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.


More Than One Poetry: Omnivorousness and Snobbery in Poetry-World.

There is probably a PhD-worth’s response that could be made to a recent article about some successful poets who were dubbed “artless”, “amateurs” and “uncivilised” by another poet. (Hollie McNish/PN Review) I’m just going to focus on a couple of elements for now which strongly chimed with my own research into class, gender and performance. Although I’m a poet myself, I knew that literary studies was not going to give me the range of approaches and perspectives I needed to look at work like my own which ranges from published poems to stand-up comedy.  I’ve used sociological and anthropological methods and approaches including interviews and cultural analysis, as well as looking at performances and texts. The debate broadly between the poles of “Art” and “Commerce” has raged before in the fields of music, art and literature and will continue raging but I was struck by how some of the tropes were applied to poets at a time when it is beginning to reflect related divisions in other fields more strongly. Stand up comedy provides good examples and there has been actual empirical research done into how this works. Research which recognises that in order to get a proper picture of a field you have to look at producers AND consumers.

I’m particularly interested in why and how some art forms and practitioners are presented as more valuable and “legitimate” than others. Is Stewart Lee “just” better than Joe Pasquale or does displaying a liking for Stewart Lee also send other signals? Are complex, extended jokes “better” than short puns? At the same time, I’ve not wanted to get mired in the relativism of “Everything is as good as everything else. There is no way to determine what is good or true”. There are lots of ways but I would say they are localised, contextual and culturally specific, rather than universal across all places and all times.

Sometimes I forget this myself, then remember when I read about how the Chamula people of Mexico divide types of speech into the categories of “Ordinary”,  ” Speech for People Whose Hearts are Heated” and “Pure”. According to anthropologist Richard Bauman “Increased fixity of form, repetition and parallelism” (many features of Western lyric poetry) “also signal for the Chamula increasing ‘Heat’. Heat is a basic metaphor for the Chamula, symbolising the orderly, the good and the beautiful by derivation from the power of the sun deity”. Genres of speech and writing are part of interlocking systems and the constitution of one part is formed from feedback loops with another. To paraphrase the poet Don Paterson, you could say these systems become little machines for remembering themselves.

Another metaphor is that they are games. This is the one used by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose empirical work is crucial to researchers in culture, class and education but seems to be less used in literary studies. He has written a lot about the literary and art fields and says that they operate according to particular rules which must be followed by practitioners in order to enter the field. He calls a belief in the rules of this game the “illusio”. Some people’s educations and upbringings are geared to equipping them to play these games (Which will include knowing the history of the field and the debates within it). Some people are awakened to the arbitrariness of the “illusio” but play the game anyway. Some play it by displaying their knowledge of the rules and not following them. What is valued in the game is the same as in the wider field of power- money and legitimacy from big institutions.  At the same time, there is what he calls a “Restricted sub field of production” operating separately but in response to these rules, in which “art” is valued above money. An artist or art form is then conferred a value by fellow producers in relation to how autonomous they are perceived as being from the values governing the mass, the commercial and the “legitimate”.

“FLIPPING ECK PEOPLE, SOMEBODY UPHOLDING THE ART/TRADITION RULES OF THE GAME AGAINST WHAT THEY CALL NAIVE AMATEURS WITH BIG IGNORANT AUDIENCES. FROM FLAUBERT TO MONET TO DISTEL AND FOUCAULT, ALL MY BOOKS AND RESEARCH HAS BEEN ABOUT THIS AND LOADS OF PEOPLE HAVE APPLIED IT TO MODERN STUFF, GET OVER IT ALREADY”; that’s what Bourdieu might say if he wasn’t dead and French and probably rather polite in conversation, having worked his way up from peasant family to big cheese in the most elite French universities in a way that his own research and theories are quite pessimistic about. He internalised the rules and tastes of one game and ended up playing another- whilst being particularly alert to the arbitrariness of both of them. As you are often are when you’ve moved some distance from the social circumstances of your upbringing. It can leave you particularly anxious about knowing the rules- they’re not just second nature. In traditional poetry world you might call them out (Bourdieu. In this moment, me), uphold them (Watts), play with them and rewrite them (Paterson), not learn them but be brought into the field by someone who has (McNish). Anyway, that bit’s for another blog. What I just wanted to do here was to share part of a paper I gave at a panel on poetry and class at “The Place for Poetry” conference at Goldsmiths in 2015*.

