No On-Specs Please, We’re British

Header image above taken by Adam Fung at Sharp Teeth, Bristol

About six months ago, I finally took the plunge and started approaching spoken word promoters and asking them if they’d consider booking me for a feature slot, instead of waiting for them to approach me. It literally took me until I’d been performing for over three years, been programmed at WOMAD, won the regional finals of two national slams and had a contract with Burning Eye before I felt ready to do this, and I still feel like an absolute dick doing it now, which is odd, because many of my friends were happy asking people for 20-minute slots before they’d even written 20 minutes of material.

I think there’s a class, gender and personality element to this. A promoter friend recently told me that more than 90% of the unsolicited applications for feature slots he receives are from men and a significant proportion of them come across as rude, entitled and deluded if they think they are ready for a paid slot yet. He, and several other of the promoters I know, are frustrated that talented, experienced women just won’t put themselves forward, while many men think they are owed a slot merely for existing. However, coming from a working-class background, I suspect that most working-class men have had it drummed into them that they shouldn’t “blow their own trumpet” as much as women have. And middle-class men who are shy or have social anxiety will also struggle with this.

The response I have had to my on-spec applications is interesting. Locally, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Several South-West nights that I assumed had put me on some kind of blacklist, because they seemed to have been booking everybody on the planet except me for the past three years, leapt at the chance of booking me when I actually got round to asking them. I could kick myself for not having done this before.

With a couple of exceptions, the response from page poetry nights was also very good. It’s easier to build a national (or even international) profile in page poetry, because you can send off submissions to journals from your armchair and once you’ve been published in a few reputable journals, people will know your name.

Spoken word nights outside the South West were much harder, though, and I feel a bit demoralised by the response. When you’ve been working hard for a few years and have built up a very strong reputation locally, it’s a shock to find that that counts for nothing outside the area and that as far as most promoters are concerned you might as well be a rubbish amateur who started writing yesterday. It’s particularly hard to be turned down by nights that have offered slots to people I perceive as being less good and/or less established than me, although I know I’m being a complete baby about this – promoters have a responsibility to book artists that they think will appeal to their audience, not to pander to my ego or respect a pecking order that exists only in my head. There is no league table – there are a number of poets writing in different styles which will appeal to different audiences. I’m probably never going to win the urban, gritty market and I just have to accept this. It doesn’t mean I’m shit- it doesn’t even necessarily mean they think I’m shit – it just means I’m not to their taste.

I know there’s a lot I can do. I think I’d been doing a lot wrong in my approach (cutting to the chase too soon, not tailoring my messages enough to the individual night, putting video links and details of my experience in fussy attachments which they wouldn’t have bothered to open, not the body of the message). I also need to organise some more recent and better video footage, as I’m still relying on videos that friends and promoters took a couple of years ago and which do not reflect how much I have grown as a writer and performer since then. Plus I need to keep doing the festivals and the more prominent slams, because you tend to get a more favourable response from people who have actually seen you in person.

Above all, though, I need to keep sending out the on-spec applications, no matter how much of a dick I feel doing it, no matter how much I hate rejection, because if I send them out, I might not get booked, and that will hurt, but if I don’t send them out, I definitely won’t get booked.


What I’m Reading At The Moment 2

Like everybody else in Britain, I’ve been snowed in the last couple of days, so have been rereading some of the poetry books already in long-term residence on my shelves.

People Who Like Meatballs by Selima Hill (Bloodaxe, 2012) consists of two sequences of short poems – one about a woman who despises her husband, one about a man who despises and fears his mother. Everything I love about Hill is here – her spontaneous-sounding, conversational register, her off-kilter humour, her surreal, dream-like symbolism. Everything important is not quite said., e.g.:

I thought you could play the piano but I was wrong,
I thought that being attractive wasn’t important
as long as you played the piano but I was wrong
(from “Modest Acts of Extreme Slowness”)

where playing the piano is quite self-evidently not playing the piano.

My favourite poem in the book, “Someone in a Bath Towel” expresses more in fifteen words than many poets manage in an entire collection:

Someone in a bath-towel
with meringues

his mother made
is trying not to cry.

The narrator’s sudden need to depersonalise by switching to the third person, the fact that he is “trying not to cry”, the very oddness of the meringues, the multiple possible overlapping connotations of “bath-towel” and “meringues”, all allow the reader to construct their own, highly specific, story. This poem is a lesson to those of us who continually feel the need to say too much.

