Sunday, 12 April 2015

How free is free speech?

As a poet, I’m all in favour of free speech. But I much prefer to be paid for it.

It’s an old joke, but one that has become worryingly topical. In all seriousness, I can’t remember a time in my career as a poet when the issue of free speech has generated such fierce argument.

The impact of the Charlie Hebdo murders has been felt worldwide. A great many of my fellow poets feel that the attacks were attacks on the very idea of free speech – an assault on everyone’s freedom to express their political, social and religious views, in verse or at the ballot box. It’s not just the political activists that have felt this way. Some of the most mild-mannered writers I know have been the most vehement in their expressions of solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims, and with persecuted poets and satirists the world over.

There are others who feel equally strongly that the cartoons which incited the massacre were hardly dispassionate political critiques. They point to a deeply embedded racist tendency within certain sectors of French culture – to a society which regularly gives a quarter of its votes to a neo-Nazi political party – and ask whether the cartoons were not simply pandering to this tendency, rather than engaging in genuine cultural discourse. They question whether it might have suited the establishment to use the facade of free speech to excuse collusion in the dissemination of material which another society might view as propaganda.

All of this has got me wondering: how free is our speech? Do we, as poets, have an inviolable right to express what we believe? Or are there times when that right could – or even should – be curtailed?

The question raises its head in absurd ways, as well as horrific ones. A couple of months back, I was at a poetry slam where the opening contestant had the temerity to make a derogatory reference to UKIP leader Nigel Farage. All poets have their hate figures, and as they go, Farage is a sitting target – the ridiculous, readily caricaturable but ultimately rather unsettling face of a political movement that’s not a million miles from those French neo-Nazis I mentioned earlier.

I cheered along with everyone else. Or nearly everyone. A certain writing acquaintance, who was sitting not far from me, took what I can only describe as extreme umbrage at the reference. Not only did he get up and ostentatiously walk out – but straight afterwards he buttonholed the poet and harangued him at length about the “offensive” nature of his poem.

Personally, I regard UKIP’s political views as far more offensive than the poem that ridiculed them. I asked myself what my response would have been if it had been a poem from Satires which had provoked the audience member’s ire. I would probably have said, “I’m glad you were offended – because at least I’ve made you think.” I once had a football kicked in my face whilst performing a poem in praise of immigration. I count that among my proudest poetic moments. Where such matters are concerned, I’d rather be booed than met with indifference.

But what would happen if the boot was on the other foot? If a poet came to one of my events, and performed a poem that was blatantly racist, or homophobic, or misogynistic?

At The Speakers’ Corner we have a liberal, open door policy when it comes to our open mic. The principle is that we don’t censor; people can bring 5 minutes’ worth of any material they like, and anyone can sign up to perform. So far, during my tenure as MC, no one has abused the privilege. Some of our more “humorous” poets sail a bit close to the wind at times in their comments on the opposite sex, but generally we know these performers well enough to be sure that no malice is intended, and that the sheer cheek of what they are saying is all part of the act. Occasionally, people have performed work that has been sufficiently heavy with expletives or sexual references to offend some of our more mildly spoken regulars. None of this has ever given me grounds to censor a performer.

But the thing is, I know there is a limit. I don’t want racists, or homophobes, or rape apologists to take advantage of the free speech that’s offered at Speakers’ Corner to publicise themselves, or their views. Actually, I suspect that if we ever get this type of thing at Speakers’ Corner, the audience will do my job for me and shut the idiot up before they say something we will all regret.

I’m constantly thankful that I live in a society where I am free to use my art to express my political and social opinions. I don’t face assassination by drug cartels, as Javier Silicia did. I don’t (yet) face imprisonment without trial and torture, as Ayat al-Gormezi did. If the price I have to pay for freedom of speech is a football in the face now and again, it’s a small price in the grand scheme of things.

But ultimately, as an MC, I still have to make decisions about how far to allow my performers the freedom of speech that I profess to uphold. I’ve never (so far) had to censor a performer, but there will come a day when I have to seriously consider it. And that’s not a responsibility I ever wish to take lightly.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Poetry, politics and That Difficult Second Book

After a frenetic week (and a more than usually busy couple of months), I’m pleased to report to Soapbox readers that my second book is now well and truly launched. Now that I have a minute to catch my breath, this seems like a good time to set down some thoughts on the journey into print for the second time.

