Thursday, June 30, 2011

Poetry Society conspiracy theories

One of the things that must be quite delightful for some people about the recent rumbles at the Poetry Society is the delicious possibility of creating a few conspiracy theories around the story. Mutterings about mysterious cabals of "mainstream" poets and publishers trying to control the public image of poetry; disgruntled poets sitting in corners complaining about how the Poetry Review rejected them so it must be run by some poetic branch of the Illuminati, and if someone doesn't mention Mossad, the CIA and MI5 I'd be very surprised. Or maybe not, but at least, we'll be mentioning that strange many-headed hydra, "the establishment."

Poets like me, with an interest in the experimental and the down-right weird; or poets like my friend Angela, a solid, perfectly mainstream poet of personal lyric, probably both have some reason to complain that the Poetry Review (and, by extension, the Poetry Society) doesn't represent them. To quote Morrissey, "it says nothing to me about my life" but, on the other hand, why should it? Fiona Sampson as editor is entitled to her taste, and if it doesn't agree with ours, it's not as if we don't have outlets for our own writing elsewhere. It's just that it's not as public as the Poetry Review; but has the Poetry Review ever represented the whole of the poetry spectrum in this country? Even in the heady days of Eric Mottram, it still only represented one kind of poetry, only this time it was the experimental end of the spectrum.

The poetry world is larger and wider than any magazine, or any society, can represent; but it's also largely ignored unless someone is kicking off about mysterious goings on at the Poetry Society. Then you'll find the newspaper comments boxing filling up with splenetic philistines complaining about how much money is wasted on a 'hobby' that only requires pen and paper... and how nobody rhymes anymore and it's all incomprehensibel rubbish... and then the whole thing dies down and poets go back into obscurity until next time... We don't have much power on the whole, and that includes the editor of the Poetry Review; but that doesn't mean there are mysterious dark forces trying to dominate British poetry and trying to ensure that only "establishment" poetry is acceptable. There are only lots of people vying for attention and booksales.

I don't see lots of people becoming suddenly interested in the kind of poetry I write; and, although I'd love to have as many readers as the latest Harry Potter, it ain't going to happen. We can help people to understand what we do better; we can be open and generous to those who find what we do puzzling; but in the end I'm reasonably fine with having a small audience for what I do, because I'm stuck with it. I'm not about to start blaming mysterious dark forces for that; or editors of national poetry magazines that have a different taste from me. Even if I think her taste is largely rubbish...

I don't think the Poetry Society keeping schtum helps, and I support (from a distance...) the people who want an EGM to resolve things; but there's no cabal at the 'head' of British poetry. If British poetry even has a 'head' that is.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Poetry Soc and the Real World of Poetry

Apparently, funny things are going on at the Poetry Society. Directors and Presidents resigning all over the place, and lots of rumours abount Editors of the Poetry Review only being interested in a certain cadre of poet-friends. Etc etc...

But frankly, I can't say I care very much. When was the last time that the Poetry Society was actually relevant to the real range of poetry going on in Britain today? Oh, sure it does lots of work in education... but is it just reinforcing a certain staid establishment view of poetry, or is actually reflecting poetry as it is? Poetry as it includes the mainstream and the non-mainstream, the page and the performance, the literary and the visual. Philip Larkin and Bob Cobbing.

And yes, it's full of arguments and disputes about what constitutes "real poetry": just as every other art form does, and should. If people don't get passionate about it, what's the point of it? I don't like all of it, and you won't like all of it. If the Poetry Society wants to be representative then it should reflect these things.

Poetry (Chicago) has been quite successful in reflecting the different forms of poetry by having 'specials' on visual poetry, flarf/conceptual poetry and translations. Can you imagine the current editor doing a special on visual poetry these days? If not, why not? Does she ever step out of her office to see what's going on in the non-mainstream scene, or in the regions?

The Poetry Society is largely irrelevant to most poets in this country. Maybe it's time to ask what its enormous grant from the government can do if it's redirected to something useful.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Where Have I Been? Where Am I Now? Where Am I Going To?

