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Sunday, 20 July 2014

2666, aka "The First Great Novel of the 21st Century"

written by the Judge
For those who haven't read the book - there are no spoilers at all in this article. I promise. 

I no longer remember how I first heard about 2666. I have a faint recollection of reading somewhere about the Ulysses of Latin America that came out only a few years ago. Since Latin American literature KICKS ASS, I was immediately interested. I wanted to read it in the original Spanish, but didn’t want to spend god knows how much to buy it on the internet. So I waited.

In early 2012 I found myself in Spain, in what I believe was the same contract that led me to purchasing another Great Classic. Going to a different country is always a great opportunity to pick up some books, especially poetry, but 2666 by Roberto Bolaño was one particular novel that I was on a mission to find. Once I did, it rested in my library at home for another two years until last Christmas I started leafing through the first few pages, more out of curiosity than out of a genuine decision to start reading it.

To my great surprise, I was hooked. When you start a book thinking that it’s going to be kind of like Ulysses, you expect difficulty and challenge. Instead, the beginning of 2666 is the reading equivalent of riding a bicycle down a gently sloping hill. The story is gripping and the writing is beautiful. I ended up taking the book with me back to England. A few days ago I finished it.

He does look a bit like Joyce I suppose
I already knew I was going to write an article about this novel, though the original intention – that of spreading the word about a piece of literature that I thought to be relatively unknown – sounds a bit funny now. In only ten years since its release in Spanish (six since that in English), the book appears to have garnered a global reputation as the first Great Novel (R) of the 21st Century. I was feeling pretty swanky as I progressed through it, thinking I’d be able to show off about reading something so advanced and modern and difficult nobody even knew it, but everywhere I pulled it out of my rucksack people went ‘Oh, Bolaño’. Heck, if you Google ‘2666 reviews’ you’ll get a hundred pages of critical commentary – and it’s so ubiquitously positive that it boggles the mind.

In effect, one of the (many, many) springboards for discussion around this book is simply that of its critical reception – and if I had more time and were more qualified, I’d be tempted to question the seemingly homogeneous response that the book has generated.

But that challenge, not unlike the others posed by this book, is one I will defer to the better judgment of others, not because I don’t believe it may be rewarding, but because 2666 – and in this, if in very little else, it truly resembles Joyce’s great work – is a hydra that will devour you no matter how many heads you chop off. I do not know if it is a Great Novel, but it’s certainly the kind of book that you can go on discussing FOREVAH, and that’s scary (and also, perhaps, the very definition of a Great Novel… see me being sucked into yet another of the questions raised by Bolaño even as I declare my resistance to it).

I write this article because I know my limits. A few scattered thoughts is all I can afford; any more than that would be dangerous; any less, an insult.

So – a few thoughts about 2666. If you’ve read this far I assume you must have a vague notion of what the novel is, or what it’s about. Me, I purposely eschewed all information about the book until I could read it, to get as fresh an experience as possible (come to think of it, perhaps that’s why I was unaware of its reputation...). 2666 is a novel divided into five independent parts – or, if you prefer, five separate novels collected together in an anthology. They are only loosely related to each other – they share a fictional city where all the novels are set (or where they end up), and a handful of reappearing characters.

Regrettably "The Neverending Story" was already taken, but it would have been a fitting title
The story behind the writing of this book – how the author was dying, how he planned the books to be published posthumously to support his family – is as legendary as the book itself. It deserves its own article, but I’m going to assume here that you’re at least partly familiar with it.

What can I say about this book? I suppose I could do worse than sharing Alessandro Baricco’s impression: ‘Normally, if you write books, reading your contemporaries provides you with some self-esteem, it stimulates and challenges, sometimes it gives you a bitter perception of your limits: only very infrequently does it crush you.’ In an attempt to describe what the novel is about, he says: ‘I think it’s something like Evil. But I wouldn’t put my money on that. Maybe Evil and the delight of the living. Or Evil and the mystery of the living.’

This is no doubt one of the common threads that I’ve perceived in reviews / summaries of this book: it’s about the problem of evil, in and across the problem of history (or perhaps the two are one and the same). This is because the longest, most difficult and in my opinion the best of the five novels is just a long relation of serial murders in which women are raped and butchered in a town called Santa Teresa (inspired by the real events in Ciudad Juárez).

