in the arts goes way beyond mere pounds and pence. I’m also all too well aware that certain vested interests are not all that keen on the voices of grassroots arts practitioners, particularly when they use those voices as a vehicle to question, challenge and protest what is being done. And I don’t envy the choices that had to be made by Council officials looking at ever diminishing budgets, and knowing that the axe had to fall somewhere. When we're talking £11,000 versus a million, it’s unlikely this was an “either/or” decision.

But I still can’t help being uncomfortable that Ilkley Literature Festival kept its funding, when advice agencies have lost theirs. When friends and colleagues of mine are being made redundant, and vulnerable households can no longer turn to them for support and advice.

The thing is, Ilkley Literature Festival is massive. It takes place in “the rich bit” of Bradford MDC’s administrative area. It has private funding from trusts, corporate sponsorship, and donations from benefactors. If it had lost its Council funding, the Festival would have survived. Yes, it might have had to tighten its belt, to think about a slightly less ambitious programme for a year or two – but as I’ve argued before, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Ilkley Literature Festival should not believe itself entitled to anything. Other festivals don’t – I write relatively fresh from seeing what a great programme the York Literature Festival managed this year without any local authority funding and with no Arts Council grant. It would not have been a disaster had Bradford MDC withdrawn Ilkley Literature Festival’s funding; it would have just meant that its fundraisers had to get a bit cleverer.

But it is a disaster that Bradford’s advice agencies are going to be making people redundant, and withdrawing services that the most vulnerable in the community rely on. If we poets are going to get angry about anything, let’s get cross about that, for heaven’s sake.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Don't Pay the Ferryman, or The Perils of the "Greatest Hit"

As results day for the National Poetry Competition approaches, and the deadline for this year’s Bridport Prize looms, I have no doubt there are many up-and-coming poets dreaming of how one of these prizes could change their lives. If you’re one of them, I don’t blame you. The poetry world is such a thankless one for so much of the time that frankly any kind of recognition from the establishment is cause for celebration. A win in the Bridport or the National could even be career-changing, as the likes of Carol Ann Duffy and Colette Bryce can testify.

But a big win like this could be something of a poisoned chalice, in its own way.

I do enter these competitions, from time to time. Well, OK, not Bridport – I’ve blogged before about why not – but I try and use my Poetry Society member’s free entry to the National every year. Yet when I do, there’s still a lurking fear that any dreams of success could mutate all too easily into nightmares. That, in short, a big win could turn me into the poetic equivalent of Chris de Burgh.

For the benefit of my younger readers, allow me to explain. Back when I were a lad, before middle age and cynicism set in, there was a badly dressed troubadour whose songwriting I followed avidly. He lived in a castle. He had eyebrows like two large Tiger Moth caterpillars. And he was the nearest modern equivalent to the travelling minstrels of medieval times, wandering the countryside with his repertoire of fairy tales and murder ballads. They were quirky, subversive, rude and occasionally iconoclastic – and I loved them. I still remember, as an impressionable schoolboy, the shiver that went through me the first time I listened to Spanish Train. A song about God and the Devil playing poker for souls – not the sort of theology I was usually exposed to by the Christian Brothers! I remember singing duets with my brother, staggering half-drunk through the streets of Birkenhead, on the way home from some party or other: oh the leaves are falling and the wind is calling and I must get on the road. I was never all that rebellious in my youth; but somehow blasting out Patricia the Stripper on the sixth-form ghetto blaster when the head of year walked past seemed to make up quite nicely for all the absinthe, marijuana and fornication that I never had the nerve to attempt. To this day, if you catch me at the wrong moment after a beer or two too many, I can treat you to a full rendition.

You see, back in the day, Chris de Burgh was actually rather good. He was like me: a compulsive storyteller. He was fascinated by fairy stories. He sang some of the best peace songs ever written. Occasionally he was really rude, in a naive, Benny Hill, chasing-scantily-clad-women-in-circles-round-the-nearest-tree kind of way. My brother, the metal-head, used to play the Apocalypse Cycle from Into the Light at full volume in his hall of residence, and fellow students really thought it was the next big thing in heavy metal. Chris de Burgh could be all things to all people.