I applied some of the newer research on how social distinction works for comedians and comedy audiences to poets and poetry audiences because I could see big parallels. Comedy-world also has its “Sub field” in which distance from commerce is particularly valued (Stewart Lee, Josie Long et al) and the principles associated with avant-garde art including innovation, playing with form and a cerebral appreciation of such are upheld. It opposes a commercial end of the spectrum represented by the likes of Michael McIntyre. There’s more going on around this of course, and complicated stuff in the middle, but the “How” our cultural tastes can be used to upholding existing social structures and distinctions is the bit that there seems to be less awareness of among poets and practitioners. Especially when people sincerely believe that these divisions no longer exist in a way which drives cultural snobbery. In fact, I’d like to say its the bit that there is more denial around. (Summarised in the point of view that the Poetry News article is not explicitly upholding a middle-class or establishment vision of poetry and that we have to have some common standards of decency don’t we?).

Poets nodded sagely and discussed interestingly some of the issues around this at the conference. But y’know. That doesn’t count as a sustained engagement with the arguments herein which I hope might one day happen in actual English departments, who knows.

This is one of the key slides I shared with some annotations. It translates a summary of some of the LSE sociologist Sam Friedman’s empirical research on stand-up performance (which draws on Bourdieu’s work) to the world of contemporary poetry. Another ridiculously quick summary of  a relevant aspect of  Bourdieu’s work; he argues that someone’s class is made up of their economic capital but also their cultural capital (knowledge and tastes for particular cultural forms which are passed on via upbringing and education) and their social capital (the types of people they have access to within their, or their parents social networks). The bullet points starts off being about cultural omnivores because they’re a key object of study when looking at cultural consumption. A prevalent narrative says that we’re now, as a society, more tolerant and less snobbish. We like loads of things from low and high culture- look at our breadth of enjoyment! I would say, not across all art forms, perhaps particularly not across ones where our sense of personhood is felt to be most at stake…

  • Contrary to earlier claims that “cultural omnivorousness” is now the most influential type of cultural capital in Britain, there are only partial signs of this in the consumption of poetry.

That is- in music you’ll have MORE cultural capital if you prove the breadth of your knowledge and tastes from things with “Legitimate” -consecrated by tradition, big institutions and awards- Cultural Capital like Philip Glass, Bach and Coldplay. “Emerging” or “Cool” Cultural Capital like the latest band only three people have heard of yet and “Illegitimate” Cultural Capital (often liked in an ironic way) like Chas and Dave or the song Barbie Girl. Whereas you’re not as likely to garner admiration if you confess to a love of poets Carol Ann Duffy, Keston Sutherland, Ross Sutherland and Pam Ayres in one breath.

  • For socially mobile individuals, omnivorous poetry taste is a social hindrance rather than social capital

In comedy this omnivorousness would mean liking a comedian with low cultural capital (low brow) associations such as Bernard Manning or Joe Pasquale – as well as one with high cultural capital associations (high brow) such as Josie Long or Stewart Lee. People feel ashamed of their low brow comedy tastes, having found they’re mocked or reproved for them. The equivalent in poetry is usually not liking poetry at all or liking greetings card or fridge magnet verse. However in Watts article, Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur are constructed as being outside the art form and as actively damaging to its traditions and values. It’s audience are also constructed as untalented. It might be for poets and cultural audiences to answer how far they feel that revealing a taste for certain sorts of poetry (or none) is a hindrance to their social capital. 

The (omnivorous) middle brow has long been a space that Literature is suspicious of. It does, however epitomise the values of such institutions as the BBC (“Poetry Please” for example is very middle brow) and many literature festivals. Bourdieu calls it a space of both “avidity and anxiety” for those eager to prove their cultural credentials but unsure whether they’re liking the right things for the right reasons. However JB Priestley called it the “Broad Brow” and was optimistic about its potential as a transformative space where different classes and values can meet.

  • Poetry is now an emerging field for younger generations of the culturally privileged to activate their cultural capital resources.

I would argue that this hold as much for poetry as comedy. Spaces like Latitude’s Poetry Tent, as well as You Tube/Instagram are ones in which these resources can be mobilised and displayed.

  • This happens more through rarefied and disinterested “styles” of poetic appreciation.

One of Friedman’s crucial insights is that cultural capital can be displayed not just by your tastes but by the ways in which you express them. For example, his respondents with higher cultural capital would talk about how they appreciated Stewart Lee’s withholding of a punchline “I can see what he was doing there, very clever-ha”. Versus a lower cultural capital; “I laughed a lot. He was hilarious”. The hierarchical divisions here are broadly constructed along the lines of cerebral versus bodily appreciation, mental versus emotional response, educational/informative or spiritual versus entertaining content. 

  • These styles are embodied

See the binaries above. Also I would suggest that in poetry there is a sliding scale of cultural capital gained by producer/audience based on how much manifest bodily response their work generates- ranging from the under the breath poetry “Mmm” of appreciation, via chuckles up to enthusiastic clapping, full-bellied laughter and finally, lowest cultural capital of all- the clicking and whooping associated with poetry slams.
Interestingly in Watts review she said that McNish’s not particular sweary work was “abundant in expletives”, a criticism also levelled at low brow comedians “lowering” language to the level of the bodily.