Though these are clearly important themes in the book, if I had to put my finger on what the book is essentially about, I’d go for something different. In fact, all the way until the end of the third book, I could have sworn that the topic of the whole work was that of dreams, or dreaming, and the significance thereof. It seemed to me that all of the novels were composed of characters experiencing events that take up an oneiric quality, moments in which the real and the surreal mingle at the edges. It’s impossible to tell when something really significant is taking place, and when, on the other hand, you’re faced with something that’s just random. Like the five novels themselves, the episodes within them stand alone as frescoes of sanity and madness, and simultaneously connect to all the others in ways that are subtle and suggestive but never quite definite: everything in this book is referential and intuitive, never quite important in and of itself but always somehow hinting at something that you should be aware of.

It helps my argument that there are several actual dreams being described. I usually dislike it when a writer interrupts the narrative to describe one of his characters falling asleep and having a dream, especially if the description is extensive. But Bolaño pulls it off with remarkable grace, perhaps precisely because all the other episodes are so dream-like anyway. This is but one of a number of small miracles that the author performed for me over the length of the book – another is the fact that the first three novels are about characters that I usually have no interest in reading about, such as critics, academics, philosophers, teachers, and scribblers of various nature (some journalists, though this category I don’t mind too much). And yet I was spell-bound, and very much intrigued by all of them.

If you were to follow the path that I took into the novel – that is to say, reading it as a novel fundamentally about dreams and dreaming – and it is but one of numerous paths that you can take, among other things because the five novels can be read in any order you like (and yes, this will change your experience of 2666 dramatically!) – if you were to follow this path, I was saying, you will inevitably be faced with a challenge when you reach the fourth novel, the one about the crimes in Santa Teresa.

I suppose you’ll be challenged by that bit regardless, because it’s so different from all the others. But for the purposes of my reading, it’s relevant because in many ways it seems to represent the opposite of dreaming: the horrors of the serial killings are so down-to-earth, so grimy, so exhaustively and exhaustingly physical, that you could almost call it a representation of a world without a dreams. Not that it lacks some oneiric moments of its own, including a very esoteric clairvoyant and a whole subplot about ‘giants’ dreamt of by a German convict, but these are far more infrequent, and by comparison they almost seem crushed, powerless, insignificant when confronted to the horrors before them, or tainted in such a way that they partake in the evil.
Mexican noir. The fourth novel is kind of like this, but really long.
It goes without saying that having a part of the book, perhaps the most important part, being about the opposite of dreams does nothing but reinforce the sense that the whole thing may be explicitly about dreams.

At least this was the impression that I walked away with. I can’t really guarantee I’ll be holding to it a year from now – which is really the other half of the reason I’m writing the article, not just to spread 2666 to others, but to record it for myself. There is so much content in this book that the process of forgetting has already begun: like a dream, its details and characters are already becoming fainter.

Is this really the first Great Novel of the 21st Century? I find that question tiresome, but it’s certainly a novel that belongs to a special, personal category: the Novel That I Write an Article About (or, That I *Need* to Write etc.). Not even a semi-humorous article, but a proper article. Yes, that’s rare enough. And I hope someday you’ll join us, as I look forward to reading your own articles. Some novels cause ten thousand words to be written for every word of their own. And when that happens, I guess it doesn’t even matter if the book is good or bad.


Sunday, 13 July 2014

Marion McCready's 'Tree Language'

Kirsten Irving reviews Marion McCready's Tree Language for our Sunday feature. Read the review to find out why her verse is like a 'small, keen dagger'.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Three London Arts Nights Every Poet Should Know About

Whilst you've probably heard of, or been to, regular nights like Jawdance, Poejazzi, Utter! and Bang Said The Gun, all of which have built up a dedicated audience and a name for themselves, there are a great many distinctive lesser-known events off the beaten track. Here are three of my favourite hybrids, what makes them different and who might enjoy them.

1. Bingo Master's Breakout



What be this?

One of the most joyfully anarchic and welcoming poetry nights in the capital, this merry stew of poetry, karaoke and bingo (yes, you heard right) is run by Kevin Reinhardt of the Vintage Poison collective. This evening has been running for years, but its existence is still a surprise to many people.

What makes it special?

