This poetry business

Last night was, as Tessa Ransford reminded us, the 7th Edinburgh Pamphlet Poetry Fair, now run under the aegis of the National Library of Scotland. It was a really nice evening, with wine (for those not driving), mince pies and nibbles. I didn’t do a count, but I reckon some 30-odd publishers had tables, and there were readings from some 20 poets. The readings were ‘samplers’ intended to whet the appetite of buyers, and, certainly in the case of Calder Wood Press, it definitely worked. Both Anne Connolly and Jayne Wilding read expressively, and the sales of their books reflected it.
A lot of the time, however, it seemed to be poets selling to other poets, publishers to other publishers. Of course, in a small community like ours, we’re all bound to know each other, and it’s natural that we want to support our friends – I bought several good publications I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. It would have been nice, I thought, to have had more members of the general public attending, browsing, listening and reading. I’ve no idea how we might manage this, but we’ve been preaching to the converted for so long that’s it’s about time we (poets and publishers) thought about how we might engage with the unconverted.
Another thing I noticed was that the age-range of the audience was, shall we say, skewed to the higher end of the bell curve. Not for the first time I find myself saying, “Where are the younger poets, the younger audiences?”
I hope this doesn’t sound too negative – goodness knows we need to be positive about the poetry business we’re involved in – but there is a constant need to inculcate a love of poetry in the next generation, and to reach out to the poetically non-franchised. Only then will poetry take its rightful place as part of the mainstream of our culture, and not a worthy but inessential eddy.
It was however, as I said at the top, a very successful event, and I enjoyed it hugely. It was great to meet up with old friends, and to make new ones – including fellow bloggers. I think what characterises independent publishers like those of us who exhibited last night is belief – self-belief for the self-publishers, and belief in others for the multiple publishers.
One of the best communicators in the poetry business is Kevin Cadwallender, of Red Squirrel Scotland. He was the Poet-in-Residence last night, composed a poem during the readings, and let us hear it in the final reading session. It was fantastic.
I’m now trying to decide which of my 2008 titles to enter for the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award – I picked up my entry form last night. And I’m away to write a poem about mice pies, having noticed an interesting typo in my first draft.

About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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14 Responses to This poetry business

  1. apprentice says:

    I agree with all you say Colin.It might be an idea to let the National Galleries Education Unit have info on the event to pass on to their classes. Yesterday at least 4 folk in my class would have come along had they known. And the class had a really good mix of ages, not just grey heads.And the National Library must also have other contacts I’m sure. I also wondered if the put more rooms at the event’s disposal if that would work better, then you could have a whole suite of readings by one publishing imprint, and maybe a few interviews with some of the poets – a journalist to chair a session like that would be a good draw too. Or a workshop for budding poets, nothing pulls people more than self-interst 😉Timing too is an issue, a Saturday morning might get more children/parents involved.I enjoyed the readings, both CWP readers did a good job, and I was sorry not to hear Kevin’s final poem, although I bought one of his books and look forward to reading it and Jayne’s work, as well as Patricia Ace’s First Blood.I though your stand looked terrific too.

  2. Colin Will says:

    Thanks A. Your ideas are definitely worth pursuing, and I’ll do what I can. I love the idea of a CWP reading/ workshop/ interview, and I’ll follow that up next year (I’m beginning to think I need some assistance with the press, but I can’t afford to pay anybody!). Kevin and Patricia are very different poets, but both are excellent – I’m sure you’ll enjoy their work.

  3. Rachel Fox says:

    A big subject the age question! I don’t think there is an answer as such – although tips like those in the comment above about classes, groups, places to publicise events are all helpful and will bring in new visitors/poets. One Ms Askew of Edinburgh is working hard at getting young people who are interested in poetry out of their closets…and there are others too. I may have said this before but relaxing the fierce barriers between literary and performance poetry might help (and I know there are people working on that too). Again…it’s not something you can do overnight but any ‘X looking down on Y as not real poetry’ crap really doesn’t do anyone any favours (it’s just so boring!). If you’re at a reading and a particular poet isn’t to your taste…go and pretend to smoke or go to the loo…don’t sit there making snooty faces or tutting! If they’re that bad and everyone leaves the room…well maybe then they’ll get the point and give up. Or maybe they’ll get better!I went to the Xmas Pamphlet Fair last year and did enjoy it but to get there for an evening event on a weekday in December is hard work for anyone who lives outside Edinburgh (babysitters, work, last buses/trains, homework etc.). Expensive too. One thing I would also say is that the pamphlet fairs are not alone in the restricted audience affair…the whole poetry world/scene/business can appear very isolated from the rest of humanity at times (unless you go to a reading by someone better known – a Cope or a Duffy or an Armitage…). I always want to ask at things like the fair ‘hands up if you don’t call yourself a poet’ and I’m sure very few hands would be raised (and some of those would be patient partners of poets who are really checking the footie scores on their phones in the midst of it all…). I guess there’s nothing wrong with events being like that but I’m not sure it helps them appeal to a mix of ages. I have read poems mainly at events were this is not the case (music nights, events at festivals that are not purely poetry, our bit of fun at Forest last month) partly because I don’t like the ‘everyone in the room is a poet’ business (lots of reasons for that…too many to list!). I could write about this for hours. Better stop now!x

  4. Colin Will says:

    Absolutely agree with you Rachel – too many meaningless divisions which poets focus on to the exclusion of the real world where most people don't give a 4X about poetry until a good poet gives them something to think about.Anyway, today I'm planning a series of primary school workshops for Jan & Feb – that's where the future is created.

