Sunday, 17 July 2011

'Don't Ask What Poetry Can Do for You, Ask What.....'

I spent last week end at the Ledbury Poetry Festival and closed the festival with Joy of Six. I was put up by a lovely local family who made myself and a fellow Sixer more than welcome. I never ceased to be amazed at the kindness of strangers (she says taking a Blanche Dubois pose) who are willing to invite poets into their homes, we are a strange breed often with stranger habits and yet these good souls open their homes to us; so three cheers for all the unsung heroes who put up poets all over the country.

Ledbury is a great festival with a healthy ‘broad church’ of poets from pink fairy ladies enticing children in to create poetry cup cakes, to full-on performance such as the Anti Poet, to Anthony Thwaite, who would not feel aggrieved at being described as not the 'Anti-poet'. The resident poet for the Festival was Ian Duhig who produced some really interesting work as a result of that residency. One of the stars for me was Helen Mort reading from her new pamphlet the 'Lie of the Land' especially a sequence of poems about the Miners strike in 1984 and in particular the Battle of Orgreave. She talks about where this sequence ‘Scab’ comes from on her own blog here so I won’t reinvent the wheel by outlining its background suffice it to say she drew in part on her experience of watching a re-make documentary film made by Jeremy Deller. It was a good reading, in fact I was so slow out of the starting blocks at the end I missed buying a copy of the pamphlet as it sold out in a flurry of eager poetry punters.

I found listening to this sequence engendered a mix of emotions; my uncle was a miner but significantly a Nottinghamshire miner. Mention the Nottinghamshire miners in some parts of South Wales, County Durham or Yorkshire and they may well spit in your face for what was seen as their treachery in not coming out on strike in 84. In fact I happened to mention that my uncle was a miner when once doing a reading in South Wales and when the penny dropped that he was a Nottinghamshire miner the air went distinctly frosty. If you listen to these audio memoirs of Nottinghamshire miners you can hear the very real dilemma these Nottinghamshire miners found themselves in as their region had balloted not to join the strike and they eventually formed their own union.

By then my uncle had died in his fifties of cancer and silicosis brought on by years at the pit. I don’t know whether he would have ever crossed a picket line if he had still been working but I tend to think he wouldn’t have, not because I want to have a ‘rosy’ PC view of my families socialist credentials but because he would have hated to be called a scab by anyone, in those mining communities that word holds such enormous power and baggage that it still has the ability to separate whole families to this day.

As a couple they both understood what the cohesive power of a trade union could achieve. My aunt, his wife, was one of the first female shop steward at the Players cigarette factory and she had fought long and hard not only for female representation in the union but for better pay and conditions for female workers. I listened for years to her tales and my mother’s tales (she also worked there before she married) of the conditions in that factory for women in the thirties and forties. I wrote a sequence of poems about her experience and my mother's using an old copy of the regulations issued by the employers at that time. It was part of the way of thinking for them that a union was the surest safeguard against exploitation.

Thankfully the coal dust made the decision for my uncle before he had to face the dilemma of whether to come out on strike and now all the pits have gone in Nottinghamshire and the slag heap from the pit that you could see from my aunt and uncle’s house is now greened over and part of a new park.

So to rewind, I found Helen Mort’s sequence very moving and also very exciting because it managed to combine real poetry with social commentary without becoming polemic which it can so often do. I wonder whether poetry on the whole has tended to offload strong social commentary onto the singer song writers these days. Poetry in the past has always been at the fore front of political and social commentary and in many other countries throughout the world it still is. If we English (and I am being specific here) write about it we often dress it up in irony or satire , this is a well established tradition, political views should only be inferred from poems. Perhaps poets (and I include myself in this) are a little afraid of appearing a little too self-righteous because poetry is supposed to show not tell, is supposed to somehow remain unsullied by the poets own strongly held views. These views are meant to be inferred by how the poet writes or the subject matter the poet chooses. Palestinian poets, Balkan poets, North Korean poets, all poets who have written poems of direct confrontation that have made them at risk of imprisonment or worse, they have created work of great courage, probing the status quo. Around the world words are important as they carry the weight of certain freedoms.