Sheer variety, for starters. A typical night consists mainly of floor spots in which each performer goes up to read a poem of their own or one from a pile brought by the organisers, followed by a karaoke song of their choice. In between these spots, BMB presents a featured poet doing a longer set, who then goes on to call the numbers for a cash prize bingo game which everyone is free to play, and a band performing a karaoke set of their own songs, complete with inflatable guitars. Plus, the one-poem-one-song cap means you're never stuck listening to an interminable mic-limpet.

Who might enjoy this?

Anyone who likes their readings a little less formal, a little less on the slam side and a lot more participatory. And of course anyone who enjoys karaoke.

Cost?

Free.

Where can I find out more?

Follow BMB on Twitter or check out their Facebook page.

2. Open Arts Cafe



What be this?

Run by the charismatic singer-songwriter Maya Levy, Open Arts Cafe is a variety extravaganza, showcasing new work from upcoming artists. Each show is themed (past themes have included Smoke & Mirrors, Seafaring and I Gave My Love A Cherry) and submissions to perform take their cue from this.

What makes it special?

Well for starters, it's in a synagogue. For my fellow gentiles, it's not often the opportunity really arises to go explore a synagogue, and practically, it makes for outstanding acoustics. But aside from the brilliant venue, the quality of acts is always outstanding. I guarantee that even grizzled veterans of London entertainment will discover something new here. Past performances have included poetry, acrobatics, stand-up, film screenings, live theatre and an improvised jazz board game with full audience participation. There's also an art exhibition to look round during the interval, as well as snacks and drinks.

Who might enjoy this?

Anyone who likes their poetry set like a gorgeous stone in a big old crown of other artforms; anyone who wants to discover new acts; anyone who wants to be thoroughly entertained.

Cost?

Pay what you can (£6 suggested donation, which goes to the artists). Snacks are free, wine's £3.

Where can I find out more?

Open Arts Cafe website
Twitter
Facebook page

3. Scaledown



What be this?

As the name suggests, Scaledown is a night of micro-sets, hosted by Mark Braby, Shaun Hendry and poet Jude Cowan Montague.

What makes it special?

A jamboree of poetry, monologue, music and performance art, the last Scaledown I played, I was performing alongside a sound artist collaging a soundscape from language learning tapes, an incredible experimental violinist, gorgeous folk music, a costumed band straight out of a Frank Zappa daydream and the hosts kicking off with an acapella song. Special enough?

Who might enjoy this?

Anyone who (not unreasonably) dreads a poetry set going over 15 minutes. With its quickfire lineup, Scaledown flat-out refuses to let you get bored.

Cost?

Free, but do, as they say, check out the Table of Wares and support the artists if the fancy takes you.

Where can I find out more?

Scaledown website

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Five Fixes For Contemporary British Poetry Culture #2: Character & Flavour

THE NUMBER of poets writing today, it's frequently argued, is reaching a kind of critical mass. Our finest are being buried in mediocrity, and the bulk of what is being written is 'landfill'. Who gassed the gatekeepers? What blunts the blades of the critic-gardeners, so that our flowerbeds are choked with dandelions? How will future generations pick through the mess?

Another way of looking at it


This angst over the quantity of poetry being published is really the result of the limited way we've come to talk about poets, poems and poetry. As the number and diversity of its practitioners flourish, still we repeatedly fall back on the trope of the giant among men, the axe smashing the ice, the quality of 'greatness', to describe the value and appeal of what is being written. I don't mean in one specific mode of exchange either - this need to elevate is a common denominator in publicity, criticism and casual conversation. Elevate, that is, in lieu of meaningful differentiation.

The result is the appearance of multitudes laying claim to the same tiny throne, with no point of reference for what is described beyond other, weaker variations of itself. You do not expand your audience by saying, "This is the best kind of what it is" without saying what 'it' is. You simply create the impression of a mass of sameness.

The marketing of poetry in particular reveals that we struggle to move beyond the comparative, and come armed with only limited ways of illustrating its effects. Too many book blurbs deploy a smorgasbord of stock traits while simultaneously laying claim, through bare assertion, to uniqueness. This runs through to our reviewing culture as well, which frequently constitutes an ever-more finely balanced game of using different words to convey the same message. Think, for example, how many poets reportedly fit a description along these lines: ceaselessly inventive and original, utilises precise, finely wrought language, deft musicality, addresses themes of identity, place, change in luminous, startling lines, often wry and funny, unafraid to take risks - in short, the real thing.