But then it happened. This bard with the razor wit and the rainbow voice went and had a hit. A huge hit.

Yes, with a twitch of one megalithic eyebrow, de Burgh secured his fortune for the rest of his life. And buried his career with it.

Now this is the problem. Ardent follower though I am, I have to confess that nine times out of ten, the reaction I get at the mention of Chris de Burgh (apart from “Who?”), is “Wasn’t The Lady in Red a pile of shite?” It doesn’t matter how much I talk about the radical back catalogue: the songs about strippers, or murderers, or celestial poker games. “Wasn’t The Lady in Red a pile of shite?” is all I hear. Unless I’m talking to a blue-rinsed Daily Mail reader, at which point I get really hot under the collar, because CHRIS DE BURGH WAS NEVER MEANT TO BE ENJOYED BY BLUE-RINSED DAILY MAIL READERS!

There we have it: the curse of the “greatest hit”. One big success, and you can be pigeon-holed for life. You may spend the remainder of your creative career trying to replicate the magic formula – and kill off your creativity in the process. Think of all the great novelists who produced one successful novel in their lifetimes, and never published anything thereafter because they simply couldn’t come close to recapturing the magic of that first triumph. Or the ones who had a big success and followed it up with dozens of sub-standard re-runs. Or the ones forced into doing something so radically different that their original fans are left baffled and alienated, and who never quite win new ones.

There’s also the risk that even if you do follow up the “greatest hit” with something wonderful, the public just won’t want to know. Another of my favourite hippie troubadours, Ralph McTell, suffers from this more than most. He may have a good 45 years’ worth of wonderful songwriting under his belt but he's still expected to wheel out Streets of London at every opportunity. “Streets of London Syndrome” was brilliantly lampooned by the Big Train team back in the 1990s, but there’s a truth behind the joke. I know one award-winning poet who loathes his “greatest hit” with a passion, but has to perform it at every single gig because this is what the audience demand.

I’ve got to be honest. I can’t really defend The Lady in Red. The best I can do is point out the injustice that plenty of far more “credible” musicians have recorded far worse songs, and somehow kept their reputations intact while de Burgh’s has been ground into the mire. On a sliding scale of awfulness, The Lady in Red might score a full 9 out of 10, but Wonderful Tonight – quite possibly the most nauseating song ever written? – merits at least 30,000: and yet there are still people who claim that Eric Clapton is God! And what about Stevie Wonder? A songwriting genius, it’s true; but why is he allowed to get away with the sentimental bilge that is I Just Called to Say I Love You, while de Burgh gets pilloried for an inconsequential little ditty about his ex-wife’s red dress? It doesn’t matter how much I protest that The Lady in Red was an aberration, that he shouldn’t be judged on the strength of one embarrassing song. Judged he is, and probably always will be.

This is why I dread becoming Chris de Burgh. It’s the lurking fear that, were I to have a big hit sometime in my poetic career, it will be the start of a slippery slope. That I’ll cash in. I’ll sell out. Or else I’ll yearn to do something different, but won’t be able to get gigs unless I keep performing the same old “classic”. I dread that one day I’ll make one concession too many, and everything worthwhile that I’ve ever done and stood for will be lost in a single act of all-consuming mediocrity.

I’m going to go on protesting the greatness of Chris de Burgh. Every few years he’ll create a peace song of epic proportions, and remind me exactly why I used to revere him. The trouble is that for every Up Here in Heaven or The Last Time I Cried there are a dozen unnecessary re-runs of The Lady in Red. And they don’t exactly help my case.

I try not to get too despondent. I still want to believe that in years to come, the reputation of Chris de Burgh will be redeemed – that our children’s children will be able to sing his songs the way I used to sing them, with sparkling eyes. But in the meantime I feel the tug of an expanding waistline. I catch a whiff of that expensive malt whisky I never used to be able to afford. And I know that if I ever wrote the literary equivalent of The Lady in Red, I would probably go the way of Chris de Burgh.

So don’t pay the ferryman, ladies and gentlemen. Don’t even fix a price.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Clap clinic...