Satires is quite a different book to my debut collection. A Long Way to Fall, although praised by one respected poet for its witty qualities, was in essence a serious collection. It was a culmination of seventeen years’ labours at becoming a Serious Poet. Satires is nothing of the sort. The title gives it away; most of the poems in the new book have a heavy element of satire, or at least of social comment. The majority of the pieces are rhyming poems, where A Long Way to Fall was almost entirely free verse. And most of the poems are really rather silly.

So do I see any problems, or contradictions, in going from one to the other?

Well, no – not really. I’ve blogged before about how difficult it is to write good silly poetry, especially in rhyming verse. There’s as much craft in the art of Pam Ayres as there is in that of Carol Ann Duffy. John Betjeman, one of our wittiest British poets, was meticulous in his attention to the musicality of his rhyming verse; there’s scarcely a skip or a stutter in his metre. I’d like to think that I have put as much effort into crafting the whimsical rhyming poems of Satires as I have into the free verse of A Long Way to Fall.

One of the reasons I admire the masters of rhyming verse so much is because it’s often easier to sneak a serious message into an ostensibly silly poem than it is to bludgeon a reader into emotional submission with a poem which tells the tale straight. “A serious message in silly poems” could even be a tagline for Satires. Much more so than in A Long Way to Fall, I was conscious of the social and political landscape in which the poems in the new book are set. The UK has endured five years of what I can only describe as misrule from a Coalition of bankers, economic theorists, consultants, ideologues and millionaires who don’t seem to have the faintest idea what is happening to real people every day. Slashed welfare spending, the near abolition of Legal Aid, the creeping privatisation of the NHS – it all hurts those in our society who are most vulnerable, whilst leaving the men at the top (and they mostly are men) pretty much unruffled. A right-wing media agenda has created a climate where immigrants, benefit claimants and people with disabilities are automatically assumed to be cheats and scroungers, while mega-corporations get away without paying tax and siphon vast (often taxpayer-subsidised) bonuses into the pockets of a new ruling class of fat cats. Meanwhile our schools and universities are being hijacked in a way which allows narrow interest groups to dictate what can be taught, what the next generation is allowed to think. Whether it’s the imposition of fundamentalist religious narratives in so-called “free schools”, or Michael Gove’s attempts to re-package the horrors of World War I as some sort of glorious patriotic misadventure, the end result is a stifling of creativity, a discouragement of critical thinking, and an erosion of the right to question what is being done in our name.

I’ve always believed that poets (and practitioners of all the creative arts) have a responsibility to reflect and comment on the times in which we live – to reinterpret the received wisdom of the day, to question and challenge the propaganda machine. I don’t want to claim some grand socio-political agenda for Satires. The silly poems in the book are there to entertain, primarily. But they are also there as a challenge to the Keep Calm and Carry On generation. I’d far rather produce a book of light entertainment that makes people think a little, than a weighty political diatribe that ultimately preaches only to the converted.

Actually producing Satires was the easy part. When I put together A Long Way to Fall, there were a number of poems in my repertoire which didn’t fit in the collection. The rhyming satirical pieces that remained included a couple of prize winners, so I knew that they weren’t “bad poems”. But they sounded a discordant note in a collection of free verse that was so steeped in nature, folklore and fairy tale. I knew that there could be another use for these poems, and my original plan was to self-publish them as a pamphlet and use the proceeds as a fundraiser for charities working at the sharp edge of Cameron’s so-called Big Society. I was delighted when Rose Drew of Stairwell Books told me that her imprint would be happy to publish the pamphlet for me. That meant I had the clout of a small but well respected publishing house behind Satires: an assurance of the physical quality of the finished product, and of committed editorial input as the collection was finalised.

Satires, in the end, became something midway between a pamphlet and a full collection. Poems kept going in: a few free verse pieces to counterbalance the rhyme, new political satires alongside the older pieces, some socially conscious love poems to provide a variation of tone. Only two poems were dropped. Once production costs have been paid for, all profits from sales are going to homelessness prevention charity Keyhouse, so (sales permitting) Satires will eventually achieve its dual purpose as fundraiser and awareness-raiser. I really couldn’t be happier about the “difficult” second book.

It’s the third one that will require the real hard work...

(Note: Satires is available now from Stairwell Books and can be ordered online by clicking here)

Sunday, 25 January 2015

How (Not) to Put a Price on Poetry

While the poetry world has been debating Big Questions like the alleged nepotism of the TS Eliot prize, the literary credibility of Kate Tempest’s rap album, and the effect on free speech of the terrorist attacks in Paris, a different argument has attracted my attention. I have to thank Paula Varjack for pointing me in the direction of the Eternal Graffiti blog, whose co-founder Mike Simms recently posted a challenging article about the prospects of make a living as a performing poet.

