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.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Poetry and music: the Sounds Lyrical Project, part 2

Regular Soapbox readers will know that for a year or two now I’ve been part of a collaboration involving four York poets and a group of classically trained composers. The Sounds Lyrical Project was set up to create opportunities for both poetry and contemporary composition to break into new venues and find new audiences. Our respective arts both have something of an image problem with the general public. Poetry is often perceived as twee and childish, or (at the other extreme) remote and unconnected to reality; whilst modern classical music, with its conventions of smart dress and a silent, serious audience, can have a whiff of intellectual snobbery about it. An avowed aim of Sounds Lyrical is to do its bit to combat this image problem by changing people’s perceptions of where poetry and modern composition belong, and who can access and enjoy it.

Our first concert, in March 2013, was very much in the classical mould; but recently, after a long period of repertoire development, we tried something new. Our appearance at Bridlington Poetry Festival a couple of weeks ago made use of the classical set-up of vocalist and piano, but also brought in state-of-the-art electronics. The poets in the Project weren’t just listening to musical settings of our poems; we were also performing our own material, to the backdrop of musical samples and complete pre-recorded instrumental pieces by the Project’s composers. The poems we performed were carefully selected and choreographed so that poetry and music formed a seamless whole.

Rehearsing for this show was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had as a performer of poetry. There was a ‘light-bulb moment’ for me when, sitting over a cup of herbal tea in Lizzi Linklater’s living-room, I realised that the soundscape effects being played through Tim Brooks’ laptop were the perfect backdrop to an as yet unpublished descriptive poem of mine, and that properly handled, they could really enhance the performance of the poem. This was followed by a play-through of a recording of one of Peter Byrom-Smith’s instrumental works – a piece which had exactly the right rise and fall, the perfect complement of rhythm and cadence, to fit another one of my poems. My performance repertoire was suddenly taking off in a direction that would never have been possible had I been working on it alone.

The audience response at Bridlington was highly encouraging. One person commented that the choreography of my words to one of the pre-recorded instrumental pieces was so perfect as to make the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Others said it was much the most interesting poetry they had heard in a long time.

Of course, those who spend any time around the live poetry circuit (particularly in big centres like London, Manchester and Newcastle) will know that what we were doing was hardly revolutionary. Medieval bards were performing poems to musical accompaniment centuries ago. Beat poets revived the genre in the 1950s and 60s. Modern rappers have samples and backing tracks to provide the beat to their words, while the big names in contemporary performance poetry frequently collaborate with musicians to provide a soundtrack for their spoken word shows. Nonetheless, I think the Bridlington concert still provided us with a horizon-expanding moment. What we achieved was to take contemporary techniques into the setting of a very ‘old-school’ poetry reading, carrying those who were more comfortable with the traditional English poetry recital along with us for the ride.

So much for the audience reaction. I’ve found it even more interesting, during rehearsals and after the concert, to talk to my fellow performers about their own responses.

I grew up with music all around me. Although I never became a musical performer in the same way that I have done with spoken word, I’ve always felt that poetry as an art-form is even closer kin to music than it is to, say, prose or playwriting. For me, fusing music with my poetry has felt like a very natural thing to do, now that I have the opportunity to do it. There’s hard work involved, of course – you have to choreograph your performance of the spoken word so that its rhythm fits the musical backdrop, so that its rise and fall follows the rise and fall in the music. But rehearsing with the music, for me at least, is pleasure not pain.

I’m not sure it was that way for all the poets in the Project. One commented to me repeatedly at first that this way of working with her words seemed quite strange and alien. On the day of the performance, however, she choreographed her words to the music probably better than any of us.