Yes, this goes beyond claims to grandeur and eminence, but the repetitiousness of such depiction doesn't get us very far.

The fatigue felt all round is, therefore, not a reflection of the sameness of the poetry itself but its presentation, and we're fooling ourselves if we ignore how much of our own impression is informed by that consistency of presentation. This accounts for a range of apparently small-minded behaviours - from the self-styled representative of 'ordinary people' who dismisses whole generations for abandoning formal conservatism, to the finely articulated manifesto as to what constitutes 'real poetry', to the frustrated avant-gardist who disavows anything with a narrative pulse. All means of avoiding tangling with the unruly cosmos of poetic possibility, most of which lies unknown and threatening beyond the shallow sweep of our descriptive language. To know much of it well requires a dedicated and thorough immersion that is beyond most of us. Instead, we tend to find our own corner of a friendly star system, settle on a hospitable planet, and turn our telescopes inward, while the public at large clings tightly to the safety of school-taught verse.

Taking cues


What we should be doing is making our cosmos navigable, not just for ourselves but everyone outside of poetry - so not merely to the person who is prepared to burrow through hundreds of academic papers but also (and more importantly because these are more numerous) the person browsing a bookshop display or events listing. I may have poked fun at the clichés of poetry selling five years ago with Vitally Urgent: The Game of Blurb, but I'm not for a moment suggesting it's easy to find ways of articulating the individual qualities of a poet or book so that they can be understood at a glance. Look across, however, at some of the mediums and genres whose audiences have expanded exponentially over the last few decades: manga, anime, games, science fiction and fantasy. These are areas - if not industries - which afford roles and employ to thousands of creators, filling large convention halls with fans who will queue for autographs from writers of all ages. It would be somewhat delusional to imagine that poetry could transform itself into a similar model of success, but we might at least pick up a few lessons in breaking out of a niche.

One such lesson is what I'd call the Character Select Screen Principle. Character select screens have appeared in certain genres of computer games since the days of arcade cabinets, typically proffering an array of protagonists, one of which the player must select as their avatar. They are designed to convey, in as immediate a manner as possible, the fundamental traits of each character, so as to help the player identify one which suits him or her best. Posture, expression and clothing, as well as numerical statistics and brief biographical information, are employed as suggestive devices - broad strokes that serve to make a memorable impression.

What the character select screen appeals to - and what, in their different ways, so many pop culture properties make use of - is our need to explore, develop and demonstrate our identity through the choices we make. We pick favourites - to play, to root for, to fantasise over - as a way of describing who we are, to ourselves and our surroundings. Witness also the proliferation of 'Which ___ Are You?' quizzes on Facebook, the results of which are shared for comment. The significance of a choice shouldn't be apparent only to ourselves but to those who see we have made it.

In other words, people are more likely to buy and read poetry if their choice of what to read tells other people something about them.

❖And where do we start? 


Both cover art and cover copy are already used to accentuate the individual flavour of a poetry book, with varying degrees of success. Publisher livery can serve as an obstacle (all Carcanet books are predominantly red, black and white) or provide a framework. It's fair to say that Faber have at their disposal a simple but effective means of distinguishing their poets (and their poets' books) from each other, by using colour as the major design feature of their cover design, harking back to one of the very first ways we learn to mark our identities as children, by having a favourite colour. Some poets - Luke Kennard and W. N. Herbert come to mind - have a talent for cartoonifying themselves. All of this is good groundwork.

The most successful critical analysis also strives to find ways of describing its subject that make a lasting impression. In fact, I'd go as far as saying that this is the major useful function of a review. In a world where we simply do not have a practice of poetry criticism that is sufficiently removed from the writing and publishing of poetry, memorable description is more important than maintaining the cracked illusion of critical distance. In other words, a bad review that paints a striking portrait of a poet or collection is providing more of a service to the poet, and to readers, than a good review that deals in subtle nuances. To the extent we believe our critical culture is a project of assessment - of holding gemstones to the light and rating their flawlessness - we are mistaken. Its value to us is as a way of generating the ingredients for our own character select screens - simple, stark phrases that colour one poet or book differently from another - even if this function is too often buried beneath politesse and the affected gestures of judgement.