Simms, a poet based in Atlanta, Georgia, argued (quite rightly) that it should be perfectly possible to do so. With the rise and rise of the spoken word scene, more young poets are now aspiring to make a living from their craft – and why not? If performers can have ambitions of careers on the West End or touring the world making music, why should poetry be the poor relation?

The problem, according to Simms, is that poets themselves are their own worst enemies. Too many are content to perform for free, sofa surfing their way around the country and relying on book and CD sales to cover their expenses. Or else they accept pitiful token payments from event promoters – payments that make a minimum wage job stacking supermarket shelves seem a more attractive way of putting food on the table. Simms reports a conversation with a professional US poet who turned down a $200 performance fee because it “wasn’t worth her time.” It was more cost-effective for her to spend that time at home developing new material.

“Poets need to stop undervaluing their art,” Simms declares. And I can’t argue with that. In poetry, as in all the performing arts, most of us do what we do for little more than goodwill. We all know the busking musician who spends rainy Saturdays in town centres and comes back with nothing more to show for his labours than a chill and a handful of loose change. Or the actor working as a waitress to make ends meet, honing her craft by night in draughty village-hall am-dram in the hope of a decent review. As a nation, the British (like the Americans, it would appear) are chronically bad at valuing their artists.

But Simms’ solution to the problem is a worrying one. “We have to establish tiers in spoken word... There should be an inherent knowledge that if you want someone who is at the top of their game, you can’t even approach them with a $200 budget, the promoter should have known that they were in the market for a lesser (however you want to define that) caliber poet... If you want to pay a poet nothing to do a show, go get a rookie.” Yet perplexingly, Simms declares that this is “not elitist.”

I beg to disagree.

Simms presupposes that all gigs are professional gigs, well funded and capable of packing in large audiences, where the promoters are trousering the proceeds and leaving the guest feature with peanuts. The whole concept of grassroots art seems foreign to him. He’s also assuming that a ‘big name’ poet equals a ‘better’ poet, and it’s on this basis that the ‘professional’ deserves better remuneration than the ‘rookie’. As an event organiser I find much to criticise in both assumptions.

First of all: it would be wonderful if every poetry event had some kind of grant funding, or backing from an arts institution. But this just isn’t the case. In the UK, if you want to run grassroots literary arts events you either have to get very lucky with a grant application (the minority) or you have to self-fund. Our little open mic, The Speakers’ Corner, has been running off and on in York since 2006 and is well respected in the region for the quality of its guest features, which alternate award winning poets with up-and-coming local talent. But I make no money from it. Our guest performers, as a rule, are really good; but my day jobs don’t pay enough to allow me to give them the kind of fees they deserve out of my own pocket. Furthermore, I’m determined that grassroots arts should be accessible to all. That means I’m not prepared to charge the audience more than £1 per head to come to the event. The money we collect buys guests a pint and covers their travel expenses; a few quid a year is spent on publicity; and there is basically nothing left over. I could try putting the admission fee up to a fiver or more so that I can pay my guest features, but I don’t think it would be looked on favourably by my audience, who always have the option of going elsewhere.

Then there are charity events, fundraisers, and the like. If you’re running these from the grassroots, you have to call in favours from your guests, or they simply won’t happen. For the Arts Against Homelessness benefit gig I’m organising in March I have no budget, so I have to ask my guests if they will be prepared to give their services for free (or for travel expenses only) to make sure that the money we take from the audience actually goes to the homelessness charities that we are supporting.

As for whether a ‘professional’ poet is a ‘better’ poet: all I can say is that I’ve seen some big names in the poetry world – people who have won major literary prizes and regularly get booked to appear at festivals – give the most limp, uninteresting performances you can imagine. Meanwhile Speakers’ Corner, a back-of-a-pub, £1-a-shot, grassroots outfit, has hosted numerous ‘unknown’ local poets who would blow these big names out of the water. Being a ‘name’ doesn’t mean that you’re good – nor does it mean you’re any more deserving of a realistic fee than the not-yet-published local performer. It just means that you’ve networked yourself into a position where someone with clout knows your name.