  • Poetry taste still plays a crucial role in the expression of middle-class identities

This could perhaps be phrased as “Any taste for poetry plays a crucial role in the expression of middle-class identities”. (Again, it would be significant that Watts’ article was reluctant to call the work of Hollie McNish poetry at all, eventually referring to “an assemblage of words”).

  • Poetry taste acts as a tool for the culturally privileged to identify and pathologise those with low cultural capital.

Historically this has been done by pathologising those with no expressed taste for poetry, or for those liking Patience Strong/greetings card verse. Now, with the resurgence of a mass market for some poetry, it could be predicted that aspects of it would be used to pathologise audiences who express a taste for popular poetry. Watts actually said McNish had a “Pathological” attitude.

  • This cultural snobbery therefore shows poetry’s role in contemporary processes of symbolic violence.

Well, it does y’knaa. Who’d have thunk?
Symbolic violence is similar to the Marxist concept of false consciousness. Basically, people absorb the power relations of the power structures they live in, into their everyday ways of doing, knowing and valuing things (what Bourdieu calls their “habitus”). They experience and posit this power as universal and ahistorical- rather than as specific to the particular context they inhabit. In Watts article Poetry with a big P becomes a Tradition carrying Universalising values.

I know Watts’ article raised many other issues not touched on here and next I will be writing a blog about “Authenticity” as a way of both upholding and resisting gendered neo liberal injunctions to “Tell your true self”. Perhaps also one about populism. Also, though I expect nobody at all will be reading then, a sort of Bourdieu-style case study of Don Paterson.


Pierre Bourdieu. Distinction.
Pierre Bourdieu. The Rules of Art.
Sam Friedman. Comedy and Distinction
Ed Sally R Munt. Cultural Studies and the Working Class.
Julia Novak. Live Poetry (I nearly missed this book- Hannah Silva who is currently finishing a PhD on black British poetry pointed it out. I’d disappeared down a comedy rabbit hole of Comedy Studies by then and in a different PhD would have used it much more. Some people have been calling for a “Poetics” of live poetry. Well, this constitutes one. Though I would be using a lot more Bourdieu myself in order to trouble some of its assumptions around value).

*A bit about my experience at the conference in case anyone’s interested:
It feels like a thousand years ago now, but it was the day of the last general election in May 2015. Before Brexit, before Trump as President, before the year when everybody died. Writing was still privileged above speech, as it had been for a few hundred years and continues to be. But that and all other things pass.

Anyway, I was a few months into the PhD I have now submitted and was presenting my first paper at a conference,“The Place for Poetry” conference at Goldsmiths University. Nearly every other conference I went to would be on comedy, or in the broader field of sociology and cultural studies. This one was a warm-up for me. I tried not to be too perturbed by not really knowing what a paper was yet. Or if it was okay to start one off by performing my poem “Northern Voices”, about being a a still-too rare Northern voice on Radio 4. Some of what I said then, in a discussion on class and poetry with contributions I remember by poets (and other things) Cahal Dallat, Blake Morrison and Martin Malone, is relevant to discussions of a recent, controversial, Poetry News article about amateurism in poetry. Reading back on notes of the panel I am appalled to note that I wore a pink-checked trilby and at how apologetically I skipped over some of my theory slides I thought the audience would be bored by; but heartened at how lively the discussion was afterwards and at how valued I felt my perspective was.

There was a weird diversion I caused by quoting a bit from Roger McGough’s poem “Scorpio” in which he feels his poems are his children and are cruelly disparaged by critics dismissing him on class grounds;

Fellow poets some of them, and literary critics
who have made public fools of my children’ …
‘Some may even regret their youthful bile,
their mistrust of popular culture, and the working class.
This is to let them know, that though forgiven
they are not forgotten’

I said it was an elephant in the room not to note that one of the critics he meant was Blake Morrison who was editor of Poetry Review at the time. Morrison was convenor of the conference and sitting right in front of me in the tiny lecture room. He said he didn’t realise McGough was referring to him and looked perfectly unperturbed. The joys of a small poetry world. Rushing to the station so I could get the train back up to Thirsk to vote before close of polls I bumped into him bringing the evening’s star guest Paul Muldoon onto campus. He introduced me and started telling a rumpled Paul about the panel and I had to say “Do tell him about it, must dash, I have to vote!” and ran off in my ridiculous hat.

Flash, bang, Me Too trauma, what a picture.

