Words by Helen Calcutt / Lead pic by Tina Barnes – Red Storm Productions
**Oct 6th is National Poetry Day 2016 as organised by Forward Arts Foundation. To find out more about the UK wide initiative, visit www.nationalpoetryday.co.uk / For more on Forward Arts Foundation, visit www.forwardartsfoundation.org**
I write because if I didn’t, life as I know it would be a struggle. It’s in my bones to transform experience into verse and song. It is also therefore insurmountably important that I read good poetry: challenging, thought-provoking poetry, and that, whether from a new voice or not, this poetry is circulated. Circulation, as we all know, comes from publication and hopefully deserved recognition. At the moment there’s a wave of writers; fresh, startling, genuinely different; that simply aren’t being recognised by the very factions that encouraged them to start writing in the first place. And this, Dear Reader, is a big problem.
As a poet, I’m starkly aware of the damage that’s being done to writers and poets of magnificent quality: both young and old, seasoned or just starting out. Yet either because of their ‘demure’, the challenging quality of their work, or their non-existent desire to professionally hobnob, they find themselves, with regards to publishing at the very least, at the back of the queue.
This is a tricky subject, one with which you’re no doubt familiar, but also perhaps a little afraid to publicly comment on. Another thing of which I’m certain is that a great number of poets are too nervous to openly offend the current state of affairs, firstly because they think it would damage their social standing, and secondly, diminish any further publishing opportunities. You would think ‘the poet’: the verbal revolutionary, would be the first to take the plunge and open her heart on such matters. But this doesn’t seem to be the case. I’m repeatedly surprised by how many carry along blind with the proverbial bandwagon, hailing every other blithely thing ‘excellent’ because someone else a little further up the chain told them it was. There’s very little celebrated in the high realms of literary London these days actually worth watching. But this doesn’t mean the stuff worth reading, and the poets worth revering, aren’t out there.
A number of small independent presses are pushing through, bringing us some remarkable talent (see Flarestack Poets as a starting point.) But who is actually reading these books? The Forward Prize for poetry this year was nothing short of predictable (though I can resolutely celebrate the prize for best single poem from Sasha Dugdale). Nothing about the winner’s work stood out as anything new. The last thing I want to do is criticise the quality of the work, there’s no denying that it’s good writing. But it’s just not distinct enough. These are big awards, and should be given to writers of enormous vision.
One of the most frustrating issues here is that these visionary poets are out there. They’re published, but not by the larger presses. And not every kind of press is welcome to put their writers forward. Pamphlet or chapbook collections for example, are exempt from the Forward Prize, which is absurd. Some of the finest poets we have today are published in chapbook form. Creating a pamphlet is an art form in its own right, and while every poet wants a full-length collection to their name, in order to give new voices the readership they deserve – outside the immediate audience of the press – we have to open up the channels of opportunity. Allowing pamphlet presses to forward their collections would be a start, especially now the PBS Pamphlet Awards have fallen through. I asked a number of writers, all deeply involved in this profession, if they had seen the Forward results, and the common response was a shrug. Either out of frustration, boredom, or both – they have simply stopped caring.
I deeply admire the presses and publishing houses that were listed this year, but as a reader especially, I’m not getting what I need from their books. I address all major publishers and presses when I say: be braver. To the poets? I send the same message. If the publishers aren’t looking hard enough, listening deeply enough: make more noise. The reason we’ve had a surge in self-publishing in the last fifteen or so years, isn’t because poets think they can do a better job than an editor. It’s because poets can’t get an editor to look twice at their work. It’s because it’s all too soul-destroying to have the fruits of your labour, lasting some seven or eight years, rejected because – well, who are you? Sadly it’s becoming the case that if you don’t know the right people in the circuit, or aren’t willing to exhaust yourself with social weathering, you’re royally f*cked.
I exaggerate here, but it’s to make a point. Suppressing the urgency and light of poetry that needs to be read – the sort that makes us uncomfortable, and criticise ourselves – will seriously damage our cultural immune system. We need art that both grounds and debilitates; that tests and embraces us, and we need to it from an array of voices. If you recycle the same substance over and over, it becomes putrid. If we keep reading the same ideas, phrased slightly differently, tarred with a different brush, you get lazy. ‘This is the way to write poetry’ we think. And this is also, a problem.
It seems to me, whether by standards dropping from publishers, or a lost desire to be challenged, that we’re rapidly losing touch with how to read genuinely innovative, ground-breaking poetry. There was a time when everyone used to go to readings, not just poets. It’s very difficult to work on the gold standard of writing when you’re just reading to another bunch of writers. Dylan Thomas would perform to sell-out audiences made up of people from all walks of life, who could engage with his work simply because they understood it to be breath-taking. What happened there? I go to poetry readings now, both local and small, big and influential, and it’s just full poets talking to other poets, eating cake, patting each other on the back and telling everyone in the room they’re doing a wonderful job. And what is the point in that?