Like Simms, I sometimes wonder if I’m colluding in devaluing my art. I regularly do guest feature slots for nowt, or for travel expenses and book sales only. But I think the real devaluing of poetry happens when you start putting a price tag on it. Simms talks about poets “defining a value proposition” for their art. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a less poetic suggestion in my life.

Nonetheless, poets have to eat. We are entitled to respect for what we do. A large promoter with an Arts Council grant should never offer less than minimum wage plus reasonable travel expenses. In most cases, it should be offering more, to reflect the time and trouble we put into creating our poems and honing our performances. But poetry’s natural home is among the grassroots, and we should never underestimate the value of grassroots art. As I’ve argued before, it’s not something you can ever put a price tag on.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Is poetry a feminist issue? Part 2

I don’t think anyone who takes a serious look at the evidence can really deny that female poets have a hard time of it. My recent blog post on this subject highlighted clear evidence of audience misconceptions, critical disdain and stereotypical assumptions on the part of publishers and critics about what women ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be writing about. It seems inarguable that all this has created a climate which has disproportionately disadvantaged good female writers from making headway in the poetry world.

Nonetheless, the flyer that dropped through my letterbox earlier this year advertising the “Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry” left me with a distinct feeling of unease.

I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be positive action to create a level playing field for female poets. As a union rep, and latterly as a law student, discrimination – and combating it – is a subject I care about passionately. But does the preponderance of this phrase – “women’s poetry” – do anything at all to level the playing field?

My fear is that it could be having the opposite effect. Instead of creating one shared art – “poetry” – to which men and women have an equal claim, it could end up ghettoising the female poetic voice. Festivals of Women’s Poetry – or journals, or anthologies – surely run the risk of propagating the notion that the women can be sidelined into a safe little niche where they won’t bother the male-dominated establishment. And sidelining can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As soon as you put the label “women’s poetry” on a festival – or a journal, or an anthology – there’s more than a hint of subtext that whatever is contained within is not of interest to male readers and writers of poetry. Or worse – that even if the men are interested, they simply aren’t welcome.

This is not equality. It does nothing to further the case that women and men should be equal partners in the art we love.

It’s quite insidious. Even our local York Literature Festival this year held an event called “Three Women Poets” featuring readings from award winning poets Emily Berry, Helen Mort and Rebecca Goss. But as one female attendee remarked to me afterwards, it was depressing that it was deemed necessary to bill them as “women poets”. Surely, these are just three really good poets, and their gender is immaterial?

This isn’t a new question. Twenty years ago, when Bloodaxe published their celebrated anthology Sixty Women Poets, one female poet (Sheenagh Pugh) refused to be included on the grounds that “she refuses to have her poetry published in women’s anthologies.” Editor Linda France, writing in the Spring 2013 issue of Poetry Review, gleefully recalls that the sheer diversity of writing in that anthology was a more than adequate answer to anybody ascribing a “spurious sense of unity” to poetry written by women. The anthology was a signal to the establishment that “women poets, as well as being different from men poets, were different from each other” – a statement that may seem obvious with hindsight, but one that by all accounts needed to be made.

So is there any benefit to having the label? It goes without saying that many still believe it to be necessary. MsLexia magazine, for one, has been proudly promoting women-only writing (and writing opportunities) for years as a means of redressing “the male bias in publishing”. I have to admit that when I began getting published, I was suspicious that this “male bias” might be a historic artefact – after all, the number of rejection slips I’ve received did nothing to suggest there was any bias in favour of me! – but the evidence that it is still a real problem seems incontrovertible, at the higher echelons at least.

That there seems to be a continuing appetite for “women’s poetry” seems incontrovertible, too. Throughout this year I’ve seen countless calls for submissions to women-only anthologies: some celebrating the strong female characters of myth and history, others celebrating female-only attributes (such as motherhood). There wouldn’t be this many anthologies if people didn’t want to read what was in them.

And I suspect that it’s not just women who are reading them. I can think of plenty of male arts lovers, in York and around the country, who are only too happy to stand up for the rights and the dignity of women, and who care passionately that there are arts outlets which positively celebrate all that the critics seem so sniffy about. It’s not as if female poets are short of strong role models, either. The poetry headlines this year have been dominated by women. Just think of Jess Green taking on Michael Gove, Hollie McNish’s public fight in support of breastfeeding mothers, Kate Tempest’s nomination for the Mercury Music Prize, or the ubiquity of “52” poetry ambassador Jo Bell.

