Wednesday, 24 September 2014

CB1, September 2014: Mark Waldron and Fay Roberts

The poetry event CB1 hasn't met in the CB1 cybercafe for a while. Yesterday at its new venue, the Gonville Hotel (inches from where a Tour de France leg started this summer), they hosted Mark Waldron and Fay Roberts. Since being booked, Mark Waldron's become a New Generation Poet. I didn't know anything about him. Ben Wilkinson in the Guardian thought that Waldron's 2nd book was a "middling, at times disappointing successor. At best, it continues to match Waldron's gift for novel perspective with intellectual cunning ... but at worst, its poems settle into second-rate image-making; latching on to outlandish similes in the hope that they might lead somewhere new. You have to admire the intention, but in "Iron" and its conceit of household-appliance-as-dog, the shortcomings are readily apparent". Waldron read "Iron" (I think it takes mere comparisons somewhere new) and several other poems that I liked. I don't usually come away impressed from a reading but I did from his. He didn't outstay his welcome and performed his pieces ("Were I to jump", "The Chocolate car", etc) well. I can see why he gets into anthologies. But I can also see why a short live set of his might impress more than another book.

Fay Roberts is active on the local spoken word circuit. I'd not seen her before either. My limited concentration span meant that I had trouble with her long poems (and most of them were long). In the open mic sessions about a dozen poets performed. I was one of them. I think next time I'll try to memorize a piece. Both the headline poets performed mostly without texts, though their recall wasn't perfect.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Next Generation poets, 2014

The last Next Generation list came out in 2004. In my review I pointed out that the UK's 2001 population statistics show that 92% describe themselves as White, 4% as Asian (Indian/Pakistani, mostly) and 2% as Black, which matched the list's stats pretty well. I moaned about the Narrow stylistic range, Non-Intellectualism, Form/Word blindness, and Narrow range of imagery in the poets' work. Particularly striking was the lack of contemporary references. Computers, mobile phones, games shows and cheap flights barely figured, and War, Politics or World Affairs weren't alluded to let alone addressed. In 2004 only 1 poet was from Scotland. 1 was originally from Cork and 6 poets had strong Welsh connections. 12 out of the 20 were female. There was a spoken word expert.

Now the next-generation list for 2014 list is out. I made some predictions back in May, amongst them Helen Mort, Luke Kennard, Sam Willetts, Emily Berry, and Rebecca Goss (not because I thought all of them good). If I'd have thought more about who was eligible I'd have predicted Hatfield and Daljit Nagra too. I'm surprised that Ahren Warner wasn't there.

I've read 9 of these poets already, and some of the others are on my radar. The list is Tara Bergin, Emily Berry, Sean Borodale, Adam Foulds, Annie Freud, Alan Gillis, Rebecca Goss, Jen Hadfield, Emma Jones, Luke Kennard, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Hannah Lowe, Kei Miller, Helen Mort, Daljit Nagra, Heather Phillipson, Kate Tempest, Mark Waldron, Sam Willetts, Jane Yeh. They have a web site with videos and PR machinery.

There are 14 women this time, at least 1 Irish poet, fewer Welsh than in 2004, and similar racial background breakdown to the last bunch (this time there's an oriental addition at the expense of an afro-Carribean). As before, there's 1 spoken word expert. A few of these poets have sad stories to tell that will interest the media, but whether their 2nd books will be as interesting remains to be seen. And Jen Hadfield, who's already produced a 2nd book, already seems to be going backwards.

The judges were Ian McMillan, Caroline Bird, Robert Crawford, Clare Pollard and Paul Farley, who certainly know their way around (though a view-point from abroad might have been useful). It's not easy to predict whose poetry will be read in a decade's time. Within the constraints, both late bloomers and hot-housed newbies could have qualified for selection. How does one judge the record of achievement of (say) Katy Evans-Bush (mentioned by Todd Swift) against the output of a young person who even after mentoring and courses still produces a patchy book whose failures might be more predictive than the successes? Todd Swift also mentions Jon Stone, whose inclusion would have injected some different kinds of invention and subject matter into the mix.