In the first car accident, a car turned wrongly and too fast into a box junction I was crossing and hit my Fiesta, crumpling the front passenger side. I heard a big bang, instinctively braked, then saw the other driver, a tall man, on the road ahead of me hitting his car bonnet over and over with his fist like Basil Fawlty in that scene where he hits his car with a branch. I was outwardly calm, but I couldn’t tell  people who came over what had happened, though two witnesses told me, and luckily were able to tell the Police. My then-boyfriend was upset that I didn’t ring him, just a garage who came and got the car, then dropped me off at home.  Trauma had frozen my memory and my reactions. I am convinced it wasn’t just the accident, but the way the other driver had lost his reason (Even if that was because of his own trauma). I was brought up by a man who might possibly have reacted to a similar incident by hitting his car. In the face of such scary anger I had never won and didn’t imagine I would now.  Bits of my brain stopped in an old pattern. It took me ages to fill in the insurance claim form because I kept imagining that man punching his car and me having to confront him in court- but in the end I wrote it, and the written-off car was reimbursed in full.

In the second car accident, my Stepmum was blinded by the sunlight and went into another car just after we had exited a roundabout. Another flash and bang. I herded her and me and my husband (all of us uninjured) out of the car and onto the pavement, checked the other car passengers were okay, rang the Police and the breakdown services and comforted my StepMum. The coping bits of my brain sparked into action. Emotions on hold, as in the first accident, but I wasn’t helpless, I was helpful. Powerful, even.

Two similar situations, two very different reactions from me. As psychiatrist and trauma-specialist Bessel Van Der Kolk (Interview) says- trauma is something produced in a social context; “If you’re not allowed to feel what you feel, know what you know, your mind cannot integrate what goes on and you get stuck on the situation…”. Trauma interferes with the brain’s ability to tell a story about something, with the ability to re-member it. It is re-lived (by your body) rather than consciously remembered, because it has never been integrated into your story of your self in the first place. I couldn’t ever tell a useful (or any) story about what happened in the first car accident, I think because in the temporary shock of the shunt, seeing an irrational, aggressive man reminded me of growing up with one and the many traumas that led to. My brain elastic-banded back to the past and the parts that organised memories and planned things shut down.

This is not a post about car accidents. It is primarily meant to be a post about #Metoo and its aftermath. Many, many women, and men, will have had visceral, bodily stuff stirred up because of what they have read, written, thought about and talked about since the deluge of stories about sexual abuse and harassment. The media is mostly carrying coherent narratives. Things like “Women have told their stories, now powerful men are falling”. But in reality, there are so many fragments flying around like cars hitting each other. Some of these are being assembled into other narratives. News moves fast, faster than memories though they can feel as present, as urgent as news.

The blog post I wrote about my experience with an abusive poet has resulted in some other stories being revealed. I had written about Philomela speaking and being stopped from speaking. I want to characterise some of the exchanges since then as stuttering. Other women have got in touch, handing me more pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Perhaps making a picture is a better analogy. Or at least, it is quicker, than attempting to tell a story, though that is happening too. Sometimes emails have flown back and forth quickly.  Sometimes there have been gaps, delays. This work can be overwhelming. Revelations, news bulletins; it turns out, to my shock, that the poet had similarly abused power in other relationships in the poetry community. He had been convicted of domestic violence against his partner. Lots of people hold and held bits of a full picture, a full story, but so many things have prevented us putting it together. In this instance, the trauma of others  is helpful to an abuser. This contagion (also, often of their own trauma) stops social memories and stories forming. There has been a crash, a bang, but the fragments are still flying apart from each other. It is helpful when witnesses who are not likely to be freezing, flighting or fighting trauma share what they know, tell and re-tell narratives.

We can only ask what is next, or what is to be done about it, when we know what has happened. Another reason there are so relatively few rape convictions. My reaction to traumatic events has had a lifetime of being established as “Freeze and forget” or “Freeze, act, immediately move on”. It is much easier to write about cars than about how those patterns were set down. What should happen now? I don’t know what can or should be done about a past that sometimes feels so present and sometimes feels so buried. I know only that it must not happen to other women in future. I hear fragments from other people (speaking about him, or to him) which suggest that building up the narratives is going to help that.

The Poems That Sold

Her poems are about the ways rebellion is sold to us

but become ways to sell rebellion to us.

Her poems are about the ways the exotic is sold to us

but become ways to sell the exotic to us.

Her poems are about the way motherhood is sold to us

but become ways to sell motherhood to us.

Her poems are about the ways girlhood is used to sell things to us

but become ways to sell girlhood to us.

Her poems are about the ways sex is used to sell things to us

but become ways to sell sex to us.

