Monday, July 16, 2012

'Exclusive?' Or just a safe space?

I went to Writers' Forum (New Series) in London on Saturday. A really good event, even if extremely male dominated (there were no women readers.) People read from their work, not in any order, but sort of 'as the spirit moved them' - rather in the manner of a Quaker Meeting, which apparently the founder and eminence grise of the original series was when he set it up way back in the late '50's, early '60's.

It was great to hear so much new avant garde poetry, in the lovely atmosphere of the Fox pub not far from Old Street. Next time I go, I'd love to visit Bunhill Fields, Blake's old stomping ground, which is five minutes away.

On the way back, Gareth Twose and I talked about a problem we have with our own small version of Writers' Forum in Manchester. We have someone coming along who is not in the least bit avant garde, in fact is more in the manner of Pam Ayres than anything else. Nothing wrong with that, of course,  but it isn't avant garde. He said we shouldn't declare ourselves as avant garde because it might 'exclude people'.

Well, we've decided against this: we're going to, in all publicity, make sure that this is known as an avant garde space. For two reasons: one, to enable those who are interested in avant garde and experimental poetry to come to a space where they can present their work in a supportive atmosphere; and two, to exclude those who have no sympathy with the kind of writing we're interested in doing.

Which sounds terribly elitist, doesn't it? The problem is that there are precious few places where avant garde and experimental writing can find a supportive space, one where you're not immediately derided for producing something that doesn't fit into either the mainstream bracket or the performance bracket. Or not derided, but patronised, or looked at with general incomprehension. I don't think any of us set out to be 'difficult'; but the number of times I've heard work that I value and love dismissed as 'emperor's new clothes' or 'just chucking words on a page' is legion, I'm afraid.

Having tried to fit into many poetry groups over the years, where everyone was talking about Simon Armitage while I was reading Ashbery and other Americans, I know how it feels to feel excluded. Not that anyone is trying to exclude you; but the baffled looks when you mention some of the greatest English poets currently writing kind of get to you after awhile. I make no apologies anymore when I say that Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth, Geraldine Monk and Maggie O'Sullivan have written greater poems than anything that Heaney, Duffy, Larkin or Armitage could ever manage.

I don't think that the avant garde should lock themselves into their nice safe spaces and never engage with the rest of the world. Of course they should. But they should also be able to talk to one another and exchange ideas without always having to explain themselves, and that's why Writers' Forum (North) is a space for experimentation and avant garde explorations. If you have an interest in that, in any form and however you define those terms, do come along to the workshops. They are open to all; though perhaps they are not for all.