If I have a message for the critics, then, it’s that the tide is turning. Ghettoising female-centric poetry and attaching a label to it – such as “women’s poetry” – may be easy and convenient, but I see no evidence that female poets are content with being ghettoised. The fact is that my female colleagues are giving us men a run for their money. And the art of poetry can only be enriched as a result.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Meaning of Meaning

A few years ago, the judge of one of the big poetry competitions was roundly lambasted in the literary press for a judge’s report that began “What I liked about the winning poem was its ambiguity.” Noooo, screamed the correspondents. A poem is an attempt to convey something profound to an audience. If the audience can’t grasp the meaning – if the poem is ambiguous, obscure, or open to diverse interpretation – then surely the poem has failed at the first hurdle?

I was reminded of this discussion recently. In his recently published “Top 10 Tips for Being a Successful Poet” (which are really tips for how to prepare the mind and heart so that you are in a state which is receptive to the possibility of poetry happening – a subtle but important distinction), Andrew Motion states that “people will interpret your poetry in different ways, but provided the interpretation that is brought to the poem isn’t plainly bonkers, I actually enjoy that.”

This statement elicited a strong response from my literary sparring partner Tim Ellis, who retorted: “I never write a poem unless I have something I want to say, and if people interpret my words differently I consider the poem a failure.” And that really set me thinking.

I wrestled with a similar problem earlier in my poetic career. At that time, a rather lovingly crafted descriptive poem of mine had just been Highly Commended in one of the bigger competitions. I was proud of the success. But when I read the judge’s report, I was perturbed to discover that the judge had inferred a subtext within the poem which I had never intended. The subtext he’d ‘found’ was about bereavement – not exactly a minor issue. In fact, owing to the subject matter of the poem, I was initially a little upset to realise that the judge had interpreted it this way.

What followed was a bit of a crisis of confidence about my integrity as a poet. After all, aren’t poets supposed to tell the truth, at least as they perceive it to be? If people were reading my poem as a poem about bereavement – if, indeed, it had won its competition place on the strength of an assumption that it was about bereavement – then wasn’t there something intrinsically dishonest about the poem? And wouldn’t there be something even more dishonest about me putting the poem forward in future poetry readings, knowing that at least some of the audience were likely to interpret it that way?

It took a very wise poetry tutor to explain to me that that didn’t mean the poem (or the poet) wasn’t truthful. The very fact that the poem was open to an interpretation other than the one I’d intended was a sign of the power of the poem to take on a life beyond the person who had written it. Those who subsequently read, or heard, the poem were free to draw out meanings from the poem which resonated with them. The poem was no longer constrained by the fairly narrow sphere of my own observations, thoughts and feelings; it could land in somebody else’s heart and have a whole new meaning for them, independently of me. And that, if I’m honest, was something a little bit awe-inspiring, and very humbling.

This is exactly the same reason I love modern art, and folk music. In both of these art forms, there’s seldom an obvious contemporary meaning to the artwork. Modern art and traditional songs and stories are at their most powerful when their meaning isn’t tied to the person who created them. Other people can come and interact with and, to an extent, reinterpret the artwork. Thus, fairy tales take on new meanings which resonate with the concerns of the contemporary society. The tales of King Arthur have been constantly rewritten for the changing times, from the age of high chivalry in Malory, through the vehement anti-war satire of TH White, to Monty Python’s surrealist whimsy. We are far more aware of the undercurrent of, say, sexual violence in Little Red Riding Hood or domestic abuse in Cinderella than were the audience of fifty years ago, or a hundred. And one reason why I love the Yorkshire Sculpture Park so much is that the Henry Moores and Barbara Hepworths there can be touched, climbed over, peeked through and hidden behind; their meaning is constantly reinterpreted by children of all ages finding new ways to interact with these magnificent sculptures, new games to play with them.

For me, a really good poem has a similar quality to those stories and sculptures. It can also be played with by the reader, or listener. They can see aspects of their own lives, or their landscape and history, in a new light by seeing them through the poem’s lens. So there doesn’t have to be one, absolute, inviolable meaning to a poem for it to be a success. Even an overtly contemporaneous political rant, if well written, can resonate long after the events which incited the poet to put pen to paper have become yesterday’s news. Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village was written in response to the effect of the Enclosure Acts on rural populations, but the workers of mischief in the poem seem disturbingly familiar in an age of austerity, benefit cuts and food banks.

