Do poets need London?

It was heartening to see Middlesbrough based poet and writer and (can I say literature activist?) Andy Croft pointing out in the Saturday Guardian Review’s letters section that contrary to the assertion in an article about Smoggie novelist Richard Milward that “nobody else writes about Middlesbrough”, novelists including Pat Barker and Jane Gardam do. And poets such as “Maureen Almond, Norah Hill, Pauline Plummer, Bob Beagrie, Angela Readman, Andy Willoughby, Gordon Hodgeon and Mark Robinson”.

I had read the previous week’s article and thought as much, but hadn’t taken the initiative to do anything about it. Just shrugged my shoulders resignedly. “North East literary scene invisible nationally” shocker was the ironic headline that probably flicked  idly across my synapses.

I am stuck on his next paragraph though;

“The emergence of new cultural forms and technologies in the past 20 years has encouraged the development on Teesside (as elsewhere) of a native literary culture that does not need to defer to London”

I was left thinking that the poetic names he mentions, who, I think, include some of the most interesting, powerful poetic talent in the country, tend not to be as often featured in national discussions of poetry as they might be. (In the media say). One of the reasons for this, I would contend, is that many of these discussions emanate from London. Despite the handiness of the internet and of digital publishing, it is still the case that unless you’re present among the London literary scene in some way, then you’re much less visible generally.

Why would that matter? Well, it matters to me because I get frustrated that poets I think deserve much wider audiences for their work don’t get them.  These poets would blow students minds if their work were, for example, GCSE set texts (more than standing up to the likes of Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy in terms of detonating language and it’s purposes. Two poets who do not live in, or hail from, London but are published by national publishers).  They should be referenced in academic texts on contemporary poetry and included in anthologies (Such as the forthcoming “Identity Parade”, the Roddy Lumsden edited anthology of new British and Irish poets to be published by Bloodaxe).

Why would you take my word for it though? The poet’s work is the best indicator of this. So, just pop out and get some. Or go online.  Want to be inspired by some masterful  Shamanical modern mythmaking?  I would recommend having a look at the work of Bob Beagrie and Andy Willoughby. But you’re a seventeen year old A level student in Wolverhampton who loves Ted Hughes and at some level thinks you would like to create a myth referring to your own social landscape.  Where will you hear of them in the first place? You may be browsing Carcanet or Smokestack books.  But most people aren’t nor ever will be. (However, as excellent performance poets, Bob and Andy tour, sometimes to London. Though as they commented on my previous blog, have recently failed to get Arts Council funding for a national tour despite being funded through a research and development phase).

I believe there’s a vast, huge untapped audience for contemporary poetry.  I don’t think it’s true that “there are no new poetry audiences” as I’ve heard pessimists say.  I am entirely convinced that there are thousands and thousands of women for example, reading feminist texts like “The Second Sex”, or in fact, gulping up the descriptions of lived female sexual experience in Marian Keyes “This Charming Man” who would be moved, entertained, provoked and inspired by the descriptions of female sexuality in Angela Readman’s  Salt book “Strip”. Mostly, they also will not be browsing the Salt website. Ever. But they might be reading the Times (where “Strip” was favourably reviewed by Frieda Hughes), watching the Culture Show or listening to Radio 4’s “Today” programme. All media currently produced and mainly sourcing in London. (Where Salt is of course based).

It seems to me that provincial and independent publishers (and indeed writers)  whilst not needing to defer to London, need to accept it as a crucial city to engage with. Though that can be difficult when there is a feeling that London is not as quick as it might be to engage with elsewhere.  Mountains, Mahommets etc.

My own experience as a mainly performance poet, happily and determinedly based in Newcastle, means that I have felt the need to go and do gigs in London since 2006, This has been all very well, when I’ve been able to afford to go. Usually the gigs I went to do barely covered the train fare.  I met lots of other poets and was generally inspired though.  Enriched by a diversity of poets in the same way as I am when I go to readings in the North East. Also, two audiences instead of one. No bad thing, but not always practical for poets.

More recently I do a poem every few weeks on Radio 4. I travel to London. And I have a literary agent for my novel. Based in London. Both these things mean I can reach a potentially wider audience than if I worked solely from the North East. I suppose that’s not deferring to London so much as…visiting it.

