Wednesday, 6 March 2013

On Not Giving Up Poetry

There are few things lazier than using somebody's else blog entry as a springboard for discussion, but in this case I can't resist.  Over here Alison Croggon talks in more depth about why she gave up writing poetry in favour of writing novels, and why she considers herself to be unlikely to return to the form.  It's a very honest and interesting read, and worth a click-through because she's candid in a way I doubt most practicing or aspiring poets would dare to be.  As a determined ex-poet she has nothing at all to lose by highlighting the traps, pitfalls and disadvantages of spending a lifetime engaging with the form, so her perspective is simultaneously refreshing and instantly recognisable.

At this point, I have to admit that her poetry is unfamiliar to me.  I could go away and attempt to read some, but I don't want to - if her work is of an extremely high quality I think I'd begin to feel exceptionally miserable and would probably try to begin a bullying campaign online to get her to reconsider.  For that reason alone, I'm going to ignore her literary work and focus on the main points her blog entry raises.

Firstly, I know precisely where she's coming from.  I consider stopping writing poetry several times a year, and have done so for quite some time now.  I don't know how common this is, but I would be extremely surprised if most poets, however successful they are, don't look around at the other opportunities available to them in life and feel cheated, banished to an outermost, Siberian art form.  Artists of all stripes are frequently loathe to talk about ambition, feeling it to be a vulgar irrelevance to their work, but the reality is that precious few intelligent human beings are capable of taking the higher road and living without it.  Most creative people are capable of living humble existences, but a humble existence without a great deal of praise, reassurance or acknowledgement is a hard task.  If you wave out to the world and hardly anyone waves back, the natural response is normally to assume that your attempts at communication and connection have proved of little consequence. Marginalised artforms make lonely artists lonelier still.  My wife (from a Catholic family in Canada) has referred to poets at some live events as being "like priests without a flock".

In terms of reaching an audience, poetry has come on in leaps and bounds since the mid-noughties when it hit an historical sales trough, but for all its attempts to connect with a wider public it remains a fringe art form.  No members of my family or any of my non-poetry reading friends are suddenly more curious about what I do just because the spoken word scene has enjoyed a few mentions in "The Metro".  To them, it still seems like a very odd thing to be preoccupied with.  The scene is thriving compared to what it was, but outside of cities even the biggest names are doomed to spend their evenings talking to small audiences in provincial libraries and bookshops.  Even where the audience is growing, there's a panic and desperation about the promotion, especially when the aim is to target the youth demographic.  Shouting in block capitals about the Nowness and Vitality of the circuit serves only to highlight how it still isn't really all that fashionable or popular - if it were, nobody would actually need telling that it's on the radar of everyone in the know.  People 'in the know' tend not to be secretive about their finds.  If poetry had truly arrived, there would at least be minor quarter page columns in the Sunday magazines talking about the latest exciting arrivals. As things stand, a special occasion like National Poetry Day barely warrants a mention in the media, and even BBC4 can never be bothered to broadcast anything for it.

So poetry can feel relatively thankless, and it's not an artform for people who crave fame or adulation. This in turn leads to the "knife fights in phone boxes" Croggon refers to - I've worked in many other spheres of the arts and media, and all suffer from incredibly vicious and petty rivalries, but few have felt so awkward and unfathomable to outsiders as the spats in the poetry world. If people aren't frothing at their mouths about a populist poet with big populist messages actually breaking through to a very small mainstream audience, then they're angry about poetry traitors.  These are usually people who are tied to certain sub-genres of poetry which either have their roots in areas which are too avant-garde or are too populist, or too academic or too middle class (delete depending on which side of the fence you sit on).  Each side remains convinced that the other is killing the artform or spreading false impressions and is therefore directly or indirectly depriving them of a living.  In a healthy artform, this kind of territorial dispute hardly ever emerges.  Heavy Metal bands and Reggae acts don't have knife-fights at dawn about who is bringing popular music to its knees.  Artists specialising in sculpture don't generally vandalise conceptual art installations.  But where there is little land to carve up, the battles will always be at their most fierce.

