Thursday, 31 March 2011

Hey Jack Kerouac

I have a glaring gap in my knowledge of modern poetry. To some, it will seem like a sacrilegious one. I've never read the Beat Poets. And, I have to be honest, I've never quite understood why I should read the Beat Poets.

I'm 40 years old. I know a huge stack of poets in the "around 50" age bracket. And most of those people hero-worship the Beat writers. I've lost count of the number of people of that age who've told me it was Kerouac, Ginsberg et al. who first got them turned on to literature. I think that's fantastic. Anything that gets anyone reading and writing has to be commended. But I think I must have been just slightly too young to catch onto why the Beat writers were significant. I grew up on the Mersey Sound; most of my favourite modern poets were either inspired and mentored by McGough and Henri, or reacted against them.

This is the thing. For me, what the Mersey Sound poets did was real. I could look out my bedroom window as I was growing up, see the shipyards and the river, the two cathedrals, the Liver birds, the Tower Restaurant - the Liverpool icons that I shared with Roger and his contemporaries. They wrote about stuff that I could relate to: the first day at school, the fear of the end of the world (1981 was a paranoid year), and all that slightly bonkers romanticism as I got old enough to understand what romanticism was. What people have told me about the Beat poets doesn't even touch that world. Was there any relevance in Jack road-trippin' and substance-abusin' his way across the highways of America? It was a million miles away from my experience, my hopes and dreams, and what I saw out of my window every day.

OK, poetry doesn't have to be directly relevant to daily life to be meaningful. Some of the best poetry transcends it altogether. I've already written on here about how much The Waste Land inspired me, and I don't think it has a shred of connection with the day-to-day life I live! Poetry works if it inspires dreams. It's just that, for me, there have always been poets other than the Beat poets who have seemed more real, more accessible, better able to inspire those dreams for me.

So this is a plea, to those of you who love the Beat poets. Please tell me exactly what I'm missing. Let me know how and why they inspired you - something that's going to make me want to immerse myself in their world too. I want to understand what it is you feel when you read those works. I want to understand what makes them classics. But before I can do that, I need a way in. And don't feel you can't contribute if you weren't old enough to read the Beat poets when they were contemporary. If you've newly discovered them, that might be even more exciting.

Monday, 21 March 2011

York Poetry was slammin' on 18th!

They said it couldn't happen, but it did... After the demise of the York Literature Festival, you could be forgiven for thinking that no one in York WANTED to show up to literary events. York's first ever Poetry Slam, on 18th March, proved the detractors wrong by packing out The Basement at City Screen Picturehouse and attracting 31 contestants from the local area and as far afield as Newcastle, Manchester and Coventry. After a high-energy Grand Final, Harrogate's Tim Ellis was named York Poetry Slam Champion 2011 and took away a prize pot of £44.62 kindly donated by his fellow performers.

It seems appropriate to set down my thoughts on the Slam while they are still fresh in my mind. So here goes!

I have to begin by thanking the people who made it possible - Helen, my co-host at Speakers' Corner; Jem and Nicola at Harrogate's Poems, Prose and Pints for designing a fabulous poster and plugging the event with all their might; Rose and Alan of Stairwell Books for providing much of the motivation for getting the slam going in the first place; and performance poet Ash Dickinson, our guest judge, for invaluable advice and also for providing a guest slot which was one of the best poetry performances I've seen in ages. Without you guys, there really would have been no slam - we owe it all to your dedication, enthusiasm and energy.

I have to thank the performers too - all 31 of them. Several (including one of our finalists) had never read their poetry in front of an audience before, and deserve massive respect for having the courage to stand up and make themselves vulnerable that way. A great many travelled for miles just to take part. The feedback I've had from the performers was universally positive. All of them seemed to think it was well worth the effort, even if they didn't make it to the final.

The mix of material was gloriously diverse. Our three prize winners truly earned their accolade, but there were some stand-out performances along the way which have left an enduring memory. Some of them were pretty off-the-wall, like the guy who performed his poem lying down on the stage with a sleep mask over his eyes. Some were moments of unintended comedy, like the lady's handbag which inadvertently became the most entertaining stage prop of the evening. Others were quieter, simpler. A poetry slam can be a noisy affair. Everyone expects to have a good jeer at bankers, warmongers and upper-class members of the Cabinet. But sometimes a quietly alliterative poem of lost love, or the image of a young woman in a hijab describing her face, can have a more lingering effect.

