ForwardThere’s something going on, and it’s changing the culture of UK poetry. Okay, it’s changing the prize culture of UK poetry, but that really does have an impact on who reads what. In the three years (this year), since its new Director Susannah Herbert took over, the Forward Prize has quietly achieved a bit of a revolution in its approach to poetry – and audiences.

Susannah came from a background in arts journalism, not poetry. She came from a background at the Telegraph, which is not exactly the paper most poets prefer to read (and one about which some might entertain some fixed ideas; but it has excellent arts coverage) – and she came determined to do things in a new way, whatever that way turned out to be. Her brief was to put poetry in the general culture and get it into the hands of people who wouldn’t normally think of it. It’s been a little controversial at times, some poets’ toes got stepped on  – especially in the first year, with the famous ‘Actorgate’ episode which left so many bruises – but she is bouncier than that, and not afraid to try again, fail again, fail better – with the result that the Forward is absolutely doing what it set out to do. With the energy of ten, she will always try an new and different ways to engage with both poets and readers, wherever they are. The Forward Prize, without always getting it exactly right (because success comes from trying more things) is working from inside what poetry is for, and I find that deeply exciting. Three years in, it appears to be actually driving positive change in UK poetry culture.

And it’s doing it with less-commercial shortlists!

Their shortlists the last few years have definitely felt different. Fresh. They have made unprecedented space for poets of colour: there was real jubilation the year Kei Miller won, and last year when Claudia Rankine’s Citizen was declared the winner, the place went wild – people were standing, cheering, almost weeping. The atmosphere was amazing – and it didn’t feel much like a poetry reading.

This year, the shortlist continues to do its magic. Four out of the five titles on the shortlist for Best Collection are by women. (And the other one is by Ian Duhig, who has five sisters, so he’s cool with this.) One of them is by Vahni Capildeo, an uncompromising work on the nature and forms of expatriation, in a variety of genres including rather dry prose poems. It’s a stupendous work and has very widespread support to win – and the shortlisting will definitely get it out to people who might otherwise have thought it looked ‘too hard’.

The list for Best First Collection is a multicultural list of small and indie press publications, displaying real verbal virtuosity, and even surprise.

Now, the main prize  this country for a long time was the TS Eliot Prize, and they have done amazing work. There have been wonderful books on their shortlists; four a year of the ten have been the seasonal ‘Choice’ books, meaning the judges only chose six. This either waters down the list or gives it built-in diversity, depending how you look at it. It’s resulted in books being shortlisted which were just not up to it, but it’s also put an element of openness and surprise into a prize that was just not usually very surprising. The grumbles have grown year on year over the past decade, the ‘same old’ poets being shortlisted with every book, small presses finding it too hard to compete, the poetics very narrow…

Well, the Forward is catching up – it’s allowing a much broader range of poets a place at the table, and it’s thrilling. I mean, it’s thrilling. It reminds me of the year when Jen Hadfield won the Eliots, and everyone went mad with joy. Look at this list of previous winners and you can see clearly the moment when the box started getting shaken up and thought outside.

So, there’s a workshop coming up 

Basically, this is an amazing opportunity to sit and read poems and talk about each of the shortlisted books.

This year, on Saturday 10 September – the week before the prizes are announced – I’m going to run a one-day workshop, the same as I’ve been doing with the TS Eliot shortlist in recent years. It’s just an exciting moment. This is a unique chance to engage with the change as it happens: the shortlists, the books that make them, and the poems in the books. Stretch your awareness of who’s really writing what, and have a look at tons of great new stuff. (Also, time is tight, but I will have printed copies of the shortlisted ‘Best Poems’, so even if we don’t have tie to read them you can take them with you.)

These shortlist-workshop days are always really fun and exciting; we get through an enormous amount, somehow, and there’s a brilliant cafe nearby for lunch (or you can bring your own). And there’s always a chance for a drink afterwards to unwind.

Here are the details:

When: Sat 10th September, 11am-4.30pm
Where: Poetry School, Lambeth Walk, London (near Lambeth North tube)
How much: £50 /£40 concs on a first-come basis

You don’t need to have read any of the books. Sign up now to make sure of getting a place.

* And never fear, there are still a few weeks of ‘summer’ left – I for one am holding out some hope of getting ‘forward into the beach’ before this workshop…

13612294_10154454044200337_5186216429025899667_nOkay, it has now been over a month since the EU referendum and its famous result. A week or two afterwards I did write a whole blog post about it – about that first morning when we heard the news – but just as I got to the end, WordPress ate it, and I had used up all my energy. And that is pretty much the story of the ensuing month-&-a-bit.

