The Forward Prize, the Oscars, and fairy dust

Stars and Pixie1 copy

Fairy dust: the header for my old copywriting blog, drawn by Kate Manson.

I think there’s still a lot of unpicking that has to be done around this issue. Everyone on my Facebook and indeed at the myriad events I was at this week, is just saying the same things over and over. The poets say, but we are great readers of our work and anyway an actor once read my poem and got it all wrong. Susannah Herbert, the Forward’s Director, says this is the first time in x years that the Forward Prize ‘flung open its doors to the public’ and they came in droves, apparently queueing for return tickets, for the star-studded awards night, and it’s just a few insiders who are complaining.

The Baroque view, which is actually far more ‘your old grandma’ than in any way actually Baroque, is that at an awards ceremony most people might probably expect to hear a little more from the award-winners themselves. After all. At the Oscars, they don’t show a clip of someone else starring in Gwynnie’s film, do they. They don’t have a poet reading out the Best Screenplay. But more on that presently.

Poets have been told for years and years that the only way we can hope to achieve anything – even a single book sale – is to get out there and do readings, which – yes – takes a lot of people outside their comfort zone. But, you know, people gamely do the thing. Work hard at it. Travel all over the country and read for free, sleeping on people’s couches, lugging heavy bags of books and then selling ONE, or none. Some of us work very hard indeed, training, and developing a performance style and even developing our work as one-man shows which we tour round in the hope of breaking even. Some, like Jaybird Productions, mount rehearsed staged shows involving the poets themselves in ensemble. But generally, we get few chances to shine. We read to under 100, and usually fewer than 50, or 30, people. Our books barely get reviewed. Our publishers shake their heads sadly and then maybe even give up publishing poetry altogether. Poetry, in the real world, just isn’t sexy, it isn’t populist, it doesn’t sell, nobody really wants it (except the people who do), we are misunderstood, we’re not glamorous and we have bad mannerisms, etc etc etc. But on we work, as Edwin Arlington Robinson wrote, and wait for the light…

But despite the drudgery of our daily lives and the general lack of approbation or acclaim, it turns out some other people do think poems are The Stuff. The actors, for example. They don’t make words but they deal in words and words are what we poets do best. The actors were all so keen to read the poems on Tuesday night that they did it for (‘virtually’) nothing. (You have to wonder if it’s the same virtually nothing we do it for, but it is lovely of them.) The actors feel a sprinkle of fairy dust on them when they read poems, and darlings, we are the fairies. So surely that is a nice thing. The fact that we’re grim-faced, snarling fairies in hairy jumpers and old shoes makes no difference to that.

And the punters loved Tuesday night’s ceremony. They too felt the fairy dust, even though the feral sprites saw overacting and line-fluffing, words mis-stressed, key symbols ignored, and other signs of shallowness among the readers. But generally, this can only be a good thing for poetry, as it’s almost certain that some of those punters will have Bought a Book.

I hope some of them buy Steve Ely’s Oswald’s Book of Hours, as well as Emily Berry’s book, or Dan O’Brien’s War Reporter or Adam White’s Accurate Measurements, or Marianne Burton’s She Inserts the Key, or Hannah Lowe’s Chick.  I hope they realise that, as with romance novels or humour anthologies, there’s no ‘best’. Once you make the shortlist you might have won.

But regardless. Buying and reading a book by a living poet is the thing, and they’ve now done it.

And that is what this was about, I think – not whether or not poets are good at reading their work. Many poets are weighing in saying, I saw an actor read my work and they got it all wrong. Kids, once you’ve published it, people can get it as wrong as they like. You had the baby, you raised it, and it went out into the world, where things just are what they are. So that’s not a valid complaint. (Though actors over-egging and stressing silly words is an issue, that’s not about the poem, it’s about them, and their industry.) No, the idea was, I’m sure, to raise profile and sell books and get mainstream attention.

After all the years, after the almost weekly hand-wringing articles about Why Poetry Doesn’t Matter, the poetry therapy sessions in which people complain that their first exposure to poems was at school and it was ruined for them, I guess it’s hard to imagine that there’s a style in which poetry can be palatable to the general public – and it’s not about us, in our hairy jumpers, with our bad teeth, garret squint, and permanent keyboard hunch.

Actually, most of us aren’t as bad as all that. We’re presentable. We have nice clothes, too, though maybe less expensive teeth and hair. Even without the studied glamour of actors, some of us have a magnetic presence and are wonderful-looking. And some are trained speakers, some view their poetry as an oral form. Some are performance, or spoken word, poets. It would feel outrageous if Alice Oswald, for instance, were to be supplanted at a reading by an actor. Or Tim Wells. Or Martin Figura. Or Ross Sutherland.

But the thing is. We’re not famous. We’re just not famous. We’re not in ‘EastEnders’, we’ve never been in a Harry Potter movie, we’ve never even been in ‘Doctors’. The way everything works is, famous people front it up. Jenny Smith and the other technicians who undoubtedly did most of the work didn’t design a guest line for Top Shop: Kate Moss did. (I know, at least they got properly paid.)

