Sunday, 31 December 2017

Some poets just need to get over themselves

A little rant to end the year.

Back in September 2016, I wrote a silly little poem in protest at the way the CEO of a certain nationally famous pub chain used his influence, and his company’s money, to generate pro-Brexit propaganda which was circulated amongst patrons of his pubs in the run-up to the referendum on leaving the EU. I subsequently posted the poem on my blog page on Write Out Loud, to receive the unexpected accolade of being voted Poem of the Week.

There was nothing solemn or pretentious in the aforementioned Silly Little Poem (which you can read, in all its glory, here). It was a skit – a pastiche – deliberately written in the metre most famously used by Dr Seuss in his comic rhymes for young readers. It was written to let off steam, and maybe raise a laugh. I wouldn’t ever have entered it for the Bridport Prize, or submitted it to a highbrow poetry journal. It’s not that sort of a poem.

I’ve re-posted links to the poem a few times since September 2016, when the pub chain which inspired it has cropped up in Facebook discussions. Most of the time it is received with the sort of droll amusement I hoped it would evoke. But not recently. The last time I mentioned it, a certain poet and Editor of a Respected Online Poetry Journal pounced upon the link and publicly denounced me for choosing to express my ire in the form of a Silly Little Poem. The poem itself came in for some Serious Critique for its “trite rhymes” and childish metre, and I was made to feel somehow kind of sordid for besmirching the good name of poetry by making a political point in such a light-hearted way.

And you know what? This made me angry.

OK, I should have guessed that my post would be read by some Serious Poets. The correspondent to whom I sent the link was a Facebook friend who is himself a Serious Poet of some distinction. He is however someone who has similar political sensibilities to me, and someone whom I know to be not averse to a bit of satire (and to be able to take it in the spirit with which it was intended). I suspected my contribution would raise a smile. I didn’t suspect that the Poetry Police would be scrutinising every word of his Facebook feed for signs of anything that could be seen to suggest that poetry is ever anything other than a Serious Artform. I certainly didn’t expect the sneering, the self-righteousness or the arrogance of the response with which my light-hearted little contribution was met.

In fairness to my friend, I should point out that he was not the source of the response. It came from somebody who followed his page – someone whose name is well known online in the poetry world, and who in my humble opinion really needs to get over himself.

First of all, who gets to dictate what does, and doesn’t, constitute suitable material for poetry? Political points don’t have to be made exclusively through serious poems – in fact, as I’ve argued before on this blog, sometimes the silly poem is more effective by virtue of being memorable for its daft rhymes, or for a refrain that gets lodged in the mind. After all, the satirist’s job is to make the self-important look ridiculous. The poems in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books were social and political satires; often they were pastiches of poems and songs of the day, or of well-known poetic styles; they were all very silly. And today they are fondly remembered, they are proudly recited by young and old alike, and some of them even feature in The Nation’s Favourite Poems. Now I’m not saying that my Silly Little Poem has anything to commend it to the extent that Jabberwocky does, but that’s not the point. The point is that you simply can’t say, with any justification, that serious political points can’t be made through light verse. A whole tradition of British poetic writing that encompasses Carroll, Lear, Betjeman, Auden, Roger McGough, John Cooper Clarke, Attila the Stockbroker and Les Barker will prove you wrong.

Secondly, there’s that sniffy assumption often made by Serious Poets, that writers of light verse somehow don’t take their craft seriously. I beg to differ with m’learned friend when he says that the rhymes in my Silly Little Poem are “trite”. I worked bloody hard at those rhymes – and though I say so myself, I think they are effective. The “Dr Seuss” metre requires them to be deployed with the subtlety of a rhinoceros driving a Sherman tank, but that doesn’t mean they are bad rhymes. One of the reasons I love writing Silly Little Poems is that they really make me work at rhyme, scansion and the musicality of a poem; they are great training for the moments when I get the urge and the inspiration to write Serious Poetry. As I’ve blogged before, it takes a great deal of skill to make light verse actually sound light – more than most Serious Free Verse Poets realise.

(Again, read the poem and judge for yourselves. I don’t make any claims as to its literary greatness; I just happen to think I came up with half-decent rhymes that work moderately well).

Lastly, I think I’m just sore at the fellow’s implication that somehow, by writing this stuff, I’m Not a Proper Poet. OK, so it would appear I’m never going to be published in his journal – I think we can be quite Clear about that, can’t we? – but I’ve published a whole collection of (mostly) serious poems and I’ve won 10 First Prizes in UK-wide and international poetry competitions – mostly with serious poems. I shouldn’t have to justify myself. I’ll be a poet in whatever medium I choose, thank you very much. If I choose to write Silly Little Poems, by all means judge the poems, but not the poet. If my output really isn’t for you, then fine – there are plenty of Serious Poets (and some silly ones) whose work I can’t stomach either. But the point is that those words speak to someone. Who are you to silence those words, just because that someone doesn’t happen to be you?