Most poets I know, and most of the writers mentioned on Andy Croft’s list travel to or connect with the capital in some way. (In person or via their publishers, collaborators, funders). It’s a crucial part of their working lives. I suspect in an ideal world, it would be more so. Were it not for travel costs, time constraints and perhaps, two way cultural prejudices in the publishing and media worlds.  Plus the way that in the UK, so much does still seem to depend on who you know. Whose hand you have shaken, or whose cheek the person you’re kissing has been kissed by. (and still, mind bogglingly to me, whose genes you share DNA with).

Andy Croft had prefaced his list of novelists and poets who have written about Middlesbrough with “Surely Guardian reviewers have heard of…”. The thing is, I bet the couple of  Guardian reviewers who had heard of most of the names in the last list, would have done so because they have met them. (Probably in the North East).

It seems counter intuitive that the intangible world of words, or the cyber universe of dancing pixels and binary code, should depend so much on physical seals to validate it’s practitioners and facilitators.  But as far as I can see, it does. Of late, that has seen me write some poems musing on why there are still so few Northern accents on, say, Radio 4. I conducted an interview about it for Radio Newcastle. From a hotel room in London after a gig.

An irony possibly akin to the fact that for many North East poets, they’re perhaps more likely to be included in a new poets anthology published by a North East based publisher (Bloodaxe) by increasing their connections to London.

It makes me wonder if I’m a hypocrite when I go into North East schools and say “If you want to make it as a poet, you can. Just write. Or just publish.” Should I be adding “But only if you can afford £105 return train fare to London quite often”?

State of the arts in the North

Sometimes, in fact mostly, I am like Pollyanna and play “The glad game” which involves thinking of things to be grateful for and optimistic about. “I didn’t get that grant, but at least I still have working corneas” type thing. Psychologists studies show that gratitude and optimism are good for your mental health. That I feel disinclined to do that today is indicated by the fact that I nearly titled this blog “State of the arse”, but feel I don’t want to end up in anal washing web listings. As a writer, a full time performance poet based in the North, I feel annoyed. As a writer who works in schools and the community to involve people in the life enriching activities of expressing themselves creatively, I feel pessimistic. And annoyed.

I read that in addressing the joint Arts Council/Royal Society of the Arts “State of the Arts” conference in London yesterday, the shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt admitted there would be cuts to arts funding if they got in but called for arts organisations to try for more funding and long term support from American style endowments by philanthropists. He also suggested that a better way of developing audiences than targets might be through digitisation- eg like the Royal Opera House getting live performances into 100 cinemas. When questioned by a delegate he added that he thought arts policy should not be arms length and indicated that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport should have a greater role in arts policy than the Arts Council. (Which seemed to render Arts Council Chair Liz Forgan’s words in her closing speech “if you want us to be an arts development agency” somewhat redundant. Sorry Liz, I don’t think the Conservatives do want you to be an arts development agency).

Now, actually, maybe I can play the Glad Game there, because the last part of that triumvirate of ideas could potentially make something happen that I really think should happen. It’s been frustrating to be involved with some fantastic innovations in terms of how writers work in schools say (Run by organisations like New Writing North and Apples and Snakes for example) and to hear bodies like the National Association of Writers in Education, and even people influential in literature policy within the Arts Council, being vague about how they can bring these impacts to the attention of other policymakers (say within the education department) in order to roll out powerful ideas across the country (for example-personal bee in the bonnet-better training for teachers in creative writing or specifically, performance poetry). So, it feels like amazing arts projects happen everyday but the lessons learned from them, and the ways other people could benefit on a much wider scale, just are not harnessed.  Of course, as Chris Gribble has just pointed out via Twitter, the government in direct charge of arts policy could be horrible. Imagine what would have happened under Thatcher. Quite. But-optimistically, will Cameron’s Conservatives want to pander to people’s worst fears of Toryism by, for example, only giving cash to the scribblers of Keatsian odes? And, even if they do, I think the benefits of (concerted, focused, researched use of)  creativity in schools are still quite early in a trajectory that began in the late nineties. Ten more years, Labour government again, and projects come together under Every Child Matters, Every Artist Matters, Every Child an Artist, and we all have a beautiful golden age of free expression and derelict banks used as arts centres…

