The real world still exists! And I’m still absolutely knackered from the giddying heights.
I have a mini-Parnassus of books, pamphlets, magazines, and even computer printed-out poems that were given to me by various poets. I have new Twitter and Facebook friends. I gave my Tuesday night students copies of The Vilnius Review – a present from Donatos Petrossius from Lithuania. The ideas and impressions are percolating through and mixing with the real world now that I’m back in it. More on the real world later perhaps. But first, Parnassus.
English PEN hosted a day of the festival, which included a panel discussion I missed the first half of. I walked in just in time to hear the Edinburgh-based Bulgarian poet Kapka Kassabova utter a brilliant soundbite: ‘I think it’s maybe not too much to say that patriotism can become a form of self-hatred’. (I thought of this yesterday on the fourth of July; the US contingent on my Facebook wall seemed more than usually subdued this year…)
The PEN panel pretty much concluded that one’s cultural identity is about myth and dream and folk influences, not about the nation state. Even Jo Shapcott expressed her discomfort with being defined as ‘English’ – and to me at least (reminded by fellow Londoners of my own un-Englishness every day, despite having spent more than half my life here) she seems rather quintessentially so, in a not-reductive way. It was agreed that local culture, that deep culture, is what people feel more defined by, and also that we are most universal when we are most particular – that art is about finding the essentially human.
Different forms of diversity – the problems women still face all over the world, even women who are writing and publishing, in many other places, and perhaps even here. The diversity of race and colour in an increasingly multi-ethnic society. The need to look outside ourselves. (In a week when the Southbank Centre kindly brought ‘outside ourselves’ to visit!) The fact that only one per cent of the poetry books published in the UK are written by people of colour. (I know: we all have colour. But you know what I mean.)
Spread the Word’s panel discussion on diversity was specifically about racial diversity, and was where that statistic above was announced. It is the conclusion of a report five years in the making, the Free Verse report. (Not to be confused with Charles Boyle’s ‘Free Verse’ small-press poetry fair in London on September 8.) That link is a download, by the way, and the report looks very interesting indeed. I haven’t read it yet.
The panel members all gave presentations, starting with Bernardine Evaristo’s summary of the facts of the report and its genesis, and proceeding through various autobiographical explorations. (I said ‘multi-ethnic’ above: Imtiaz Dharker mentioned how girls in Pakistan are adopting the hijab, thinking it’s about ‘their culture’, when in her mother’s generation they’d have worn a thin veil. We’re all slicing things through in different directions now.)
Nii Parkes talked at length about the effects of a mixed-up culture on one’s writing, via frames of reference and half-digested influences, both linguistic and other: ‘You don’t need to have read it to be influenced by it’. He mentioned eg an in-joke with his brother based on a line from a Bollywood film, where neither of them understood the language. He said: ‘What we don’t remember makes a bigger impact’.
This diaspora-based worldview corresponds to my own life: Welsh minister grandfather, Russian anarchist uncle, Estonian refugee uncle, Puerto Rican babysitter who taught my sister to pluck her eyebrows, being about 11 before I got why my brother didn’t wear a yarmulke, peirogi and Carmen Miranda and corn bread, dreidls and dashikis. (As Henry James said: ‘Try to be someone on whom nothing is lost.’)
Christian Campbell opened by saying, truly, that ‘diversity’ is corporate language – and that ‘poets need to find fresher language’. As poets, we know that finding fresher language means finding a fresh way to think about it. He talked about ‘the plural imperfect S’.
Daljit Nagra’s description of how he came to be published by Faber resonated through years of conversations about women and publishing and the atom-bomb VIDA reports. In a nutshell: he submitted, they rejected with a long reply. He wrote, said his manuscript was very different now from what he had sent them, and asked to resubmit; they said yes.
What struck me forcibly was the confidence and professionalism of this. There are massive issues of confidence at work, clearly, and of course these will disproportionately affect even the confident in an excluded group; but confidence issues and perceptions of exclusion are rife in the poetry world generally. I mean, I never sent a manuscript to Faber. I assumed I wasn’t their thing – in several ways. But in assuming this, I decided for them that I wasn’t their thing, and created no platform at all on which they might expand their thing. In other words, I supported that exclusion from their thing.
The shocking thing about Daljit’s story is simply this: in all its 83 years, Faber has published exactly two poets of colour. One of them has a Nobel prize. The other is Daljit.
