Monday, 30 June 2014

Books for one room

My house needs a damp course, all the way round.  The damp course man says there will be a lot of dust, and I need to move books etc upstairs.  There isn’t much etcetera but there are a lot of books, at least in proportion to the house which is two-up two-down with a lean-to kitchen and a bathroom under the stairs.  The house is fine, more than fine; it’s the books that are a problem.  Damp course aside, there is no more space for new ones. 

This has set me thinking about which books I’d keep, if I only had one room.  Strangely that is much, much easier than deciding on a few books to throw out (which from now on I will need to do regularly). 

Looking at two random shelves, both containing mid-20th century non-fiction, I’d keep:

The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig.  Jewish girl gets deported from Vilnius to Siberia, in 1941.  This was read aloud to us in English class when we were 10, same age as Esther at the start. 

Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm.  Necessary history.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.  Orwell in the middle of events. 

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage.  About growing up in the Welsh borders, the curse of family: a great read.

Honour, Family, and Patronage: a Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community by J K Campbell.  This anthropological study from the 1950’s was hugely illuminating when I was living in Athens in the 1990’s, trying to understand contemporary Greek politics and society. 

Poetry anthologies are on one long shelf, I’ve got around 70.  I’d keep:

Staying Alive, Being Alive, and Being Human, edited by Neil Astley – the three big Bloodaxe anthologies of 20th and 21st century poetry, which contain large numbers of exceptional poems by a vast range of writers.  The scope, whether poetic, geographical, cultural or emotional, is huge.  The thematic grouping, which could have been a disaster, works really well.  These three would make up for not having room for books of poetry in translation such as The Poetry of Survival, post-war poets of Central and Eastern Europe, edited by Daniel Weissbort.

The Making of a Sonnet – Norton anthology, edited by Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland.  Formal counterpoint to the largely free verse Bloodaxes, and with poems from Dante onwards. 

The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, edited by Jeff Hilson.  Innovative, inventive sonnets, 20th and 21st century.

Carcanet New Poetries V, edited by Michael Schmidt with Eleanor Crawforth, would be my contemporary British anthology because it’s got a higher-than-usual proportion of strikingly good poems.  Eclectic is another way to go: I’m enjoying a set of four micro-anthologies, blackbird, kingfisher, swift and kestrel, from Sidekick Books, each with half a dozen mostly contemporary poems on the bird in question, and small enough to nestle in the back pocket of my jeans.  Sidekick also produce the full-size Birdbooks. 

Legitimate Dangers, edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin and published by Sarabande, has to be my contemporary American choice.  It contains work by over 80 poets born after 1960.  This makes it forbiddingly heavy, but it’s where I first read favourites such as Brenda Shaughnessy, Matthea Harvey and D A Powell.  A reserve would be The Best of the Best American poetry, edited by Robert Pinsky, a 2013 selection from all the annual Best anthologies since 1988; plenty of famous names.    

Somehow, I don’t feel the need for anthologies of earlier poetry – maybe because it is in my head anyway.  I don’t mean that I know it off by heart, but that the voices of my favourites, of such as Horace, Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson, are in my head.    

20th / 21st century single poet collections are much, much harder.  One way of looking at this is to consider which poets I most often pull off the shelf, to read in order to write.  The ones I can think of, in no particular order, form a very small subset:

W S Graham, J H Prynne, Jorie Graham, Mark Doty, Denise Riley, D A Powell, Marie Howe, Jane Kenyon, Paul Celan, George Seferis, Sylvia Plath, Tomas Tranströmer. 

Another way is to consider which new books spend a lot of time out, being read and then read again in a different mood or direction: current examples include Omnesia by W N Herbert, The Visitations by Kathryn Simmonds, and Loom by Sarah Gridley.  

Neither of these methods works.  If it came to one room, I’d ditch nearly all my contemporary novels, in order to keep as much poetry as possible.  (I wouldn’t get an ebook reader: electronic devices put me in work mode.)  As it is, in three weeks’ time I’m going to have to move some books out, temporarily.  I don’t want the upstairs floor to collapse, and there has to be room to sleep.    

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Poetry and Sexism in the Guardian Review, 2013/14

This has become an annual exercise, or rather a 13-monthly one.  New readers, please see last year’s audit, and also the latest VIDA audit, for the background and reasons for doing this.

2013/14 results:
*  Over a third (37%) of books reviewed are by female poets.  This is the highest percentage yet, and only two points lower than the percentage of women’s books published by the big five poetry publishers.
*  Just over a third (34%) of reviews are written by women. 
*  Middle-sized and small poetry publishers get only 4 books reviewed.  It’s all about the big five.
*  The Guardian is capable of breaking its own glass ceiling: the Saturday Poem has gone gender neutral!
*  Black and Asian poets are very poorly represented in all categories, apparently not at all as reviewers or in the Saturday Poem.
*  The Guardian is reviewing less poetry.