At the beginning of the month I hosted an episode of Radio Poets on this very subject. The broadcast featured Flarestack Poets editor Jacqui Rowe, Black Country poet Elinor Cole, and performance poet Fergus McGonical. All are writers and editors I admire; both for the work they create and also for the poets they invest in. Though feeling trepidation, I found myself sharing a platform with three poets who, although very different, shared my views. When asked ‘are there enough opportunities for young writers today’, their answer was no. When asked if they believed there is a formula to success, generally based on a ‘winning style’ –and the spice of ‘who you know’ rather than what you can write, the answer was a muddled sort of yes. Though there are undisputed efforts to change the rotation of winners within the circuit, the solidly agreed point was that there needs to be fair, balanced opportunities – based on the understanding that there aren’t enough. We need writing to be judged by writers who are genuinely interested in the power of the work, or its potential (see www.lamplightpress.co.uk for a prime example) not the friend of last year’s judge, who is this years’ winner. Or a musician-come-Pollockesque-artist drafted in to give this years’ Forward Judging Panel the cool factor.
Changes are being made, and some exciting work is coming through. National Poetry Day is a fine example of one long-standing event that celebrates and nurtures a range of poetic voices from all over the world. The newly launched Verve Poetry Festival too, is specifically designed to cater for a wealth of talented voices desperately needing a welcome platform from which to share their work. But the message we receive as writers, day-in-day out is often the same – ‘if you write like this, you will achieve success.’ The new now in poetry is always very similar to what we just had, and this is both tedious and depressing. I put this idea to the panel, and it was Fergus who made the powerful point that, as a writer, you have to be yourself.
It’s the age old argument, but the roots of the issue have been squashed almost to the point of elimination. We’re so hell-bent on driving home some ‘idea’ of who we are, probably in order to fit in with the idealistic ‘I’ of whatever fits, that we’ve left the genuine element behind. The shamanistic view is that in order to know a person, you have to retreat from them as deeply as you can. In order to understand the ‘self’ too, you have to distance yourself from it: distill it in some way and then, over time, stand back to observe how it behaves. The true act of writing poetry is most definitely a way of touching the deeper corners of the spirit, separate enough from the self to both observe and absorb. Though crucially (another Fergus point) this takes a very, very long time. The problem is that the world of publishing seems obsessed with the quick fix method: “Here’s a cool new face with a sort of inspiring idea, let’s fling it out there and see what happens!” Not good. Publishing in 2016 rakes at one thing, and real poets, claw at another. Writing good poetry that does the job it’s meant to do takes all the sweat, blood and effort in the world. Furthermore it absolutely has to come deeply from the poet’s own self, simultaneously drinking outwards from the immune system, exposing not just the personal wound but also (hearkening to M.L. Rosenthal) tapping into a shared, social conflict, electrifying the universal airwaves through the music and power of language alone.
As you can imagine, this can take a very long time. And not many poets working today are either aware, or really being allowed the proper space or time to achieve this. If they do, their work is largely undelivered. And if it’s out there, they’re one of the lucky few.
I consider myself an incredibly lucky poet. All my successes have come about through the quality of my work, admired by the right people. I would say Elinor Cole, a young poet with glimmering potential is going a similar way. She made a profoundly uplifting point, one that I’m re-phrasing to close this feature. When I asked her about her journey as a poet, she said that she had been very lucky. The charm of her Black Country work had grabbed the attention of the charity Poets Corner, who in turn offered performing and publishing opportunities. Cole’s writing is in many ways irresistible, very of its place, and remarkably unlike Liz Berry’s Walt Disney rendition of the bleak, stark realities of the Black Country. But when asked her opinion of opportunities for her peers, who don’t hold that ‘sensationalist’ performance package, she said, bar a few transformative groups there simply aren’t enough. The scene is swamped with one format, and for someone starting out who doesn’t work in the expected (or accepted) way, this is almost impossible to overcome. I put the final question to the floor: ‘where is this all going? Can we smash through, and generate a new era of poetic power?’ Elinor spoke again. Her idea was this: those writers who struggle, that suffer timeless rejection – who are good and who deserve publication – will be the ones to go on and change the face of the publishing industry. With compassion and drive, these poets and editors will reform the current quick-fix sensational mess the poetry publishing world is made of. En masse, they will create the wealth of sensitive, intelligent, language-loving opportunities they should have had, for the future voices that deserve them. To abbreviate on an upside, and end with a message – things will change for the better. They will evolve.
So where did all the rebels go? Nowhere. There’s one sitting right here telling you that the world is full of compelling, insurgent poetic voices; the only problem is that they aren’t being heard. However, this doesn’t mean you stop writing. In fact, it’s a reason to do more. Let’s face it, the situation of poetry publishing today is not a true reflection of what it should, or could be, and while there are some incredible efforts being made to broaden the scope it’s not enough. My advice? Keep your fingers on the pulse. Be alert, dig with the pen. Keep pushing with your own voice. It’s the only way anyone will really, truly hear you.
Helen Calcutt is a poet, writer and choreographer. Helen hosts the Radio Poets show on Brum Radio – next broadcast on 25.10.16
For more on Helen Calcutt, visit www.helencalcutt.org or follow her on Twitter @HelenCalcutt