Another of the poets in the group is a composer in his own right, with an extensive grounding in the classical vocal and choral tradition. For him, the fusion of his own poetic performance with pre-written music was far less interesting than the creation of new music to fit his words, to be performed by professional musicians. He rightly observed that there are loads of performance poets whose work has a musical backdrop, and they do it probably much better than us. But there are very few poets having their work transformed into modern classical song, or choral work, or opera. An audience who come mainly to hear poetry might be less engaged by the classical song settings than by the performance poems. But an audience who come mainly to hear music are likely to have the opposite response. What the Project’s composers have done so far, in setting our words in arrangements for single vocalist and piano, barely scratches the surface. We have scope to bring in multiple voices, additional instruments – to have our poetic words transformed into whole lush soundscapes.

He’s right, of course. But one of the joys of this project is that we’re all right. One way of working doesn’t exclude the other. The only real limits are those of our own creativity.

Two big pieces of news, post Bridlington, may well give us a pointer as to what’s next. The first is that the Project has been successful in getting an Arts Council grant to develop repertoire and put on our own concert series, which will begin in York in September. The second is that we’ve managed to win a booking for the Project to put on a fringe show at the Ilkley Literature Festival, bringing our music and poetry to one of the most prestigious literary events of the year. With just a couple of months to go before the first of these shows, we have a lot of rehearsing to do. But I think we’re starting to get a flavour now, of just how wide the possibilities are.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Le Grand Débacle

It’s only a couple of weeks until the opening stage of this year’s Tour de France hits the streets of Yorkshire. And you could be forgiven for thinking the poetry world has gone just a little bit, well, bicycle crazy.

The wretched things seem to be everywhere. Bike-themed anthologies, bike-themed poetry nights – no doubt someone has had the bright idea of being Poet-in-Residence-on-a-Bike and will be chasing the peloton up hill and down dale, declaiming verse from their latest collection as they go.

Now, I know a lot of poets. And I can probably count the number of them who are genuine cycling enthusiasts on the fingers of one hand. For those fortunate few, the Tour de France is a dream come true: one of those rare occasions when a genuine personal interest meets a genuine public interest. Any poetic cyclist who can write authentically about their two-wheeled passion deserves to be able to seize the moment, and milk it for all it’s worth.

But excuse me for being a bit cynical here. This deluge of bike-related poetry anthologies is more than the work of just a small number of genuine enthusiasts. In fact, the whole thing has a distinct whiff of band-wagonry about it. And there is nothing – nothing – that creates Bad Poetry like trying to force verse out of a subject you don’t really care about, just because it happens to be the theme of the day.

I can understand the temptation. Because the coming of the Tour de France to Yorkshire has also meant the coming of the 100-day Festival of Yorkshire – and with it, perhaps more importantly, a lot of money. Poets and arts organisations who have spent the last few years searching the backs of their sofas for any scrap of loose change that would help finance their work, have suddenly found that if they can somehow manage to shoe-horn bikes into what they’re doing, local authorities and the Arts Council will positively throw money their way. Who wouldn’t want a slice of that?

The money may be all very well. But I have major reservations about the quality of the work that’s the result of it.

I have even more serious concerns about the longevity of the work. Because that’s the trouble with the theme of the day – tomorrow’s theme will be something else. Once the dust has cleared, the cyclists have left the hills of Yorkshire far behind them, and the money has run out, who is actually going to want to read a pile of sub-standard poems from writers who don’t really give a cuisse de grenouille about bicycles, or the Tour de France? They’ll be consigned to charity shops, bargain bins, the 2-for-1 giveaway.

Poetry deserves better than this. Frankly, the Tour de Yorkshire, or whatever it’s called, deserves better than this.

If you’re a poet with a passion for cycling, be glad. This is your moment – so make the most of it. When you write from the heart, it will show. You will write fantastic poetry.

And the rest of us should keep our mouths shut and let them have the moment of glory they deserve. Our time will come, eventually. But let’s not sell out our art just because someone has a bit of money to throw around, or a new raft of opportunities to get published. Let us write what we believe in, what we can speak about from the heart. Otherwise our verse will be as rusty and as wobbly as an out of control penny-farthing on a cobbled Yorkshire snickleway.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Roll up for the lottery - it's Bridport Prize time again!