…Bugger. The optimism has kicked in and I started with the point that gave me most hope. Let me return to the point that made me most annoyed. Philanthropists to make up a shortfall? Great. If you’re doing art near to, or interesting to, somebody with tons of spare cash. Now, I love Channel Four’s “Secret Millionaire”. I most love that bit at the end where the Secret Millionaire has to say “But there’s something I didn’t tell you” and I always worry that a children’s charity will think they’re going to say “I’m a secret paedophile on an experimental release scheme” and then they have the catharsis of the SM saying they’re going to give them a big cheque that will save their charity/home/leg and everybody cries and hugs awkwardly. Occasionally the SM will gift to a volunteering scheme doing good works creatively (“The Warren” youth centre in Hull for example where several thousand quid was given to a music studio and recording equipment). But rarely is it given to particular artistic projects, because sponsoring a ballet doesn’t give your common or garden philanthropist the same high as nurturing some deprived gardeners, and nor should it. Saliently, for the artistic communities of the North- I have NEVER seen one of the Secret Millionaires coming from the North to give money to the North. In the North East we’ve had visits to Easington and Sunderland and Benwell…and people who’d done good and migrated South or started off there in the first place came to live in bare houses with stained mattresses and marvelled. On Facebook, poet James McKay has just speculated on the sort of odes we’d have to write to get philanthropists to stump up. “O John Hall, descendant of ancient Kings”, or more likely as poet Valerie Laws points out, “O John”. A reference, non football fans or North Easterners, to Sports Direct MD Mike Ashley’s traumatic tenure at Newcastle United and rebranding of St James stadium “ Still, the very thought has already inspired another North East poet Adam Fish to make a bid for patronage concluding; “And all that I ask for the words that I speak/Is but half of what your players make in a week.”

We did used to have a great philanthropic foundation up here though which gave lots of money to the arts. It seems to have gone now. It was called the Northern Rock foundation. Oh.

Apparently Jeremy Hunt has been to lots of “starry dinner parties” in order to garner support from arts organisations. I haven’t seen him at any starry dinner parties here in the North East. Oh, hang on. I haven’t been to any starry dinner parties in the North East. Well, I did turn down the chance of a curry with a poet on the Quayside the other week. Perhaps Jeremy Hunt would have been there. Or a philanthropist. Or maybe he has been attending such dinner parties via the internet.  Because it’s just the same isn’t it. Having dinner with people via skype. Noshing your caviar and chips by way of the webcam. Just as good as watching opera or theatre on t’web. “Yes, sorry little Johnny, I know you’re absolutely desperate to see Carmen now that you’ve seen that clip on your iPod, but, stop crying, we can’t afford the £105 return train fare to the opera in London, you’ll just have to reconstruct it with your Britney Spears doll and that wind up bull again”.

Ironically after starting this blog I spent the afternoon having a meeting about finding other sources of funding for my one woman show after it was turned down for Arts Council funding. After all we have tons of live literature touring from the North already don’t we? Can’t think why we’d need another to join the tumultuous flood of…none. We will be looking for funding from the very North East philanthropists I have just been positing might not exist.

But, surely there’s business people who see the potential in supporting an individual at a key point in their literature career? I’m sure there are. It’s time to play the Glad Game again. Watch this space.

Part Three

Part Three..

I noticed that the last thing I’d said in my August blog was about the desperate need I had for more time to write.

September had seen the usual new term feeling. I sharpened up my non existent new pencil case for two big grant applications which would take various aspects of the leadership thoughts to fruition.  One with Northumbria Uni’s Creative Writing Department would see me doing a practice led AHRC fellowship in performance poetry and marginalised voices in the North East. I’m quite good at arts-funder speak, but this was a completely new language. I floundered in the research and thinking and writing this ginormous bid took, for what felt like weeks. Meanwhile the lovely, dynamic creative writing lecturer helping me with it, at the same time finished and sold her novel about guardian angels in ten countries. No exaggeration. She certainly proved there didn’t have to be a gap between practice and research. I could barely manage to read at the same time as doing that application.

Less traumatically, I got a big Arts Council bid in for my one woman show, backed by NWN and the Arc in Stockton and thus felt like I was taking care of my writerly self. (Although actually, I’m also gagging to get back underway with turning my memoir into a novel- possibly even into a comic novel after inspirations I’ve had of late, and am hoping to go on an Arvon course to do this soon).