  5. Sorlil says:

    I think a lot is down to communication and advertising. I’ve been reading and writing poetry on and off for the last decade but it’s only been in the last couple of years through the blogging community that I’ve actually found out what going on in the current poetry scene.

  6. Rob says:

    I guess it would be hard to get members of the general public to support even a poetry <>books<> event to any extent. Most people don’t even know that poetry <>pamphlets<> exist and would never dream of buying one or attending an event celebrating them. It’s a tough one!As far as age range goes, I noticed that too. I wouldn’t know how to get more young people there, other than by personal invitation to those who have published pamphlets. They might invite their friends along. But would they think much of the event as it stands? I’ll leave that as an open question.Like you were saying on my blog a week or two ago, Colin, I think a lot depends on schools and on the exposure to good poetry people get there. Well, not just exposure in itself, but positive exposure. It also strikes me that much of the literary work going on with under 30s is to do with performing and writing poetry, not so much reading it or listening to it. Perhaps more needs to be done in that regard.Poetry is never going to be wildly popular, just as a weird, experimental, Danish noise band are never going to sell as many records as Beyoncé. Equally, I suspect superficial verse is always going to be more popular than that which is more complex, just as celebrity biographies are more popular than literary fiction. However, I do think that poetry could be at least as popular as literary fiction if it got more exposure, and poets have a vital role in creating opportunities for that exposure to happen. It’s slow work, but it can be done.

  7. Hazel says:

    Interesting and good comments Colin, unfortunately I can’t respond in any depth as I’m in a travelodge in London now! I will add that a lady said to me she wasn’t a poet and had never been at anything like this before and had loved it – then paid me double the asking price for my poetry cards, so that is encouraging but I agree that we need to find ways of brining more of the public in, maybe the afternoon would be worth trying.Alan once again did a wonderful job of organising it, now it’s over to the NLS and I’m sure they’ll keep the standard up.

  8. Angela says:

    I feel the poetry scene is unfortunately getting a bit incestuous. Unfortunately I spent too much and couldn’t afford all the pamphlets I wanted to buy. There are a few ‘wine ladies’ as the book trade call them, who do the rounds for free booze and nibbles,but who never buy any books. Would you think of targeting schools where they teach advanced Higher English? Just a thought.Angela

  9. David Floyd says:

    The age thing is interesting because I think it’s different here (in London). The performance poetry scene has always had a younger average but these days the book poetry scene in London includes lots of people younger than me (I’m 28). There’s also three or four fairly prominent small press poetry publishers who are in their mid-30s or younger.I don’t have any major theories about why this is.

  10. Hazel says:

    I apologise for my previous comment which was badly written – I won’t write at speed from a travelodge again!David, that’s interesting about London – do you find that it is just the performance poetry that has a younger average? Is there a good mix of ages generally? I’m sure there are young Scottish poets out there but they’re probably working in Tescos, accountant’s offices or have moved to London.

  11. Rachel Fox says:

    Or people have called their work superficial with such disdain that they’ve gone to find an area of the arts where they might not get cut down to size regularly before they’ve even got started. Just a thought.x

  12. Colin Will says:

    Many thanks for all the comments. It’s clearly a many-sided issue, and I will doubtless return to questions of audience-growing and poet support in future. For now, I’m away to write some poetry. I’ll post a seasonal poem later.Colin

  13. SMSteele says:

    Colin,sms here writing from the other side of the Atlantic… I have a feeling that we are dealing with a post-paper generation. I for one, read most poetry online. my war poet project is podcast and online because I absolutely know that the younger ones, and the soldiers in particular, will never buy a book, but certainly will read my project and download the podcasts of my poems. to date, I have had more than 10,000 hits on my website, and have had dozens of emails from readers. also, having just got back from the garrison with the infantry, I met many, many soldiers who read the site regularly. they have neither time nor inclination to buy a physical object such as a book… having said that, I’m quite certain that when I do publish, they will purchase it because they have already listened to it and would like the book more as a souvenir.just a thought

  14. Crafty Green Poet says:

    I think Rachel pointed out something important about the divide between performance poetry and literary poetry. The former tends to attract the younger audiences, the scene is more lively, more open in general. There is way too much mutual suspicion between these two poetic communities. I think however that some areas of the literary scene could really benefit from taking themselves a little less seriously, just as many perfomance poets could do with being a little less loud and in your face.

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