Wednesday, 29 January 2014

My Moriarty by Nichola Deane

When I open poetry books or magazines for the first time, it’s often at the back, or at random.  I’m glad I read My Moriarty from the front, because the first few pages of this Flarestack-published pamphlet gave me a memorable new-poetry-reading experience.  So much so that when Rialto editor Michael Mackmin said he’d got five poems by Nichola Deane, I couldn’t wait to read them.  (The Winter issue has just gone to the printers and will be out soon – I think it’ll be great.)

The opening poem in My Moriarty, ‘Elizabeth Bishop and the Card Table’, is a dream poem in which Bishop is “weirdly part of the fabric, ontological / as a chair’.  There are many dream poems around but few of them capture the essence of dream as effectively as this one:

and us playing a game the dream calls Intricacy and Gesture,
won and lost in the blind spells, the jump-cuts of sleep.
Whatever she says, and I can’t know now, ever,
it’s the feeling in the words that stays and stays,
that’s in me this moment, sweet and flickery like the flight
of a wren, tail-up, here before it got here,

Immediately the writer establishes herself as someone who can do both metaphor and metaphysics.  There’s also a sort of relish about this poem and throughout the pamphlet: it’s catching.

Subject matter has something to do with it.  This may be partly personal, though adoration of Bishop is a common enough phenomenon.  Next comes a poem, ‘Towards Suaineabhal’, containing a Hebridean mountain. “Nakedness / in rags, the bones of a thing in rags, unwilling / to plead” perfectly catches the lumpy bareness of that landscape.   Again, Deane gets at the essence:

How does a mountain occur to you? How can it?
A mountain happens to you while its strata stay put:
it is slipping forever under your thought
remaining and remaining while you can’t help but move
through time and space like a leaf unleashed from its tree.

The largeness of that question and the whole passage has something American about it.  You can read the poem here.

Then there’s a list poem addressed to the letter/symbol/shape ‘X’, in all its manifestations from girder to kisses to

Exactitude, the place on the treasure map
discoverable only with all the difficulties
of ardour, subterfuge and double-cross,
or the double-loss found in the moment

the searching stops in exhaustion and want.

The sometimes punning echoes (exactitude/map, cross/loss/stops) are characteristic.  I think they help express relish.  The Bishop poem has “back… lack… blackly… fabric” in the first five lines.  A less stylish and precise writer mightn’t get away with it.  

All those three poems take unexpected turns – the reader’s inability to predict where next makes the act of reading feel like a fairground ride.

The next poem, ‘Maw’, is a sonnet, whose echoes take the form of gentle and irregularly placed half-end-rhymes.  The opening and end are especially beautiful; here are the first three lines:

We speak as if the heart breaks only once
when really whatever it is I mean by heart
dies in me daily as the Evangelist said it should.

Then there’s a long, raw yet controlled and very moving mother poem, with a difficult story behind it.  Not what one might have predicted from what’s gone before.  The same applies to the poem after that, in the voice of Fru Ida Hammershøi, the wife of the painter whose haunting interiors were exhibited in London a few years ago.  Rooms were either empty, or showed Ida with her back turned. 

Interior (1893) by Vilhelm Hammershøi
That’s a third of the way through the pamphlet and only with the next poem did I come back to earth.  A red dress lies discarded on the floor, bringing memories; the poem is accomplished by any standards, and my reaction only reflects the exceptional quality of what went before it. 

There are more exceptional poems towards the end, including the title poem, whose speaker takes delight in planning an encounter worthy of a love/hate relationship (“my darling conundrum”) more intriguing than anything in Sherlock.  Another empty mountain poem, with sun this time, reflects the  bleaker Hebridean version, and ‘Wittgenstein’s Deckchair’ on the final page mirrors the opening Bishop poem.  This time, instead of a dream-room it’s entirely imaginary, and “like a boat / between shores”.  Here again we get that winning combination of metaphors that really hit the spot and playful metaphysical speculation.  Here are the last few lines:

The clownish seriousness of pure endeavour!
Proximity of illumination, rest
and collapse are suggested by his choice of
anti-furniture; that and the taut fabric
of our lives stretching across time
carrying somehow our shape and warmth,
somehow taking all our weight. 