Sometimes being involved with poetry makes no sense.  Sometimes, when I think hard, I know that if I put as much effort into being a one-note novelty comedy act, or a novelty rock band, as I have the poetry, I'd be in with not necessarily a greater shot of success, but certainly more noticeable public displays of appreciation.  If, night in night out, I performed in a retro band doing nineties rave style cover versions of the "Bodyform" advert, I'd receive more pats on the back despite being a tool.  So whenever I do anything else at all, whether it's DJ'ing or writing short stories, people ask me if I'm giving poetry up.  I get incredulous and irritated and wonder why the subject is being brought up - I'm allowed to have more than one thing in my life, surely? - but, of course, it's obvious why they're asking.  People do leave poetry behind to write plays and novels.  The roll-call of poetry is littered with examples of people who eventually decided that they needed to move on (and some haven't done too badly as a result).  And I have to admit, I probably would leave if I had the choice.

There's just one problem.  I keep on writing new poems.  Sorry.  When I have ideas, that's the form they usually take.  And I'm glad that not everyone is like Croggon and more people suffer from my affliction - because while it's not 'the most important artform' or even 'the pinnacle of literary achievement' (that kind of talk is nonsense and just alienates people from the form, poetry is as populist or as high-minded as any individual wants it to be, but ooh, listen to me being territorial) it still has a huge impact on my life when it's done well.  And I don't necessarily hope I'll still be interested in it for some time to come, but I think I probably will be, and that's all there is to it.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Stockists of "The Alarmist"

Hello readers,

This is probably the last proper plug I'll do for this (I promise), but you should note that issue two of "The Alarmist" which features my 5,000 word short story "The Private Museum of Peter Gandalf" can be obtained from the following stockists in the UK at the moment:

A.F. & J Barret (Glasgow)
Aye-Aye Books (Glasgow) - available shortly
Analogue (Edinburgh)
Arnolfini Bookshop (Bristol)
Barbican News (Old Street/Barbican)
Bookartbookshop (Shoreditch)
Camden News (Camden, London)
Capital News (Marylebone)
Charlotte Street News (W1, London)
Colours May Vary (Leeds)
Chelsea Food Fayre (Chelsea)
Daily News (Bradford)
Foyles (Charing Cross Road, London)
Foyles (Southbank, London)
Fulham News (Fulham)
Good News (Berwick Street, Soho, London)
Good Press Gallery (Glasgow)
Holland Park News (W11, London)
International Newsagent (Edinburgh)
KK Outlet (Hoxton, London)
London Tap (Altrincham, Cheshire) - available shortly
M2 (Covent Garden, London)
Marshall News (W1, London)
News From Nowhere (Liverpool)
No Guts No Glory (Exeter)
Pages of Hackney (Hackney, London)
Rococo (W11, London)
Rough Trade East (Shoreditch, London) - issue one available and issue 2 available shortly
S. J News (Queen’s Park, London)
Shreeji (W1, London)
Tate Modern (London)
Thrive News (Westfield)
Ti Pi Tin (Stoke Newington)
Unique Magazines (Newcastle)
Walther Koenig Books (Serpenting Gallery, Hyde Park, London)
Wardour News (Soho, London)
WHSmiths (Selfridges)

Kirsty Logan of "The List" magazine said that the story "contains excellent and scathing points on the nature of art, idealism vs reality, and the problems of building a friendship" and added that it in places it was "hauntingly vivid". This is useful, as it saves me the job of having to think up words to promote my own work for once.

The Alarmist has generally been well-received so far, and contains other contributions from a wide variety of people, including the brilliant Fran Lock - go out and buy it and make me happy please.

There will be international stockists as well in the larger global cities, and in fact Papercup Books in Beirut has copies already. If you want to know more about those, drop me a comment, in the meantime if you're living somewhere which is Alarmist-free, you can buy copies from their website here.  I'm sure if you're interested in stocking the periodical yourself they'll be all ears as well.