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.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Review: Sampo: Heading Further North, by Bob Beagrie & Andy Willoughby (Red Squirrel Press, ISBN 978-1-910437-04-9)

I have to confess a certain proprietorial interest in this book review. Back in 2009, when the original northern tour of the show which inspired this collection was taking place, it was Oz Hardwick and I, as MCs at Speakers’ Corner, who brought the performance to York. Authors Bob Beagrie and Andy Willoughby had big plans for Sampo. A national tour was envisaged; spin-off events planned; but these sadly foundered on the rocks of Arts Council funding cuts, and the show never quite had the impact it deserved. The poets immersed themselves in other projects and Sampo lay dormant awhile. But times change. Beagrie and Willoughby are back with new funding. The promised UK tour is a reality. And to tie in with the resurrection of an extraordinary piece of poetic theatre, the poems from the original Sampo show have been published here alongside brand new material to form a truly mesmerising book.

I’ve been captivated by the weird mythology of the Kalevala ever since I first heard the music of Jean Sibelius as a teenager. The core inspiration for Sampo comes from the stories of the shaman-bard Vainamoinen as narrated in the early chapters of the Finnish national epic. But Sampo is more than a simple rehash of mythology. The collection begins squarely in 21st century post-industrial Teesside, where “the glare of closed circuit cameras” and “the flicker of the burn-off flares” imbue the landscape with a mythic quality. The Iron Age hill fort which overlooks the city becomes a gateway into the world of the Kalevala, and from here, time slip is the order of the day Are we in modern times, or the Finland of folklore? It really doesn’t matter.

Readers unfamiliar with Finnish mythology need not worry that they are being taken into alien territory. The authors provide a helpful guide to the main characters and their stories in a set of well-crafted endnotes to the collection. The re-imaginings of the Kalevala tales are punctuated by fragments of emphatically 21st century verse (Flotsam and Jetsam) which provide an anchor point in the modern world, whilst constantly hinting at something magical, just out of reach.

Cities feature as prominently as frozen wastes in this collection. In part, this is because the city acts as a metaphor for the “ever float”, the limbo state which immersed the ocean-bound Vainamoinen before the start of his questing, and which constantly threatens to pull him back.

“The city with its shifting name / of London, Helsinki, / Moscow, Kyoto / Amsterdam and Carthage” inevitably draws comparisons with TS Eliot’s London. The cityscapes of Sampo, like those of The Waste Land, are bleak surreal territories somewhere between dreams and reality. There is a similar visceral empathy with the urban wilderness, and with the people adrift there. But whereas Eliot’s masterwork may present difficulties to a modern reader lacking an immersion in the classics, the Sampo poems are instantly accessible. This is The Waste Land for the Game of Thrones generation. Mythology goes hand in hand with pop culture references and subtle social satire, all with a rich insistent musicality that demands these poems be read aloud – or better still, sung:

“The iron in the blood points North.
The iron in the rocks stains ’em red.
The blood in the hills drew iron.
The iron from the hills cries blood.
The North in the blood seeks iron.
The North knows the origins of iron.”
(Walking in Circles)

“I drove a rag and bone cart piled high
with mistakes and some mistook my cargo
as wisdom: a broken bike, smashed TVs,
stepladders without the rungs, snapped
fishing rods, clapped-out rusted engines;
the things that most throw out as junk
I’d take away as basic truths.”
(The Ever Float)

As the story unfolds, the narrators slip not only through time, but in and out of the skins of the heroes of the Kalevala. The tragi-comic figure of Vainamoinen is surely a poster boy for poets the world over. There’s more than a whiff of Byron, or Dylan Thomas, about the ageless bard with his hopeless quests, his self-inflicted wound and his permanently broken heart:

“Seven years I spent
in the drink,
the seedy underworld,
inventing a self
from submerged archives
of sponges, sea snails
creatures with pincers
and all those scaly fish.
I thought I was a fish myself,
a fish afloat, alive or dead.”
(The Birth of the Shaman)

“I cannot say forgive me or explain my distance
when you are already gone back to the waves...
...I can’t say, sometimes I am this other floating man...
...who cannot treasure the instance of yourself,
as all is merged and rocked into the eternal.
By the time the clock comes back our time is over.”
(The Floating Man)

Joukahainen, the upstart who challenges him for the bardic crown in an X Factor style poetry face-off, is contrastingly brash, a figure too modern for his time:

“There was once a singer (me)
who proudly sang all the truths
of the land and of the life
he had learned...
...I reel out a litany of facts, figures and lore
but this old bloke with a silver beard
and a broken sledge remains unperturbed...
...and simply waits for my voice to falter.”
(Up to the Neck in It)

