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A short history of Baroque in Hackney

On 1 June, 2006, my friend Jane said, ‘Do you seriously mean you want to be published as a poet, and you don’t have a blog?’ I dutifully took my laptop down to my Turkish café of choice, opened it, started a Blogspot account, thought of a title, and then confronted the fact that I had essentially acquired a blank notebook. Which I would be filling in public.

The title was a joke, based on the American pronunciation of ‘Baroque’: I’d just been made (for just the first time, as it happened) redundant. It was a jokey sadness of having no money and being in Hackney and loving nice things. And in truth, I probably meant something more like Rococo, but that’s a different joke. Hackney itself is a nice thing, of course – a lovely and wonderful place with a deep rich history.  It was a bit nicer and more unspoilt then.

The blog, I hope, reflects its cosmopolitan heritage.

I spent a year or so learning how to do it – how to balance the posts, how to avoid libel, how to tell a story, how to keep a voice going, how to create a persona enough like me to stick, but enough not so that I didn’t feel completely exposed… This was before Facebook, remember.

It was the days of checking your stats, checking IP numbers. Back then we thought we were invisible. It turns out there’s nothing like a reader accessing the page from the IP number of Publisher or University X, via a google search on a poet who just happens to work for X, to teach you the fine art of writing about other people. It’s a legal responsibility, but also, as a critic, it’s an aesthetic if not even a social one. Easy to snark, even about work you quite like.

I only got threatened once. It was by someone I knew, a flâneur of the shady side of the street, a guy with a big reputation. I say once. There were two or three emails. I reflected for a day or two on how the flat of the enemy of this guy got firebombed, and thought about my three kids, and took the post down. He was later involved in an East End scandal and banned from ever holding public office again.

I spent about a year raking over the internet, trying to find another one like mine, a poetry blog with wider cultural interests and a sense of humour. At that stage there weren’t very many poetry blogs, at last not in the UK – and those were mainly ‘how I revise my poems’, or ‘here is my latest offering’. Gradually, very slowly, I realised that the world is a small place, and that essentially, Baroque in Hackney was it. I’d found my niche without even knowing it was one. I found the good poetry blogs, and many great, more general book blogs, and many others that were just intensely amusing. It was like the golden age of blogs, and it was fun. Even the politics back then came laced with jazz and literature. (Yes, I’m talking about Norman Geras. In 2015 I put a gratuitous thank you to Norm, for whom I once wrote a short piece on a poem by James Merrill, in the acknowledgements of my book of essays, Forgive the Language. I don’t think that piece is in the book. During the Q&As at the launch, a hand went up in the audience: ‘Norm, you’ve thanked Norm in the acknowledgements… well, I don’t really have a question actually. I just wanted to talk about Norm…’)

The blog reached a wider audience in 2011, by accident, because of some things going on at the Poetry Society. I happened to know what was going on, so I used all my acquired skills of writing about others and wrote a series of blog posts explaining the issues for the wider poetry world, especially their members. That turned out to be quite important. And the Poetry Society was saved.

In 2012 I put together a series of political posts from 2011 – about the riots, & protests, the cuts in which I’d lost my job, Ai Weiwei’s arrest, the death of Vaclav Havel, and other related topics – and entered them for the George Orwell Prize for political writing. It felt a bit presumptuous, but as I say, there didn’t seem to be anyone else blogging in this sort of cultural-political vein. I didn’t win – but the blog was shortlisted, and was gratifyingly highly  praised by the judges. It was a stroke of luck, because that was the last year they had a blog category in the prize.

After that, the Tory austerity programme kicked in in earnest. Keeping the roof over my head became the number one item of concern. Teaching poetry became more urgent than writing it. The incidental fact of being American suddenly became a lot more like ‘being an immigrant, during those first years of Theresa May’s hostile environment. The whole tone of everything no longer fitted into the breezy Barque voice. Precariousness pervaded, until eventually it had eaten my tone of voice along with everything else. Baroque wound down to a point of almost nothing.

Then one day (I think the 26th Feb, 2018, but check that) I got a letter from my landlords, enclosing a new tenancy agreement, for a mere bagatelle of £485 a month, and a rather ominous 1 days to sign, or else. I had five weeks to find the first instalment (plus, of course, the rest of the rent) and then, equally, of course, 4.5 weeks every time. So I chose ‘or else’ – and for the last year or so (also sporadically) I have been blogging very differently at A Far Cry from Hackney (also soon to be a book, published by CB Editions).

I’m now nowhere near Hackney. My home of 26 years has changed almost out of recognition. I’m trying my hand at living 50 miles away from everyone and everything I knew, in Faversham, Kent.

And Baroque is back.

Photograph ©David Secombe, from Letters of the Right Honourable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Vol 1, Printed for Mr T Becket and PA De Hondt, the Strand, 1763.parrot