My poem is about the ways women’s poems are used to sell things to us,

but it did not sell

though like the other poems, it could become

a pale blue feather,

a used tampon,

multi-coloured braces,

too long a wait at the tea urn,

a pink footed goose,

instructions for how to make a copper bracelet,

a failed rocket launch in a school yard,

a walk under a moon phase someone couldn’t name,

sleep grit in a right eye,

an ashamed wave when they’d already left once,

sweat on the waistband of new gym pants,

the comparison of an eyelash to a dragonfly’s leg,

an upturned glance at an oddly shaped streetlight,

too many Cheerios,

a boat bobbing on a lake which had only had that name

for a hundred years.


A Short Play About Brexit and European City of Culture 2023

Predictably, British cities will not now be able to bid to be European City of Culture in 2023. I would contend that planning it amidst Brexit would have been a disaster. Like planning a holiday with the ex you’re divorcing.

A Tale of Fewer Cities

A meeting room somewhere. For the purposes of this short play the EU is a man called Steve who the cities are divorcing. Steve is not there in person. His representative, a gerbil called Alan is speaking for him.

Leeds: Steve will still be bringing sandwiches for the journey won’t he?

Alan: Steve can’t commit to that. Catering arrangements are uncertain at this time.

Dundee: Okay. Don’t worry. We’ll make some herring ones.

Alan: Bringing them might not be as simple as you think.

Milton Keynes: Will we go on the beach like last time?

Alan: Steve says he hopes that you’ll have done a risk assessment that he would approve of.

Nottingham: I just can’t wait, I can’t wait. Is Steve looking forward to it too? Has he told everyone about my lacey outfit with chrome trim?

Alan: Steve has been very busy in meetings but I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.

Belfast/Derry: We might have some issues crossing our borders. Can Steve help us out?

Alan: Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Cities: We need another 57 meetings with Steve to plan our lovely holiday. Sometimes we think that he’s not actually looking forward to it anymore. It’s almost as if he feels like he can’t be arsed to put the time in. Alan, can you tell him he’s got to stop spending all his time talking about our divorce and look at travel brochures with us?

Alan: I think you should read your marriage vows again.

The Pitfalls of Using Other People’s Voices in Poetry

The young poet said he hoped to write about female, Muslim refugees, though he was not female, Muslim or a refugee. “I’ll ask them about the stuff they do that everyone does, like playing table tennis and stuff…”. His voice trailed away, as the section he’d put on the form began to look more like a blatant bid to tick a funding box than to have a cultural conversation. 

There are pitfalls in writing about other people in your work. I’ve been thinking about how not to fall into them.

Most of the workshops I run, whether that’s poetry or comedy or radio, involve people writing and speaking their own words. That, for me, is where the excitement and power lies. When people are using their voices they will use them elsewhere too. It means that when a project’s aims are a bit woolly or don’t quite fit with my values then I can still think that there has been an unleashing of voices which can critique and resist and protest and dialogue. Lots of funders will say they like this. Even if they don’t really.

Perhaps it means I’m sometimes too optimistic about the possibility of those voices being unleashed elsewhere. There are so many leashes now. Schools which have less space for creativity, creative workplaces which are hard to enter if you’re not rich. But it also means I look at arts and creative projects which claim to hear the voices of participants with a sceptical eye. I don’t get verbatim theatre and shows which are based on the words of “community groups we worked with”. Not really. In many cases, they seem to take the words of others and make cultural and economic capital out of them for directors and actors (I know not ALL of it does this, and it can be a way to tell stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told).

However, I risk being hypocritical. I’m always going on about hearing the voices of others in my projects, and I wonder how often those voices get lost. In order to try mitigate this, I was guided by a particular methdology when I did a project for Hull 2017. It helped me be clearer about what I was trying to do, and the traps I might fall into. I shared it with the writers I was working with. I had been using it in my PhD too and I’m going to briefly detail here in case it can give any other writers and performers food for thought.

Dialogical performance is a tool used by in performance ethnography (and laid out by Dwight Conquergood). Ethnography is a tool used by anthropologists, among other close observers of culture. Users of it acknowledge that the culture (ethno) they’re studying is both re-constructed and constructed in their writing (graphy) of it. It’s a novelistic, journalistic way of doing social sciences; which is why it appeals to me. Performance ethnographers basically, in extreme summary, perform their fieldwork. Both so that it becomes bodily and visceral and can be felt by a live audience, and so that it gets out beyond only sitting in notebooks or universities. Some people have argued that stand-up comedians can function as performance ethnographers- highlighting and querying the rules of their culture. It’s therefore logical to argue, as I have, that performing poets can too. Again in extreme summary, critical performance ethnographers don’t just go “Here is a reflection of how this culture works” they also go “Here is how power works in this culture, and we would like the oppressed and marginalised to have more of it, including by participating in speaking and writing about it in order to shift it”. They recognise performance as what Conquergood called a “moral act”- even, or especially when it says that it isn’t one. That seems to fit well with the approach of many poets to participatory arts projects.