Last Thursday – during Parnassus, in fact – I had wound up my Poetry School course on dramatic monologues with a look at poems written in dialect. How does the speaker convey him or herself through dialect, through colloquial speech, through departure from the standard, through realigning the notion of standard? This is critical for character and voice, of course. What does it do to, or in, the reader? How do we frame our identity, and what about register, diction, and the unreliable narrator? I used my own cockney Catullus version, ‘East Ten’, and Daljit’s ‘The Speaking of Bagwinder Singh Bagoo!’.
Well. The discussion that followed was an explosion – a rain of reactions, a rainbow that deepened and spread at the same time – I wished I could just somehow think the waves of it out into the space around the Purcell Room – but these were not the issues under discussion on Sunday, alas. The point was, I think, so get the headline out.
There was, though, a lot of discussion on the panel about taste: the taste of the (white, male) mainstream poetry book publishers; the way we tend to be unaware of our own taste, thinking it’s somehow ‘neutral’ (like the time, around 1973 when everyone was eating soul food, when my mother made the surprise discovery that, as she put it, ‘Scalloped potatoes is ethnic food!’); the need to establish different aesthetics as being, equally, valid and well-earned; taste as a substitute for judgement, and what Christian Campbell called ‘the traffic in stereotypes that certain readers bring to the page’; even ‘a certain kind of editing that is a refusal to read’.
Or it might be just not knowing how.
It strikes me, typing this, that part of the reason I was so happy to teach dramatic monologues was to encourage people to apply their poetry to someone else’s experiences besides their own – to look out, rather than in. We all complain about the anecdotal poem, the dispiritingly ‘me-centric’ poem, the boring sameyness… and indeed, poetry is a very inward-looking art. There is often surprisingly little curiosity, in poems, about other people.
I heard of several people who claimed a lack of interest in Poetry Parnassus because they’re ‘not very interested in poetry in translation’. I can see the point here, because I’m extremely interested in the exact word, the untranslatable language, the embedded meaning, the play. I mean, I can never really read Celan, can I. But the act of translation is interesting for that reason alone, and there are so many other reasons to be interested, to talk to people, to hear their work. You just have to be prepared to take on bigness.
And ‘diversity’ (note to self: find fresher word) is as big – as diverse - as, like, everybody. It’s still tricky in a racially mixed forum to discuss race. It was tricky when I was a white kid in a mixed school, it’s tricky down Mare Street on a Saturday morning, and it’s tricky in the Purcell Room. (I say ‘tricky’; I got beaten up twice at school for being too white, because I used big words: ‘You oppress me with your language’, said the girl after she ripped out half my hair. But that was the second time, and we were a bit older. The first one just said ‘puta Americana’.)
Needless to say, the whole idea of having a panel discussion, for an audience, onstage, in a room named after Henry Purcell, an 18th-century composer, raises questions of elitism, regardless of the subject under discussion. On Tuesday there was indeed a (nother) panel discussion there. That panel was asked by an audience member: ‘So, you’re all sitting up there on this panel, so you are the elite – so what will you as the elite do about elitism?’
The elephant in the room is class – though I’m willing to bet that the number of published working-class poets in the UK is a little more representative. I was hassled at school because of class, though not money-class: knowledge-class. Race isn’t about class, but class is sometimes, though not always, about race. And a working-class poet, once published, may be socially mobile and become middle class – at least to the naked eye – whereas a black poet will always be black.
Anyway, the one per cent figure. I’ve looked it up. It turns out that eight per cent of the UK population is black and minority ethnic – lower than I’d thought, but one per cent is clearly still a ridiculous discrepancy.
Thinking of other forms of diversity, I also just looked up the number of women versus men published by Faber. It was a crude exercise – I trawled through the first 25 pages of its poetry catalogue online, and then gave up – and arrived at a figure of 90 male poets, and 19 female. This would be equivalent to, say, one and a half per cent of all UK poetry being written by black poets.
I think again of the conclusion of the PEN panel (chaired by Andrew Motion) that we must find in our particularities the essentially, the universally, human. Parnassus, with its juxtapositions and surprises and poets of all colours and shapes and classes, and its Tower of Babel Karaoke, was brilliant for that.
Or rather – as the also-diasporic George Szirtes has joined Christian Campbell in asking us to expand our vocabulary – it was really ‘amphibian’.
Auden wrote: ‘We must love one another or die’. And then wrote: ‘We must love one another and die’. And then suppressed the poem with its difficult and unscanscionable ambiguity. It’s not what you are, it’s what you do. The way to become something is to act like it. We all have to work together – less melting pot than melting poet… If a bunch of poets can’t publish poems, who can?
As Shailja Patel (representing Kenya) said in the elitism panel, it’s important always to be thinking: ‘Who is not in this room? Why are they not?’ And as we saw last week, the room of poetry is absolutely huge.