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”?