Conquergood says that ideally dialogical performance is a conversation with the other. You don’t pretend you’re not there, with your own voice which is filled with ideologies and biases and sensitivities; “It’s all about them!” but you don’t dominate. “Instead of speaking about them, one speaks to and with them” as he says.  You’re aiming for a central place between identity (“I just get them, we’re the same!”) and difference “I’ll never understand their alien-ness”). Also between commitment (“I will save them!”) and detachment (“They’re on their own”).

He lays out the four positions you can occupy at the extremes of those poles:

The Custodian’s Rip-Off

It becomes all about you. “There’s great material here” you think as you selfishly plunder and appropriate stuff that isn’t really yours in a spirit of using things (and words and people), rather than genuine inquiry.  Conquergood gives the example of a cultural group who performed a Hopi Indian dance “To preserve it”, despite the objections of Hopi elders.

The Enthusiast’s Infatuation 

Too much identification with the other, here. “Aren’t we all basically the same!” you cry as you dash in for a short time, with a superficial appreciation of the Other, which belittles them and their genuine differences from you.

The Curator’s Exhibitionism 

Making the difference of the other into something stuck and flat. Conquergood says this is like the “Noble Savage” attitude of anthropologists of old who collected their artefacts in order for people to marvel at their astounding weirdness. It puts you and them into a different moral universe and suggests the twain will never meet.

The Skeptic’s Copout 

The skeptic wouldn’t be doing a poetry project involving the words of others, one would hope, because they are both detached and entrenched in their difference from others. They’re probably just conducting Brexit negotiations or something.

I was going to write about how I tried to use dialogical performance when I worked on the show Queens of the North with the writing collective “Women of Words” from Hull. But maybe in another blog. Except, just to say, in brief, I felt that I, as a non-Hull woman, was not going to be the best person to capture the voices of women of Hull, even though I’d proposed it as a project following on from my work at the Women of the World festival in the city. (Possibly I sometimes fell into the “Skeptic’s Copout” position). But I thought that if I facilitated other women writers from Hull, then together we could speak with and from Hull. We also went off and spoke to particular groups we were interested in (For example, Vicky spoke to female boxers, Cassandra spoke to the partners of oil rig workers, Michelle spoke to foreign students, Julie spoke to Mums of children with disabilities) and came up with pieces which included our and their voices). I would say I facilitated the show, rather than directed it, in a dialogue with all of us as writers and performers. It was also a dialogue with the city and with past and present. Lynda for instance, used her past in a Hull girl band to tell a story of the city in which that sixties story is now being told as history.  It became a dialogue with the audience who would both have identified with and felt a difference from some of the stories told. It stirred strong emotions for them and there was a standing ovation at the end- so they were very committed! But I think we also built in enough spaces where audiences could reflect in a more detached way about the issues that have impacted the women of Hull.

Of course, we still will have fallen into various pitfalls. Also, of course, not everybody associated with a piece of work might be operating in the spirit of dialogical performance (“Women? Northern ones? We haven’t got enough of those. Let’s get em on!”). But I think we did manage to find a middle space so that as well as a performance, we were holding a truly intimate conversation.

Nightingales, #MeToo and Poetry-World

Myself and other poets have spoken recently about younger women poets asking us “Was this okay?…” of things that clearly weren’t. My story is sometimes confusing and fragmented but the “This is not okay” moments have become clearer to me now I have written them down. I am not talking about relationships that implode and cause awkwardness which is particularly acute because the poetry scene is so small. I am not talking about clumsy advances by poets who overestimate their attractiveness to their fellow word-weavers. I am talking about (mainly but not exclusively older,male) poets who serially abuse their power and experience in poetry-world in relation to (mainly but not exclusively younger, female) poets.

Sometimes we know more than we know. I used to tell the story I am going to tell now as a love story or as a coming of age story. But all along, it was a story about power, and deep down I recognised this. In jokey emails soon after I met the man I sometimes called the Miserable Poet, I began mentioning the myth of Philomela. She was a Princess of Athens and her brother-in-law King Tereus raped her. She then wove this story into a tapestry and sent it to his wife, her sister. In fury Tereus cut out Philomela’s tongue (In some versions, he cut off her hands). The sisters join together to get revenge and Tereus ends up unknowingly eating his son in a pie. Philomela is then transformed into a nightingale (in some versions, a swallow) and continues to sing about what Tereus did to her. The myth is recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and pops up everywhere from T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland, to a Margaret Atwood novella and a Timberlake Wertenbaker play. It is a story about male violence and female power. It is a story about being silenced and resisting this, as well as one about transforming traumatic stories into other forms and the power of speaking out together. Surely Philomela is the muse of the #MeToo movement.