She Grrrowls, the London-based feminist revue, was one of the highlights of my Edinburgh Fringe and I have since been fortunate enough to perform for them in New Cross. I bought and read their anthology (Burning Eye, 2017) in Edinburgh, but have now come back to it again. Some of the contributors mean more to me than when I first read it – I have seen Joelle Taylor perform twice since returning from the Fringe and I have frequently seen on the Bristol scene, and much admired the poetry of, Rowena Knight, whose poem “” opens the collection. It saddens me that there is still a need for a women’s only collection, but I know from experience that women’s experience is still considered “niche” and “trivial”, that female poets are still too often booked as support artists to less experienced men, that amongst some male poets who do not think twice about sharing poems about their dick as “universal” subject matter, poems about padded bras and the pressure to diet and female friendships and vaginas need to be defended, and it is good that fora exist where female poets do not have to waste their energy justifying writing about themselves. There is a wide range of poets in this collection. There are a few who were a little too agitprop and slammy for my taste, but the overall quality is superb, with dazzling use of language, from Jasmine Cooray’s lavish description of the vagina as:

self cleaning
pleasure zone, pink walls elastic as a cobra’s throat,
a bay to take in that swimming lottery and deliver

a jackpot of new life

to Sabrina Mahfouz’s grimly precise, “Her fractured body found car-park cold”.

I saw Raymond Antrobus perform twice last year and was left in a state of shock both times, feeling as if I were in some kind of trance for days afterwards, mulling over and over his words in my mind. It is unusual for a poetry performance to have that profound an effect on me – for a spoken word artist, I am surprisingly unmoved by most spoken word. Part of the reason for the extremity of the effect he had on me was the fact that much of his subject matter resonated with me – he performed a number of poems about his father’s death from dementia, something I had also experienced only two years previously and had never properly been able to grieve about, and Antrobus’s poems partially unblocked the dam. Also, his anger at his marginalisation in the education system as a deaf, mixed-race, working-class helped crystallise my own anger about class inequity in education and the arts, which had been building throughout that summer, but I’d never been able to articulate. When I bought his most recent collection To Sweeten Bitter (Outspoken, 2017), I was interested to see whether his poetry would have the same effect on me on the page.

The answer is, well, to an extent. It is exquisitely written, but the quality of writing consists mostly in the power and authenticity of its subject matter and the economy of its exposition – it is the kind of stark, content-driven poetry I don’t normally like. It is mostly the intelligence of the ideas and the concise, focused way in which they are expressed through judicious choice of telling detail that I am responding to, not the kind of elaborate imagery and clever-clever ambiguity I am usually drawn to. It is all very powerful, but my favourite poems in the collection are the ones that have metaphor and multiple meaning at their heart, e.g. the sequence “Bottomless”, where the “black mouthful” of his father’s Guinness he found hard to swallow as a child is a potent symbol of his ambiguous feelings both about his often violent or absent father and his own racial identity. In the second poem of “Bottomless”, “In Mum’s Kitchen”, about his sixth birthday, there is both a superb economy of exposition (“My birthday boy face/glimmers/when the lights/turn off” tells you everything you need to know about his miserable emotional state) and a richness of metaphor (“the burst/rubber balloons” are simultaneously his deflated excitement, his sense of inadequacy, and the faulty condom that led to his unwanted conception).

Gig Cancellation

Please note, my reading in Taunton on 1st March will not now go ahead. That Beast from the East has eaten my gig!

I am sad, but totally understand this decision, given the expected conditions. Many thanks to Fire River Poets for the work they had already put in and I hope to reschedule for later in the year.

How Spiderman got his superpowers

I have just read this very interesting article by Mark Pajak, a quite brilliant poet who has won pretty much everything in the past couple of years.
I noticed Pajak’s name immediately when I first started submitting to journals in 2013/2014, partly because it means “spider” in Polish (the only language other than English in which I have any competence), partly because even then his extraordinary talent was glaringly obvious. In my more maudlin moments, it’s been a stick to beat myself with that the poet whose work appeared alongside mine in the minor journals five years ago has now made the major league, while I am still only a “grassroots” poet published (albeit with more regularity) in exactly the kind of journals I was published by back then.

