Saturday, 28 April 2012

Moving Backwards into the Future

George Ttoouli desurrects a few gripes about Poetry Prizes ...

The Elitism Mechanism

[To begin with, back story. Those of you overly familiar with the phrase 'Backward Prize(s)' please skip down to 'The Allen Carr Poetry Method'.]

The Editors have long been aware of mutterings across the blogosphere about the closed circle of prize-givings and self-congratulatoriness that takes place every so often around a number of institutions, including the Forward Prize, the TS Eliot Prize and various connected institutions. Equally, the Editors have mostly considered this discontent an unwelcome distraction from the real business of what exciting poetry is truly up to.

However, three particular articles, one by Ken Edwards and another by Rob MacKenzie, caught our eye in recent times, insufficiently to warrant an outburst, but another, the ink still steaming in the late April sun, by the eminent Peter Riley, has raised our level of irk sufficiently to trigger some public thoughts. (Well, for me at least, if not for Simon. Simon gets bothered by things like finding a fork mixed in with the knives in the cutlery drawer, or yellow JCBs parked too near to the kerb, or any number of disorderly arrangements of furniture.)

MacKenzie's post is a fairly innocent shortlist promoter, the kind which the Forward Prizes' promotional company no doubt list up in their annual reports. These kinds of posts are reaching for some kind of claim to zeitgeist, perhaps, wanting to appear to have their fingers on the poetry pulse, so strike me as somewhat self-serving in an unhelpful direction, but RM does at least point to the idea of the Backward Prize(s) as being a popular nickname, which is arguably a nice way of presenting a gripe.

This 'Backwardsness' is, I think, based on a reference to looking backward in an Aura Ding article about the lack of women on the shortlist, specifically for the Best Collection. The article's criticism comes from somewhere I consider within the Prize's clique (consider the authors of the Poems of the Week, the gender balance there, etc.), and its focus on gender issues strikes me as a guarded approach which aims to avoid commenting on the quality of the poetry, the familiarity of the names, or their recurrence on award lists, sidestepping instead into gender statistics. So the approach is static, a superficial skim off the top of the structures that allow for these kinds of hierarchies, although the historical analysis, while slight, supports the accusation of sexism. It's a start, but the obvious response is: What exactly does a balanced list of six poets look like? How would poets on a shortlist feel if they knew they'd only been picked because they were ethnically in a minority, or a woman, or otherwise? While the issue of gender imbalance is a serious one, given its recurrence over 20 years, it doesn't get to the root of the problem, the mechanisms behind the prizes, the publishers who feature regularly and the fact that sexism is one of a series of problems thrown up by the mechanisms. Motion's astute rebuttal, that the other categories are more balanced, offers a palliative towards thinking that the 'best' poets are merely coincidentally male, which turns the article into a form of apology for the shortlist's shortcomings.

If not the Danigaru article, RM may have referenced Ken Edwards' post, which more solidly critiques the problem of prize cabals from a personal / small publisher's perspective. The premise in Ken's response to the backwardsness is a fairly common complaint: a general elitism in eligibility, exclusion of small presses or new poets, or poets not already familiar to the public eye. The inclusion of D Nurkse and G Hill problematises a generalised criticism of the poetics, so KE points towards the type of publishers and repeat appearances of poets on the lists. He leaves out the London-centric nature of the publishers listed, which includes CB Editions and Enitharmon, but both of these presses are small and alternative in their respective ways, so a discussion of a homogenised poetics is difficult. Serial-winners becomes the main argument for KE, an uncontestable criticism of these prizes, that they often endorse the already endorsed.

When poets complain, I can just about hear the bitter taint in their tone, that they're not part of the cool club themselves. When publishers complain, it's a little more serious - they're not asking to be part of an elite, they're asking for the removal of elites; the chance to punch with equal weight in prizes, and also in the limited marketing channels, distribution channels, retail shelves and so on. A fair and free market means a fair and free market. Complaints about cliquery and mutual backslapping is one thing; complaints about a stitched up market is another: livelihood, competition, is regulated from the top, from those already 'up'. Of course, some publishers have no more aspiration than to launch themselves into that closed circle, while some poets would happily cover the ivory tower in petrol and strike a non-safety match off their own stubble (or boots, or a wall - notice the gender balance here) to burn it down. Generalisation is unhelpful, as it too easily points towards a self-serving attitude by those who speak up.

But someone must speak up if the system is to be reformed. KE's appraisal is a reasonable, grumbling beginning. There's a helpful explanation of his decisions about cost- and time-saving as a limited-budget publisher, and acknowledgment of opening himself up to accusations of self-marginalisation by not participating, which I find interesting. By not submitting at all to these kinds of things, he will never give himself the chance to move up in the world - at least according to the mechanism's criteria of quality. But if the mechanisms automatically discount his poetry list, why should he endorse it by participating?