Yonks ago, I remember a poet at a performance explaining that you can classify a poem by the kind of onomatopoeia it elicits. There are “ooh” poems. There are “aah” poems. There are “oh!” poems. There are “hmmm...” poems. There are “fffff” poems. There are “ouch” poems. And occasionally there are “ha!” poems too.

Every one of these responses, in its own way, is a sign that a poem has succeeded. In some poetry readings you can gauge the impact of a poem by the volume of the wordless response from around the audience. It’s most obvious with the ‘instant impact’ poems, which tend to be in the “ooh”, “ha!” or “ouch” categories. But sometimes a particularly good poem needs an appreciative silence, to allow the impact of the words to sink in. A “hmmm” poem can become an “oh!” poem as understanding dawns on the listener. A love poem (usually an “aah”) may have a sting in the subtext, turning it into an “oh!” or even a “fffff”. Two of the First Prize poems I’ve chosen from competitions I’ve judged (Kate RhodesThe Movement of Bees and Joanna Ezekiel’s Homecoming, if you’re interested) fall very much into this category – I’ve heard Joanna perform the latter, and heard the audience making exactly those responses. And it’s one of the joys of a good poetry reading, to allow the poems space to take root in the consciousness of the audience, to allow the responses to unfurl in exactly this way.

There are many ways to show appreciation for a good poem. The evocative onomatopoeia may well be the highest compliment a poem can elicit. An appreciative (or even a shocked) silence can be another. And so can a round of applause.

But here’s the thing. A round of applause may be entirely appropriate for a “ha!" poem, or an “ouch” poem. And let’s face it, performing poets love the adulation. But what may be entirely appropriate for a “ha!” poem may be exactly the wrong response to the more subtle piece of poetry – the “hmmm” poem that needs space, and perhaps needs silence too, to sink in. There may even be a risk that a premature round of applause can shatter a carefully woven atmosphere, detract from the substance of the poem, and rob the audience of the chance to really feel what the poet is getting at.

One of my regular correspondents, poet Angela Topping, puts this bluntly. “I ask for a silence so the poem can do its work,” she blogged in August 2015. “To clap at the end of a one or two minute poem is like drinking tea from a delicate china cup, and then shattering it against the wall.”

I’m not sure I would go that far, to be honest. As the MC of a long-running open mic night, I’m well aware of the value of a good round of applause as a sign of affirmation. It’s particularly important for those who are new to writing poetry, or to performing it in public. It also matters a lot to those visiting a performance night for the first time, who may be seasoned performers but could well be strangers to the rest of the audience. The enthusiasm of an audience response can be the difference between that person coming back, and maybe becoming a regular, and them never darkening your door again.

So I was rather disconcerted when, after a visitation from the good people at Write Out Loud last year, The Speakers’ Corner came in for criticism precisely because not all audience members clapped every single poem that was performed. The majority got applause, or at least that was my impression. But for other poems, the response was more along the lines of the considered “hmmm” or the admiring “oh!”, and the poets for the most part took this as a sign of affirmation of their work just as they would have done had they been met with a round of applause. There was certainly nobody who performed that night who wasn’t roundly applauded at the end of their set, whether or not there were claps between poems.

I didn’t think this was an especially big deal. The audience at Speakers’ Corner is always supportive. We don’t boo. We don’t heckle (unless we know the performer very well, and know they won’t mind). We listen really attentively, especially when newcomers are performing. Saboteur Award winner Steve Nash gave his first public performances of poetry at Speakers’ Corner, and even gave us a word of thanks in an interview to Write Out Loud because of the quality of the welcome and the support he always found from the Speakers’ Corner audience. There have been plenty of others, through the years, who have first performed for us as nervous newcomers, and gone on to write prize winning poetry and perform at slams and spoken word shows.

Our visitors from Write Out Loud saw it differently, however. In fact, in one-to-one feedback after the event, I was told that one or two of the group had been planning to perform for us that night, but had been put off doing so precisely because they didn’t think they would be applauded. They therefore didn’t feel that their poetry would be welcome.

That stung and saddened me. I’d hate to think of anybody coming to Speakers’ Corner and feeling that their poetic offerings are not going to be appreciated (unless they are using their verse to extol the virtues of Nigel Farage, possibly). I’ve been soul-searching for the better part of a year to work out if we were doing anything wrong, and if so, how we can improve. And to be honest, I haven’t come up with any answers.