With just a week to go before the closing date for this year's Bridport Prize, I've just done my annual trawl of their website to decide whether it'll be worth entering. And just like every year, I've come away with the conclusion that the answer is no.

A strange response, you may think, for a poet keen to cement his reputation. And maybe so. After all, as far as UK writing competitions go, the Bridport Prize is the biggie. Its prize pot (with a First Prize of £5000 in the poetry category) is one of the heftiest in the country, and if you're lucky enough to scoop that First Prize this is one of the very few competitions that'll guarantee you national exposure. It's certainly going to command the respect of publishers when it comes to pitching a future collection. So what's not to like?

Well, the price tag on entries, for one thing. £8 a poem? REALLY?!?!

I've lost track of the number of times I've said in this blog that poetry is a democratic artform and that opportunities in poetry should be accessible to everybody - not just those with pockets deep enough to pay for it. "Pay-to-play" competitions are, in some respects, a necessary evil, as I pointed out in one of my very first Soapbox posts. It's not great that we have to cough up money to get our poems into competitions in the first place; it means that wealthy poets already have a head start on those without the cash to spare. But to some extent, it's understandable when the competition is there to support a journal, or an arts centre, or a writers' collective that muddles along on a shoestring budget without the benefits of Arts Council funding or a rich benefactor. When the competition is there to raise money for charitable causes, there's even less to quibble over.

However, the Bridport Prize is none of these things. Its total prize pot (£15,000 across all categories this year) would easily be enough to keep many smaller arts centres, and quite a few journals, in existence. Its patrons - who include Fay Weldon, Tracy Chevalier and Andrew Motion - have tremendous clout in the arts world; if anyone can rustle up donations, they can. Compared with many, the Bridport Prize is rolling in money.

Don't get me wrong. I can't begrudge Bridport its success. The problem I have with this competition is that the vast majority of entrants will be throwing their money away, and will be getting nothing back. No feedback. No idea of where their writing is placed (contrast with the Plough Prize, which for years has published a full breakdown of results including the longlists as well as the shortlists!). No idea who has actually read their work, or even if it got past the inevitable filtering committee to reach the much-trumpeted big-name adjudicators. When a competition demands as much as £8 a poem from its entrants, I would certainly expect to get some return on my investment. But unless you're one of the lucky dozen or so that make the final prize winners' list, you get zilch.

So, is it worth the money? My answer is: probably not. The whole thing has the feel of a sort of literary National Lottery. There's a lot of fanfare and razzmatazz, photo opportunities for the winners, and bugger all for the people whose failed attempts subsidise the whole venture.

Of course it'll be worth it for those fortunate enough to make the prize winners' list - and I don't for a minute begrudge the winners their achievements. You HAVE to be really good (or at least remarkably well tuned in to literary fashions) to get that far. But the fact remains that a whole pile of astonishingly good writers WON'T have got that far, and will have no way of knowing why. If you think you may be one of those people, my advice is to put your money somewhere else. Find a competition that gives you some genuine feedback, or at the very least a decent judge's report - and one that doesn't require you to take out a mortgage to afford the entry fee. "3 poems for a tenner" is the norm in most of the small to medium-sized competitions. Find one that fits your tastes and interests, or supports a venture that you feel is sufficiently deserving, and put your money there instead.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

How Not to Write About Sex

I was surprised (and a little perturbed) when a performer at one of the regular Yorkshire open mic nights recently referred to me as an “erotic poet”. I don’t think he was referring to my magnetic, romantic personality. Rather, and I’m not sure quite how this happened, I’d been pigeon-holed in the category of Poets Who Write About Sex.

I do write a lot of love poems. But my published (and occasionally prize winning) love poems are poems about libraries, rivers and ornithology. Not, by any stretch of the imagination, ‘poems about sex’.