Peter Riley's piece is of a different category. He takes up the issue of poetics squarely and firmly, and entertainingly, without committing to a particular stance. The ending is decidedly devious, leaving the lingering sense of having witnessed John Burnside compared to a slab of prize beef, alongside a serious call for transparency in prize-judging processes. The cattlemarket comparison is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, a left-socialist satirisation of how bad things actually are already, at that end of the market, for people who believe in culture and poetry as an essential component of society.

PR's call for transparency is of course an impossibility, open to all the rule-bending silliness of New Labour's accountability strategy. The impact of targets on schools and hospitals translates, in practice, to a string of stories about 'reactive subversion', a range of methods for 'hitting the target and missing the point'. My own experience of this, from academia, is in how creative writing departtments produce a range of 'marking criteria' for the grading of poetry, which amounts to a lot of intelligently phrased nonsense. The point of the criteria is to satisfy some kind of false notion of measuring the unmeasurable, justifying a growing commercial edifice in bureaucratic terms, pandered to by well-meaning staff so as to preserve the positive outcomes of creative writing in institutions. Nothing actually changes in practice, nothing becomes more transparent, but the motions are gone through because of an ideological belief in the subject's value.

A public outcry of the type PR calls for might well lead to a document purporting transparency in the judging of poetry prizes, but ultimately will be a redundant statement, as PR knows. Of all the things wrong with backwards prizes, the self-fulfilling quality mechanism employed by prize managers, with their narrow sense of contemporary poetry ("oh, he's won/been shortlisted for the prize before, so he must be good enough to be on it again", etc.), will still reign supreme, but in a less contestable fashion. Yes, the institution is flawed, and yes, PR's attack on the unequal distribution of wealth that emerges from the mechanism, is a valid standpoint - but only if you accept that the mechanism is a valid one for the rest of the poetry world.

If you accept PR's suggestion that only a dozen poets sustain themselves off the mechanism, then you can also accept that there are literally thousands of poets 'grubbing by', or taking up institutional posts, relying on other subsidiary income streams, yet still making their art. And this is since time immemorial, right? Patronage of a different kind, an older kind, has always supported an elect over the masses.

'The Allen Carr Poetry Method'

The thing I find most frustrating in all this complaining about prizes is the lack of substitution. The important part in having something denied is not to think obsessively about that thing being held out of reach, but where to spend the energy you're wasting on wanting that thing that isn't in your power to reach. The thousands of poets excluded from the elite mechanism of the largest poetry prizes in the country need to focus on firming up their presence in the public mind.

What I mean is: forget the prizes. Leave the self-congratulators, the poetry-bankers' internal circling of bonuses, to the mainstream - by which I mean a longstanding tradition that has ridden out the elimination of competition to climb to the top of a pile, rather than any kind of false accusation of homogenised poetics - let it get on with itself. Posterity will sort out the wheat and chaff however it likes. Sustainability and education are the main problems facing marginalised poets these days.

It's the difference between quitting smoking and taking up something better than smoking with the time freed up by not smoking and it's easier to get by with a bit of help from your friends. What I'm thinking is, instead of mourning one's chances of jumping on and off the bandwagon of capitalist meritocracy manifesting in the shape of the poetry competition, we should completely turn our backs on it. Collectively, give it no attention. The whole idea of prize-giving, as someone once said to me, is anathema to the idea of a gift-driven community, to the spirit that underpins and sustains the majority of poetry and poets. Yes, it's getting a bit ideological now, but bear with me.

If, hypothetically, a group of poets decided to set up a series of prizes only for poetry and poets who hadn't won, or been shortlisted, for any backwards prizes, once the bickering over eligibility was out of the way, all you'd have would be another chimera. By mimicking the structures of the existing mechanism, you position yourself in competition with it. Comparison would be the result: not only in terms of alternatives, but also in terms of equivalence in the new clique created.

The principle of poetry as gift, running counter to the idea of poetry as commodity (to paraphrase Michael Schmidt, "Do not speak of poetry's market; by all means speak of its audience"), points towards the damage caused by competition within this framework. Should one of your number actually break through, into the elite mechanisms, they damage the community they leave behind, even without holding that intention in mind. At the risk of sounding like a Robert Tressell narrator, I'd suggest elite mechanisms seek to destroy those smaller communities which threaten them most, even as they bolster and reinforce their boundary walls.

What we need is a substitute, or substitutes - wholehearted activity to help convey the gifts of the more wonderful poets than those listed by the elite mechanism. "What ideas have you got, George?!" I hear you cry. Many already exist:

4. Ubuweb

NB. The latter is subscription only, but that is just one of the essential models we need to promote and make acceptable as a response to the mechanism. The subscription model is insufficient on its own for most magazines and small presses in the UK right now, despite being an essential methodology for poetry's survival. Like all renewable energy strategies, a range of options must be deployed. New patronage models are needed, something akin to Kickstarter, or whatever else, where the Arts Council and philanthropy are failing to support culture sufficiently.

Alongside these eclectic sources, a range of educational and other databases exist, from Creative Writing institutions, poets working in schools, to Silliman's blog and any number of internet-based magazines, blogs and similar experiments. You know more than me, probably. There are literally thousands of micro-projects beyond these, like G & P, which are disparate, disconnected, plural, sure, but fragmentary. Also, there are already several organising nexuses, hubs, but they are blindsided from greater visibility in areas that count.