I don’t want to insist that the audience clap every poem. I’d rather have the appreciative murmur for the “hmmm” poem, the shocked silence when someone performs an especially hard-hitting piece. Should we applaud a poem about a rape? Or about the drowning of a Syrian refugee? My gut tells me that applause for the poem is not the right response (though applause for the poet, in due course, certainly would be). I want the audience to have the freedom to exercise the right not to applaud if that poem about the virtues of Nigel Farage gets an airing. But I don’t want anyone to feel that the possibility of not being applauded means a risk of them not being appreciated for sharing their creativity with us.

(Photo (c)

Sunday, 24 January 2016

To pay, or not to pay...

January 2016 is the tenth anniversary of The Speakers’ Corner, the poetry and spoken word open mic which I have MCed for seven of those years. Over that time we have committed ourselves to providing a platform for up-and-coming local writers, giving them a chance to perform their work on an equal status with the often award winning poets who appear monthly as our guest features. We pride ourselves on being an accessible, non elitist event – both in the types of spoken word that get shared in the open mic (ranging from the unashamedly populist to the at times breathtakingly complex) and in our policy of keeping entry fees as low as possible so that nobody is priced out of coming along.

It was with rather a heavy heart that I began 2016 with an announcement that I was doubling the entry fee for our monthly event.

Yes, that’s right. The price of admission to Speakers’ Corner has shot up to a staggering £2 per person.

This wasn’t a decision I took lightly. Speakers’ Corner has always been, and will always be (under my tenure, anyway) a grassroots arts event. Since time immemorial the door money has been fixed at a mere £1. There were good reasons for asking for that £1. Even when an event runs on goodwill, there are expenses that have to be met – the cost of publicity flyers, for instance. We have also been committed to making a payment towards our guests’ travel expenses (and to covering them in full, wherever we can).

This is really important: because Speakers’ Corner has never been able to pay its guest features a fee for coming to perform for us. So the least I can do is ensure that if guests want to share their creative work with us, they are guaranteed not to be out of pocket for doing so.

It is the increasing burden of travel expenses which has forced the 2016 price rise. That, and the habit of a small minority of participants to not pay their statutory £1. Most years, the event breaks even. In 2015, it ran at a loss – it was only the generous decision of a couple of our guests to waive their travel expenses which stopped me from having to shell out my own money to keep the event viable.

I had to take the view that this couldn’t continue. A £2 entry fee will mean we can be a little more generous in our travel expense allowances, and possibly build up reserves to invite guests from slightly further afield. Any surplus will be donated to the charities supported by York’s Arts Against Homelessness initiative – so we remain firmly not for profit, and now have a chance to give something modest back to the community too.

Nonetheless, I am distinctly uncomfortable that we are in this position in the first place. I don’t like being an event that can’t afford to pay its guest features. But such is the reality of trying to support grassroots art. We have never had Arts Council funding, or the backing of an established arts outlet – and we certainly don’t have wealthy patrons! In such circumstances we can only pay out what we take in. Long-time Soapbox followers will know how vehemently opposed I am to the idea that access to the arts should be controlled by people’s ability to pay. My principle has always been to keep Speakers’ Corner running at the lowest possible cost to its loyal punters.

There was a certain irony in reading that a literary event much bigger than mine has just got itself into hot water over the selfsame issue. Philip Pullman’s resignation as patron of Oxford Literary Festival has set tongues wagging, and rightly so. The worker deserves his wages, and creative people deserve a fair wage for the results of their creativity. But I have a certain sympathy for the Festival, which suffered a barrage of negative publicity over its failure to pay its guest authors. Like us, Oxford Literary Festival has no grant funding and no wealthy patron. It has to be self-sustaining, or it won’t function. And somewhere along the line, the Festival organisers made the decision that it was better to keep a literary event alive by presuming on the goodwill of its headliners, rather than bankrupt itself by undertaking to pay out more in fees than it was going to recoup in takings at the door.

