Addressing The Poetry Periphery

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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.   

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Comments

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M.C. Newberry

Thu 19th Jul 2018 16:24

Dear Mr Waling - I understand "diverse" to mean far more
than your hoary old chestnut about "racism", I won't waste
further valuable time attempting to engage with a mind
that shrieks prejudice whilst having no concept whatever
of its existence within its own parameters, but since you so readily raised the "racism" flag for "diversity", I will merely
refer you to the many and varied major music successes
originating in the USA which are actually due to substantial
measures of sufficient self-belief and self-help to achieve
wider success. Tenacity and Talent. Get it?!

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Steven Waling

Wed 18th Jul 2018 10:39

Of course you don't have to read them. That way you never have to challenge your own racist assumptions. Many of them are now published by highly respected publishers (including Carcanet, Faber and Bloodaxe) since being mentored by this scheme. But heck don't let facts get in the way of a good prejudice.

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M.C. Newberry

Tue 17th Jul 2018 16:49

Dear Mr Waling - it matters not whether (or not) I have
read the poets to whom you refer. More to the point, it
DOES matter that publishers - presumably those you
rubbish in your truculence - are not queuing up to publish
them. So, that leaves the self-help avenue...or is that to
be conveniently disregarded in the hope that the cost and
opportunity will eventually come from those you attack
with such conviction of purpose, perhaps bludgeoned into
acceptance via opportunistic applications of "guilt" and accusations of "neglect"?
Talent will out - whatever the means employed and tenacity is the prime mover in any artistic endeavour
involving what is primarily subjective material. Long may it remain so.

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Steven Waling

Mon 16th Jul 2018 16:43

It's always the time of the white middle-class male. It's only in the last decade or so that anthologies of contemporary poetry have been roughly equal male & female. Black poets were notable more by absence than presence. LGBT were either absent or in the closet.

And I'm sorry you're such a snowflake you can't reality in poetry.

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Graham Sherwood

Mon 16th Jul 2018 16:37

Oh! Steven, I don't think I've said any of the subjects mentioned shouldn't be written about, have I? Whether or not I'm fed up with reading them is my choice.

Anyway concerning trends, perhaps it's the turn of the white, middle-class male again, everybody else seems to have already had a good go. What then?

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Steven Waling

Mon 16th Jul 2018 16:18

Still no comment about whether you"ve actually read any of them. And Graham - what the heck are you talking about? What the heck do you think poetry should be about if it doesn't actually tackle real life as lived by real people? Flowers? The beauty of angels? The privalige of being white, middle-class and male. Get thee to a bookshop and stop talking shite.

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Graham Sherwood

Mon 16th Jul 2018 14:33

Plainly, even with its seemingly current vogue, the poetry book genre isn’t within a mile of being regarded as mainstream so publishers are bound to be very hamstrung with finances and therefore rather selective.

Personally, I am getting rather weary with what feels like an incessant deluge of award-winning “how I escaped persecution and certain death under a tyrannical regime” style of work from a wide range of sources, however valuable and creditable the work appears to be.

Similarly, the LGBTQ (I hope I haven’t missed any out) genre seems to be well represented as does the more recent plethora of what I can only inadequately and collectively call Women’s issues.

With all these widely differing angles, with which to approach poetry, notwithstanding the occasional bubbling up of the political and social outrage rant stuff, it is difficult to understand how publishers even start to apportion their budgets. And what hope for the “I wandered lonely as a cloud” brigade?

All said, the ability to get read (either via a blog site like WOL, a self-published pamphlet or a relatively inexpensive e-book on kindle etc) remains a potent force in many people. The cost of self-publishing may be within the grasp of some but appears to be firmly seated for those in the performance poetry sector, where copies can be sold following a gig for example.

Crowd-funding is a growing pursuit and must surely be a good route to get a paper copy poetry book published with the benefit of being able to re-pay those who initially assisted with a free copy.

To summarise, we do always seem to experience trends or waves of a certain style or type of media. What’s hot today is chopped liver tomorrow etc, fashions change, budgets expand and tighten. The good thing is, using WOL as a measure, there seems to be plenty of people who still want to get their words out there.

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Graham Sherwood

Mon 16th Jul 2018 13:07

This is a very interesting and balanced thread thus far and there is no need for personal invective (edited). I was in the process of entering the fray myself, TBC.

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M.C. Newberry

Mon 16th Jul 2018 12:59

Notwithstanding the closing abuse, and the continued
mis-spelling of "privileged" employed, the point is that help
is first of all to be expected from those with common interest in the work on offer. It is all very well sounding off
in pious outrage at what is perceived as neglect from
publishers but virtue alone is not a commodity that the
market place can afford...cheap though it is to express.
From a personal standpoint, I have contributed financially
to poetry without there being any categories commended
or considered and I wonder if the same can be said of you
- and in particular in this respect. Conviction carries its
cost in real terms when putting a case forward and hot air
is not commercially acceptable.

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Steven Waling

Mon 16th Jul 2018 10:52

'Helped to publication' = memtored, gave advice with edited and preparing manuscripts, etc. Nothing sinister about it.

Have you actually read any of these writers? They include award winners Sarah Howe and Vahni Capildeo (I reviewed the latter and think she's one of the best poets in the country at the moment.) Also, Kayo Chingonyi, recently published by Faber and garnering some great reviews.