What I suggest, therefore, is a project, building on these beginnings, towards broad-stroke characterisation - of poems, poets, poetries, books - with the measure of success being this: that the person browsing the bookshop display be able to skim their eyes across a range of covers and brief descriptions and, even if they aren't generally a buyer of poetry, be able to pick a personal favourite.

Objections?


(1) Look, Jon, poetry is about subtlety, the slow release of flavour. This is vulgarisation you're talking about - caricaturing, turning books into fashion accessories.

Answer: Such subtlety can be over-fetishised - it isn't fundamental to the art form. I also think it's wrong to be disdainful of instantaneous appeal or announcement of purpose. It is a great thing to fall in love on sight.

(2) It's not up to us to 'sell' poetry, Jon. People just need to be made less ignorant and less fearful of reading difficult texts.

Answer: Avoid the responsibility if you want, but remember, this isn't just a problem of poetry's public image; most practitioners and critics also seem to struggle to know what's happening in their own art beyond a narrow area of focus. Especially the ones who think they know everything.

(3) What you're asking for is already under way.

Answer: I agree; there are people already on the case. But this should be something many more of us are involved in and thinking about, because it goes to the way practitioners conduct casual dialogue amongst themselves as well. My experience now is that we mostly say to each other that someone or something is 'good', 'interesting', 'clever', 'overrated', 'underrated', and so on, in a way that makes poetry seem like an exercise in merely perpetually impressing each other - exactly what its most acid-tongued critics accuse it of being.

(4) What of the dangers of poets becoming typecast or straitjacketed by this so-called 'broad-stroke characterisation'?

Answer: It's always possible to reinvent yourself.

Examples


Since I should practice what I preach, I'm now going to try to sketch some of my favourite poets, on the understanding that I make no claim to critical or objective distance in what follows. You can't trust me as an impassive assessor, but that's not the point of the exercise. The point is: bold descriptions that accentuate individual flavour.

JOHN CLEGG.
Insatiable collector and exhibitor of curiosities. In person, he's half lion, half mad librarian, fizzing with a seemingly inexhaustible knowledge and excitement that spills into his poems. But you can never be sure whether the specimens he proffers with such wild enthusiasm are genuine finds or brilliant fakes of his own making. Antler, his first collection, is a dusty display case of relic-tales, fragments and charms from lost and imagined civilisations, sometimes crossing into our own. The True Account of Captain Love and the Five Joaquins is his versifying of an Old West yarn about a coward who carries a horse-thief's head in a jar. Or is it?

KIRSTEN IRVING.
Monsters and monstrousness is her area of expertise, via sex, lore and sci-fi. She throws herself at her subjects like a fireball - the resulting poems are rough-edged and crooked, like circus freaks or recalcitrant schoolgirls, too thorny and untrimmed to fit neatly among the more rarified species of poetry. They tend to land you in the middle of storm-struck emotional terrain without a map, revealing their context (and their teeth) gradually, through rows of jagged imagery. The giants, robots, cannibals and cartoon characters of her first collection, Never, Never, Never Come Back, aren't jolly pop culture references but portraits of outsiders made beautiful and terrible by what they lack.

TONY HARRISON.
For a brief moment in the 80s, Harrison was a notorious poet - the result of a televised version of the sprawling, angry V, a long poem which ventriloquises the expletive-filled diction of a disenfranchised teen as it expounds on decay and societal fracturing. Tories wanted it banned. But for all the rage and sorrow that informs his best work, Harrison is formally conservative, somehow condensing extreme rawness and bitterness into tight rhymed couplets. You want direct? He'll tell you what he thinks, how he feels with the force of someone jabbing a finger at your sternum. You want personal? Much of his oeuvre is effectively an autobiography of working class displacement and the splintering of his own identity.

CHRISSY WILLIAMS.
What the half-Italian Williams makes are more poems than anything else, but they're also hybrids and creatures, the genes of other textual forms (mixtape, diary, screenplay) spliced with those of poetry. It's all gone about with joyous, youthful abandon, so that each piece jitters like a matchbox of jumping beans. Her work so far comprises a string of opuscules - stealth raids made from the territory outside the formal poetry 'collection'. The Jam Trap is a sequence of rapid-fire comic vignettes. Angela, her collaboration with artist Howard Hardiman, is a love letter to Angela Lansbury in the form of a nightmare-ride through her psyche. Epigraphs is a work comprised solely of epigraphs.