There is, of course, a huge difference between Speakers’ Corner on the one hand, and Oxford Literary Festival on the other. We are a regional event in the back room of a pub, twelve times a year. They have been going 20 years and have over 500 events on their programme.

All of which suggests to me that Oxford Literary Festival’s fatal mistake is one of failing to cut its cloth appropriately. You simply can’t grow to a 500-plus-event festival without a stable financial base. It seems ludicrous to me that they have done so. If the only way they can afford 500-plus events is by not paying the people who are the reason for the Festival even existing, then why aren’t they doing 100 events instead, or 50? All festivals go through lean times. Even the most successful can miss out on Arts Council funding, or lose key sponsors. The correct thing to do is to retrench and plan for something bigger and better when resources allow.

There’s a certain arrogance in Oxford Literary Festival’s assumption that it can carry on as usual simply by presuming on the goodwill (or the vanity) of its authors. I hope this is a mistake we won’t make at Speakers’ Corner. I am thrilled that there are fantastic writers in the region who want to come to York to share their creative work with us, and don’t mind doing it for nothing more than a beer and the chance to sell a few books. But I know that what we do at Speakers’ Corner is only one part of what goes to make a vibrant and varied arts scene. We need the big events, the Arts Council funded ventures, the festivals that do commit themselves to paying a fair rate to those who make things happen. And they need us, too – to generate audience, enthusiasm, to showcase the stars of next year, and to keep the spoken word where it truly belongs. Among the people, from the people, and for the people.

There’s a separate debate raging off the back of the Philip Pullman issue: and it’s the one that mistakenly equates professional (in the sense of those who can command payment) with good, and amateur (in the sense of those who will work for beer) by some sort of spurious logic as rubbish. I’ve had words to say about this in previous Soapbox posts. I’m sure I will have more before the dust settles.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Bridport Blether, part 2: The perils of the sifting committee

The annual announcement of the Bridport Prize winners always generates a bit of controversy. This year’s judge, Roger McGough, certainly didn’t mince words in his judge’s report. He talked about “feelings of déjà-vu” as he read the 200 poems culled from 7,000-odd entrants to make up the 2015 longlist, and of “emotional overload”. Reading many of the poems, he said, “seemed like an intrusion into a very private grief”. And what was missing, according to McGough? Rhyme, for one, was so scarce that McGough confessed to be “gasping for a villanelle or the whiff of a sestina.” Moreover, the few rhyming poems that did make it into his postbag “offered more in style than content.”

Many poets will also be intrigued by McGough’s lament at how little anger there was in this year’s longlist. “Where was the rage?” he demanded, adding more sarcastically: “our politicians can sleep soundly in their beds, the poets are not assembling in the street outside.”

So what on earth went wrong?

Well as far as the winning and commended poems were concerned, nothing at all. McGough was generous in his praise for these poems and their writers (and I echo his praise, I’ve been a fan of third-prize winner Julia Deakin for some years). But something seems to have gone badly awry somewhere between the submission process and the choosing of the longlist. McGough blamed himself, to a certain extent, noting that his early encouragement to produce “poems that I wish I had written” may have resulted in a glut of poets trying to write in the style of McGough, rather than in their own unique voices and styles. But surely this can only be part of the story?

I don’t believe for a minute that poets are not writing angry poems. My recent blog on political poetry remarked on just how enraged arts practitioners up and down the country are at some of the things done in our name (or not done) by governments and vested interests purporting to act for the benefit of the nation. Nor am I persuaded that poets aren’t working in rhyming verse forms; at open mics, and occasionally at writing workshops, I’m always coming across examples of original, often brilliantly witty rhyme. So I’m sceptical that there were no examples at all in the Bridport postbag.

More likely, the poems arrived, but someone stopped them from ending up in the longlist that was passed to the guest judge.

Roger McGough wasn’t the only person judging the Bridport Prize. Between the arrival of the 7,000-odd entries and the finalising of the 200-strong longlist, a whole committee of ‘sifters’ were at work deciding which poems would get through to McGough, and which wouldn’t. If certain types of poems were conspicuous by their absence from the longlist, it seems to me that the logical explanation for this is that the sifting committee decided they didn’t want those poems in the longlist.