Here in the UK , well probably in Western societies in the main, we can write whatever we like within the current laws against slander, libel , racism and sexual discrimination and very little happens. Consequences are minimal, even Ezra Pound is still regarded as within the poetry ‘church’ despite his fascism and racism; he even wrote that his imprisonment was conducive to writing, with unwanted visitors kept from his door and a place assigned to him for his writing. The Welsh, Scots and Irish have produced twentieth and twenty-first century poets who were and are formed and informed by their political context, political freedoms are still a burning issue and continue to influence poetry. Sometimes I long for a bit more passion and fire in English poetry at present. Of course I know there are a number of poets who have written poems that contain aspects of real ‘social blood and guts’ without resorting to rant but they seem to be few and far between. Of the ‘bigger’ names’ , Farley, Tony Harrison and Armitage can pull out the political stops in a beautifully crafted way when they put their minds to it. Sometimes I want to feel that a poem is really important to the poet, that it comes from a passionate place, that if they didn’t create the poem they would be eaten up by the need to write it.

The governance of the Poetry Society is still up for debate and an EGM may help or hinder the better running of that society. A lot of poets or those interested in poetry have been tweeting, blogging, Facebooking, emailing, Youtubing and generally addressing the issues from various viewpoints. To take a step back I find it healthy that people want to take their freedoms and their rights seriously, that those currently in power are questioned and held accountable and that people are passionate about how poetry can best be made a thriving part of society . However I doubt whether how anyone votes at the EGM will resonate down through the years as strongly as the outcomes of votes for the Miners Strike in 84. There may be a bit of finger pointing, general bitchiness for a while and some may come out of the whole affair worse or better than they went into it. If the whole edifice comes tumbling down then it will be difficult for a number of people but not for as many as a local factory closing, as has happened near me. Poets will continue to write, some will get published and a few will be read and the best of them may be remembered into the next generation and perhaps beyond. I suppose to misquote Kennedy the question is ‘Don't ask what poetry can do for you but what poetry can do for society’. Writing poems about what really matters most to people in their lives, be that emotionally, socially or politically, may be a small part of that doing.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Caesar's Wife and Elvis Wander Betterton Street.