But, reading this, four things stood out to me:

1. There’s been no magic secret to his success, other than sheer, old-fashioned hard work. Even someone of his prodigious abilities only made progress by adopting a formidably disciplined regime, forcing himself to work on his poetry for three hours a day – and that regime made as much space for reading as for writing. I’m still at the “hour or two each week half-heartedly scribbling” stage that he determinedly left behind six years ago. I do read a lot of poetry, but not in the purposeful, goal-centred way that Pajak clearly does.

It’s very easy, as a poet, to become chippy and embittered, to tell yourself that the only reason your brilliance isn’t being recognised is because you’re not young/trendy/male/middle-class (delete as applicable) enough, because you haven’t done the right expensive courses, don’t have the right contacts. Mark Pajak’s story exposes that comforting hard-luck story as lazy, complacent lying.

It’s also easy to become defeatist, to tell yourself you simply lack the level of innate talent it takes to succeed. And it is, indeed, possible that this is the case, but if you haven’t worked your arse off for a number of years, how can you know what you are capable of?

2. Contradictory as it may seem, failure has been key to Pajak’s success.  He credits not winning the Eric Gregory Award for three years in a row as being an important impetus towards his finally winning it. He saw failure, not, as too many of us do, as a personal insult, as something we were entitled to have being unreasonably withheld, as proof we’re shit, as a cue to give up, but as a learning experience. Even when he failed to reach his goal, he had the maturity to recognise that the striving to meet it had made him a better poet and made the gap between his aspirations and his achievements substantially smaller.

Too many of us expect instant success. Too many of us publicly throw our toys out of the pram if we don’t get it. But, at the risk of sounding like a cheesy self-help book, failure is what helps you to grow.

3. The best ideas aren’t the most obvious ones. Pajak uses Seamus Heaney’s metaphor “going down and down for the good turf” to describe the process of questing for better subject matter.

The biggest difference I’ve noticed between literary poetry (whether spoken word – to which contrary to popular belief, there is definitely a literary high end – or page poetry) and “populist” poetry is that literary poetry eschews the obvious. Many of my friends who are relatively new to poetry or who have only ever been exposed to populist forms don’t understand this. For them, literary poetry is “navel-gazing” and “doesn’t engage with the things that really matter”. They simply can’t understand why anybody would value a poem about, say, Iron Age bog bodies or a Grecian urn or the shoes you used to wear as a child, over a poem about something shocking and topical and based in life-or-death real-world issues, like the Grenfell Tower fire or the male suicide rate or the Me, Too movement. For them, “powerful poetry” voices what everybody is thinking, strongly expresses sentiments they already share, shows them something they can instantly recognise. They want poetry that entirely agrees with them. And the fact that literary poetry doesn’t do that confuses them, bores them, angers them. It’s that that leads them to suspect that literary poetry is deliberately excluding people or deliberately suppressing left-wing political views or is Marie Antoinettishly preoccupied with the trivial. And, to an extent, I can sympathise with that view – there it something cathartic and pleasing about the poem that speaks on behalf of the whole community.

But, for the literary poet, there is no point in merely iterating what everybody and his dog has said before you. If something is self-evidently terrible, there is no point writing a poem about how terrible it is, because everybody can already see that. “Powerful poetry” is saying things that haven’t already been said, or viewing things from an angle that hasn’t been taken before, or, if you’re going to address a well-worn topic, at least using language in interesting ways that haven’t been tried before.

And I think this is what Pajak is saying here – that, by forcing himself to write for at least an hour every day, he forced himself to get past the superficial and the obvious and he had to write about things that didn’t instantly occur to him and that wouldn’t have already occurred to his audience. And his poetry was a lot better for it.

4. The more he allowed himself to be influenced by a range of other people, the more original his writing became.

This may not need iterating, as pretty much every creative writing workshop leader I have ever met has emphasised this point, but the amateur writer who doesn’t read/listen to literature because he/she “doesn’t want to be influenced by other people, in case it dilutes my originality” is going to be producing the most derivative work ever.

Almost worse than not reading/listening to poetry at all is modelling yourself slavishly on one poet, or one stylistic school of poetry. We’ve all seen poets on the slam circuit who have clearly modelled themselves on one particular poet (in my experience, usually either Shane Koyczan or Harry Baker) and copy their structures and rhythms down to the last detail. It’s really annoying when novice audiences, who have never seen Shane Koyczan or Harry Baker, think their shameless imitators are really good. In fact, at some slams, if you don’t sound exactly like Shane Koyczan or Harry Baker, they think you’re doing it wrong and are a shit poet.

