Friday 10 October 2014

Statistics, aesthetics: Black and Asian poets in the UK, and the Ten launch

Poets and audience did their best to send the Purcell Room into orbit on Monday night for the launch of the second volume of Ten. This is the Bloodaxe anthology for the Complete Works programme, run by Spread the Word which supports the development of Black and Asian poets.  The evening was full of energy not just because all ten poets read well, some of them off-the-scale well, but because there was a sense of shared enterprise.  The audience had come to celebrate the poets’ success and what it symbolises for diversity in British poetry. 

Open Ten: the New Wave, and the first thing you read after the contents list is this quote:

Less than 1% of poetry published by major presses in the UK is by black and Asian poets.

It’s from the 2005 Free Verse report, funded by the Arts Council, which exposed lack of diversity in British poetry and led to the Complete Works programme. 

Before the reading there was a panel discussion on the state of things today, from statistics to aesthetics: chaired by Bernadine Evaristo, editor of the first Ten and instigator of the Free Verse report, with Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley, Carcanet editor Michael Schmidt, and 2014 Forward Prize winner Kei Miller. 

The 1% has grown to 8%.  That’s a long way to move in a decade but to reflect the UK population the figure would be 14%.  Nine of the 20 Complete Works poets have had or are having full collections published, around half by big presses.  They have won awards and been competition judges, editors and PBS selectors.  The panel thought their success has had an impact on perceptions; eg. ten years ago, Black and Asian poets were often assumed to be performance poets not poets of the page. 

The picture’s lopsided, though.  Of the main publishers only Carcanet, Bloodaxe and Peepal Tree publish Black and Asian writers in any numbers*.  And those who get published don’t get reviews.  My last Guardian Review audit showed that in the 13 months to June 2014 only Grace Nicholls and Derek Walcott had collections reviewed.  That’s 5% of the total reviews, though: given that the Guardian reviews mostly books from the big five poetry publishers, this figure may not represent a further bias.  The audit also showed that all (I think) reviewers in the period were white, and all Saturday Poems were written by white poets.  That suggests a bias. 

The weekend after I posted the audit, Kei Miller’s poem ‘When Considering the Long, Long Journey of 28,000 Rubber Ducks’, from The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, appeared as the Saturday poem.  Nice coincidence.  The panel told us the Guardian commissioned a review of Miller’s book, but spiked it.  Imagine the frustration...  It will now appear, and he was interviewed in the Review before the Forward news.     

5% of last year’s arts grants (not sure what’s included) went to black and other minority ethnic applicants.  

More history: all the poets up for the 2004 Next Generation promotion were white until Evaristo intervened and asked to widen the field.  That resulted in Patience Agbabi being chosen.  2014 NextGen has four out of 20 though the judging panel was all white.  At the Ten evening the poets were presented as representative of the best, not as The Best.  The NextGen promotion could learn from that. 

But there’s one respect in which Complete Works could learn from NextGen.  There were proud references on Monday, and in the preface to Ten, to the New Wave’s focus on younger poets; and we were told that the next set of ten will be younger again. Should this be about the age of emerging poets, or the quality of their work? Should Complete Works perpetuate the past by excluding older Black and Asian poets who never had an opportunity to become known?  Nathalie Teitler of CW assures me that this is not the case and that the judging process for CWII was blind.  


Schmidt talked about difference being more interesting than similarity to him as a publisher; Astley about feeling a responsibility to make available the broadest possible range of poetry.  Schmidt thought the scene had been more open in the mid-20th century, when Tambimuttu started Poetry London.  Miller said there aren’t enough critics and interpreters to create a space in which Black and Asian poetry can be discussed.  

Miller asked: does the sound of black British poetry get heard?  He’s a middle-class Jamaican; many other published Black and Asian poets have a middle-class background and/or were not born in Britain.  I think he’s got a point.  Which one could extend to a broad social analysis of the British poetry scene. 

They discussed aesthetics.  Miller: if you want your next book, your next poem to be better, you have to commit yourself aesthetically.  But to what… aesthetics come from culture. What culture?  If you think you’re getting better, by whose standards are you (or others) judging?  Schmidt:  linguistic dichotomies can lead to a dialectic which helps an aesthetic to emerge, for publisher as well as writer. 