I have been quiet for a while as things to do and the amount of time available seem to have somehow got out of sync and an hour for Peter has been robbed to pay Paul and the blog got well and truly mugged. So I make up for that now by assuring you dear reader that I may be gone but you have not been forgotten entirely.
Of course the buzz in the poetry world at the moment or in small parts of it at least is about The Poetry Society and what is transpiring there. What is truly transpiring I have no idea, one can simply go on the facts; The Chairman of the board Peter Carpenter has resigned, the president Jo Shapcott has resigned, the Finance Officer Paul Ranford and the Director Judith Palmer have also resigned. No one at the Poetry Society has clearly stated why there has been a spate of resignation leaving it to blogs, Facebook and general gossip to make the rounds all of which contains some clear facts, some innuendo, some considered speculation and some wild allegations. Some has been anonymous; some from those well placed to know what is going on, although those two groups are not mutually exclusive.
Kate Clanchy is organising a petition to call for an EGM to address the concerns Poetry Society Members have and the Society itself has announced a meeting on the 22nd July to address the way forward and future plans for the Society. There is a big Arts Council grant at stake here, although it is doubtful if that will just disappear in a puff of smoke should the furore become even more public and vitriolic. However public funds for poetry have been slashed in other areas, so the Arts Council will want to know that they are not casting their bread upon decidedly choppy if not stormy waters.
I left the Poetry Society last year to join English Pen, which fights for the rights of writers, journalists and poets who are in countries where free speech is a very precious commodity. I would have liked to have remained a member but I couldn’t afford both. However I am a tax payer so as such I do have a stake in how public funds are spent. I would be suspicious of money being poured into any organisation, particularly one that is also a registered Charity where key figures have resigned, there is obvious unrest amongst members and the board is doing a heavy spin on lets look to the future rather than past events. If a public company acted like that I would not be comfortable about my widow’s mite going into their coffers without some public, reasonable debate in which I could hear all sides of the situations and place the flurry of resignations in context.If someone rattled a charity tin in front of me and I knew the charity was experiencing such difficulties then I would think twice before dropping a coin into the box.
It may be that everything comes down to personality clashes, it may come down to a clash of deeply held opposing views about how the Poetry Society should promote poetry, it may be due to genuine misunderstandings, it may be down to some kind of power struggle between various factions. It is probably a mix of all of these yet none of these reasons is beyond debate, especially in a publicly funded charity.
There may well be a clear divide about certain things but the trustees have to be seen to be even-handed and part of the facilitation of a solution rather than the source of the problem. The very name trustee implies a person in which we have full trust.No one will ever agree how £360,000 pounds can best be spent to encourage and support poetry in the UK. However the Arts Council by its actions in supporting The Poetry Society to this financial extent whilst closing the door in the face of other poetry organisations have clearly made a statement about the best use of the public purse. Those negotiations as far as I know have not yet been completed and I will want to know what questions the Arts Council have asked the Poetry Society about their organisation, the management, the board and the cohesive support they have for their current state of being, let alone their future plans. The money is obviously being given on the basis of specific goals they intend to achieve and have put in writing; anything else would be a reckless use of public money. What assurances can the board and the management give to the Arts Council that they are in a position to put in place strategies to achieve those goals with the support of the majority of its members and its current team (two of which, Board Chairman and Director are only temporary placements). They may be very well placed, they may not but they have to be seen to be at least striving to be in that place.
I have been a public activist all my life, I have a stake in society and in any government that seeks to run it. I vote at all levels of government and encourage others to do so. Whether or not I am a member of the Poetry Society is irrelevant, I still have a stake in any organisation or charity which seeks public funding by the democratically elected government. I expect such organisations to be as open and transparent as I would wish my government to be. That is not always possible, the law sometimes is used to protect those who might be harmed by such transparency but there has to be a very good reason why the behaviour and views of people in a publicly funded organisation is not accountable to the public as well as its members and to the trustees. I would hope that reasons for people’s resignation are clearly stated and are open and honest. It may be that their view of a situation is at odds with other views but any organisation should be robust and healthy enough to withstand even the harshest of critics and be able to counter the arguments with measured and clear ripostes Such good reasons for this not happening may well exist, they may not. I cannot believe poetry needs to go down the Murdoch and Gigg’s road of gagging but if it does then it should state clearly why it does and if it does.

There may be an element that believe that today’s news is tomorrows chip-paper and that simply keeping a dignified silence will eventually lead to the situation returning to a relative normal and business as usual status. An EGM or a GM may well not bring forth a solution it may even inflame the situation, if not handled well, but I hope the Arts Council are keeping a close eye on events and attending those meetings because other Arts and Poetry organisations have lost out spectacularly to keep HMS Poetry Society afloat and if the ship is actually holed below the water line and slowly sinking under the weight of either apathy or gainsayers to its current policies and management styles then I for one would withhold any payment until the situation is clearer and as a tax payer I shall be writing to the Chair of the Arts Council to that effect. This may well cause hardship and pain now but other organisations in the Arts have had to face such times and I don’t think The Poetry Society should be immune from the same sort of close scrutiny other organisations have had to bear. Woolly goals such as promoting and supporting poetry and poets can avoid the question of the way something is done. The ethos of clear, decisive and fair management and substantial support from the board and members has to be seen to be in operation. Caesar’s wife has to be above suspicion but has to be seen to be so.The Poetry Society has done some amazingly good things for poetry and poets and I hope it continues to do so in a way that all can support whole heartedly, if not that, then in a way the majority can embrace whole heartedly, that's the way it goes in a democratic society. Poetry will survive come what may, I think it is not a delicate flower , more a spectacular beautiful tenacious weed that can grow out of street pavements and on wastelands but lets not get to a situation when the poetry gets trampled under foot in the wrangling for what is best for it.

And here is a bit of music to end on from the king that might be appropriate

Let’s hope it all doesn’t all end up like this.