Sandeep Parmar and BAME poetry critics

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Ledbury Poetry Festival in collaboration with award-winning poets Sandeep Parmar and Sarah Howe recently founded The BAME Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics scheme to encourage diversity in poetry reviewing culture and support emerging critical voices. As recent statistics show reviewers and poets of colour are hugely underrepresented in broadsheet and journal publications, with just 4.3% reviewers and 8.1% poets from BAME backgrounds.

This initiative has been focusing specifically on redressing this imbalance in UK poetry culture, working with emerging BAME poetry critics via a series of workshops, one-to-one mentorship and critical feedback. “Even though I think Sarah and I were aware of a lack of diversity in reviewing culture, it wasn't until Dave Coates' statistics appeared that we realised just how white poetry criticism is in the UK”, Parmar tells Write Out Loud. “As editors and reviewers, we knew that without a concerted effort to open doors and raise awareness nothing was going to change.” Parmar concedes that the past decade has seen a tremendous rise of poets of colour in UK publishing, largely because of diversity initiatives like The Complete Works. But she is keen to point out how poetry reviewing (unlike some poetry prizes) has been slow to catch up. She also says that when poets of colour are reviewed their work is often reduced to a function of their 'identity' or background. “A BAME critic is far less likely to read such poets as straightforwardly authentic - a favoured construction of white reviewers often. It is tiring and disappointing and sometimes infuriating to see poets of colour read so simplistically, without enough attention to the literariness and aesthetic choices that white poets are afforded.” Sarah Howe, co-founder of the scheme says: “By nurturing a new wave of critics of colour and offering them a platform, we hope to kick off a wider conversation about race within the culture of reviewing, interrogating and expanding its terms. I can think of nothing more timely.”

There’s been an overwhelming amount of support from many poetry magazines including Poetry Review, Poetry London, Magma, The White Review and several others. The Poetry Book Society and the Poetry School have run reviews by the BAME Ledbury critics online and in print, with the next publication in line to welcome a series of reviews and interviews being Mslexia. Sandeep says that the broadsheets have been slower to respond and may have less print space, but hopefully they will follow up on their initial enthusiasm. The founders, currently planning how to fund the next round, see the scheme as an ongoing corrective to poetry criticism more widely that will be running next year. “It's never too late to join the revolution”, she says.

 

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