Of course, I have no proof that this is what happened. But my suspicions seem to be borne out by McGough’s own account of what he was told by the head of the sifting committee, one Candy Neubert, who reportedly felt that the standard of submissions this year was “disappointingly low”.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the excluded poems weren’t any good. Poetry, after all, is notoriously subjective, and what works for one reader may be a turn-off for another. Was the competition strengthened or weakened by their exclusion? Probably we’ll never know.

Sifting committees are common practice in the bigger competitions. And it’s easy to see why. 7,000-plus entries take time and emotional energy to read. And big-name judges are unlikely to do the work for minimum wage. Even a competition with the resources of Bridport would soon bankrupt itself if it expected the guest judge to consider every entry. And there’s the logistical issue that 90% of those entries will arrive in the last two weeks before the closing date. With a finite window of time until the planned announcement of the winners, reliance on a sole judge can mean some very late nights for the judge – and serious uncertainty for the competition organisers if the judge has to deal with unforeseen problems. A bout of ’flu at the wrong time could mean a missed deadline, a delayed announcement, and considerable expense and embarrassment for the organisers.

The competitions I’ve judged in the past have never had postbags bigger than a couple of hundred poems (and a similar number of short stories, in one case). Even so, the first time I was a judge I quickly discovered that it took considerable forward planning to create the time and space to give each entry the attention it really deserved. The decision as to which of the shortlisted pieces actually got the prizes sometimes had to go down to the wire. And that’s when there are just a couple of hundred pieces of writing. Carole Bromley, who has been sole judge of the YorkMix/York Literature Festival Poetry Competition since its inception (and was on the Bridport shortlist herself this year), had the herculean task of judging 1,736 poems in the space of about 4 weeks earlier in the year. She tells me that this was no easy task.

So perhaps sifting committees are a necessary evil. But in the larger competitions, they surely only add to the nagging sensation that there’s an element of the lottery about whether or not your poem gets picked. I mean no disrespect to the winners. It takes huge skill to craft a Bridport Prize-winning poem – I would never dispute that for an instant. But one wonders how many potentially Bridport Prize-winning poems never make it as far as the guest judge because someone in a sifting committee has already decided that they’re not quite the right thing this year?

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Review: "Lapstrake" by Wendy Pratt (Flarestack, 2015, ISBN 978-1-906480-41-7)

As 2015 winner of the Prole Laureate award and the YorkMix/York Literature Festival Poetry Competition, Wendy Pratt is a poet whose star is in the ascendant. In her pamphlet Lapstrake, the music of the sea provides a backdrop to poems exploring both personal tragedies and the shared memories of past inhabitants of the Yorkshire coast on which the poems are set. Lapstrake itself refers to a method of boat building practised by the Viking fisherfolk who once attempted to tame these wild tides.

The poems alternate between the contemporary and the mythic. 21st century resort towns, with their “cuddly toys / and waffles, the get-rich-quick sound / of money falling through the slots”, contrast with Viking settlements which once stood on the same ground, their “sun-keeper wheat, washed / in warm shadows. Barrows / topped with dense spelt.” I was reminded of George Mackay Brown in the way that Pratt’s narrator often inhabits multiple temporal spaces at once. The descriptive writing, too, was sometimes reminiscent of Mackay Brown’s, with a sparseness of language and a clarity of imagery ideally suited to the vast spaces of sea and sky which these poems inhabit.

Pratt’s sea is personified in the Norse gods Rán and Ǽgir. In Rán and her Net, the goddess who snares drowned and drowning sailors sings a tender love song to her victims:

“And I will search for coins in their clothes,
I’ll take payment in gold for safe keeping
and feel for their souls and kiss their skin...
...and I cradle their heads
and I tether the net, and I let them go
and keep them close and let them go
and keep them close.”

This sea which can swallow men, ships, even whole buildings, is yet capable of unexpected gentleness:

“Just now, with the sand faltering on the edge
of land, the sea a smoothing hand
that pats you down, your words are muffled...
...We have teetered on the edge,
but turn, now, away...”
(Cayton Bay)

The “tiny, dried-out effigy” of the mother in Mermaid yearns for the sea as escape from the depression brought on by her claustrophobic, land-locked life:

“...And she swam
back and away over the harbour wall
back to her swimming dream-time, back
to weightlessness like a water-birth.”