There has to be some meaning though. There are poets who take ambiguity to an extreme, and produce poetry so obscure that no one can dig out any meaning from their words. Or, perhaps worse, only those with doctorates in literature can decipher them. Ambiguity as a poetic tool fails when its effect is to exclude the readers, instead of inviting them in.

Unfortunately, judging by the content of certain journals I could name, there are still one or two poetry editors who haven’t realised this...

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Too much of a good thing?



2014 has been an unprecedentedly lively year in my neck of Yorkshire. The Tour de France and its spin-off celebrations, the York Literature Festival and the success of local publishers such as Stairwell Books and Valley Press have really helped put this part of the UK on the literary map. My colleagues in the Sounds Lyrical Project have been celebrating their first Arts Council grant with the launch of a brand new concert series fusing spoken word with original music. My neighbours at Harrogate’s Poems, Prose and Pints have just celebrated their fifth anniversary with the launch of a cracking anthology featuring work from regulars at their monthly open mic alongside nationally known writers. Performance poet Henry Raby has triumphantly brought poetry to the Yorkshire masses at the Galtres Festival and is launching a programme of poetry slams bringing national superstars of the spoken word scene to York. And my own little contribution, The Speakers’ Corner, has started up again in a lovely new venue, delighting regulars and visitors alike with the work of some excellent guest features.

So why is it that I’m beginning to doubt the saying You can never have too much of a good thing?

Here’s the problem. If all of this were going on in London, nobody would ever want for an audience. But York is not London. We have more than our fair share of great writers and performers – but sad to say, we still don’t have large audiences. And the problem with having a literary calendar where events are happening every night (as was true a couple of weeks ago) is that most people are simply physically unable to get to every event. Put too many events on, and you begin to split your audience.

I’ve noticed this a lot, of late. There might be tons of events, but at many of these events you can count the audience on your fingers. It’s also noticeable that at a lot of these events, the audience consists entirely of other writers. And that bothers me. It suggests that literary York is beginning to turn into some sort of highbrow ghetto. Are we forgetting how important it is to engage with the wider community? Are we failing in our efforts – or are we just not bothering?

Something else which is a cause for concern is that I’ve noticed the language of rivalry starting to creep in. It makes my heart sink to hear participants and audience members talk about such-and-such an event as “the best” literary event in York. It’s even more worrying when event organisers do it. It smacks of a suggestion that other events are somehow inferior. The message that goes out is “Don’t go there – come here instead.” But a literary scene should thrive on being “better together” (to use a well-known phrase of the moment). It won’t thrive on rivalry and one-upmanship.

But there’s something even worse than one-upmanship – and that is wilful ignorance of what else is happening. This became obvious to me a few months back, on a night where not one, but TWO, poetry events were happening in York in two different venues simultaneously. In the first (let’s call it Event One), the most critically lauded poet in the UK at the moment was giving a reading of work from his multiple award winning collection. In the other (which I’ll call Event Two), an Arts Council-funded event organiser brought together ten of the region’s most well respected poets in a high-profile showcase of their work.

The problem this created is obvious. Most of the audience who were at Event Two (and most of the performers) would really have liked to be at Event One. But a poet can’t be in two places at once. The audience was divided. And NEITHER event got as big an audience as the performers deserved.

Double booking really gets my goat. I can understand it happening in London, or Glasgow. But there’s simply no reason for it to happen in a place the size of York. Our literary community is a small demographic in comparison with, say, the audience at the Theatre Royal or at York City football ground. It really isn’t difficult for information to be shared, diaries synchronised, and events timetabled in a way that doesn’t split the audience.

Having multiple events take place on multiple nights in a row can be almost as bad as double booking. York’s literary community lead busy lives. Many of the most committed members are older, or have health difficulties which make it physically impossible to come to events on consecutive nights, no matter how much they might wish to do so. Others have family commitments which mean that even getting out of the house once a week is a luxury. Choices have to be made: do I go to Event X or Event Y? And audiences are divided as a result.

So why does this keep happening?

The problem doesn’t lie with the performers. It’s the people who promote the events, nine times out of ten, who don’t bother co-ordinating what they are doing. It’s the promoters who often don’t see a NEED to co-ordinate. Their event is the best and most important thing happening, and why shouldn’t everybody drop everything and come to their event, regardless of what else is going on?

I’ve been a literary promoter myself, ever since I joined the organising team for Speakers’ Corner back in 2007. And one of the first decisions I made was that Speakers’ Corner shouldn’t be an event which only promoted itself. We proudly support up-and-coming local talent. Through newsletters, social media and word of mouth we do more than our fair share of promotion for other people’s events. I like to think that this has helped boost audience numbers, and foster the lively literary spirit which is so much in evidence in York today.