One translation of Metamorphoses has her vow:

Still my revenge shall take its proper time,
And suit the baseness of your hellish crime.
My self, abandon’d, and devoid of shame,
Thro’ the wide world your actions will proclaim.

T.S Eliot recounts how she speaks even when the world finds what she has to say unpleasant:

The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug, jug” to dirty ears.

Having the Philomela myth as a sort of reference point is not really a good sign for a relationship. It’s like having “Smack My Bitch Up” as an “Our Song”. At some level I recognised that this man, seventeen years older than me, was dangerous. However, I didn’t have a conscious way of describing how. On the surface he was charming and engaging. People liked him. But some recognised patterns in his dealings with women that troubled them. One friend called him “The Vampire”. I had just started doing poetry open mikes. He had been in the scene twenty years. He ran a magazine and a small publishing house, promoted gigs and made a full-time living as a poet. He told me I was a real poet. Booked me for a gig and asked me to run two of his workshops on a primary school project.

The prospect of running a poetry workshop in a school sounded exciting and terrifying. I’d never even been in a poetry workshop in a school, unless you count that time a student teacher got us to write haiku and I elongated “It’s snowing” over seven syllables. This would be my first proper poetry work. In at the deep end, but I thought I could do it. I’d only been doing poems for a year or so, starting off in open mikes and then getting more and more paid gigs. This seemed like an exciting step into a new world. We’d also both been invited to join a poetry group called the Poetry Vandals. A kind of rock band, or maybe awkward indie band, of now seven poets who performed in pubs and at festivals all over the North East and beyond.

Aged thirty I’d been coasting as a radio newsreader for a few years. Suddenly now, I knew lots of creative people. In fact, I was one of those creative people. I was using my voice to speak my own words instead of news bulletins in which Tony Blair, Brad Pitt and the Angel of the North competed for the minute’s space I had on the radio to sum up the world in a way which wouldn’t put anybody off the dance tracks or carpet adverts. I had what seemed to be the makings of a new way of earning money, somewhere to practice being a poet and better, I was part of a group. Scott, one of the other members affectionately called it a dysfunctional family. To me, it was a community and opened doors to an even wider community of writers, performers and musicians. After living in a bedsit while doing my A-levels, then working long, unsociable hours as a radio journalist and not having much outside the job throughout my twenties, suddenly knowing people outside of that was heady and joyous. People who also liked words. Who would talk about them and perform them and share them with others. People who liked my words. Finally, I was living. Many people feel like this when they join poetry communities. They are spaces where people find they are accepted for first time-spaces where vulnerable people feel safe.

Me and the Miserable Poet stayed up all night talking after a gig. Something was happening between us. I fell in love with him like I was falling in love with this new world opening up. Nothing could happen between us. He was married, though he said he was practically separated. Even I, with my very limited romantic experience beyond two long-term boyfriends, knew this was a red flag. We emailed, we had coffees, one chaste kiss. He said he would like to publish a collection of my poems. I was doing lots of gigs at the time for free or small fees. Enjoying trying new things out, finding my voice. He wrote a review of them for a local music magazine. Said my performance was “patchy”. This was the first time I’d been publicly reviewed. I asked him why he’d said that. I thought I’d done alright. He said one of his friends had wondered why people were saying such good things about this new performer. He didn’t want to seem biased. Anyway, I had been patchy. This felt wrong. But I don’t heed this other red flag.

Then he stormed out of coffee with me after a disagreement that was apparently about the value of poetry slams. He told the poetry group he was leaving because of this disagreement. He didn’t reply when I asked him what had happened or about the workshops I had been scheduled to do. I was devastated that I had offended him and that we weren’t in touch. So much so that I didn’t really register the way that this had impacted on my burgeoning new career and my place in this new and supportive community. Or that the promised collection of poems would never happen. Actually, because on the whole the community is supportive, it didn’t impact on that element at first. Beyond the gossip and the whispering. People saw something as simple or as complicated as two adult poets having a bit of a thing. Like me then, they didn’t consciously read who had power and who didn’t. I was still doing radio news shifts but poetry had become my life now. The city was refracted through poetry and poets. I teamed up with Karl, another of the Poetry Vandals and we started running workshops together and applied for a big Arts Council grant. We’d help other people find their voices too.

