Tuesday, March 24, 2009

StAnza: Absence, Presence and Accuracy

An oddity of this year's StAnza is that one of the most defining events for me was something I wasn't at. I refer, of course, to the poetry breakfast on the Friday, on the topic "Where are all the Scottish poets under 40?" I was dying to hear about it and asked one or two people on the Friday -- Colin Donati and Claire Askew, to be precise -- what had been said and what they'd thought of it.

However, it was Bill Manhire who really turned it into to the defining event. Towards the end of his masterclass on the Saturday morning, he referred to having been at an event "where people were saying there were no Scottish poets under 40". Ahem, 'scuse me. This is a Scottish poet under 40*.

After the masterclass, Rob A Mackenzie, Ross Wilson and I asked Manhire about his comment. He said that everyone on the panel for the breakfast seemed to be in agreement that there were no Scottish poets under 40. I was, as you can imagine, pretty exercised by this. However, I was also sure the poetry breakfast discussion was more nuanced than his memory of it. It was about the dearth but not absence of Scottish poets in my generation. In fact, the panel included a Scottish poet under 40: Christie Williamson (although Christie, being a Shetlander, would hesitate to define himself as Scottish). And I already knew from my conversations the previous night that Cheryl Follon and I had been mentioned in the discussion.

But if what came over to Bill Manhire was that we don't exist at all, what did others hear? You can hear a bit of the discussion for yourself on the Friday podcast, but all it does for me is leave me itching to hear the whole thing, which will be possible at some point in the coming weeks. I don't want to rehash the recent discussion on Rob's blog, but if anyone has anything to add to that, comment here by all means.

I'm particularly interested in where we go from here, and am glad to see that Colin Will is taking that tack on his blog. Maybe we need to start by making a greater effort to celebrate and encourage the poets we do have in my generation and below, whatever stage they're at, and Colin W's suggestion of a pamphlet series akin to the tall-lighthouse Pilot one is good in that respect.

I reckon we also need urgently to bolster and co-ordinate the opportunities for learning (and, therefore, teaching) poetry writing outside the university creative writing MScs. These courses are, of course, good in themselves, but they seem to have had the unintended consequence of narrowing opportunities beyond the academy. They simply aren't affordable to everybody, for one thing. Informal networks can be great, but have they shrunk too? It's great for individual writers to start independent workshops, but perhaps we can do more for one another by working together. Maybe we need to see whether a Scottish Poetry School or a Scottish curriculum for the Poetry School is possible.

Much as it might satisfy the dour and dreich side of our national character, let's not have our visitors going back to their countries telling everyone that Scottish poetry is doomed by a lack of young(er) blood**.

I'll post separately about the masterclass and other events from the Saturday at StAnza.

*The grey hair, folks, has been gradually colonising my scalp since I was 12.
**Happily, our friends in Turin obviously don't think that.


Claire A said...

I may be at the very beginning of my career in poetry, and hey, it may not go any further than this... but I'll admit I was also sitting on my hands during the Poetry Breakfast to prevent myself from leaping up and saying "hello!! We do exist!"

You've hit on something vital that I really felt was missing from the discussion, though -- there was a lot of time devoted to talking about the pros and cons of Creative Writing courses and other University stuff like Writers in Residence and so on... however, nothing was said about young poets who are not at University or who have chosen not to take the Creative Writing MA route. I think you're right: we can't leave it up to the Unis to stimulate and promote young poets (particularly when they're so anti-pamphlet, as Colin mentions) -- effort should be made throughout the wider writing community. I like Colin's idea of a pamphlet series akin to 'Pilot', and I also like your suggestion of getting an arm of the Poetry School on this side of the border. This is the kind of thing that needs to happen I reckon, it's just setting it in motion that's the issue!

Andrew Philip said...

Aye, I'll bet, especially given what you've done with Read This!