But there really are limits. And when our efforts get thrown back in our face out of rivalry, or thoughtlessness, or sheer bloody arrogance, then you can’t really blame us for stopping every now and again and asking “What’s the point?”

Perhaps the answer is for some of us to stop running events altogether. Let the law of the jungle govern the literary calendar, so that the strong survive while the smaller, and those who make less noise, disappear. Speakers’ Corner did have a sabbatical in 2013, while I worked on my poetry collection and my co-organisers concentrated on their own projects. There was an immediate clamour of “It’s not fair”, “Why did you shut down?”, and “When are you coming back?” So clearly we met a need that wasn’t catered for by the upsurge of newer events.

But there is only so long you can keep working at a thankless task. If audiences are doomed to dwindle, then perhaps some of us really need to stop organising grassroots literary events. Give the bigger boys what they already seem to feel they deserve. See if they sink, or swim.

But I don’t really want to be part of a literary scene like that. It flies in the face of the very experience of community and mutual support that drew me in in the first place.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Review: "The Psychiatrist" by Mariela Griffor (Eyewear Publishing, 2013, ISBN 978-1-908998-11-8)

The latest in my irregular series of Poet’s Soapbox reviews is a solicited article, in that the editor of Eyewear Publishing approached me directly to provide a review of Mariela Griffor’s first UK collection of poetry. I agreed, without quite realising how long it would be before The Psychiatrist made it to the top of the ‘To Do’ pile. I haven’t seen the final print form of the book; this review is based on a proof manuscript so is guided solely by the substance of the poems, not the look and feel of the book itself.

I have to confess at the outset that my knowledge of Latin American poetry extends not much further than a few Neruda quotes. I’m aware of the dangerous political environment in which many of the great names were writing, and of the long shadow that the 20th-century dictatorships cast over every writer within this tradition; but I’m still largely unfamiliar with the works themselves. As a newcomer, therefore, I’m grateful that The Psychiatrist is a collection which presupposes no prior knowledge of South American literature and only modest familiarity with the politics of the region. This is a highly accessible collection; its clarity is never impeded by unfamiliar references. It even provides a miniature glossary at the end, where a small number of phrases are briefly explained.

The collection spans poems written between 1986 and 2011, charting the poet’s path from Chilean revolutionary to exile in Sweden and, later, the US. The work is heavily autobiographical, or at least biographical – it isn’t clear how much poetic licence has been taken with the more startling stories, but what is clear is that this writer has lived through turbulent times. It’s hard for cosy British poets, with their cloistered poetry readings and expensive writing courses, to honestly understand the ‘other’-ness of a world where being a writer can make you a political threat, a military target. It is to Griffor’s credit that she gives us a glimpse into that world without sensationalising her past, and without any exaggerated claims as to her own role in the struggle.

Despite the autobiographical tone, this collection doesn’t follow a linear narrative arc. Glimpses of the poet’s past are given in snapshot form, without chronology, allowing the reader gradually to piece together a rustic childhood, a great love, a violent bereavement, then exile and motherhood and a coming to terms with the past. The dead lover looms like a ghost over these poems; but what is most intriguing is that we never really get to see more than a shadow of the man. We infer an outwardly conventional marriage (at least, in the sense that elderly relatives are happy to embroider blankets for the couple), an academic career, a circle of intellectual friends – and then the revolutionary stuff, the death. But these are no more than glimpses. Only the penultimate poem, Chiloe Island, offers any kind of linear narrative, eventually stringing these threads together in a coherent whole:

“...When he came back to the hotel, after his
lens in photography class saw everything,
we ran up the street...
...He made me promise if we ever had
a child, and if he was not there, I would leave the country.”

The poems themselves are un-fussy free verse, with plenty of white space to let the words sink in. The language is unpretentious and there is a striking lack of imagery. Those physical images which do carry emotional resonance (flowers, rainbows, blood, long corridors, guns and ammunition, the aforementioned blanket) do so by way of unsurprising metaphors, and I did wonder at first if this was a weakness of the collection. But actually Griffor is a very fine descriptive poet. Like the dead husband, she has a photographer’s eye for the telling snapshot image:

“In Detroit it is easy to see pheasants walking the alleys,
or children running like a flock hunting a dog,
murals of Jesus, Martin Luther King, Bob Marley
or BB King on dirty walls,
pink, velvet sofas covered by bags full of garbage...”
(from Selective Exposure)

“The night before your call, I dreamt of the ocean:
cold, dangerous, deep, dark, blue at dusk and dawn...”
(from Thirty: just in time)

“...They had gardens where the sun rose
face to face with the sand.
They had rainbows, like us,
thirsty and wild.
They had emptiness like us...”
(from In Manistee)

The poet is content to let the visual pictures tell their own story, without imbuing them with more than their fair share of significance.