As Pajak found, exposing yourself to the widest range of poetry possible enables you to use it as influence, not scaffolding, to become a poet, not a ventriloquist (and, yes, I know I mixed my metaphors there).

So, to sum up, what I’m taking away from this article: work harder, embrace failure as a friend, eschew the obvious, read/listen to everything.

Fringe and Prejudice

When I was in Edinburgh in the summer, I noticed one big difference from when I last went fourteen years ago: I appeared to have become invisible to flyerers. To be honest, there were some pluses to this – it made the Royal Mile much quicker to traverse – and I also wasn’t sure to what extent I was imagining it. But then I went to see Joy France’s excellent show, Toast and Sweet Lemons, and she also mentioned how, as an older woman, she had become invisible – that of 75 flyerers she had passed one day, only 3 handed her a flyer, although when (because she is a much more constructive woman than I) she went back and challenged the other 72 on this, most were mortified and contrite – and I realised it wasn’t my imagination: subconscious age discrimination at the Fringe is a real thing.

Plus, potential audience can be discriminatory towards flyerers, as well as the other way round. I’ve said it before, but I want to emphasise again, I was reduced to tears on a couple of occasions when exit flyering spoken word shows when 18-30-something poetry fans rejected my flyer and looked at me like I was something on the sole of their shoe, while enthusiastically accepting flyers from people who looked younger, maler and/or trendier. I also had a few issues with open mic hosts who didn’t know me or anything about my work when I signed up, but who made it a little too obvious that they expected me to be shit, merely based on my appearance and demeanour (this isn’t a huge problem, as they usually change their attitude once they’ve actually seen the calibre of my work, but it can be extremely demoralising when it happens a lot).

Then I read Matthew Xia’s article in The Stage on racism at the Fringe and saw similar sentiments articulated by Zia Ahmed on Twitter and realised that prejudice and unconscious discrimination experienced by some other demographics is much worse than that experienced by older women.

On reflection, to my shame, I know that, as a flyerer myself, I was also guilty. Flyering can be annoying for members of the public who aren’t there for the Fringe, so, to avoid harassing them and to avoid confrontational situations for myself, I tried not to flyer anyone who “didn’t look like they were there for the Fringe”. This was reasonable when it was a person in a business suit hurrying down the street at 8.30am clutching a briefcase or a person with a suitcase on wheels heading in the direction of Waverley Station, but in retrospect I can see that many of my other assumptions about who “was there for the Fringe” were based on unacceptable, if entirely subconscious, racial, age and class profiling and I feel thoroughly ashamed of myself.

There were additional factors, too: as a single woman, flyering on her own, promoting a show about not having a boyfriend, I was aware that I could be inviting unwelcome attention that might even turn dangerous, and I thus tended to be very risk averse, targetting mostly  women and couples and avoiding men on their own (especially after receiving an e-mail with rather more anatomical detail than I felt comfortable with from a male audience member). To an extent, I think this is acceptable and I also think flyerers must be free to trust their gut and do what they think is necessary to keep themselves safe, but if I go again, I will give much thought to whether my assumptions about who “might be dangerous” are based in reason or subconscious prejudice.

Also, as my show contained material which I knew might be offensive to religious people, I tended to avoid flyering people wearing very visible symbols of religious faith, whether that be a crucifix, a WWJD? bracelet or T-shirt, a hijab or a yarmulke. At the time, I thought I was being respectful to their sensibilities, but I now realise that I was being discriminatory and that, as long as I was upfront about the content, the decision about whether or not it was suitable for them should have been up to them, not me. I’m also aware that, as even some fairly secular Muslim women wear a hijab, while devout and/or fundamentalist Christians often wear no visual symbol, going by “who looks religious” was a fairly shit way to establish who was religious.

On the other hand, a certain amount of profiling your target audience is inevitable. As the Fringe went on, it became more and more obvious that the people who enjoyed my show the most were middle-aged women, so I don’t think it was unreasonable to focus most of my energies there, especially when I was down to my last 50 flyers and didn’t want to waste them on people who were statistically less likely to go. I also avoided flyering families with young children, because it was an 18+ show (Was that wrong?Maybe the parents might have been interested and could have got a babysitter?). I don’t think marketing your show to a niche group (in terms of age or gender) is necessarily always wrong, although you have got to be very careful and ensure you’re not basing your assumptions on prejudice and I can’t think of any circumstances where targeting your work specifically at white and/or middle-class people is ever justifiable.