My Moriarty comes from Flarestack, who won last year’s Michael Marks award for pamphlet publishing.  You can buy it here.  It’s covetable externally too – very elegantly produced (apart from the pagination being out), its cover dark royal blue with white and silver writing, and egg-yolk yellow inside covers. 

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Poetry prizes: the elephant on stage

I enjoyed all the TS Eliot Prize readings on Sunday night.  Dannie Abse won the crowd with his fierily brave and funny reading.  As another Welsh poet said, Do not go gently…  This was a year of stories: Moniza Alvi on partition (a description of her displaced family having to move into the empty Lahore house of a family displaced in the opposite direction is still haunting me); Helen Mort’s brilliant Orgreave poem; Daljit Nagra’s Ramayana, with extras to speak the animals; Anne Carson’s Red Doc>; and Sinead Morrissey’s gripping poem about childbirth and stairways to heaven. 

Afterwards the bookstall was mobbed in what must be the highest-selling moment of the year for poetry books… and also the moment of most lost sales opportunities.  I grabbed Red Doc> and Sinead Morrissey’s Parallax, but had to put them back - the slow queue snaked all round the Clore Ballroom. 

Perfect awards can only exist in heaven.  Even so, I felt uncomfortable: we were celebrating ten excellent poetry books, but how did they get there, and what about the others?  There was an elephant on stage, who hadn’t escaped from the Ramayana.  Not that the narrow focus of poetry prizes isn’t talked about. 

This year, 4 out of 10 shortlisted poets were women and 2 out of 10 had Asian backgrounds.  So it was the big five question that was bothering me: the five being Bloodaxe, Cape, Carcanet, Faber and Picador, who dominate the major awards.

I felt an audit coming on.  I resisted it, on the grounds that people know the situation anyway, and because a fair response to the exercise would be, So what? Then I gave in, partly because it wouldn’t take long. 

In fact, it took a good couple of hours just to collect the data.  And the results are indeed largely what we already know.  But I’ll post them anyway. They provide background for debate, and most of the info isn’t available on the award websites.

I looked at the last ten years of shortlists, from 2004 to 2013, for both the TS Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Best Collection (but not the Forward’s first collection prize).  I counted the publishers of all shortlisted books.  I also checked which poetry publishers the judges were with – all the TSE judges, and those of the Forward judges who are poets.  A sample of the Poetry Book Society selectors (whose quarterly Choice gets automatically shortlisted for the TSE Prize) produced a profile similar to the judges.   I also did a very quick gender and ethnicity count, thinking that it would be interesting to compare those figures with the big five figures for books published that I collected last year, see here.  This is what emerged.

A. Publishers

T S Eliot Prize
Forward Prize
1. Shortlisted books, published by:
100 (total)
Big five  
 83   (83%)
46   (82%)
Other major publishers (eg Chatto)
Gallery Press - Ireland’s largest poetry press 
2  (2%)
(Arete [book by well-known poet Christopher Reid], Flambard)
8  (14%)
(Arete [same book], CB editions x 2, Clutag, Enitharmon, Salt, Shearsman,
Smith Doorstop)
2.  Judges’ publishers
30 (total judges)
28 (published poet judges, out of 50)
Big five  
28  (93%)
21   (75%)
Other major publishers
2   (7%)
(CB editions, Salt)
2   (7%)
(Enitharmon, Seren)

All the winning collections were published by one of the big five.

So: only 2% of TSE-shortlisted books came from small publishers.  If you are such a publisher, you have a very small chance of getting a book onto the shortlist.  Awards mean attention: sales, and reviews.  If you are published by such a publisher, your collection has a negligible chance of being shortlisted for the TSE Prize. 

For the Forward, the percentage is a lot better, at 14%, but still discouraging. 

Nearly all the TSE judges are published by one of the big five.  The figure for Forward poet-judges is three-quarters – better, like the figure for books.

The hand-out from Sunday’s TSE reading lists the big five as supporters, below the two major donors, though it’s not clear what form the support takes.  I’m not suggesting bribery and corruption here – more pointing out another symptom of the closed system.