After a few months, Kevin got back in touch. He said that he’d stormed off because he loved me. I was genuinely stunned. I decided I was now the heroine in a tragic love story. We were mythic. This helped me not notice some other red flags that started flying. I began to heed wiser voices who said to keep away from him. But I became more interesting to him when I was withdrawn. He invited himself onto a Poetry Vandals trip abroad to perform at a festival. We were all surprised and perturbed. They thought his presence was something to do with me, but he said it wasn’t. I have written before about what happened there on the night of my thirtieth birthday. He was sad and behaving erratically because he had moved out of his marital home. As well as thinking I’m in a tragic love story, I have a saviour complex. I follow him to his hotel room. He asks me to lay down, to take my clothes off so we can just cuddle. I believe him literally, as I believe most things he says. It will take years before I recognise the way he ignored my “No”s was yet another abuse of power between us. In this instance there is a name for this abuse of power- it is called rape, but I don’t know this yet, despite the Philomela references in our emails which had already been screaming out from my unconscious. The next morning we met for coffee. He says we’re soulmates of the brain. Years later I will say in a comedy show that even I recognised this as code for “I do not fancy you at all”. A month later we meet up back in Newcastle and he says he has fallen in love with somebody else and will be moving to where she lives, though not to be with her.

I am writing this story and at some level I can see it is a story of a relationship between a manipulative man at a troubled moment in his life and an overly impressionable person who needed to read more books like “He’s Just Not That Into You” or do therapy or start internet dating. I did all of these things eventually. But the thing that means that it has impacted my life for a lot longer than it should have, is that he was a poet and I was a poet and my working life was in his hands for a while. The abuses of power were played out in an environment that was where we worked, as well as where we creatively expressed ourselves. I am fairly sure he saw himself as an equal co-star with me in a particularly crap, ultimately irrelevant, bit of his own tragic love stories. But what I also now see is the power imbalances. The way he offered me work then took it away. Said he would publish a collection and then didn’t. Reviewed me badly in public. Told other poets things about me that turned out not to be true. Came along to a festival where I was working. Although this sounds like a list of grievances, I have rarely seen or catalogued it this way. I just accepted it as the way things were in a situation where there was no redress and no Human Resources Department for poets.

Some other things happened. This story is already too long and detailed. The power imbalance was no longer the key thing. It was a dysfunctional connection that I still thought could be redeemed. Needless to say I shouldn’t have said yes to his suggestion that he publish my poems about him, alongside his new lover’s poems about him, and his own about both of us (well, probably mainly about himself, to be fair). Needless to say that didn’t happen anyway. For a decade we have mostly avoided each other. Nodded in the street in Edinburgh a couple of times. He has published, without acknowledgment, poems that rewrite at least two of my poems. The poems are in our collections. One of these poems was about the rape. So he literally overwrote and stole my poem about that experience. After a rare sighting of him in a pub in his city, one of my posters was defaced with the word “Liar”. I have avoided countless events where I thought he might be, or where there would be people he tried to discredit me to, presumably in case I ever told the story as a power imbalance. I have since met and worked with many wonderful people in poetry-world but my trust in the “scene” to hear the voices of women like me, to be a supportive space, has been shaken. I have tried to speak out before, but I have never named him before. Now, I am joining the chorus of women who are raising their voices.

We nightingales are transformed into something that does not quite get to have the qualities of rational, human discourse. Our voices are alternately beautiful and terrible. A seductive song of patterns we all recognise. An ugly song that gets bogged down in details and fragments and is dismissible as vengeance. But it is inviolable and it will not stop. It needs to be continuously re-heard and re-translated. It must be recognised as the warning that it is.

Power in poetry is relative. Running an open mike isn’t like running ICI. However, if you are in a position to give or withhold opportunities to somebody else then you are in a position of power over them and should be aware of not taking advantage of this. Because poetry, and other localised creative scenes shade from “amateur” to professional with many grey areas in between, it is hard to talk about professional codes of conduct. But power relationships exist across the spectrum and there are many blurred lines between what for some people is a hobby and what for others is work. Career and financial opportunities can be at stake, as well as, even more vitally, people’s wellbeing and confidence.

I have heard stories of residential tutors serially sleeping with their tutees, of women being pestered with late-night emails, of workshop leaders harassing their students, of mentors inappropriately touching their mentees, award judges making passes at shortlisted poets. The people doing this stuff are usually involved in patterns of similar behaviour. It isn’t usually a one-off, or a love that cannot be resisted. There are many small-scale poetry promoters, tutors, publishers, reviewers and other gatekeepers. Their activities are often unregulated. I am calling on them (us) to sign up to a code of conduct that will be drafted by the poetry community like the one being drawn up by the theatre community in the wake of the Weinstein revelations. I am calling on other Philomelas to keep speaking out and weaving your tapestries. We will hear you. We will believe you. We will help things change.