*  Incremental improvement.  To achieve a Saturday Poem-style breakthrough, the Guardian might have to start reviewing a range of books more representative of the good poetry that’s being published today.       

Figures for May 2013 to early June 2014 are in purple.  Figures for mid March 2012 to end April 2013 are in red.  Figures* for mid February 2011 to early March 2012 are in green.  Figures* from January 2010 - early February 2011 are in blue.  You can access the Guardian’s archive of reviews here.

A.  Books reviewed in the Guardian’s Saturday Review

24 books by men, 14 books by women.  That’s 63% and 37%.
36 books by men, 12 books by women.  That’s 75% and 25%.  
30 books by men, 16 books by women.  That’s 65% and 35%.
27 books by men, 11 books by women.  That’s 71% and 29%. 

Best yet, and a big improvement on last year’s terrible figures.  The split is getting close to the M:F ratio of books published by the big five poetry publishers, which from 2010 to April 2013 was 61:39, see here for the figures on that. 

I think that only 2 books by black and Asian poets were reviewed, the same as last year.  This time the poets were Derek Walcott and Grace Nicholls.  The figure appears disproportionately low.  However, at 5% it’s possible that it might not be far off the percentage for the big five.  It would be good to audit the ethnic origin of poets published by the big five, but this would be much harder than last year’s gender audit.   

See section C below for more on publishers. 

The Guardian Review is reviewing less poetry: see this year’s decline in the number of reviews.  The first two years’ figures above don’t include the short reviews* the Guardian used to do.      

B.  Reviewers

25 men, 13 women.  That’s 66% and 34%.
31 men, 17 women.  That’s 65% and 35%. 
32 men, 14 women.  That’s 70% and 30%.
28 men, 10 women.  That’s 74% and 26%.

The figures consolidate an upward trend, just about.

Female reviewers get given women’s and men’s books to review in roughly equal proportions.  The male reviewers mostly get given books written by men. 

No black or Asian reviewers, I think.  Why not?  
C.  Publishers

In this category the figures are even worse than last year.  4 out of 38 books were published by smaller publishers; last year the number was 8.

Again it’s the big five (Bloodaxe Cape, Carcanet, Faber, Picador) who predominate.  There are a few books from larger, non-poetry specialist publishers.  Nothing at all by medium sized, high quality poetry publishers Seren or Salt; there wasn’t last year, either.  The only smaller publishers represented, at one book each, are Shearsman, CB Editions, Polygon and Eggbox Publishing.  Eggbox got in because they published a pamphlet by Faber author and last year’s Forward 1st Collection Prize winner, Sam Riviere. 

British poetry culture has got more diverse, with a range of excellent smaller publishers flourishing and capturing attention.  And there’s the rise of poetry pamphlets; it’s nice that the author of the Eggbox review, David Wheatley, talks a bit about poetry pamphlet culture generally.  But that’s the only concession to these wider changes in the whole year’s Guardian output.     

The Guardian Review’s glass ceiling for smaller publishers is firmly in place. 

D.  Saturday Poem

19 by men and 19 by women.  That’s… 50% and 50%.  Hooray!
23 by men and 13 by women.  That’s 64% and 36%
33 by men and 18 by women.  That’s 65% and 35%.
[I didn’t work this out for 2010.] 

The Guardian can do it!!  Many of the poems chosen are from new collections.  A shame that all the poets are white, at least I think so.    But it’s a start.  Come on, Guardian Saturday Review – make these annual audits unnecessary!  Do this blog out of a job!  First step: start handing out a wider range of review copies.  Then the numbers will improve. 

E.  Audits – what next

The emphasis of this audit is shifing slightly, from the VIDA-inspired gender-only audit that inspired it in the first place to a broader consideration of what lies behind the Guardian Review’s figures. 

The main exercise I want to do, once my inner geek recovers from this one, is an audit of the Poetry Book Society choices and recommendations.  If people have any other ideas, please say.  And do check out the Sidekick Books blog, where Jon Stone has just started a series on how to fix contemporary poetry culture. 

* In the first two years, the Guardian also ran short reviews and I counted these separately (they improved the M:F ratio).  There are still occasionally a few short reviews on the paperbacks page, but these don’t appear when one searches the Guardian’s online poetry reviews.  All the figures given in this audit are for long reviews only.  I always include Nicholas Lezard’s paperback review, if this is of a poetry book.

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Thank you very much to readers of this blog who voted for me in the Saboteur Awards, Best Reviewer category.  The result can be seen at the top right-hand corner of this blog.  Your votes mattered!