The emotional heart of this collection lies in the poet’s personal struggles: with exile, bereavement, motherhood. “What do we do with the love if you die?” demands the first line of the second poem, Love for a subversive – a question that rings like gunshots through all the poems that follow. Accusations are levelled against the poet’s mother –

“Here I see her,
her face in a duel with the sun...
I see my pink communion dress in her hands.
I do not know her smell”
(from Parade)

– and grandmother:
“She hid her smile to use against us.
So powerful, so invisible...
Even war is not so cruel”
(from Cyanide Smile)

– though when the narrator herself becomes a mother, a reconciliation of sorts is reached:

“...The last paragraph
of the letter said ‘I hope now when you are a mother yourself
you can understand your own mother a little bit better.’
I couldn’t answer her. Not because I didn’t have anything
to say but it was so hard to say it.”
(from A Mother Thing)

It is in these poems that I begin to suspect a hint of unreliability in Griffor’s narrator. In other poems in the collection, her childhood memories verge on the rose-tinted, and it’s not until she arrives as an adult in Santiago that the conflicts really begin:

“I assassinate the old days with nostalgia.
I don’t see but invent a city and its people, its fury, its sky...”
(from Prologue I)

The title poem of the collection brings these conflicts and contradictions graphically to the fore. Manuel Fernandez, the psychiatrist who guides the poet through her traumas, becomes a hate figure for the narrator precisely because of his reasonableness:

“You are suffering a post
partum depression, he told me, before I shot him,
like the many other voices in my head.”

At its best, The Psychiatrist is a vivid, engaging collection. It’s full of colour and fine description, peopled with outlandish characters – from the pipe-smoking mathematician Robin Gandy, who laughs “the way / a beggar laughs in children’s tales: / smoky and loud”, to the stern taskmaster Andres the Barbarian, “the man who hit me in the head / every time I forgot the letter ‘H’”, by way of a colourful string of revolutionaries with code-names like Wolf and Daphne. Griffor’s sadness for the country she abandoned and for the friends left scattered across the world is palpable:

“...You and I will order
two Napoleons and two coffees.

We will sit at the table, you will look around
to check if everything is the same...

This time you give me your list, full of incomprehensible requests:

go to Mass on Sundays, talk to the girls.
I will bring my chair closer.”
(from The middle of this goodbye)

Where I had difficulties with the poems, these largely seemed to arise not from the storytelling but from the translation. My proof copy contained no translator’s details, so I’m unclear how many of the poems were originally written in English, or whether Griffor made her own translations of any that were not. In the earlier poems there are a number of weaknesses in the choice of words and in the phrasing and layout of stanzas, which I suspect would not have been there had the poems been presented in the poet’s first language. Line breaks happen haphazardly, often on unimportant words (“a”, “the” or “of”). Poems full of dramatic portent fizzle out and end with seemingly inconsequential domestic detail (Death in Argentina). Abstracts abound: “innocence”, “truth”, “disappointment” (Child’s Eyes); “certainty”, “regret”, “indifference” (Heartland). A few poems (Heartland; Boys) seem to be nothing more than lists of rhetorical questions.

These blemishes gradually disappear on progressing through the collection – presumably a reflection of Griffor’s increasing ease with the English language in the later poems. The political narrative, too, evolves, becoming a backdrop for the personal. Stories of tyranny really matter, and it’s important that they are shared; but for me, those stories became so much more moving when the poems progressed beyond reportage, and Griffor allowed me to glimpse how they shaped her narrator, with all her contradictions, years after the tragedy and the exile.

The strengths of this collection lie in the accessibility of its language, the breathtaking clarity of the descriptive writing, and the gradual empathy that Griffor elicits for a complex, not overly reliable, but always compelling narrator. The Psychiatrist is a thought-provoking introduction to an important genre within western poetry, and a salutary reminder to English poets that we should never take our freedom of expression for granted.