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
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
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
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
to the test: the side of your eye is
sensitive to light, so –
look to one side of a cluster you’ll
see it clearly;
like the stark younger face of your
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.