In short, I’ve been relatively unable to write much except for Facebook arguments, which are more like opening a tap to let out the rust and other contaminants. I’ve been, as the saying goes, in a bit of a misty dream, wafting through the world in an almost incorporeal way, in a state of shock.

But it’s time to move on, and what better occasion than the birthday of Ernest Dowson, late poet of this city, a sad and compelling figure who drank himself to death (though the TB didn’t help) at only 32 in February 1900. I do feel strongly that Ernest – if he had thought about it, which he might not have as he was obsessed with both poetry and his doomed love, and also off his face on absinthe – would have been a firm Remainer. There are several reasons for this:

  1. He had an active interest in international trade. His family owned a dockyard (albeit a pretty down at heel one) in Limehouse. After the tragic deaths of his parents (both of TB, complicated – as it were – by suicide) he was left on his own, literally waiting for his ship to come in.
  2. He made no shakes about nationality or economic migration. His great unrequited love was for a (very – she was 12) young Polish girl called Adelaide Foltinowicz (‘Missie’ for short), whose parents ran a cafe, I think somewhere off the Strand. She was oblivious to his adoration (and indeed his proposal), and at 17 she married a tailor.
  3. He appreciated the benefits of travel, nipping over to Paris sometimes to visit his old pal, Oscar. In fact, Dowson and Aubrey Beardsley were the two of Wilde’s friends who attended the Paris premiere of Wilde’s play Salomé, which was banned in the UK for being too racy. (I’ve seen it. It’s not all that racy now, but it is stuffed chockfull of 1890s moon imagery.)
  4. He was a paid-up member of the metropolitan elite: he studied at Oxford, and was a poet, novelist, critic (in the magazine, The Critic), and prolific literary translator from the French. He knew absolutely everyone, contributed to decadent magazines like The Yellow Book, and is said to have been an influence on Yeats’ style. He used to go to the Café Royal.

800px-Ernest_DowsonLike so many of us paid-up members of the metropolitan elite, he had not a bean of his own. He was the one who coined the sentence, ‘absinthe makes the tart grow fonder’; he loved the prostitutes, sometimes staying the night with one of them as he had worked out that it was cheaper than getting a room. He also used to hang out in the cabmens’ shelters in the wee hours, during his long walks through London. In the end he became homeless, and was luckily taken in by his publisher, Robert Sherard. He died in an upstairs room in Sherard’s house in Catford, still convinced that he would be able to repay him as soon as his ship arrived.

Oscar Wilde wrote of Dowson: ‘Poor wounded wonderful fellow that he was, a tragic reproduction of all tragic poetry, like a symbol, or a scene. I hope bay leaves will be laid on his tomb and rue and myrtle too, for he knew what love was’. Wilde himself would be dead nine months later.

There’s more about Dowson. His poetry is out of favour now, but he contributed several phrases to the English language. He was the one who wrote ‘They are not long, the days of wine and roses’. He also wrote, ‘I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,/ Flung roses…’ And he was the first documented person to use the term ‘soccer’.

Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam*

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses,
Out of a misty dream;
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Happy birthday, Ernest.

* Or, ‘The short sum of life prevents long hopes’

(N.b.’ the painting at the top is a Czech painting called ‘The Absinthe Drinker’, by Viktor Oliva – painted in 1901, a year Dowson never saw…)

My Top 10 Reasons for Staying in the EU

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Hi guys. Sorry to do this to you. I know everyone is sick to death of this debate, but I set myself a challenge to outline my reasons for Remaining without resorting to quips about Boris, etc. Especially since I just met his dad, Stanley, at a book launch the other week. Let’s keep the […]

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Free your verse with the Free Verse Poetry Competition

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Sorry – it’s not free to enter. That would be just too perfect. But it IS in a good cause, if you support the indie book fair that once a year presents thousands of small-press poetry books together under one roof, gives workshops and readings, and basically is the living spirit of poetry in action. The fair will […]

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A few lines on Elizabeth Jane Howard

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I am currently reading the novels of Elizabeth Jane Howard, one after another, on the advice of Hilary Mantel in the Guardian. (Above, a different piece from the Guardian, with Howard at 90: ‘Writing is what gets me up in the morning’.) Mantel has written the introduction to a new edition of The Long View, but the article […]

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The typewriter revolutionary & National Poetry Month

April 8, 2016

It can’t have escaped your notice that it’s April. The cruellest month. The month with shoures soote. The one that come she will. (And also my birth month – it’s my birthday on Monday, and I’m just recovering from my weeks-long virus enough to begin to think about that gruesome fact.) The other thing it is, of course, is […]

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