The above do not represent a radical new way of writing, and could stand to be sparer and more direct still, perhaps shortened to the length of a cover quote. But as it stands, and to the extent they are effective, this approach is currently vastly outweighed by the glut of writing on poetry that proclaims 'major contribution', 'finest of his generation', 'intense originality', 'unblinking', 'extraordinary', 'remarkable' and so on and so forth, even down to those biographies we circulate which do little but count out awards.

How will future generations pick through this mess? Don't make them test dozens of similarly-worded claims in search of some pantheon. Give them a landscape peopled with innumerable well-drawn characters who are as diverse as any group of people in the whole of humanity. And grant the same to the present generation.

***

Still not got your fix? Find the full post series here.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Five Fixes For Contemporary British Poetry Culture #1: Prize Culture

General introduction: What are we 'fixing'?
I WOULD characterise the major problem with contemporary British poetry culture like so: I have, on my shelves, a growing collection of  intensely idiosyncratic, vibrantly multifarious books, almost resonating with the small power of their grimoire-like content, connecting me to myriad lived experiences, intelligences and lives of the mind. They're filled with play and dance, wisdom and strangeness, violent shifts in temperament and technical virtuosity. It's a relatively modest treasury, but there is enough wealth there that I don't expect I'll bleed it dry in my lifetime. And that's assuming I don't keep adding even more books. They are talismanic; to carry one with me on a jaunt, or into work, is to shield myself just a little against the creep of anxiety and despair. They do not all agree with each other. They do not all agree with me. Some of them are vexing. Some are frightening.

At the same time, beyond my bookshelf, in the public sphere, there is this thing called poetry. Supposedly it is the same thing. When you look at the individual words and names and titles, by god, it is the same thing. But in the public sphere, where it is acknowledged and talked about, it seems to amount to the vague and unaccountable indulgences of the sentimental and the terminally comfortable. It dithers. It all looks the same. It is oddly pleased with itself, at the same time as squirming with insecurity. It constantly insists that it is Important and Brilliant, but when asked why, it sulks and storms off to its bedroom. It doesn't want to surrender its stories or dirty its dress; it simply wants to be gazed at. The warlocks become burghers, the cosmonauts streakers. It looks like an isolated empire in opulent decline.

I don't see any natural reason why this stark disconnect between realities should exist, why it can't be changed. It isn't to do with the quality or health of the art itself; it is entirely a problem of how poetry chooses to present itself to the world, a collective failure to grasp that what makes a medium rich, what draws multitudes to it, is not its common character but its genetic complexity, its resistance to easy summary. Every time poetry tries to tell the world what it 'is', or boasts of its vitality, or proposes its practitioners as a 'type', or elects a representative, it further closes itself off.

I say at the outset that the purpose of this exercise is not to assign blame, and certainly not to suggest that no one else is aware of the problem or trying to do anything about it. Systemic, cultural problems are the sum of millions of unintentionally complicit individual behaviours. In The Man Who Was Thursday, the entire anarchist council turns out to be composed of spies who are trying to destroy it from within. Similarly, I'm prepared to believe that most of the individuals comprising contemporary British poetry culture are allies in the same struggle.

So with that in mind, the first 'fix' on my list is

1. Acknowledge prize culture for what it is and what it does, and make it do its job better.

It shouldn't be a surprise that prize culture features first on my list, but since it's such a tediously contentious and oft-visited area, I'll need to be exact about what I mean. Prize culture is poetry as a spectator sport, but one which takes place through darkly tinted glass, goes out of its way to avoid spectacle and advertises itself fraudulently as an evaluative process.

The effect of the fraud is to cause practitioners to discuss the problems with prize culture in an entirely confused way, forgetting its real purpose. The effect of the opaqueness is to make rancour out of the healthy conflicts that exist within poetry because practitioners are left guessing - or piecing together rumours - to understand a decision-making process that refuses to account for itself and its powerful aftershocks. It's WrestleMania held at a secret location, with most of the contestants absent.