It is Joukahainen’s sister Aino – given to Vainamoinen as ransom when her brother loses his duel – who inspires the most beautiful, and heartbreaking, poetry in the collection. In the Kalevala, the grief-stricken Aino flings herself into the sea and is transformed into a fish. In Sampo, her story becomes a tragic extended metaphor:

“What remained were bogs and stubble, stunted trees...
...and a lost girl with hands running red,
her voice the caw of a hungry crow.”
(The Wizard’s Wooing)

“I wrap up in fur
to slip past the sleeping faces of my kin,
unlatch the door and leave the familiar lair
for good...
...I cry icicles for a world ruled by snowmen.”
(In the Land of Lumiukko)

Vainamoinen, it seems, truly loves Aino, but in his relentless quest for intangible mystical wisdom he drives her away:

“Be quiet! Can’t you see I’m unthinking the ocean?
Why do you distract me with your biscuits and your kisses?”
(Unthinking the Ocean)

But there is always another love. Despite the pull of the ever float, despite his grief over his beloved’s apparent suicide, Vainamoinen finds another – equally unattainable. It is his wooing of the Maid of Pohjola which sends him on his ultimate quest: to forge the Sampo, the indefinable treasure rumoured to bring peace and harmony back to a shattered world:

“‘Make me something brand new,’ he says, ‘Something
never seen before and never to be seen agai
...As if that’s not enough the daft old bard
wants the witch ‘to play the drums on it’...
...And to top it all ‘it has to shine’,
enough to warm the heart of a Northern ice queen
who has just traded in her daughter to a bloke
who spends most of his days weeping
for the lost poems of the world atop a Baltic rock...
...So muggins here says just show me to the anvil.”
(The Trouble with Wizards)

It is the quest for the Sampo which brings the collection full circle: back to the modern-day hills where Vainamoinen and his ally, Ilmarinen the smith, seek out the origins of iron. In these closing poems the smith’s raw material takes on a personality of its own, and a chillingly contemporary prophetic voice:

“I am the ubiquitous reinforcer of the heavy Rule of Law...
...As the sun glinted me I pricked out a dying wail
from punctured guts of men in the mud at Passchendaele...
...All around I abide, a bridled slave in shackles, to scrape chins,
smooth legs, stab peas, spoon, scoop, drill, lever, lay still and spin.
I evolved into razor wire to protect you from your brother...
...For you I span river banks, touch cloud, turn soil in furrows...
...You hammered out my shape but you can’t control my dance.”

The Sampo itself remains forever out of reach. Like all classic quest objects, it is impossible to recreate or imitate. The final poem, Sampo Unbound, is a celebration of the paradox that there is no holy grail, no perfect poem – and yet there’s something missing from human existence if we don’t keep trying to remake the unmakeable.

Like the Sampo, there is a sense that this whole collection is unbound by the constraints of the page. The poems’ rich musicality demands that they be read aloud, or sung, or performed ‘beat poetry’ style with an instrumental accompaniment. The two poets’ voices blend seamlessly together, at times duetting (as in Sampo Unbound, where bard and smith spark off one another) –

“But what if she sings you a Siren Song, a song
to set you weeping through your beard for home,
so a sharp rock resembles your yearning pillow?

“C’mon Smithy, toss in a Gideon’s Bible pilfered from a motel
with a Playboy Bunny pasted in the Book of Revelation.
Throw in a dinosaur bone pissed on by weary poets...”

– at times fusing so harmoniously together that it is impossible to see the join:

“I can sing light with the knowledge of bird heart and feather
So wings sprout for a moment from the backs of my listeners...

“...I can sing a village into a town and a town into a city
And with a chosen word or trumpet sound bring them all down...

“...I swear on a good day I can turn a hill into a mountain
And cover its steep slopes with lush green forest.

“All these things were given me in the floating dreamtime.
But sing as I will, I cannot bring you back from the deeps.”
(Shaman Song)

What fascinates about this collection is the fierce identification which two socially conscious Middlesbrough poets find with the legends of ancient Finland. Vainamoinen’s quest, in the hands of Beagrie and Willoughby, mirrors the universal striving of the poet to find an identity and to make sense of the world, in whatever condition we find it – to come to terms with love and loss, war and betrayal, material distraction and spiritual longing.

Having seen the show, I’m aware of the difficulties that must have faced Beagrie and Willoughby in pinning these poems to the black and white of the page. That they have succeeded in creating such a beautiful written collection is testimony to their extraordinary talents as poets. But my hope is that Sampo won’t just be read. The show, the CD, and the brilliant imagery of this collection makes it thoroughly deserving of a Saboteur award – perhaps even a Ted Hughes Prize.

(Copies of the book can be ordered from Red Squirrel Press)

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.