It is in the central poem of the pamphlet – the eight-part sequence And Her Great Gift of Sleep – that we feel the pull of the sea most strongly. The poem is a heartbreaking tribute to a baby girl lost in infancy. From the first signs that all is not well, the sea presses inexorably in on a narrator who is powerless to hold it back:

“...The sea is sick,
with a sound like breaking glass,
it beats itself to sleep in the bay.”

“She is drowning.
My little sprat, my gill-less fish, slippery-slim
and flexible, my squid, my jewel
in her mermaid’s purse with her tiny feet...
...has stopped nudging me,
has stopped.”

“I dream the sea
goes out
and the tide line
is scattered with her clothes.”

Years ebb away, leaving the narrator “salted and wizened; a dead starfish or a shell.” The sense of grief throughout the poem is palpable; it murmurs and hisses like a tide which “moves on and on and offers / only sea glass and fossils.” Yet, at the end, there is a sense of acceptance, of letting her child go into the endless sea of time:

“I think of her atoms climbing
out of her body, out through the earth
into the water, into the rain,
into the sea. She is moving freely,
now, and I cannot stay static,
rocking her memory.”

In the sounds and motions of the sea and the tugging of the moon on the tides, Pratt has found a music and a wellspring of imagery that perfectly expresses a sorrow that would otherwise be beyond describing.

The other striking feature of this pamphlet is the intimacy of the poet’s voice. In Places I No Longer Believe In, Pratt reminisces gently but with beguiling honesty about the scenes of past misadventures; she has “inhabited these shells; / like a hermit-crab, discarded them, / left in a hurry, walked away.” Instead of losing herself in nostalgia, the poet reminds herself that she can look forward to “a life you can believe in, / a house with foundations you can touch.”

Weaknesses in these poems are few. I felt that perhaps the formal poems (this poet has a particular fondness for pantoums) lacked the verbal clarity of the free verse pieces. I occasionally detected what may be signs of insufficient editing, with some unnecessary repetitions (“the dulled sound of inside / sounds”) and half a dozen deeply obscure phrases (“a satisfying sanguine indifference”, “the sun... poached disparately”, “the wind... a seagull’s bitter creel”, “the murmur of voices, falling like gulls from our conscience”, “a spouse-found / family”) which muddied the otherwise crystal clear waters of Pratt’s imagery. But these are minor niggles, and never detracted from the musicality of the poems or their authenticity of emotion.

The concluding poem in this pamphlet is also the most surprising. Dead Whale Dreams of God is that rare poetic beast, a sestina which actually succeeds as poetry, not just as a writing exercise. The poem intersperses extracts from an autopsy report on a dead cetacean with philosophical reflections from the whale itself on its final journey. “The light, the dapples, the spotted deep... [the] great eye opening”, which seemingly herald the gateway to heaven, actually represent the sea breaking onto land at Holbeck Bay (and the beached whale’s inevitable death), providing a quietly unsettling end to the collection. This poem confirms Pratt as an ambitious poet, unafraid to take risks with her writing, and capable of tackling the cosmic with the same poignancy of image and musicality of voice with which she addresses the deeply personal. I suspect there may be great things to come from this talented and mesmerising writer.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Political poetry: is it any good?

I have my fabulous poetic ally and Speakers’ Corner co-host, Laura Munteanu, to thank not only for the photo that accompanies this month’s blog post, but for the subject matter too. It was a Facebook discussion on, of all things, the death of Christopher Lee (a splendid man but a well-known Tory) which started a debate about whether or not ‘political’ poetry is any good. As a poet who has taken a step firmly inside the political arena myself with my second collection Satires, I suspect this is a subject I ought to have strong feelings on.

And I do – sort of.

Those who expressed their dislike of ‘political’ poetry made the valid point that often the political poem gets cheered more for its political than its poetic qualities. You stand up at a poetry slam and perform an anti-racist poem, or something about female empowerment or (to go back a blog post or two) the demerits of UKIP, and you’re going to get cheered. This is stuff that poetry audiences want to hear – hell, it’s stuff that I want to hear! But I’ve got to be honest, most of it is ephemeral. It’s intended to be ephemeral. The sincere hope of the audiences (and, I suspect, of the performers) is that one day soon society will have changed for the better and the protest poems won’t be necessary.