Just as a game, suppose you had to come up with such a list without reading/hearing the poetry. You could read their bios, and find out if articles have been written about them. You could take into account the poetry world's under-representation of minorities, the candidates' potential effect on booksales (older women are the main poetry-buyers) and how effectively they'd exploit the opportunities that selection would bring. I think the list you'd produce might not have been much different from the current crop. Having a book out from a big publisher helps, and the poets rather than the poems are what's going to keep the generation in the news.

Other opinions

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Free Verse, 2014

I keep meaning to chat to Matt Merritt but circumstances intercede. I heard him perform out in the square in front of the cafe. Later I chatted to Stephen Payne, Jon Stone, my eds, etc.

I went to a discussion involving anthology editors Tom Chivers (Adventures in Form), Mark Ford (Best British Poetry) and Karen McCarthy Woolf (Ten: The New Wave). Their anthologies were constructed in different ways - Chivers' was by invitation, McCarthy Woolf's was the result of mentoring, Ford trawled through all he could find. Chivers was hoping for a weakening of the canon, and felt that the current publishing system didn't capture the variety of the poetry produced. Ford thought that there much randomness in the selecting of poems. Some anthologies are forward-looking, trying to identify or influence trends. Others are more archival, but the tastes of the selector can't/shouldn't be neglected.

If (as seems likely to me) many poets who've not published a book have written poems that are easily better than the worst poems in poets' books, is the current system "fair"? If the system includes magazines, then there's hope for the lesser names provided that the world of magazines is a meritocracy. But in a fragmented, non-hierarchical world where each niche is a self-sustaining system and niche-transcendence isn't considered a worthwhile aim, what hope has the occasional reader of poetry?

I bought more than I meant to - "Cairn" (Richie McCaffery, Nine Arches Press), "sequences and pathogens" (Litmus), "Common Ground" (D.A. Price, HappenStance), "Ways to build a roadblock" (Josh Ekroy, Nine Arches Press), "Incense" (Claire Crowther, Flarestack), "Tree Language" (Marion McCready, Eyewear), "England Underwater" (Christopher James, Templar), "Identity Theft" (Alec Taylor, Acumen), "The Midlands" (Tony Williams, Nine Arches Press)

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Prose Workshop on Tuesday, 2nd. Sep (Cambridge)

Out of ideas? Fed up with soul-searching? Why not take a break and relax at an evening of games, scavenging and recycling. Without realizing it, you might go home with enough material to last you through the winter.

I'm running it. For details see the Cambridge Writers page

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

UK literary magazines - an update

Magazines come and go. Here's a UK update -

Gone

Some of my main markets have disappeared

  • Weyfarers - After 115 editions, the poetry magazine Weyfarers is closing down. They cite "rising costs and the increasingly diverse forms of publication now available to poets". They published 25 of my poems.
  • Other Poetry - It's dormant (funding issues). They published 11 of my poems.
  • Assent - Apparently dormant. It carried on from Poetry Nottingham. Together the 2 magazines published 22 of my poems.

Newish [e-]paper mags

I'm surprized that so many of the newcomers are paper-based. Often they have high production values

Newish online mags

Some of these are already attracting big names and are seen on Acknowledgements pages in books.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Edinburgh, 2014

We stayed at Colinton (Edinburgh), a minute or so from some literary sites. Nearby lived Henry MacKenzie, whose "The Man of Feeling" (which I'd not heard of) was a bestseller in 1771. The 1886 Cassell & Company edition by David Price includes an "Index to Tears" listing the novel's hero's emotional upwellings. Apparently the novel was made fun of in the wake of its fame because of its sentimentality, though it's not without interest. Written after Sterne started being published, it was presented as if it's a reproduction of a partial manuscript, with the first 10 chapters missing and various other games played.

There's a Robert Louis Stevenson tour also. I've not read him either. The photo shows a statue of him as a boy. He was sent to university to do engineering, gave up, did law, but wasn't too committed to that either.

