I was honoured to present the first Hippocrates Young Poets Award on Saturday, for a poem on a medical subject, to 17-year old Rosalind Jana for a brave, beautiful piece about her treatment for scoliosis of the spine. The award, sponsored by NAWE, was part of an International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine at the Wellcome Centre, organized by Donald Singer and Michael Hulse, and came at the end of an inspiring afternoon.
I started with a quick look around the Wellcome’s brilliant ‘Souzou’ exhibition of Japanese outsider art, created by artists within social welfare facilities (which includes such joyous objects as Shota Katsube’s army of action figures made from the sparkly, multi-coloured twist-ties used for bin-liners; Sakiko Kono’s dolls representing staff who had been kind to her and Takahiro Shimoda’s ‘Fried Chicken Pyjamas’). And then at the conference I heard Cheryl Moskowitz talk about poetry and dementia, Andrew Mcmillan give a moving account of using word-games to help stroke victims, and a series of wonderful readings: Wendy French and Jane Kirwan’s witty, urgent poems about the NHS; Philip Gross, whose last book Deep Field focused on his father’s aphasia and Jo Shapcott, who finished with one of my favourites of her poems, ‘Somewhat Unravelled’, about caring for an auntie:
She says, nurse told me I
should furniture-walk around the house, holding on to it.
I say, little auntie you are a plump armchair
in flight, a kitchen table on a difficult hike without boots,
you do the sideboard crawl like no one else, you are a sofa
rumba, you go to sleep like a rug.
Afterwards the speakers and winners went for a lovely dinner (the Amaretto Cheesecake deserves a mention), and the subject of the health of British poetry came up. To the French delegate opposite me, the day seemed to demonstrate that it was flourishing – in France, he insisted, poetry is something rarified and only of interest to the academe. He was impressed by how in the UK poetry had a place in ordinary peoples’ lives: in healthcare, community centres, prisons. And he’d seen a poem in the weekend papers!
So is British poetry healthy right now? It depends, I suppose, on what you consider the signs of health to be. It was hard not be optimistic yesterday, when I saw the ways in which poetry is being used to increase compassion and understanding; to reach the vulnerable; to bring creativity back into diminished lives. And it feels like a very good time to be a young or emerging poet. The Hippocrates Young Poets Award is just one of many positive initiatives set up recently: a fabulous list of winners has just been announced for the Complete Works scheme and Faber New Poets has opened for entries. And then it’s the Eric Gregory Awards soon and the Mslexia pamphlet prize deadline is approaching (for which I’m doing some online workshops – check out my first, The Idiolect Game)
Courses, MAs, mentoring, pamphlets and prizes for the emergent are all booming – it is a golden age of celebration and support for new poets. The trouble seems to be what happens once you ‘emerge’. The poetry world is still geared towards the model of the (roughly 60 page) book – ambitious writers are encouraged to spend years entering competitions, sending stuff to magazines, performing, work-shopping, etc, with their eyes on the ultimate prize: a publisher signing up their first collection. Except these days, that’s where lots of talented poets are coming to a juddering halt.
Squeezed by the recession and the big buyers, the half-dozen major presses are only accepting one or two or no debuts each year. Poets can end up spending years just waiting for rejections from them. The next step can be to try a small press, but they are nearly all run out of love and at a loss – if you’re lucky enough to accepted by one of them it can mean a more beautiful and better edited book, but also often no advance or book-shop distribution, and little marketing. They also frequently (and understandably) fold. Until its announcement this week that it was ceasing to publish single-author collections, for the last decade many have seen Salt as the best option – they seemed somewhere in the middle, with enough presence to at least have a shot at getting your book into shops and on prize-lists, and were taking on lots of new writers. The news that their poetry publishing will now be slashed to a single annual anthology is terrible for British poets.
I mean, their list is bursting with talent: a whole, brilliant generation. People like Luke Kennard, Antony Joseph, Mark Waldron, Chris McCabe, Katy Evans-Bush, Julia Bird, Sian Hughes, Melanie Challenger, Simon Barraclough, Jon Stone, Kirsty Irving, Amy Key, David Briggs, John McCullough, Tom Chivers, Antony Rowland, Liane Strauss, Amy De’Ath, Sophie Mayer, Tamar Yoseloff, Tony Williams, Anna Woodford, Abi Curtis, Rob A Mackenzie, Andrew Phillips and Tim Dooley (to mention just a fraction). Seriously, where are all these poets going to go? Why couldn’t Salt find an audience for such an embarrassment of talent? The Arts Council seems happy to pour funding into encouraging a glut of aspiring writers, but what exactly are they supposed to aspire to when poets of this quality find themselves without a publisher for their next book?
We seem to be moving towards a model where people are kept ‘emerging’ for as long as possible – preserved in a kind of hopeful limbo, where they can gain lots of encouragement and support, but also spend lots of money on mentors and Arvon courses and MAs and competition fees and retreats. It can take many years for the truth to emerge: that for all their talent and investment, they are unlikely to get a book published, and if they do it will probably disappear without a review or more than a handful of sales.
It seems to me there are choices to be made. One option is for arts bodies to start supporting ‘emerged’ poets as actively as those who are ‘emerging’. Another might be to accept that the days of the physical, 60-page collection are over and find a different model of poetic success.
It’s great that more people are taking up poetry as a hobby or tool for self-expression – enriching their lives by playing with words in hospitals or schools. It’s quite another thing, I think, when a whole industry is built up around selling a mirage. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been incredibly lucky in my publishers. And I love mentoring people and running workshops; I love discovering new poets. Still, there’s something unhealthy about the current state of poetry if we’re all selling a ‘promised land’ of publication that increasingly doesn’t exist.
Salt’s announcement came with the disingenuous press-quote: ‘There’s never been a better time for poets to write […] It’s an exciting time’. But I’m getting rather tired of seeing the promise of my peers dwindle into disillusionment. Only a few years ago, Salt was publishing the hubristically-titled guidebook 101 Ways to Make Poems Sell, with blurb promising tools to help you ‘keep your publisher’. Its list’s failure to thrive is a symptom we mustn’t ignore.