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Thursday, 23 October 2014

Who Is The PBS For?

The Poetry Book Society, founded more than 60 years ago by T.S. Eliot, at that time the world's most famous living poet-publisher-critic, has been issuing quarterly bulletins for decades, that promote certain poets and presses; and for a number of years now, they also host a major national prize, for ostensibly the best poetry book of the year - from the ten-strong shortlist is plucked a worthy winner.

To question this society is a bit like questioning the Monarchy - positions are hardened pretty much in line with how one feels about, and relates to, the "establishment" - in this case, the Poetry Establishment of the UK.

Of course, no dark-paneled X-Files room exists where such people meet - they meet in public, and we see them at gatherings, clustered in tiny groups of four or six - the top editors from Faber, Picador, laughing and nodding, as they speak to their world famous poets, from Ireland, the US and the UK. In Seamus Heaney's infamous phrase, this is the "inner circle".

If you don't think Carol Ann Duffy, Don Paterson, Sean O'Brien, Hugo Williams, David Harsent, Fiona Sampson, Ruth Padel, and a few dozen other poets published in the UK wield more critical and poetical clout than you, then either a) you are delusional or b) you are on that list already.

Now, this not to attack these poets, these editors, critics and publishers.  But it is to note that they tend to have influence - as judges, selectors, and so on.

And, there is a fair argument to be made that who is better placed to wield such influence than those poets who are the best?

Ah, but there lies the circular rub: the way these poets have solidifed their canonical status is open to examination and debate - or could be, in a more transparent system.

For, time and again, as has been shown by recent essays and analyses, key establishment poets have tended to select the work of a small group of peers, without widening the inner circle to admit others of arguably equal merit.

In short, year after year, certain poets, and presses, manage to place their collections in the top shortlists, creating, in the minds of many readers, and the media, an appearance of natural superiority.  This is an ideology - a false image, accepted because it satisfies the basic need for a hierarchy.

However, there is no good reason why, over almost the full history of the TS Eliot Prize, no small press ever won (and was rarely shortlisted); no avant-garde poet, either. It is clear to any critic or student of contemporary British poetry that much that is of most worth or interest published in the last 15 years, has been published by smaller presses - places like Nine Arches, KFS, Shoestring Press, Cinnamon, Eyewear, Salt, Penned in the Margins, Arc, Anvil, and various Irish presses. This without even mentioning the experimental presses run by linguistically innovative poets.

The usual arguments about market, and accessibility, are really besides the point.  Few poets see their work reach a wider conversation with society - and difficulty in the work is no reason for not shortlisting it.  We are meant to be poets, not panderers.

Over 3 years I have published 24 poetry collections, and sent them all dutifully in to the PBS - a few have been reviewed or mentioned as coming out - thank you - but that's table scraps - books that are Selected or Chosen or whatever, get thousands of orders.  Such orders are the difference between closure and survival for many presses. I have watched other presses like Salt equally publish books of genius, which sank like stones in terms of this PBS prize.

Now, the thing is - at least some of the books I sent in - such as by Simon Jarvis - are world class books, touched by genius.  But I might as well have been submitting a comic book scrawled in crayon.

I am not saying the TS Eliot Prize shortlist process is fixed.  No, that way leads to lawsuits and grumpy nonsense.  But it is almost as bad - it looks to be a closed shop.  And, if it isn't a closed shop, how open is it?

Look at the winners, look at the judges, look at the shortlists, and tell me this is a balanced and open shop.

The PBS oversees a false world view - one where there are maybe six or seven real poetry presses in the UK.  But the UK now has over 50 active presses - many small, local, struggling, but valid also. The poets published by these indie presses don't seem to be treated as if they were really part of the adult table - as if there was a glass wall of rain between them and the inner circle.

I expect lots of huffing and puffing - but the poetry establishment exists as a relaxed ad hoc group of about 20 or 30 people in the UK who benefit most from a closed shop. This group does and says very little to support and encourage small presses.  Indeed, many of them actively speak about their being "too much poetry being published" already.

The famous argument is that poetry's pie is so small, poets cannot easily welcome in others to grab a slice.  Such territoriality is a natural human instinct, and is of course at work everywhere - but it is dangerously rampant on this small island, it seems, especially.

I may have to close my small press in a year or two.  It is hard to get sales, and hard to get reviews.  You'd think the powers that be would go out of their ways to fit books from worthy smaller presses onto shortlists, from time to time, to help them sell books - after all, these lists are about marketing as much as anything - but the competition is fierce.  Faber, Bloodaxe, Carcanet - these are not disinterested parties - they apply for grants.  There is a question of resources. A shortlist slot for a small press, a review space for a small press - these things are noticed, and hierarchies shudder and complain.

The point is, why should those of us - call us the Poetry 99% - stand by and accept this state of affairs, cap in hand, for ever? What do we expect?  That miraculously some day our small presses, our indie books, our indie poems, will break through.  For what? Recognition? From who? The very establishment that barely acknowledges we share the same shelves, the same pages.

I am thinking of no longer submitting Eyewear books to the PBS in future.  Why bother?  It is a costly nuisance.  If poets want to be feted by that society, they should go get published by a Big 5 Press.  Indie publishing isn't going to win playing the games designed by the big presses for the big presses.

We need our own prizes, and our own willingness to accept our quality is not based on validation from these trumped up prizes.

We need to read and critique poetry with a far wider sense of what is at stake.  Poetry is not about being "a choice" or "selected" by some "big name". Poetry in the UK needs to break free of its reverence for the nonsense that the Poetry Society and PBS foist on us, in the name of what they claim is Poetry. It is Their Poetry. Not mine.
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