It’s a carousel.  OK, no surprise there. 

Seren holds its own well, and CB editions has swiftly become an award-winner, from first collection prizes too.  But what about Enitharmon, Shearsman, Arc, Penned in the Margins, Salt, Nine Arches, Eyewear, Shoestring, Smith/Doorstop – just to name some of the larger small publishers, some of whom publish more books each year than Picador or Cape?

That question is not meant to disparage the many excellent books that are shortlisted, or the big five publishers; or indeed the judges.  

But a system as closed as this one can’t be healthy for poetry. 

As well as keeping small publishers and their poets down, it keeps the range of shortlisted poetry largely within the mainstream.  Are only North American innovators allowed through, as in Anne Carson and Jorie Graham?  And I do think that what goes on at the ‘top’ in any area of life has an effect on the rest, so just turning one’s back on the absurdity of prize culture isn’t an answer.

Why does it happen?

There are things I don’t know, and probably things I don’t know I don’t know.  (Readers, please help.)  In particular I wonder how many poetry publishers enter books.  There were 113 entries in 2013.  Maybe some smaller presses don’t participate.  4 copies of each book must be submitted, on top of the 4 sent out for the PBS selection, so the very low probability of a return may not be worth the outlay.  

I’m not suggesting conspiracy – this is surely about psychology.  It must be difficult being a judge in poetry’s small pond.  I’m sure they don’t set out thinking: Oh, I must make sure friends X and Y are on the list, or: Need to fight for my publisher’s books.  It’s probably more a case of: Oh we can’t leave out Z, such a good poet and this book’s so good.  And Z’s book may well be worthy of attention.  It’s just that J, K and L, whose equally good collections have come out from smaller publishers, aren’t known, so aren’t part of the discussion.

That scenario is all too easy to imagine.  When I think of the books I’ve most enjoyed in the last year, several of them are by people I know.  A couple of second collections in particular come to mind (neither published by the big five) that I would like to have seen get shortlisted for a prize. 

For first collections, the field is somewhat more open, because the Forward and Aldeburgh first collection prizes draw from a broader range of publishers.  After that, the door closes.

Whatever the causes, it would be good if the organisers of both prizes could have a think about how to open things up.  One possible solution has to be a wider range of judges, such as magazine editors, small press-published poets, reviewers (the latter are often poets too).  I suspect the closed-system assumption is that these people are not the peers of poets published by the big five, but why not?  Another might be to find ways of attracting more submissions from small publishers – just a statement that the organisers and judges are aware of the extent of the bias would be a start. 

B. Gender and ethnic origin

T S Eliot Prize
Forward Prize
1.  Poets
100  (total)
56   (total)
57 men, 43 women

36 men, 20 women (64% and 36%)
Number of black/Asian origin poets
2   (4%)

2.  Judges
30 (total no. of judges)
50 (total no. of judges)
15 men, 15 women
23 men, 27 women
Number of black/Asian origin judges

Winners: in the last 10 years, with Sinead Morrissey’s win yesterday, 4 women have won the TSE Prize.  Derek Walcott was the one black winner.  Only 2 women have won the Forward, and no poets from ethnic minorities.  See also Rob Mackenzie's blog on winners of a wider range of prizes. 

Female representation on Forward Prize shortlists is slightly over the one-third glass ceiling figure that’s often cited.  Not bad; and fits in with the overall male/female ratio of big five books published. The TSE figure is surprisingly good – well over the big five m/f ratio.

Clearly prize organisers have an eye on the issue, given their choice of roughly equal numbers of male and female judges.  See here for an article by the Guardian’s Sarah Crown on gender bias and judging the Forward.

The figures for ethnic minority poets are poor (especially for the Forward) which probably reflects how many get published by the big five.  Again, the figures for judges are better.

On both gender and ethnicity, it’s possible to imagine a roughly equal distribution if a wider range of presses was represented.  And/or if/when the lists of the big five (Bloodaxe excepted) become more diverse.  

Now, I’m hoping that the LRB bookshop has copies of Red Doc> and Parallax.