So a few things, are missing, things which the mainstream (as defined above) relies upon. This is by no means comprehensive - in fact, it's supposed to be provocative:

1. The Archive of the Now needs a database of educational materials targeting key stages representing a broad range of contemporary poetry, in the spirit of what the Poetry Archive already has to reach out to younger/newer readers. (Greater communication between those databases ought to be a given.)

2. Key texts opening up reading approaches without being top-down or antiquarian about its canonist selectivity (an anti-52 Ways of Looking at a Poem, anyone?)

3. A thorough linking/portalling of articles and materials through dedicated websites to open up access to the more experimental end of the poetics spectrum. Greater critical crossover is needed to convey analysis of 'difficult' art and techniques to wider audiences.

4. Digitisation of back catalogues of important resources and journals, open public access - from the English Intelligencer, to Blast, to any number of small press publications (something like this exists, I found a link, possibly through Openned, to an amazing site which was scanning anything they could get their hands on. Anyone remember what I'm talking about? I've lost track of it since a computer upgrade.)

5. An agency, similar to the PBS, to provide solid portalling and circulation to remind people what's out there, but with a broader remit. If you haven't encountered Modern Poetry, go and encounter it. It needs greater visibility, so needs consistent linking and bridging into wider territorities. It could do with a little more design and functionality, perhaps, but the low-budget necessity of individuals like Peter Philpott, or Ken Edwards or any number of other active poetry producers and promoters, still produces brilliance on levels beyond monkeyshining.

Above all, I feel there's a breach between the backwards prizes' reach and the distance covered by the rest of the poetry world, which needs bridging by some kind of agency. Behind the scenes of the mechanism lie lobbying groups who talk to curriculum setters, to government educational arms, to a whole range of powerful controllers of what can and can't be read in certain contexts.

The aim should not be to provide access to the mechanisms that endorse the elite, but to reach the audiences, especially new audiences, that might enjoy the wider richness. This sounds a bit like the Poetry Society, which used to have a more diverse output some decades back, and though the mission statement still stands, actions speak louder right now. More importantly, the state dependence of these kinds of institutions means an increasing PFI pressure, reduction in subsidy. I don't have all the answers, I don't pretend to, but the one assertion I feel should stand is this:

a successful substitution should not make use of the existing systems used by elite mechanisms; to be at its most successful, it needs to operate for readers, audiences, not money.

And finally, if any of this article sounds a tad too paranoid at times, pointing to a psychotic elite android mechanism intent on taking over the state, well, that's just part of my marketing pitch for when G&P launches its own Poetry Awards. But more seriously, I'm open to hearing alternatives, new or better ideas about what needs to be circulated more, or needs to be put in place.



ajbailey said...

Hi George - have you seen the conversation developing over at British Irish Poets? for that. I like the discussion over who's hiding a stronger dislike of Burnside, because of course they're all misrepresenting for [insert reason here]; I read Riley's outline as honest, but then I'm quite a gullible reader sometimes. I did wonder about the comparison to beef shows, partly on the teaching-to-the-test thing you mention, but there's the thing about whether poet(ry) correlates to Cow or to Animal - that list's a bit rubbish for evaluating iguanas.

That said, we have a couple of competitions for 'poems celebrating the human spirit' etc, and I think I've seen them in the past for, you know, 'best villanelle' (imagine what reading that pile would have been like), so that happens. Perhaps one way out of this is to have retrospective criteria, a demand for judges to write something more incisive than 'we all knew in a mystical way as this one rose through the shortlist'. Even that's no help for the next year when it's different judges, though. Maybe BBC4 can cover a judging process one year, that might be interesting.

The Editors said...

Cheers for the link, I hadn't seen that. Some of the comments remind me why I lost track of places like that.

The criteria stuff, the argument for an 'experimental prize' or otherwise, is essentially fruitless debate, too inside the mechanisms of prizes and therefore merely reformist. If you abstract enough you reach back to a state where prizes boil down to 'someone with more money than sense' inventing a way of giving money to someone who has produced work they have an irrational interest in (either a particular individual who produces poetry, or one person out of the many who produces poetry).

The argument that a poetry prize can be justified rationally has to work with the fact that the prize must be awarded irrationally - through group/state mechanisms, cliquery, whim, irrespective of whether these processes are opaque/transparent.

That word 'best' again (villanelle) - which Riley questioned - instead of 'judges' preferred...'. That and what you say about judge's [mysterious evocation of decision processes] makes me think the rhetoric around prizes attempts to vinegar-bottle archaic beliefs in monovalent understanding of art's 'purpose' or 'value'.

Prizes just aren't relevant to a fair and decent society; they're inherently unfair, hierarchising. A goldfinch singing on a wire should be judged on X-fucktor alongside the Leona whatever-they're-calleds in a fair and decent society.

Oh jesus, my knees jerked so hard I spilt coffee on the desk...