A poet can only be read if published. If they are denied access because some jackass publisher thinks they won't sell (because who could possibly be interested in black lives?) then they don't get a chance of beimg heard.

This scheme has given a chance for some interesting poets to get published by Bloodaxe. Instead of letting your white privelige show, why don't you read them? Or do you only read the poets that confirm your comfortable world view?

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M.C. Newberry

Sun 15th Jul 2018 18:55

I am intrigued by the phrase "helped to publication" in this
context. I tend to go along with the comments from JFK about marketing a product. In the higher realm of human
sensibilities, poetry stands in an artistically elevated position but even famous names have been obliged to use
their own initiative to get their "product" out there into
"the market place". Why not choose the route of self-
publishing/promotion to demonstrate belief in what you
produce?
In a personal sense, no one has considered my origins
when choosing material for publication. I have been
paid (and not paid) along the long challenging road to
achieving publication and participation in poetry, with its many varied "rewards"...including the use of self-publication, rewarding also for the control it provides.
BAME participants are not precluded from using mutual
interests and support for these possibilities and hoped-for results. Common interest and ambition are valuable
allies towards achieving an object in mind in any endeavour.

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Steven Waling

Sat 14th Jul 2018 13:13

For poets who are BAME it's a catch 22: they aren't going to sell so they don't get published because they're not going to sell so they don't get published so they don't sell so they don't sell etc etc ad infinitum...

Schemes like this give a chance both for mentoring and publishing to people. Now I do have some reservations: I suspect the number of working-class writers among these NAMES poets is still pretty woeful.

Nevertheless, there are some interesting poets who've been helped to publication by this scheme, so you and read them.

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Stu Buck

Fri 13th Jul 2018 14:50

100% behind andrew mcmillan. physical is absolutely fabulous and his new one, playtime, is out next month.

can also recommend ocean vuongs debut 'night sky with exit wounds', kaveh akbar's work (often found in poetry review) or sarah howe. all wonderful writers. all would probably fit in to the mould spoken of here.

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John F Keane

Fri 13th Jul 2018 12:21

Perhaps the limited range of published EM poets merely reflects that the public have little interest in buying their books? Publishing is a business, like any other. I recall reading that indie/metal music magazines tried putting non-white faces on the covers but no one bought them. Similarly, comic book publishers have continually tried to push female characters, to little avail (though there are plenty of black male characters, for example Black Panther and Night Wing). I'm not sure there is a conspiracy; publishers simply have to publish what sells.

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Steven Waling

Fri 13th Jul 2018 12:01

Keith - try John MacCullogh & Andrew MacMillan for starters. It is out there.

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keith jeffries

Thu 12th Jul 2018 22:49

An interesting and thought provoking article.I don´t find much gay poetry on view. Some gay people might not wish to reveal their identities or fear unwelcomed comments or comments that are sarcastic. Yet gay poetry is a very effective means of drawing people´s attention to the reality of gay life, particulary when it was a criminal offence. Others have yet to come out of the closet and are naturally reluctant ot put pen to paper. I am a gay man and I have openly written a number of poems concerning my sexuality which has had some surprising results. Readers vary in their response to a display of genuine interest whilst other fall silent. For those of us who are gay poetry is an excellent genre to express how we feel, the need to accepted and not merely tolerated. I would encourage gay poets to write more and let the world know who we are and how we feel.
Keith Jeffries

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M.C. Newberry

Thu 12th Jul 2018 15:19

Being willing and able to stand by the use of "white git"
begs the question about the use of "black git" in any
context involving criticism of or comment about a perceived position.
The moderators of WOL would soon be on the case!

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Steven Waling

Wed 11th Jul 2018 22:00

I stand by "privilaged white git." When male white 'critics' decide what is 'good poetry' then what you get is more of the same. Poetry doesn't need another Larkin; it needs voices from all walks of life, from all over the world, different rhythms, different musical colours. I've read some of the poets who have been involved in it (not all of them) and there's a great deal of talent among; some of them will take British poetry in new and exciting directions.

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M.C. Newberry

Tue 10th Jul 2018 22:47

Whilst I could be included under "privilaged (sic) white git",
it indicates a certain state of mind to make the assumption
in any accusatory sense in the absence of actual knowledge.
Talent may well benefit from diversity but ergo, diversity
may well benefit from talent! By all means encourage the
desire to participate from anyone exploring the world of
poetical pleasures - from whatever origins or source and for
whatever reasons. The classroom is a good place to start.
Meanwhile, recalling Oscar Hammerstein's words:
"It's a waste of time to worry over things that they have not".

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Stu Buck

Tue 10th Jul 2018 14:42

excellent, interesting article.

nonsensical to believe that you wake up one morning as a poet. nurturing under-appreciated voices is how we found several of todays top writers. i find its getting the balance right which is tricky.

i do find it strange that people get upset about something that can only be a positive. take away all the snobbery and what your left with is 'we want more people to write poetry' which doesnt seem like a bad thing to me.

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Steven Waling

Tue 10th Jul 2018 13:56

Whenever somebody writes about increasting the amount of diversity in the arts, there's always one privilaged white git protesting about it, saying "but if they're good enough..."

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M.C. Newberry

Mon 9th Jul 2018 18:18

Either you can communicate or you can't. Either you have
a potential audience or you don't. Either you have a gift
of language that reaches out or you don't.
Refer to the famous American author James Baldwin for
skills that rose above mere agenda-led categorisation.

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