Monday, 3 July 2017

Helen Cadbury - a tribute

The Poet's Soapbox was deeply saddened to learn of the death last Friday of one of the true stars of York’s literary scene. Helen Cadbury was a successful novelist, a very fine poet, a playwright and a motivator of all things artistic. Her passing will inevitably leave a large empty space in the lives of her partner, sons and her sister, and it will be keenly felt too amongst all of us in the local arts scene who have had the privilege of knowing Helen and working alongside her.

My first encounter with Helen and her beautiful poetry was at Speakers’ Corner. On a night that was (as sometimes happens) almost entirely dominated by men, Helen’s was one of only two female voices to rise to the challenge of redressing the gender imbalance. I think it’s fair to say I was a little intimidated at first; there was a strength and a self-assurance about her which made me feel she was destined for more prestigious places than our little grassroots open mic. But as I got to know her it quickly became apparent that Helen’s self-assurance came from a strong, still centre. There was never anything about her that was in the least bit pushy or arrogant. She was quick to offer praise and support to others; she listened sensitively, and when she spoke, she spoke wisely. In a field where many of us often feel that we have to push ourselves forward to be noticed, Helen was one of the most humble writers I knew.

It’s also fair to say that I didn’t quite appreciate just how good Helen’s writing was until I landed upon an anonymous short story entitled Hello, which I found in the creative writing competition postbag for the 2011 Malton Literature Festival (the forerunner of what is now Ryedale Book Festival). The story was a chilling little psychodrama written with a breathtaking economy of language and a light touch of the pen which elevated it from its dark origins to something truly special. “I was as unsettled as I was fascinated,” I wrote in the judge’s report. “It is clear from the outset that something terrible has happened, but the writer paces the story cleverly, never revealing any detail until it’s exactly the right time to do so.” It was a story that easily deserved its prize, and it was clearly the output of a writer of extraordinary talent.

That First Prize winner was Helen. The story had its origins, she told me later, in some of the tales she had absorbed and the characters she had met whilst working in a women’s prison. As it turned out, that background was also the perfect starting-point for Helen’s subsequent career as a crime novelist. To Catch a Rabbit, the first book in the PCSO Sean Denton series, was a joint winner of the inaugural Northern Crime Award in 2012 and was first published under the Moth imprint in 2013. Subsequently republished by Allison & Busby, it was followed by a sequel, Bones in the Nest. The third book in the series, Race to the Kill, is scheduled for publication this autumn.

As a keen, but very selective, reader of contemporary crime fiction, I was drawn to the Sean Denton books, not just because I knew how good the prose would be, but because there’s something very “everyman” in the central character. Sean is not a detective, not even a police officer, when the series begins; he’s a lowly PCSO unexpectedly plunged into a world of organised crime and police corruption. His very ordinariness makes Sean such an empathetic central character: he’s a council estate boy, an under-achiever at school, with no great ambitions or pretentions. What he does have – and where I think her greatest fictional character mirrors his creator in many ways – is a quiet, instinctive understanding of what is The Right Thing to do, to feel, to believe, to stand up for. That knowledge, that strength of character, guides Sean Denton through his fictional troubles. And similar qualities guided Helen, as anyone familiar with her work in our community and with her unshowy but wise and insightful Facebook posts will realise. She made no secret of her politics (her sister is Labour MP and until-recently front bencher Ruth Cadbury) but the moral and social convictions which underpinned them were always more important than any party political points scoring.

It is, of course, as a poet that I knew Helen best: whether sharing a stage with her, or sitting around a workshop table at the York Stanza sessions hosted by the amazing Carole Bromley (whom Helen credits as being the person who started her on the path to writing professionally). Helen wrote, quite simply, beautiful poetry. Like their author, her poems were never flamboyant; but they were deeply felt, beautifully crafted, alive with imagery and inner fire. So many of Helen’s poems are stories which uncover the epic, the mythic and sometimes the tragic in the narratives of ordinary lives, poems which grant a special dignity to the otherwise uncelebrated. She was considerate in her critique of others’ work, and humble enough to be grateful for critique of her own. She was also an indefatigable supporter of the writing efforts of her contemporaries. She visited York Writers a number of times to talk (with great charm and self-deprecation) about her journey into professional writing, and the pitfalls she encountered on her way. And she was a founder member of the York Authors co-operative, set up to help published local writers across genres promote and develop their books. Through that group she helped give a platform to many of us who wouldn’t otherwise have the knowledge, the network or the oomph to embark on the thankless round of sales and promotions unaided.

There is perhaps an awareness of mortality in the title of Helen’s debut poetry collection, due to be published by Valley Press in November. Forever, Now is a title lifted from Emily Dickinson’s aphorism that “forever is composed of nows”. It wouldn’t do for me to speculate on how Helen’s long illness may have affected her perspective on now, or on eternity. What is clear is that she remained to the end, not only fiercely creative, but full of possibilities, still excitedly discussing plans for her book launches just the day before she finally left us.

Thank you, Helen. For your wonderful writing, and the inspiration, strength and encouragement so many of us have drawn from you. We will miss you.