Mistakes were made along the way, of course. I thought our publicity was crystal-clear, but there were still inquiries coming in right up to the last minute about who needed to buy tickets, where to buy them from, and what time we were due to start. We had an unforeseen partial clash with another poetry event elsewhere in town - though if anything, we may actually have ended up boosting attendance at each other's events, by providing enough incentive to drag poets from far and wide into York on a Friday night. Not being aware of "how other people do it" led to a couple of complaints, from people who had been to other slams and expected, not unreasonably, that ours would run the same way. But these were very minor niggles, and soon forgotten in the general enthusiasm of the night.

For me, perhaps the best endorsement of the night came from the anecdotal evidence of people scribbling down words and ideas throughout the evening, of conversations overheard in the toilets that people were inspired to get writing. This is what it's all about. If we've given people ideas, encouragement, inspiration - if we've sown seeds that will germinate into new pieces of writing - if we've prompted people to get writing, perhaps for the first time - then I don't think we could want anything more.

It's great to bask in the applause (as Tim will, I'm sure, testify!). It's great to have the reassurance that we sold enough tickets to cover our costs, plough a bit of money into our respective organisations, AND have enough left over to donate £50 to Comic Relief. But we don't do it just for the applause, the self promotion, or the money. We do it to spread the germ of writing - that subversive disease that undermines, inspires, and offers alternatives to a grey, mediocre, recession-ridden world. If we've done our bit to spread that disease, then I'm happy.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Why I'm uneasy about World Book Night

This Saturday evening, people across the UK will be giving out free books as part of the World Book Night initiative. A brilliant idea – at least on the surface.

After all, everyone who writes has a vested interest in Getting People Reading. Books transform lives – they transformed mine. Access to the printed word can educate, inspire, set people in directions they'd never have dreamt were possible. With World Book Night, that access is being made available to everyone – and somebody else is paying for it.

Like most writers, I was really enthusiastic about this scheme when I first heard about it. It's only as time has gone on that I've started to have my doubts.

World Book Night was sold on the basis that, if your life has been transformed by a book, this is your chance to give copies of that book to others. But that's not really what is happening. There are only 25 books to choose from. OK, some of these are worthy enough to justify inclusion on the list. Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time genuinely did transform a largely ignorant populace's understanding of how being on the autistic spectrum influences a person’s relationships with other people and the outside world. Love in a Time of Cholera, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and even Northern Lights are proper classics in their own right. And Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife is a rarity amongst poetry books, being both impeccably crafted and instantly accessible.

What troubles me is that the list stops here. You see, if I were giving out copies of the books that had transformed and influenced me, I'd be giving out different things altogether. The Armada Book of Young Verse, for instance. It's out of print now, which is a crying shame, because this was the book that first showed me the magic of language and the wonder of what you can do with it. I wish other people had the same chance to enjoy it as I did. The novels that'd be on my “giveaway” list would be stuff like Tolkien's Tree and Leaf, or the complete works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Or, to bring it more up-to-date, perhaps Iain Banks's The Crow Road, Joanne Harris's Gentlemen and Players, George Mackay Brown's Beside the Ocean of Time. There'd be short story collections too. The spell that Jeanette Winterson wove on me in The World and Other Places has been unsurpassed in 10 years.

And what about poetry? It's represented twice on the list – by Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy. Probably the only two poets in the world who don’t actually need more publicity. There are many brilliant poets writing life-transforming work, constrained only by the fact that people don't know about their work, and publishers can't afford to give them the sort of publicity that your blockbuster novelist – or even your Poet Laureate – can command. If I were a World Book Night ambassador, I'd want to be giving out copies of Diana Syder's Hubble. It's a book I'm utterly in love with. It transformed my vision of the power of poetry. And I wish with all my heart that more people had read it.

There are several books on the World Book Night list that I like. Even one or two that I admire. Some that I really ought to get round to reading one day (and wouldn't be averse to getting my hands on if a World Book Night ambassador happens to be passing). But none that I'm actually in love with. And that's where the whole concept makes me uncomfortable. The books on this list are loss leaders by major publishing houses. And it's the major publishing houses who are using this scheme to dictate the books that people are supposed to be in love with. Granted, they have endorsements from famous names who actually like and understand books; but it was the publishing houses who dictated what they could choose from.

The gamble, for the publishers, is that people will read the free books, enjoy them, and go out and seek other works by the same author. It's crafty; I can't help but admire it, albeit grudgingly. The handful of authors on the list can be justifiably proud of inclusion, and none of them will object to the ensuing boost in their sales figures. It's all the others that I can't help feeling sorry for. The real test of World Book Night's success is going to be whether or not it's a springboard for people to seek out other authors – the ones who aren’t lucky enough to enjoy the free publicity.