I was going to use this as a lead-in to a wider-ranging piece about prejudice and discrimination in spoken word, but I can see that it’s a blog post in its own right.

To sum up – it wasn’t nice being on the receiving end of discrimination in Edinburgh, but I know I was also a big part of the problem. People actively, deliberately being racist/classist/sexist/ageist isn’t a huge problem in the arts, but subconscious discrimination from people who think they’re “woke” is a massive problem, and is often harder to address openly. I know I have inadvertently been part of it. I commit to doing better in future.


What I’m Reading At The Moment

Over the last month or so, I’ve been reading a number of poetry books, a small selection of which I shall discuss here.

I have very much enjoyed Kitty Coles’s Seal Wife (Indigo Dreams, 2017), but as I am reviewing it for a journal, I shan’t say too much about it here, except that it’s gorgeous and folklorey and sensuous and incredibly well crafted.

Sample quotation (from ‘The Seeds of the Pomegranate’, her retelling of the Persephone myth):

‘My mother scours the city
as we lie here. I am lost to her light.
My mouth is full of your gift.’

Perdido by Chase Twichell (Faber, 1991) was a lucky find in my favourite Bristol secondhand bookshop, Bloom and Curll. Set in an imaginary country,  the poems in this collection explore a no man’s land of moments on the cusp of desire and fulfilment, hope and disappointment, innocence and experience, the spiritual and the carnal, the present and the past. This idea of the threshold recurs, e.g.:

‘That’s why all good music is sad.
It makes the sound of the end before the end,
and leaves behind it
the ghost of the part that was sacrificed,
a chord to represent the membrane,
broken only once, that keeps the world away.’
(from ‘Why All Good Music Is Sad’)

This is muscular, American verse, elegant, elliptical, that bypasses your brain and goes straight for your subconscious or even your body:

‘There are only two tenses,
the flame and the ashes.

Time is the only verb.’

I don’t even really know what that means, but it punched me in the solar plexus as soon as I read it.

I saw Fran Lock, a poet from a working-class, Irish traveller background, perform on the Outspoken Press tour in autumn 2017 and was immediately astonished by the power of her writing and the quietly passionate, unshowy, unmelodramatic manner of her presentation. Her collection, Dogtooth (Outspoken, 2017), is equally impressive.

Her poems have the sprawling, passionate quality of much spoken word, the illusion of immediacy, of words just tumbling out spontaneously in the frenzy of the moment, but on closer examination they are finely crafted and literary and bear testimony to her wide reading. She likes to write in iambic pentameter or sestameter and her autodidact’s glee in arriving at felicitous word choices (felicitous both in terms of their precise connotations and their appropriate phonology – for Lock textures sound like an artists slapping on gobbets of paint with a pallet knife) makes this a joy to read:

‘Here comes the bride: billows brace
in mainsail rococo; an adlibbed bulge
that gathers the air under it. Her face
is grey, snowed to a paranormal
(from ‘ Uplinked real-time nonversation’)

A dandy wordsmith with an encyclopaedic vocabulary, she has written of her anger that the riches of literature are often withheld from working-class writers. This is interesting, because it seems to me that here she is making points oddly similar to some of those made by Rebecca Watts in her now notorious PNR article, but because Lock manages to make them without insulting everybody else on the planet, they come across more clearly and powerfully. Both women seem to bridle at the suggestion that working-class poets and audiences are incapable of difficult, crafted, erudite work and must be patronised with easy, “accessible”, naive writing (I don’t share Watts’s assessment of Hollie McNish, BTW, but I get the fact that, as a poet from a working-class background herself, she is emphatically NOT saying that the oiks shouldn’t attempt poetry – merely that they shouldn’t be lauded for work which, in her judgement, not mine, is sub-par). Both also baulk at the idea that poetry should be written in the poet’s natural, conversational voice. This point seems inarguable – if the natural and unforced were poetic, my shopping list would be poetry. But these days craft is often looked down on as overwritten and false. Lock’s angry insistence on her right to write in elaborate metaphors and constructed rhythms is a pleasing challenge to this view.

She is as showy and swanky with her language as the nightclubbing girls in her poems are with their clothes:

‘And we are vixens, agreeably degraded in our
leopard print and longing. […]
Night belongs to swaggery, flatteries, the slink
and thrum of bodies’
(from ‘Saturday, South of the River’)

Lock is also, however, alert to the poetry of the vernacular, the onomatopoeic power of swearing, when she writes of:

‘Curdled breeze that smells
of traffic, the grumbling pageantry of twat mobiles,
wanker chariots, four by fours.’