I have to think about where I've been, where I am now and where I'm going to next for a university funding application interview.

This is difficult, because a part of me doesn't want to know the answer to any of those questions. Who wants to second guess their future or pin down their past? But here are some initial thoughts.

1) I have been, and still am, basically a lyric poet. That is, a poet of personal experience, a poet who derives much of his material from his own life, from an attempt to understand his own life in the late 20th/early 21st century.

2) My interest in the non-mainstream, the experimental, the frankly bizarre and the extreme complicates that. It's always been there: even when I started I was more fascinated with the strange edges of poetry than a lot of the centre. But I hid it well: I went to readings with mainly mainstream poets because they were the only things available, and even bought the books; while secretly looking at books by Olson, O'Hara, Ashbery; while looking for British equivalents.

3) I found them too: Lee Harwood in a bookshop in Grasmere; the Collected Edwin Morgan lying unreviewed in the City Life offices, ditto with Mina Loy; review copies of Tempers of Hazard; a pamphlet of Geraldine Monk's in Frontline Books in Manchester. Ditto for Penniless Politics by Douglas Oliver.

4) I always did have an interest in the experimental, but I never knew what to do with it until I took a pair of scissors to a crap poem and it became a good one. That released a flood of ideas: turn the poem on its head, write the thing backwards, mix up the verses, stop stop stop making sense!

5) And then it started happening here in Manchester. Suddenly, there was a community of writers I could actually identify with. The readings in the Attic of Alan Fisher, Scott Thurston etc, meeting the editors of Parameter, Matchbox, later ZimZalla and if p then q, feeling part of something exciting happening for the first time.

6) Meanwhile, I'm get older. I spent 20 years trying to fit my poems into a box they didn't want to fit in. Thank goodness I no longer do that. But I don't want to alienate my friends from the Manchester Poets era and say that everything they do/did was rubbish. a) because it's not really true b) because they're all largely nice people.

7) Nevertheless, I do sometimes rubbish their stuff. Sorry about that. When you've felt like square peg in a round hole for 20 years it's easy to say the wrong thing sometimes. What you do is fine; I just no longer want even to try to do it myself. And remember: there are writers I feel I'm supposed to admire that mean nothing to me, so if I rubbish your favourite, it's because I can't see what the fuss is.

8) Reading at The Other Room, in front, as it were, of the home crowd. I bottle it a bit, incredibly nervous like my first reading. And I can't read from thesmall print of my latest pamphlet. Get good reception nevertheless.

9) But where is my writing going? Away from strict cut-n-paste, to a kind of collage, use of found text, forays into conceptual writing; but looking for a spiritual theme in it all. Still basically exploring my own environment and life, trying to understand, to create a poetic analogy to the energy of the life around me. I want the poem to happen now in the reader's head, not to be a record of a happening sometime in the past.

10) I find it puzzling that some poets admit to only writing with a small audience of friends in mind. I want everybody to read my poetry; but without just writing what they want to hear. Writing should be a surprise for the writer and the reader; that Wallace Steven's line about resisting the intelligence almost successfully, and the importance of that ALMOST.

11) Sometimes I feel like Jake the Peg: I still have a foot in mainstream, probably at least a whole leg and a bit in the non-mainstream, and an extra leg in performance. Poetry is an oral art, an aural art, a music, a language, an unread book in the hand and an unexpressed thought in the back of the head, a word on the tip of your tongue.

12) The word that comes out of reviews of my books: the demotic. I'm interested in the language of the street. The language of signage, text, journalism, advertising. At the moment I dip in and out of the academic, and would like to plunge more systematically into it.

13) I would like to do something bigger in the future. I don't know what the future will hold. I'd like to explore my own faith/politics, my own opinions about the world; I would like to find a way of talking about those things that doesn't feel dishonest, disengenuous or otherwise declamatory. I'd like to talk about truth, whatever that means.

14) This is a provisional statement. It will always be a provisional statement.

15) There is no fifteenth statement.