I also visited Glasgow for the first time. I looked around the city centre and went to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Inside the cafe in the photo is "Tell It Slant", which sells poetry books and magazines. The Oxfam bookshop on Byres road was good too.

Friday was my literary day, meeting Helena Nelson at the Edinburgh Book Festival (where I was introduced to James Robertson) then going to The Fruitmarket Gallery in the evening to see part of a show by Simon Barraclough, Isobel Dixon, A.B. Jackson, Rob A. Mackenzie, Andrew Philip, and Chrissy Williams, with Gerry Cambridge and Colin Will amongst the audience.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Poets being rude to readers

When a letter is poorly written (i.e. written without due care and attention, written without concern for the reader) or if a poet fails to rehearse for a reading there's a case for describing the author as negligent or even impolite.

If I read an application form that's messily filled in, I wouldn't be impressed; my time's been wasted. If I think the applicant is trying to bluff me, I grow suspicious; I feel I'm being taken advantage of. When I see difficult poetry, or a rough draft presented at a workshop, I sometimes wonder whether the poet's thinking more about themselves than the hapless reader.

Some standard guidelines for communication concern relevance - don't include material (e.g. line-breaks) that has no purpose, and certainly don't add features that have a negative effect on communication. Equally, don't delete too much - removing a few words to make a poem "denser" means that the reader will take longer to read it (i.e. the poem becomes in some sense longer - less dense - rather than shorter).

So when does "inconsiderate" become "rude"? When the behaviour's intentional? When it's continued despite it being pointed out? Of course, poets aren't mere communicators, and they can't be all things to all people, but if they make their work gratuitously difficult (e.g. by not providing notes, not explaining foreign words, adding skew-whiff line-breaks), if they don't bother spending just a little more time trying to make their work a lot easier without compromising artistic integrity, isn't rudeness sometimes a valid description?

And yet, I've never seen the term used in this context ("elitist" or "socially inept" yes, but not "rude"). Should poets think about their readers? Perhaps difficult poets do, but they don't want to insult the readers' intelligence. Considerate poets of various types exist. On the back cover of Billy Collins' "Ballastic" it says "No poet writing today insists on such open, direct and courteous engagement with the reader". Andrew McMillan in "Eyewear" wrote that "Constant consideration of the reader, of an audience, is the mark of a great poet. In [Emily] Berry, that is exactly what we have". I'm not convinced by the first sentence, and great though Emily Berry might be, her poems don't seem especially reader-centred, but at least the reviewer's addressing the issue. I think poets are well advised to anticipate the reader's reaction when rewriting a poem in order to weigh up whether any loss of reader-friendliness is sufficiently compensated for. There are poets (especially after receiving workshop feedback) who consider line by line how the poem will be received, how the reader's state of mind might change with each phase.

Some readers don't look for the author behind the text. Some poets don't actively consider the reader, concentrating instead perhaps on authenticity, on expressing what they really feel inside. The poet (though much more often the novelist) may wish to be invisible, discouraging a poet-reader relationship. Nevertheless, the poet might still show through. More often with poetry than with prose, there might be an assumed one-to-one connection between author and reader.

Readers may become irritated if they think the poet's Sexist, Racist, Anti-semite, Anti-gay, etc. Readers might become more than just irritated if they belong to the aggrieved set of people. Elitism or aloofness doesn't tend to provoke similar reactions - the poet's behaviour is less personal, less targeted, and could be described as style rather than attitude, and style isn't, as far as I can tell, considered a legitimate justification for becoming angry about a poet/artist.

Perhaps rudeness isn't an applicable emotion in this context; readers should be engaging with the text, not the poet. Or perhaps the presumption is that readers voluntarily enter into this unequal relationship with the writer, and should be prepared to walk away feeling disappointed, humiliated or inadequate. Perhaps it's felt that the editor or publisher rather than the poet is really the culprit. If more poets were criticised as being rude, perhaps they'd write more clearly. Describing them as elitist only encourages them.