This is angry, necessary work.


Accessibility vs Elitism

A somewhat inflammatory article by Rebecca Watts in the latest PN Review has been engendering some lively discussion amongst my friends this week. Don’t read it if you’re a spoken word artist – it will make you very cross, especially if you’re an admirer of Hollie McNish, whom Watts repeatedly misrepresents, in an oddly personal attack.

I’ve shot my mouth off about this article on Facebook quite a bit and I don’t want to repeat everything I’ve said there, but I do want to address the accessibility vs elitism argument, which seems to be endlessly rehashed amongst poets of all leanings.

If you strip away the gratuitous nastiness, Watts’s article does make some valid points. I share some of her disquiet about the modern cult of “honesty” in poetry – the idea that a poem’s value lies in how true or keenly felt the content is, not in how well it is expressed. And perhaps Watts is right that “honesty” is often used as a synonym for “artlessness”, “lack of craft”, and it is concerning if the ability to select and shape language with any kind of skill is now actually becoming frowned on in poetry. I wouldn’t take this point to Watts’s extreme – after all, a poem which is all craft and no feeling will please no-one, no matter how technically accomplished it is. And Watts is completely ignoring the fact that spoken word is a different genre, with entirely different affordances and constraints from literary page poetry. However, we’ve probably all wanted to punch the audience judges at a slam at least once in our lives because of their willingness to reward cliche, on-message content and the decibel reading of the delivery, not the quality of the writing.

I bridle, though, at Paterson’s chillingly eugenic phrase, quoted by Watts, “poetry’s natural intelligent and literate constituency”. Leaving aside the factual inaccuracy here (poetry predates literacy by thousands of years, as Paterson must know), I know of no other artistic community that actively boasts of how small its target audience is, and pronouncements such as this one don’t exactly help when I am trying to convince paranoid grassroots poets that there is no huge conspiracy up at Page Poetry HQ to deliberately exclude working-class and other non-university- educated people from the art form.

It seems to me that both extremes in the Accessibility vs Elitism debate are guilty of the same error: of using poetry as a bolster to their own self-esteem. In the red corner, those who sneer at “accessible” poetry are often wearing poetry as a badge to prove that they are “naturally” more “intelligent and literate” than anybody else. This is poetry as cryptic crossword or Mensa test or Masonic handshake, not art. They value poetry for its difficulty, per se, and don’t want it to communicate to (much less be produced by) the masses, because that would mean they lose their status as the anointed ones.

To be fair, it’s not always snobbery – on an emotional level I can feel a lot of sympathy for Watts, who won a scholarship to Cambridge from a background not unlike McNish’s and has put years of hard work into learning the principles of academic poetry, only to find that the goalposts have now been moved by a publishing industry who care for nothing except profit and everything she worked so hard to achieve now seemingly counts for nothing. In her article, I can hear something of the rage of my mother, who was so proud of the fact that, unlike most of her fellow working-class neighbours, she could spell and punctuate perfectly, knew the grammatical difference between “less” and “fewer”, but that knowledge never led to the social or financial advantage she hoped for and she ended up working as a dinner lady in a primary school where the well-paid (compared to her), middle-class, university-educated teachers routinely spelled words wrong on the board and preached the gospel of “There’s no such thing as ‘incorrect’, just ‘non-standard’.” As with the expansion of universities under Tony Blair, movements designed to open education and culture up and make it more “accessible” often don’t lead to the social inclusion they were intended to, but quite the reverse – they entrench privilege by allowing stupid middle-class people to elbow in and hog all the places that were hitherto reserved for a small minority of bright working-class people.

But I dislike the narrowing of the definition of poetry of red-corner rooters like Watts, who (ironically, in an essay extolling the importance of “nuance”) repeatedly makes prescriptive assertions of what poetry “is” or ought to be, ignoring the fact that, even within the “establishment” there are competing schools of poetics. Ironically, most of the criticisms she throws McNish’s way (naivety, lack of craft, lack of intellectual rigour, mixing metaphors, offending against good taste) were also, in their day, hurled at some of the poets she (on no evidence) accuses McNish of not reading – Keats, Shakespeare, Burns – by critics who also adopted a haughty “Poetry can only be what I say it is” attitude. Her contempt for what she sees as McNish’s lack of craft (because she writes without imagery in “literal statements with the odd approximate rhyme thrown in”) seems to me to be as dogmatic and unimaginative as the grassroots amateur dissing the poetry in The Rialto because, “It doesn’t even rhyme”. We can all draw up an arbitrary list of features, use them as the basis of a definition of poetry, and then condemn the work of anyone who fails to include them as “not even poetry”. It’s not hard.

