Response to Don Paterson and Rebecca Watts on Front Row

Am still thinking about issues raised by the PN Review debate this week. Partly because  doing my job (poet-ing) reminds me of it constantly, partly because I’m prepping for my PhD viva and wondering how relevant (some aspects of) my work actually is to other practitioners, partly because my last blog on it was written in about twelve different registers and horribly long and clunky and partly because I’m quite an obsessive person once something’s in my head and feels unsaid. So here’s a shorter blog responding to last night’s Front Row piece on the issue on BBC Radio 4.

The arguments between Rebecca Watts & Don Paterson are better presented here without the distortions & personal elements of Watts’ essay. To the extent I, as a now-past-young female spoken word artist & poet can see myself impacted by both sides of the issue. Here on iPlayer

1. Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good. No. I think artists themselves are aware of that. By the same token, just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it isn’t good. I think Kate Tempest & Hollie McNish at both excellent at what they do. However I do sometimes see poets who are not very good being over-promoted by organisations clearly going “Er, they’re young & on Insta-umblr” I must get them on all the things & then the Youth will flock & I’ll get more funding. All the examples of these poets I can think of are male, as it happens. Many of the people in the organisations are middle-class arts managers having a moment of panic around their difficulty reaching wider audiences in the face of a new emphasis on this post-Brexit & amid the continuing instrumentalisation of arts funding. Throwing a young spoken word artist at something is not a substitute for ongoing, open engagement & conversation with potential audiences & participants you’ve never previously had anything to do with.

2. More critical engagement with spoken word in written form would be good. But usually academia, magazines & other homes of Lit-crit just ignore it. Spoken word lacks all elements of the infra-structures available to solely page poetry & artists still too often have to compromise what they really want to do in order to engage with some of that infra structure. As scholar Julia Novak says, live poetry is “Bi medial” & although the boundaries between page & stage are ever blurring, there is still a great deal of denial about the implications of this bi-mediality. (& does digital mean “tri-medial”?).

3. Most poets I know would also sigh at the ever-recurring “Some exciting new poets have been blowing the dust off poetry books”. It’s been going round since at least the sixties & it would be good if organisations didn’t perpetuate it because media will go with it as if it’s a new thing. Every. Time.

4. Spoken word is not only about a “cult of personality”. Poet-persona is a key, necessary element of the genre in the same way as it is in stand-up comedy. Sophisticated critical engagement with it, of the sort Watts is apparently not currently equipped to undertake, can recognise and account for this.

5. However, audience identification with spoken word poets IS often an important mechanism via which a continuing relationship can be built up. As a way to reach new audiences that is powerful & good. Not intrinsically wrong. However, it also means that commercial organisations recognise that they can now exploit & monetise that. This means it would be good for there to be i) More advice available to newer poets too quickly pushed forward into all sorts of opportunities & traps. ii) Recognition that not all poets will be appropriated/used in this way & that therefore powerful voices may be being overlooked at crucial points in their careers.

6. Classism, racism, sexism & ableism DO still operate at macro & micro levels in the relatively un-diverse arts world & sometimes a deployment of invective against “identity politics” will be a thinly veiled pushback at a time when the arts-world is waking up to this. Wider structural issues affecting the entry of marginalised people to these worlds are still ever-worsening. Where there is power there is resistance, we know this.

2 thoughts on “Response to Don Paterson and Rebecca Watts on Front Row”

  1. Well said: reasoned, thoughtful and balanced – and adding some helpful info into the mix. Glad to have read this.

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