Miller wondered if British poetry, which he described as sterile compared to the US scene, is healthy enough for its aesthetic(s) to be challenged.  I can see where he’s coming from but don’t share his pessimism.  Even the establishment’s looking up: didn’t he just win the Forward and didn’t Liz Berry, whose work is enriched by West Midlands dialect, win the Forward first collection?

Anyway it’s easy to agree with him that poetry by Black and Asian writers has introduced aesthetics from elsewhere.  Maybe every generation of English readers and writers thinks itself fortunate but we seem especially so – with all the sources and uses of English in the UK, the energy and unfathomable variety of US poetry, and so many other influences on the language from the Caribbean to South Asia and beyond.

I’d have liked to hear more from the panel about the future – what they’d want to happen in the next ten years, and how.  Maybe their assumption was, continue as now; and maybe that’s enough, given the talent available and changing attitudes.

Ten: the New Wave is edited by Karen McCarthy Woolf, herself a product of the first wave of ten (four years ago), whose collection is just out from Carcanet.  There’s a preface by Nathalie Teitler, director of CWII, giving some of the history.  There are few magazine credits in the back, other than for Poetry Review, but most of the ten have been widely published.

There is a credit for The Rialto – one of Mona Arshi’s poems.  In a year of reading poems for The Rialto, a disappointment has been how few submissions we get, so far as I can tell, from Black and Asian poets.  We would like to see more.  Everyone reading this, please get the word out. It’s currently taking us under 3 months to read poems. See here for submission guidelines. Ten poet Rishi Dastidar is about to join us as Assistant Editor. 

In her introduction to Ten, Karen McCarthy Woolf picks confidence as an attribute that these diverse poets have in common – the confidence to follow whatever their own aesthetic and interests might be.  That seemed to be borne out by Monday’s reading.  I was especially looking forward to hearing Jay Bernard because of her tall-lighthouse pamphlet Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl (see picture, if you can - it blurs when enlarged). Here’s the end of her school-set poem ‘The Basics’.

in the park they put the day’s lesson
to the test: the side of your eye is more
sensitive to light, so –

look to one side of a cluster you’ll see it clearly;
like the stark younger face of your gran
if you barely –

The plough, or big dipper,
arching through the dark –
is not a funfair ride, but a question mark –

* Complete Works say: Faber have only published Daljit Nagra and Derek Walcott in full collections.  Nine of their ten authors in the Arts Council-funded Faber Pamphlet series are white.  Cape haven’t published any non-white poets.  Picador have published Yusef Komunyakaa and (once she was established) Jackie Kay. 
Ten poet Sarah Howe will be published by Chatto next year.


  1. Re "2014 NextGen - - - though the judging panel was all white." which was stated on the night - a black poet told me after that she was asked to be on the panel but was unavailable on the date. She didn't know whether others had been asked but the PBS did make at least some effort...

    1. Thanks very much Anon - interesting to know that.

  2. Dear Fiona

    I have often said that the British Poetry Establishment somehow manages to be both racist and politically correct simultaneously. Faber & Faber have a particularly shocking record. Hopefully that is now changing. Strange to see Michael Schmidt and Neil Astley on the same panel. In general, published poets tend to be happy with the status quo whereas unpublished poets are not. As an ageing heterosexual male Oxbridge-educated WASP, my chances of publication are virtually nil!

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

  3. I said on stage during this debate that I resigned from the PBS’s steering committee for NextGen after being told that despite recommendations made by committee members, we had an all-white judging panel. Patience Agbabi had been asked but couldn't do it. I was told there was no time to ask anyone else. There are numerous distinguished poets from the BME community who could have been asked. Whether they were or not is something Arts Council England, who supported the promotion, must want to know…

    But the reading which followed this debate was PHENOMENAL! Much more interesting than our blab. And showed exactly what everyone is missing out on when work of this quality is ignored or marginalised.

    (And there’s nothing strange in Michael Schmidt and I being on the same panel: our lists are complementary and we’ve worked together in various ways for some years now, having left past differences behind us.)

    1. Thanks Neil, it's good to have this elaboration. I didn't fully catch this when you said it on stage.

      You're being modest about the discussion... but it seems to me important that the context for the terrrific poetry that followed it is talked about and understood.

  4. Dear Neil

    I am very pleased to hear it!

    Best wishes from Simon

  5. Dear Fiona

    I used to think the British Poetry Establishment was a club. Now I know that it's a racket.

    Best wishes from Simon