Starting further back, no poetry prize exists merely to reward 'the best' of anything, even if such a function could be scrupulously performed. Smaller prizes exist to raise funds for their organisers. The big ones, however - the Forward and the Eliot in particular - are primarily a service to what we might call 'the poetry industry'. They are mechanisms for publicity, and for pot-stirring. One of the remits of the Forward Prize is "to make people who don't usually read it more aware of poetry" (quote attributed to one of last year's judges).

It's important to understand this, firstly because it's a waste of time, therefore, to spend too much time worrying about whether the selections really represent the 'best' of any given category. Even if you believe such objectivity is possible, that mission is completely overridden by the more measurable purpose. If the Forward or the Eliot mysteriously stopped producing spikes in sales for shortlisted books, a serious reform would be undertaken immediately, as a matter of emergency, no matter if the entire world agreed on the correctness of the selections.

The second reason it's important to understand this is because the prizes should be much better at this task than they are. The shot in the arm they give ought to be longer-lasting and felt across the wide field of contemporary British poetry. In other words, they should be creating more readers of poetry. They are not.

Prizes could better work towards achieving this purpose, however, if the debate about strategy were more inclusive and not held behind closed doors. It's clear to anyone with their ear to the ground that judges and officials regularly wrangle with the politics of their decisions in private, and it doesn't take a powerful intellect to guess that part of the reason so much of a shortlist is composed of books by non-independent publishers is that these publishers are best able to supplement the resulting publicity with their own marketing muscle. Even if individual judges swear blind that this didn't cross their mind for a moment, the panel itself will often represent a bias towards the range offered by these publishers, with at least one representative from their lists.

Strategy is certainly something that needs to be urgently revised. There is a fundamental crudeness to the way the prizes attempt to make news (and, therefore, readers) out of their processes. The appeal of any contest lies in the narratives that spring from it, but year on year, prizes return to the same tired plots: eminent poet cements reputation. Or: hotly tipped young poet still on a roll. That's it. These are boring stories, and that's why, in recent years, we've seen the announcement of shortlists flavoured firstly by weak proclamations of 'a great year, a mammoth task', then by controversial statements. Where are the upsets? Where the uproar that X would have won but for a quirk of circumstance? Where the rivalries between different houses, or movements, or ideas of poetry?

In answering this last question, it becomes obvious that one of the major strategic failings of prize culture is its disavowal of the fracturedness of British poetry, its aspiration towards a smooth meritocracy, free of tribal conflict. But there's a reason why movements are remembered, why they are born, beyond generational tensions, and it is this: movements make for stories, with characters, with success and failure, and stories make for contexts in which - or through which, rather - poetry can be discovered by readers. This also helps explain why a proportion of poetry readers turn away from the present with a sneer but embrace the often more difficult poetry of the past, long-dead poets having settled into their narrative/mythological bedding.

Contrast with Fiona Sampson's approach to current day poets in Beyond the Lyric: A Map of Contemporary British Poetry. The subtitle tells all: a 'map' presumes a static landscape. The nomadic tribes that move across it, meeting and mixing, are left undocumented. That is to say, clearly, our poetry is fractured, and battles are fought in key territories, but considerable effort is made to draw a veil over proceedings, to manufacture instead the image of a wholesome family perpetually engaged in warm celebration. Is it any wonder no one finds this interesting? The real story of British poetry - one of passions thwarted and rewarded, of new challengers, blacklists, alliances, ambitions, affairs and mad hopes dashed - is relegated to the realm of pub gossip while the official account reads: All calm, no ships sighted, everyone lovely. The carefully managed events surrounding the prizes, meanwhile, are designed to be condensed down into a single line in a poet's biography. Look at what was of markedly more interest to journalists and other commentators over the last two years: the fallout from Christian Ward's multiple plagiarisms, or the shortlistees John Kinsella and Alice Oswald withdrawing books due to ethical misgivings. Both times too many poets were eager to wave away stories which, unlike the well-worn narrative of wholesomeness, piqued people's interest. (Here's a joke for you: is poetry brown bread?)