Meanwhile with a little bit of hindsight, I’m wondering if a school project that had been going well, but then got a bit derailed in the Autumn was partially victim of me being more uncompromising about relationships between partners in creative projects. (I want them all to be true creative collaborations now because it feels so wonderful when they are). Two of the teachers I was working with weren’t using aspects of the radio project in any of their other work. It had become boxed into an hour a week that I delivered as a teacher. Pushing for that to change seemed to lead to the collapse of the project- a head teacher bailed rather than confront the need for a rethink. Possibly. By contrast, the school project that had gone a bit awry in the June, begun again in the September and with much honesty and willingness to talk about what we both could give and get, me and a teacher and a class of nine year olds produced beautiful, personal poems about objects that meant alot to us.

At this autumn point the young writers group began to carry on more unconsciously in a sense. In that a few volunteers attended each group and I asked some to set exercises, and I asked group members what they wanted to write and started doing many more fiction and flash fiction exercises than poetry ones, and eventually got a broad consensus on a subject for a publication (music and song, though there had been lots of love for darkness, death, Vampires and general melodrama). Maybe having that definite goal to work towards meant there was less need to reflect. Or maybe Being seemed to be secure enough not to have to ponder what worked and didn’t work all the time. We got into a routine of meeting every third or fourth Saturday, though as a volunteer pointed out the other week, the group were more comfortable with each other, but had also started chatting more, sometimes when exercises were being set, or other people were giving feedback, or even reading out. It’s made me think that, since we’re meeting less frequently and sometimes with holiday gaps, and have a couple of new members, we should re-make the group rules.  (Or reiterate some of the values….though are they my values rather than theirs? Still, silence and boundaries can be useful. Much as I hate to be telling that more than showing it. Hmm. I note I was also “telling” the teachers that I wanted them to join in more and be my creative partners. Perhaps that’s something people should only choose?).

Anyway, Autumn and Winter gaps filled in, there’ll be more blogs before the end. Though I notice a question I want to ask Anna before I leave the office today is “Is there anything else I should be leaving or doing before I finish that would be useful to NWN- like would it still be useful for me to undertake the proposed trips to Dublin and Yorkshire to look at how others work with young people?”. But perhaps also, I need to ask myself if there’s anything else that I need before I finish.

Leaping to mind- contact with Helen and Nina the other artist/leaders who seemed to be further along than me in terms of not getting bogged down in speed and swirling. Some creative flowing. Some reflecting and sharing and listening.

What a Twit

Part Two…

I was Twitterer in Residence at the Durham Book Fest. I loved it. It took me back to being a radio journalist. Licence to ask questions, make random observations and report them immediately. Although most of the festival’s audiences were Facebookers not Twits,  I could see potential for a rolling reportage of an event- and for the medium to be a good way of linking to other content. I carried on when I was gigging at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival the following week, again with something of an aim around drawing people into an event they may not think they could attend and the festival director said they’d love to have me do it officially one year. I kept questions in mind as I did it about what it could achieve (particularly in terms of literature and reader development) or how it could work. I think there’s lots more experimenting to be done and I’ve proposed to a couple of festivals that they use Twitter teams of youngsters as reporters. Watch this space…

At the National Association of Writers in Education conference I ended up talking about a school project I did which involved a professional development partnership between me and a teacher (I was going to talk about instances in which writers become invisible but ironically, because I was also delivering a NWN paper on the project in Anna’s absence, it then made sense to make the project present by talking about my role within it). There were lots of questions about the process by which me being present as a writer and her being present as a teacher (which had to become- it didn’t just happen, we both had to be rescued from our own tendencies to invisibility- her as a newly qualified teacher and me as an ever holographic writer) led to a real exploration of the writing process by our partner writers, the children. I also made some great connections here with lovely folks interested in various aspects of things I do as a writer. And heard again and again that I should be published nationally. Which seems a natural consequence of being on the radio but I, and probably (but I haven’t approached them) national publishers, are more ambivalent.

I’ve also been hovering around wanting to speak and write some of the thoughts I’ve had during this year. The massive applause reaction of the Chief Nursing Officers when I said that since they wanted to listen to patients and staff more, maybe writers in residence would be a way forward since they have time to listen, made me reflect even more on useful roles writers could play in society. It was just after a chat with Antonia Byatt the Arts Council’s Literature Strategy officer where she pointed out that if writers were to have a manifesto it should also focus on what they can give as well as what they want.

I bubbled all sorts of ideas for writers telling the world what they can give, and then got sidetracked into how Northern voices still seem to be marginalised and wandered down a side road of Northern writers especially saving the world. My grandiosity and insignificance cancelled each other out and I returned once again to the ideas of writers writing. And thought about writing some essays. I had a great chat with the poet Gillian Allnut who is listening intently in her current project with the Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture. She pointed out that saying that writers must love is potentially naff, but showing that they can listen is not.

