Addressing The Poetry Periphery
A lack of diversity in British poetry remains a conspicuous issue. In 2016 almost 10% of poets published by a major press in the UK were black or Asian. This has risen from the 2005 figure, where only 1% of such publishers included such writers. This is in due, in no short measure, to some commendable work done by the Complete Works (TCW), a national programme which selected 10 outstanding black and Asian poets:
Highlighting and rewarding the talents of BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) writers is a noble pursuit, and one that requires even greater attention, moving forward. At the same time, diversity applies to other areas of the community. Alongside ethnicity there are other marginal positions occupied by writers who are themselves also worthy of attention. We might consider, for example, sexuality, and poets writing in and through gay or queer identities; disability, such as poets with either a physical impairment or psychological condition; or social class, including poets from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Some of these categories can overlap of course, often compounding a sense of existing on the periphery.
One question we might ask ourselves in 2018 is: where does marginality exist? Another, related question might be: Does female writing remain marginal or under-represented in British poetry? Perhaps, again, without quoting specific figures, it is fair to say that significant strides have been made to recognise women writers, and there is still a great deal of work to do in redressing what has been a tradition of privileging (usually white and hetrosexual) male writers.
It would be politically naïve to suggest a meritocracy would be the way forward, since this ideal overlooks the social and economic conditions that can be obstacles for potential to be realised. Likewise, tokenism can often give the false impression that examples of inclusion are sufficient, and that any changes in terms of how publishers operate in this regard are enough to appease a very real sense of disenfranchisement and invisibility among many writers.
Given the complexity of these issues, and the often highly unique reasons for exclusion, it may be better – rather than think in broad terms about categories of people or identity politics – to examine what, for each of us, gets in the way or serves as a barrier in achieving our aims in the poetry world. Are what we think of as obstacles really obstacles in 2018? And, if it is indeed the case, what more can editors or publishers do to represent the kind of culture we now live in or aspire towards? Perhaps a shift in understanding what poetry is and what it sets out to do may necessarily be part of this.