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)

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