I’ve written one poem, to date, that is overtly ‘about sex’. And I’ve performed it to an audience exactly twice. Breathing for Me was a challenge set by a writing tutor some years ago, and writing the damn thing terrified me. It was published in a Ragged Raven Press anthology, and eventually found its way into my collection A Long Way to Fall. It’s not an especially explicit poem. Although it’s clear what is happening, I made sure that the sex itself stayed firmly in the subtext. But it’s a very sensual poem – and I think this is what my fellow poet was referring to.

You don’t have to be writing ‘about sex’ to write a poem where sex, or the possibility of it (or the consequences afterwards) infuses the subtext. When Andrew Marvell wrote about his Coy Mistress, he didn’t write about the actual physical process of having sex with her. Carol Ann Duffy is hardly an ‘erotic poet’, but Valentine and Warming Her Pearls are filled with sensuous imagery that positively electrifies the atmosphere.

‘Erotic poetry’ (by which I specifically mean ‘poetry about sex’) was a bit of a craze in York a few years back. There were whole evenings dedicated to it. An element of ‘dress-up’ was involved, which made these events doubly intimidating for an introvert like me. Some participants opted for the classic ballgown or dinner jacket; other people’s costumes were more suited to a BDSM dungeon than a poetry night. Many creative people have an exhibitionistic element about them, and that’s fine. It takes all sorts, as they say. But ‘erotic poetry nights’ really didn’t do it for me.

I did once appear in an anthology titled The Exhibitionists, as it happens. But that’s another story.

‘Erotic poetry’ is not the only place where a poet can tread on uncomfortable ground. I was made aware of that at another poetry reading recently: a book launch event for a well known poet whose latest material draws on dark recollections from the poet’s past. The tragic history of the poet’s first love affair was a major theme of the poems.

If romantic verse is one aspect of the poet’s stock in trade, then ‘love-gone-wrong’ poems are the other side of the coin. I’ve been there before too (“many, many times,” to misquote Betty Marsden), and made a fair bit of poetry out of the experience. Even a little money, too; a couple of these poems have been prize winners. But what applies to the ‘erotic’ love poems also applies, for me, to the ‘love-gone-wrong’ poems. Their power is in the imagery, the subtext: the things the poet chooses not to say explicitly but only to hint at. These are what allow the poem to transcend the poet’s own experience and find a new life in the heart of the reader, or listener.

When a poem of this nature becomes explicit – when it becomes biography, when the lost love is named and shamed in the poem – then I can’t help feeling that a line has been crossed. The poem becomes journalism, or confessional, or – at worst – revenge. No matter how well crafted, it is a report of someone else’s life. That thread of connection which binds the poet and the audience is broken – or else it was never there to begin with. And as a reader, I will never feel that the poem really speaks to me.

Just as I have no wish for my sex life (poeticised or not) to be on public display, so I have no desire to broadcast the details of past heartbreak to the world. My ex-girlfriends deserve the dignity of me keeping our private affairs private. That doesn’t mean that what went wrong in those relationships will never influence my poetry again. But I prefer to use the experiences as source material to inspire my poetry on a subtler level. With the aid of metaphor, imagery and subtext, I try to make something a little bit beautiful out of the wreckage of past mistakes. Something that I hope others can relate to.

The poetry tutor who made me write Breathing for Me was pushing me to a greater degree of honesty. He wanted my poems to be truthful about the ‘inner me’ – he wanted me not to be afraid of using my art to express the deepest, most personal aspects of who I am. For the record, I think he was right. But that doesn’t make Breathing for Me autobiography. That was never its purpose. Instead, it was permission to find new freedom in how I use my imagery, metaphor and subtext. It was a pivotal moment in ‘finding my voice’ as a poet.

But it was not a ‘poem about sex’. And I don’t really want it to be seen as one.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Is poetry a feminist issue? Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 9 March 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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