So it doesn’t really matter if the poetics aren’t up to the standards of Shakespeare, or the Forward Prize. If the poem makes the audience think, creates solidarity, encourages activism, and gives us all a glimpse (however brief) of a better world, the poem has done its job.

I have plenty of poems like that. Most of them are unpublished, and likely to stay that way. A few made it into Satires – but to be honest I wish I’d been able to retire these poems with the 2015 general election. Unfortunately for the poetic community (as well as our wider civic society), the election result almost certainly means these poems have at least another 5 years’ life in them.

But as a poet I’m concerned about craft, and aesthetics, and reaching a wider audience – perhaps one not directly affected by the situations I’m writing about. So can ‘political’ poems be poetically, as well as politically, pleasing? Can they – and should they – outlast the events they purport to chronicle?

I suppose it all depends what you mean by a political poem. I tend towards the opinion that everything has a political dimension. The conditions in which we grew up, the jobs we do, how we spend our leisure time (if we’re lucky enough to have leisure time), what we do with our money (if we’re lucky enough to have money), how we bring up our families, and the circumstances of our last days on earth – these are all subjects with a political as well as a personal dimension. The simple facts of whom we love, and how we express that love – surely the oldest poetic subjects of all? – have never been more politicised than they are today, with recent landmark decisions about marriage equality across the world, and an inevitable phobic backlash. About the only way you can avoid being political is by opting out of society altogether and going and sitting on a rock – and even that could be seen as a political gesture, a rejection of modernity and all that comes with it.

I certainly approached the poems in Satires with an awareness that everything is political. The love poems in the collection are set firmly in austerity Britain. I spend my working week with households at the sharp end of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, and yet who find ways of living and loving and being family, even in the teeth of benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax and the food bank. It was their lives, which seem to matter so little to the people in power, that I wanted to celebrate – just as, two and a half centuries earlier, Oliver Goldsmith celebrated the ordinary lives of the rural poor displaced by the landowners in The Deserted Village, for me the finest political poem ever written.

The love poems in Satires WEREN’T originally created as political or social comment. They were created as love poems. But that’s the great thing about poetry. What we write is so infused with our environment and life experiences that subtexts creep in unbidden. All the most well worn subjects for poets – love, childhood, the seasons – can give birth to political poems, even if the politics isn’t the original inspiration for the poem (there are probably a few political cat poems out there, though I must confess I struggle to think of any!).

So what now for the political poets? Well, we’ve no shortage of stuff to write about. In the UK another Tory axe is looming over the welfare state, the NHS, education and the justice system. Meanwhile, billions are pumped into an obsolete nuclear deterrent that’s a bigger threat to the citizens of our own country than to their supposed enemies. Worldwide, society has never been so unequal. War, exploitation of women and environmental degradation are at the forefront of every news bulletin. Poets should be commenting on such things – but how to comment in a way that means the poet’s voice is taken seriously?

There’s certainly a place for rabble rousing poetry. But as noted above, it mainly tends to get cheered by those who agree with the political sentiments. An alternative – and arguably more effective – tool for the poet is satire. Satirical poetry can even be appreciated by the intended target, if it has the right amount of wit and is sufficiently well constructed. Think of Pope, Wilde, Goldsmith (again) – or the late great Ronnie Barker.

But perhaps the poet’s most powerful weapon is the eye for the unexpected detail. Poetry which is (on the surface at least) primarily observational can often stand long after the events it is observing have passed into history. The war poetry of Wilfred Owen is a supreme example. Owen certainly rails against the establishment that sent his comrades to slaughter, but it’s not his rants that make his work so powerful. It’s the observational stuff: the gas attack likened to a drowning in the sea, the “white eyes writhing” in the corpses piled on the wagon afterwards. The message of these stark images has endured far longer than the trenches, the poppy fields, and the establishment that Owen and his contemporaries went to their deaths to defend.