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”?

6 thoughts on “Do poets need London?”

    1. Hi Tom,

      Thanks. I should have said “has a base in London too”. I had realised in writing this piece that I’m no longing pondering whether writers/publishers need to be in London exclusively, but how important it is that they maintain some sort of presence, as Chris HE has obviously found necessary.

  1. (for those who don’t know, I’m a performing poet of mixed regional identity, lived a long time on Tyneside, resident now for a reasonable amount of time on the eastern edge of London.)

    Of course, it is a disgrace how unaware London arts and media folk generally are of things going on in Cambridge or Brighton, let alone anywhere farther afield. Having said that, it’s just as disgraceful how ignorant North Londoners are of events in East or South London, and so on. And it’s pretty disgraceful how little most of us know about what goes on in the next street.

    Kate, I’m not convinced that you, or anyone else, would be doing any better than you already are if you were based down here. It is just too easy to get lost in the labyrinth of cliques and scenelets, some of which are vaguely aware of the existence of some of the others, if only to bitch about them; although you would, of course, find it much easier to waste more of your time chasing contacts and developing projects that, it turns out, were never going to lead anywhere…

    Personally, I see no problem in principle with the cultural and artistic mainstream of a nation happening mainly in the capital city: that’s what capital cities are for. But there need also to be thriving cultural centres in the regions. There should be a ladder of opportunities, small ones widely spread across small towns, larger ones clustered in local and regional capitals, leading eventually to the metropolis. But then, there should also be decent and cheap public transport to take you there.

    The simple fact is that, whatever the politicians say, both the arts sector and the regions have been allowed to slump over the last 30 years. In London, a concentration of affluent, highbrow consumers has enabled an arts world to cling on longer than it has elsewhere – but it’s only a relative thing. London is losing its bookshops too, remember.

    1. Hello James,

      Nice to hear from you.
      No, I’m definitely pondering a migration. I wouldn’t gain from it and love it here in Newcastle near the sea.

      “But there need also to be thriving cultural centres in the regions. There should be a ladder of opportunities, small ones widely spread across small towns, larger ones clustered in local and regional capitals, leading eventually to the metropolis. But then, there should also be decent and cheap public transport to take you there.”

      Quite right and I think a key word there is “ladder”. Too often it feels like regional organisations have poor links and ladders for emerging writers. (For example the Arts Council has regional literature officers who are are only tenuously connected to their national offices. Information about a national literature picture is not fully shared or centralised. When grant processing departments move further away from the regions the applicaton originated in (soon) then this overall picture of a literary scene will become even more fragmented).

  2. Tough question you pose at the end, Kate. My first thought, though, is something I noticed this week – the fact that the TS Eliot Prize has only once been won by a London-based poet. In terms of getting published too, I have encountered misconceptions, some of them bordering on paranoia – statistics show that to be published by one of the six biggest UK poetry publishers, where you live has little bearing. Though, guess what, more poets are living in London than anywhere else and that’s because, well, I don’t need to finish this sentence!

    Let’s take the commercial presses – of the last ten poets taken on by Faber for first books since the mid 90s – I think only two were living in London at the time, and several had never lived there. Cape’s newest poets live in Oxfordshire, Belfast, Essex, Cumbria, Liverpool and Sheffield; Picador’s in Angus, London, Dorset, Cumbria, Sheffield, Cardiganshire and Newcastle.

    It’s true that both Voice Recognition and my forthcoming Identity Parade were both edited by London based poets, but those editors are from Fife Bolton and Berkshire (?). It’s also true that increasing your presence in the London poetry scene can be helpful for becoming more widely known. But beyond national stats (NI, Wales, Scotland etc), to which I paid some attention, where poets are from, or live, was not on my list of criteria for Identity Parade. There were c1200 poets to choose from – I read nearly 400, and made sure to contact those in the know – all over the UK and Ireland – to ensure I had not missed a deserving poet. That’s ‘deserving’ as in being one of the most gifted 85 out of 1200 – as judged by yours truly plus a fairly big – but wary – dose of consensus.

    Identity Parade is very much not a ‘usual suspects’ anthology, as you’ll have noticed if you have looked at the list involved. I am, of course, steeled for the flak which will come when you choose 85 out of 1200 in such a project! But for what it’s worth, c20% of the poets live in London – not because I know them and they are my chums (many aren’t) – which isn’t much more than the c15% of eligible people who live there. The figure for poets actually ‘from London’ is under the expected statistic – only 10%.

    Anyway, good to read your thoughts – I hope you find IDP an eye-opener, and I hope you see why it can’t possibly contain the local favourites from all over the UK and Ireland who we rate and feel should be better known.


    1. Hi Roddy.

      Thanks for commenting.

      It’s interesting to know about the sheer size of the sifting process and I agree that IDP looks far from being a list of the usual suspects.

      I tried not to make my blog piece a “Moan, moan, North East poets shouldn’t have to tread off their front, scrubbed doorsteps to be better known, they should get read from the safety of their own living room” whinge because I realised in writing it that I was tending to disagree with the possible ghettoisation suggested in the idea that
      “deferring to” and “engaging with” a London scene, are the same thing. I tend not to imagine a cabal of London poetic power brokers (hah!) shuffling pins around a national map, saying “Not them…they have an outside toilet”.

      And it is encouraging to have the wide geographical spread of poets reiterated.

      For poets, writers, creative types generally, I think addressing how far they may, or may not, need to purposely raise their profiles by being linked to “power centres” will often become important at some point. I went through the whole “Do I need to be in London?” thing years ago when I was a North based radio journalist. I concluded I didn’t want to live in London, which certainly impacted on the future I could have in the media (I’d have had to wait over another decade for the BBC’s big move to Manchester). As a poet though, I feel I am really not needing to consider the “Do I need to live there?” question, I clearly don’t, and don’t want to. But for me, and others, it does seem vital to forge connections with the capital, or with literary organisations who have them (From publishers to universities or companies or venues or literature development agencies). It’s also no longer good enough for regional organisations of any of those types not to.

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