It ought not be this way. The staged contest should be a mechanism for revealing the variety and energy and, yes, obsessiveness, that lies behind this art form. It should be a chance for those normally interested in poetry to find something or someone to identify with and cheer on amongst the flinting of differing ideas and ideals. The objection I sense bubbling up goes something like this: But it should be about the poetry, not personalities, not egos. What you're suggesting is that the poetry itself be subsumed by scandal and cheap theatrics. I don't believe, based on the lively discussions I've seen poets engage in, that it need be like this either. There must be something in between theatrics and fixed smiles, something which offers a wide open window to the poetry behind the posturing. And how many readers discovered Rimbaud through his reputed scurrilousness, Catullus through his obscene gossipmongering? The zealousness in dismissing drama and histrionics as beneath our contempt speaks of a failure to recognise that one of the sources of such embarrassments is deeply felt passions being diligently, ritualistically stifled. Only some of that passion is egotism; the rest is artists' passion for their medium.

"Why isn't the story 'UK poetry in great shape'?" poets often ask when a journalist alights on some grubby escapade. Because that's not a story; that's a press release.

So to bring this section to a head, I'm calling for this:

(1) that the organisations behind larger prizes express their purpose more openly and straightforwardly, and instigate contributions and discussion around achieving that purpose;

(2) that the affiliations of all judges be loudly announced - the better to provoke them to account for any decision which may appear overly partial, the better to quell rancour that such partiality is kept hidden;

(3) that judges openly admit to and discuss the political or strategic element of their decisions - whereby a newcomer is pitted against an old hand, or a poet is included to 'represent' a certain strain of poetics, and so on - so that these decisions can be further discussed, and more enticing narratives can come out of the contest;

(4) that we anticipate and welcome the conflict that comes with our choosing who and what to promote and reward, instead of valorising a politeness that borders on the obsequious.

In finer summary: poetry already tries hard to be a spectator sport. It just does it badly. Do better, and people will then come on to the poetry itself.

***

Still not got your fix? Find the full post series here.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

K reading with Brian Patten on Thursday 3rd June 2014!


I'm extremely excited to be reading at the Landmark Arts Centre in Teddington on 3rd June (that's this Thursday) with Utter! MC Richard Tyrone Jones, Charles Causley Poetry Competition winner, Jo Bell, the irrepressible Julie Mullins and Brian Patten!

Fun fact about Teddington: Its famous residents and former residents include Mo Farah, Noel Coward and Benny Hill (who mentions Two-Ton Ted from Teddington in the song 'Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West').

Further fun fact about Teddington: It is but a short, Oysterable train ride from Clapham Junction or Waterloo

The Landmark announcement is here, the Facebook event is here and you're advised to book ahead. Look forward to seeing you there!

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Saboteur Awards 2014 roundup (with bonus Sidekick triumph!)

Woooo! Sidekick Books won Best Collaboration for Riotous yesterday at the Sabotage Reviews annual Saboteur Awards! Thank you to everyone who voted for us!

K following surgery to graft the trophy onto her head.

For those who don't know the Saboteur awards, they are run by the Sabotage staff Claire Trevien, Richard T Watson and James Webster, and are an incredible force for recognition in independent publishing, particularly poetry. As with the website themselves, the awards are run voluntarily, and are nominated and voted for by readers and fans. They are also the only awards we know of in the world to recognise collaboration and anthologies.

The ceremony was held at the Jericho Pub, Oxford, and had a brilliant turnout. The accompanying all-dayer included showcases from last year's Best Magazine champions RisingThe Emma Press (surely one to watch for next year's awards) readings from Lucy Ayrton, Paul Hawkins and Best Spoken Word Performer winner Steve Nash. I also discovered the brilliant work of short story writer May-Lan Tan (Best Short Story Collection nominee and unofficial winner of the Best Twitter Name award) for the first time. Check out the haul:



Huge, huge congratulations to all the winners, including the brilliant Poems in Which, run by Amy Key and Nia Davies and illustrated by Sophie Gainsley.

Particular kudos is due to Nine Arches Press, winner of Most Innovative Publisher. One of the hardest-working, friendliest and most dedicated small presses active today, with a seriously impressive oeuvre. Great also to see recognition for non-London presses (and we say that as a London press).

Huge thanks to the Sabotage crew for a fantastic event, a breath of fresh Oxford air and an opportunity for us independents to show the world what we do and why. Here's to next year!

For the full results, visit Sabotage Reviews. And while you're there, have a good look around. This is what it's all about.