I’m also concerned about the number of people I know who’ve been taught absolute rules on creative writing courses like “You should never use adverbs in poetry” or “Cut out all relative pronouns” or “Never end a poetic line with a function word” and when you ask them why you should never do this, they just say, “I don’t know – but I’ve always been taught it is bad poetry”.  I don’t have a problem with students being taught these as helpful guidelines, with a reasoning behind them (e.g. “If you use an adverb, ask yourself if you could make the point more effectively by choosing a more precise verb, e.g. ‘He whispered’, instead of ‘He said quietly.’ ” Or “Relative pronouns can make your diction sound stilted and formal – play around with them and see if cutting them out helps create a more natural, conversational style and ask yourself if that’s what you want.”) I have a real problem with rules being taught for their own sake, with no rationale. This is the poetry of the circular argument, the poetry of Simon Says.

“Simon says you shouldn’t use relative pronouns!”

“Why does Simon say that?”

“Because you shouldn’t use them. It’s bad poetry.”

“But why is it bad poetry?”

“Because Simon says!”

It gets even worse when journals begin rejecting basically good poems because they have transgressed against something Simon says, when it’s not enough to use language in interesting ways to move and arrest your audience – you must conform to the memo.  It reaches its nadir when poetic recognition is withheld from anyone who can’t afford to pay a couple of grand to go on a course to learn what Simon is saying this year.

That’s not to say, though, that I don’t think there is such a thing as craft or talent, that poets shouldn’t learn from precedent, that poets shouldn’t go on courses or work hard and try to improve, that no distinction at all can be drawn between “good” or”bad” poetry. But I feel that Watts is failing to acknowledge that McNish has something which has led to her reputation being elevated above that of other spoken word poets, even if it’s something she doesn’t like. If there really were no standards anymore, everybody would have a contract with Picador. And Watts is failing to acknowledge that “populist” forms like spoken word have their own traditions and own poetics, of which she is as ignorant as she (on no evidence) accuses McNish of being of conventional poetics.

Then, in the blue corner, we have those who denounce anything they personally don’t understand as “elitist”. All other poets have to pander to their laziness and ignorance. Nobody must use a wide vocabulary, because they might not understand it. Nobody is allowed to make literary allusions or write on minority-interest subject matter, because it makes them feel stupid that they don’t get the references. They will not entertain the possibility that “difficult” poets are writing about esoteric topics or in obscure forms because they are genuinely interested in and excited by them – no, the only reason they can possibly be doing it is to be “pretentious” or to deliberately exclude and humiliate. People aren’t allowed to write in a way they don’t understand because it hurts their feelings.

This isn’t accessibility or populism – this is tyranny by your neighbour. It is another kind of exclusivity – where anyone who is quirky, who is different, who has taste or interests that are not shared by at least 60% of the population, is denied a voice.

Watts is also right (although for me McNish is entirely the wrong target here) that there is a hypocrisy on the part of some of the Accessibility Warriors, in that they denounce quality control as “elitist” when it’s keeping them out, but approve of it when it’s offering them status. I know several aspirant poets who condemn journals as “elitist” and “pretentious” when they turn down their poetry, who denounce spoken word nights as “exclusive” when they won’t offer them a slot, but they clearly approve of “elitism” in principle, from the fact that they so desperately want to be validated by a journal or night that picks and chooses in the first place. Poets who genuinely dislike elitism are quite content with posting their poems on non-edited platforms like Facebook and/or reading them out at open mics where absolutely anyone can take the stage.

Am I oversimplifying things and going all school-assembly “Hey, Let’s All Be Nice To Each Other” when I say there is room for all kinds of poetry? I wouldn’t want to live in a world where we were only allowed to read and appreciate the kind of poetry that meets Rebecca Watts’s and the academy’s approval, but nor would I want to live in a world where we are not allowed to have individual tastes, but are only permitted to read and listen to “populist”, instantly accessible work that the majority approves of.