Lots of people loved Fiona Shaw’s stage version of ‘The Waste Land’. I believe the Southbank’s actor-led reading of Plath’s Ariel was a sell-out last summer. Fine, let them do this. It’s no skin off anybody’s nose. Actors are dying to, and the public likes them already, and after all Shakespeare is as much theirs as ours.

Most of us, including the actors, have heard recordings of the 20th century greats reading their work. The Baroque Mother played yours truly an LP of Dylan Thomas when we were little, and I remember as a teenager hunching over a recording of TS Eliot intoning (or, as we thought, droning as if half-dead) ‘The Waste Land’. This is the magical connection, because poetry is music, and it’s the music of the poet’s particular voice. It is genuinely thrilling, and we forgive a lot because it is real. Why else do we write articles and essays speculating about Keats’ accent, and wonder about historical pronunciations? We want to feel the breath of the creator on our neck. The actors know this – it’s the fairy dust. But even if they speak the poems, they won’t have it, because they’re not the fairies. That’s their tragedy. And Sylvia Plath and TS Eliot aren’t alive to be consulted with or not.

But back in the real world. It’s different because they at least get paid, but novelists whose books are made into movies are not always consulted, or even remotely happy with what gets done to them. Even scriptwriters on telly find their work horribly mangled. I know we’re fairies, however feral, and we expect fairy dust to get special treatment, but maybe that’s just part of being in the fairy ghetto. Maybe we don’t really want our work to be subjected to the rough-&-tumble of the philistine quotidian. (And then, at least all those other people got paid. That’s the bottom line. Maybe if there’s no money we at least want the fairy dust.

Ultimately, I personally think the issue is less about the actors, and whether the poets know how to read their work, than about this other agenda. We all know the answer is that some can read well, can speak compellingly to an audience of people and make each one feel they are being somehow personally addressed, and some can’t. We all know how painful poetry readings can be. The endless intros, the mumbling, the looking down, the poetry voice, the solipsism, the gabbling, the visible nervousness. But this isn’t really a poetry reading, and THAT is the difference. It’s an award ceremony. It’s an event honouring these people (who routinely, habitually, and with virtually no thanks read their own work in public, however well or badly, as a necessary condition of their servitude) for having written this work. For being, in effect, who they are, to have made this thing.

This, above all, is the poets’ chance to shine – maybe their only chance. They may never be shortlisted or have such a big audience again. This is the moment they are being honoured. Gwynnie and Kate don’t send someone else up to the podium to clutch their Oscar and dab at their mascara, do they.

It was Tim Wells who mentioned the efficacy – for both parties – of poets and actors working together towards a reading of the poem in question. This is the sort of practical, win-win idea that would help the poets (whose night it after all is), and even maybe help to spread the fairy stuff about a bit. It would help to restore the balance within the terms of poetry world, which after all is where the award is. Of course it would involve blocking out some time to do it… I’ve heard differing accounts of the night. Some say it was fine, great, lovely, and some of the poets loved hearing their work read out by others. Others say it was a train wreck, the actors gabbled and emoted and fluffed their lines, and the poets were invisible and the winners never even had a chance to thank anyone. I think the Forward line is that it would have been lovely if the winners had said their bit, and regret that they didn’t. Granny Baroque wonders if they were feeling a little bit invisible and maybe needed to be explicitly told it was okay, or even invited…

And here’s my final thought on the subject. The Forward Prize doesn’t operate from within the poetry world, as the Eliot does. It isn’t owned, administered, or judged primarily by poets. So to that extent it’s nothing like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (even though the Academy routinely gives the awards to the blockbusters, so it’s also a sort of award for being popular). The Forward is a sort of industry accolade, and certainly honours the same kind of books (even the same books) as the TS Eliot Prize, but it’s also necessarily – because of the make-up of its judging panels – about how educated, sympathetic non-poets read poetry.

In contrast to this, the Eliot was founded by Mr Eliot, it’s given by his estate (previously his widow), and it’s judged by poets. It has its problems – narrowness of scope, a tendency to go to the same people – but by George doesn’t it give all its shortlistees a chance to do their very best reading to an audience of 2,000 people! It’s working within poetry culture. You can change a culture, but not from outside it. The Oscars didn’t get where they are today by not working within the movie industry.

(N.b., I’ve heard some things about various short story awards getting actors in to read the winning stories. I know less about this, but will point out that – although this is changing – I don’t think short story writers are put quite as much to work reading for their supper a poets are. I don;t think it’s quite as much embedded in their culture as it is in poets’. Witness the fact that we have recordings of Yeats, Browning and even Tennyson, but not of Mark Twain or Katherine Mansfield. It’s a different thing. Whether we want it to become more the same thing is a different question.)

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