I think in a Tory government, arts funding knackered, increasingly London-centric UK, we’re all going to need more help with listening and being listened to. But grandiosity and insignificance are still repelling each other and those solutions for a style of leadership that flows more like water than strikes like lightning look better all the time.

Meanwhile, the young writers group flows on and we’re all preparing pieces on the theme of music and song for a publication which will be the last thing I undertake before I finish the placement. Synchronously, I’m off for a Big Brother style week in a house in Northumberland with some folk musicians and poets to collaborate on new work about Hadrian’s Wall at the end of January, and also delivering some workshops on creative collaborations at a school conference in that week.

I think, at the end of this Leadership placement, it will be the value of creative collaborations and true partnerships that would be something I could lead on in the future…


At some point I did more doing than blogging and stopped.

But of course blogging is doing. And a layer or so of insights might be buried under the snow and slush of weather.

In microcosm the last couple of days may say something about the Cultural Leadership process and where it’s taken me. First off, a meeting with the MD of the newly forming Community Interest Company of which I will be Creative Director. Radikal Words will undertake spoken word projects in education, community and public sector settings. I started off this CLP becoming interested in social enterprise, and began to think my own company would be the way forward. I wanted it to help fulfil some of my aims for spoken word, and beliefs about how spoken word artists can be developed. I’m on the board of the national performance poetry organisation Apples and Snakes and had been hearing about a “cold spot” in spoken word provision in the North East. I knew this was the case, but had lots of ideas about how to plug the gap, mentor more artist/facilitators and be able to spread some of the work that I get offered. Brilliantly, many things came together at once, and, with a long time performance poet colleague, we’re being able to help a national spoken word project pilot in the region.

I have lots of ideas now about mentoring, volunteers, professionalisation, facilitating projects and ownership of projects that have come about through my pondering about leadership, through my connection with New Writing North and the experiences I’ve had this year with the young people’s writing group and other projects. At the moment, one of the things that may not be built into this spoken word project at proposal stage is artist development (or artist as facilitator development) to the degree that my research in the last year has indicated that it is important. But part of this process means I’m going to be strongly advocating for it.

I also had a meeting with Claire and Anna from NWN about the draft script of a show I’ll be touring later this year. They’ve encouraged and solicited this, and it’ s feeling like it could be a real step forward for me as an artist. But it’s quite odd suddenly having people also becoming invested in the words that come from inside my head. It’s as if they’re becoming real, long before the stage they would usually become real at, when I speak them in front of an audience. They’d paid for me to go away for a week in a cottage on Lindisfarne to write at the end of December, which was such a wonderful luxury. Getting up each morning thinking about what to write, rather than “Which emails shall I reply to?”, “Which project shall I move forward with”, “Which workshop will I be delivering next?”, “Why is Borders closing, David Tennant leaving, Wogan off air, our box set of Boston Legal all watched and a really good Arts Council Literature Officer not being re employed?”. The show, Fox News, will look at my life in relation to news events that were going on. I skewed the first draft more towards news, but Claire and Anna preferred the life story bits and think it could work as a comedy/poetry show. Which is good, but as ever, scary. Doing poems on Saturday Live has taken me away from the personal stuff I’d been writing in the last few years and now I’ll be returning there. Older, maybe not wiser.

Today I also had a meeting about a fantastic festival which funding being well, will take place in the autumn. All CLP-d up, I owned and proposed ideas which-rather than being good ideas coming from and going into the ether, were clear projects I (or Radikal Words) could take on and deliver. Again, Words coming from me but being shared and then realised.

Thoughts continue about different models of leadership. Not top down,, authoritative. Tending to be collaborative, fluid, about influence rather than intervention.

But less abstractly, I took some of those thoughts to;

A Chief Nursing Officers conference where I was poet in residence. These, mostly women, seemed to be balancing the same high wire between leadership and their experience as practitioners as me. How to be a nurse and a leader some of them mused? It’s a different model . One informs the other and neither should be sacrificed in decision making. There was much talk of making all nurses leaders- critical, creative thinkers, taking the initiative on decisions over patient care.  In other news there, I said the word “love” to describe some of what they did since it seemed to be taboo, and reflected that seems to be the case in writing projects too.

Part Two to follow…