Maybe we should try to get together a bunch of people who're concerned enough about this to want to discuss what to do and then act on it. A wee forum of poets -- not necessarily all under 40 -- and other interested parties. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

I'm glad this has been so provocative a topic, and good luck with all the plans. However I think there are some selective memories, or maybe people were too busy tucking in to the coffee and pastries! I started the Young Poets Breakfast by saying: Let's get one thing clear, no-one is suggesting that there are no interesting and upcoming young Scottish poets, just that there are not enough of them (being recognised by publishers etc) - a dearth, as Colin said, not a total absence: I was very clear on that, and I can't recall that anyone on the panel suggested otherwise either. The point was that in 1994, Donny O'Rourke was able to include in Dream State 25 Scottish poets under 40 who, in their 20s or 30s, had already been published by a major publisher, or won a significant prize. 25! (25.....!) Andy, you and Cheryl Follon were mentioned as being among the few in that under-40-and-significantly-published-and/or prize-winning category today.

Andrew Philip said...

Thanks for the clarification, Eleanor. That's in line with what I said in my post too. On a lighter note, if the coffee and pastries were as good as the pies at Roddy's reading on Saturday, I can see why they might have been a distraction!

Ben Wilkinson said...

Those pies were fantastic, weren't they - I'm a sucker for good pastry.

Glad to hear that the breakfast has sparked such a productive discussion. I've posted a few thoughts on Colin's blog. In short, I hope to see more young Scottish poets emerging in the near future, and have a feeling, as was hinted at on the panel, that this may be a cyclical lull. But something similar to the Poetry School could certainly help things along - this was the thrust of my comment that morning on the lack of affordability of MA courses, not to mention the time commitment they involve.

Rachel Fox said...

Was anything said at the StAnza breakfast to suggest why the situation was so different in 1994? Were there any common routes/teachers/environments/events etc. that had led to these 25 younger Scottish poets doing well by a particular age? Was it to do with particular A & R folk in publishing? Was it just a fluke? Was it competition between them? Just wondered...I don't seem to have read about this in any of the accounts so far (might have missed it of course).
Then of course you have to wonder what the current poetry scene (or scenes) in Scotland are doing now that might possibly put any younger poets off progressing further into poetryworld. I'm not saying there is anything...just wondering.

Andrew Philip said...

Ben, Eleanor and Claire are best placed to answer your question, Rachel.

Another suggestion for the way forward: could Polygon, Canongate or Luath be persuaded to publish small anthologies of Scottish poets under 40? I'm thinking of something akin to the Carcanet New Poetries anthologies. Is it worth exploring that option? If so, how would we go about it?

Anonymous said...

Re your query, Rachel, yes, the event explored differences in education, the poetry environment, etc, such as how vital then was the role of Poets in Residence, of which there are now fewer. The event lasted an hour and I wouldn't want to try to sum it up, but the podcasts should give excerpts.

Andrew Philip said...

The podcast does give excerpts, but not of that bit of the discussion. I think Colin is hoping to post pretty much the whole discussion in the next few weeks.

Cadwallender said...

I'd just like to say that Red Squirrel Press will be publishing, Nalini Paul,Claire Askew,Laila Sumpton, Jenny Lyndsay, Hazel Cameron,Andy Jackson and Rapunzel Wizard. I think they are young.
We published 'The Chemical poets' three young Scottish Writers last year and have plans for a collaborative novel by three scottish based writers who are 'young'. We are also considering publishing an anthology of young poets based in Scotland.If any young poets want to join me in editing this anthology. I would be happy to discuss it.
Kevin Cadwallender. Red Squirrel Press (Scotland).

Andrew Philip said...

Some strong names there, Kevin.

What would your editorial policy be for such an anthology? What kind of distribution do you have? I think the latter is a crucial question: we have to get the work beyond immediate confines of the Scottish poetry scene (see my post on the 5PX2 launch).

Cadwallender said...

Red Squirrel Press is based in Northumberland and distributes its books via festivals, bookshops and the internet as does everyone. We are currently in talks with further distributors. Any Red Squirrel Press Scotland Young Writers book criteria would be decided upon by its editors.

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