Thursday, 31 March 2016

Poetry and Sexism in the Guardian Review 2014-16

There was originally a question mark at the end of this post’s title.  My expectation was that there would be both less poetry and less sexism than in previous years.  Also, I wondered if an audit of poetry reviews in the Guardian Review could still be relevant; now, having done the count, I’m quite glad I did.

Results and conclusion first:

* There's no improvement over time in the gender balance, none in the range of publishers represented and not much in the presence of black, Asian and minority ethnic poets / reviewers.
* Under a third (31%) of the 45 collections reviewed are by women.  This figure is probably lower than the percentage of books by women published by the big poetry publishers (which was 39% from 2010-13).
* Under a third (31% again) of reviews were written by women.
* Both these figures are worse than last time – and both represent the average across all six years of this audit. 
* Collections by (I think) three BAME* poets are reviewed: 7%.  Slightly better than last time.
* Two reviews (I think) are by BAME reviewers: 4%.  Last time there didn’t appear to be any, so that’s progress.
* Publishers are unlikely to get their books reviewed unless they are one of the big six poetry publishers or another large publisher… or, this time,  Shearsman (hooray for that at least!).
* The number of poetry reviews continues to go down.
* Figures for the Saturday poem are much better than for the reviews.

* Conclusion: over the last six years, while the world of poetry changes around it, the Guardian Review has kept its poetry reviewing coverage much the same.  It seems to be stuck in a pattern of reviewing books by the big publishers.  This must be the biggest determinant of the results, but isn’t the only one.  It doesn’t appear to explain why the figure for women’s books reviewed is so low.  And of course it doesn’t explain at all the small number of female and BAME reviewers. 

Background to the audit:

This is the fifth audit I’ve done of reviews of poetry books in the Guardian Review, as a micro supplement to the US-based VIDA review which takes an annual look at representation of women (as both reviewers and reviewed, across all subjects) in literary publications.  I started out just looking at male/female representation but then extended the audit to include BAME poets / reviewers and which publishers’ books get reviewed.  This count was never quite in sync with VIDA so last year I decided to wait until now, to synchronise – VIDA’s count cameout yesterday. 

I’ll repeat the reasons for doing this, from an earlier audit:

Shouldn’t the Guardian’s Saturday Review be challenging literary hierarchies, not strengthening them?  In the case of poetry it is doing the latter.  Why do I care?  Because I read it every Saturday, enjoy most of it, but get regularly annoyed by the poetry reviews.  And because the Guardian is mainstream, reaching a far wider audience than any poetry magazine.  People whose acquaintance with contemporary poetry goes no further than skimming the Review’s reviews will have no idea of its diversity.

This may all be less relevant than it was when I did the first audit in 2011.  The Guardian’s coverage of poetry online has grown and is diverse.  There’s Carol Rumens’ poem of the week.  Last year there was the poem-a-day on climate change for Keep it in the Ground.  A list of items for March includes a podcast with Holly McNish and Luke Wright discussing political poetry, and a poem by the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh who is in prison in Saudi Arabia, until recently under sentence of death. 

It’s the coverage on paper, in the Review, that stays traditional.  I still read it and enjoy much of it, so I still care. 

This audit sticks to the same four categories as the last one and covers the 21 months since June 2014.  It was harder to do this time – on the Guardian website it’s no longer possible to search for poetry reviews.  One can search for poetry-related items, and reviews within this tend to be colour-coded grey.  But I may have both missed things and included one or two reviews that didn’t appear in print.  I’ve included a couple of pieces by writers about their own books: by Seamus Heaney on his Aeneid VI translation, and Karen Van Dyck on her anthology of new Greek poetry.

See the 2014 audit, here, to compare.  That audit also lists the results from previous years.

The 2014-16 audit:

A.  Books reviewed in the Guardian’s Saturday Review

31 books by men, 14 books by women.  That’s 69% and 31%.

Disappointing because the last audit showed some improvement, with women having written 37% of the books reviewed.

3 books by BAME poets, 2 women, 1 man.  That’s 7%.

Slightly better than last time’s figure of 5%, which represented two books.  It would be interesting to be able to compare this with the percentage of books by BAME poets published by the big six.

B.  Reviewers

34 reviews written by men, 15 by women.  That’s 69% and 31% again. 

Disappointing again; this reverses what appeared to be a slight but steady improvement over time.  In the last audit 34% of reviewers were female.

2 BAME reviewers, both women.  That’s 4%. 

At least better than last time, when there appeared to be no BAME reviewers.

(Discrepancies in numbers between A and B are because I’ve counted reviewers of anthologies but not the anthologies themselves.) 

C.  Publishers

Only five books reviewed were not published by the big six poetry publishers or another large one such as Penguin.  That’s 10%.  Of the smaller publishers Shearsman (see right) had 3 books reviewed, and Gallery and Nine Arches one each.  These figures fail to reflect what’s happening in poetry publishing today… there’s a whole world out there which it would be nice to see given some attention in the Review. 

D.  Saturday Poem

57 poems in total. 

32 poems by men and 25 by women.  That’s 56% and 44%.

6 by BAME poets, 5 of them women.  That’s 10.5%. 

This one was easy to search.   The gender breakdown seems more or less within normal variation (last time it was 50/50).    The last audit showed no BAME poets at all so this audit’s figure is a very positive change  (and interesting that the gender balance is reversed here).  Just over a quarter of the poems were out of books from small publishers. 

That’s it. 

* BAME figures are as accurate as I can make them but may not be entirely correct.

Monday, 29 February 2016

The lyric “I” – some thoughts in quotes

A few weeks ago there was a panel debate at the Troubadour about the “I” in poems, with Fiona Sampson, Ron Villanueva, Tim Liardet and me.   We discussed, of course, everything from self-exposure to self-invention to self-indulgence.  Beforehand I collected some quotes that helped me think about the subject – they don’t all address it directly.  It seems a shame to waste them, so here they are.  I think I actually read the first one out during the discussion; the rest stayed in my head. 

What is the source of our first suffering?  It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak.  It began in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.
Gaston Bachelard, quoted in a lecture by Seamus Heaney. 

We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.
W B Yeats, Essays

Facts are very unimportant things, there to make you believe in the emotional content in a poem.
Anne Sexton (in a radio interview)

I must begin with first the illusion of an intention.  The poem begins to form from the first intention.  But the intention is already breaking into another.  The first intention begins me but of course continually shatters itself and is replaced by the child of the new collision…  The poem is more than the poet's intention. The poet does not write what he knows but what he does not know.  
W S Graham, Notes on a Poetry of Release

To write a poem is to work with change, to deal with a shape-shifter.
Kathleen Jamie, from Strong Words (Bloodaxe)

The friends that have it I do wrong
When ever I remake a song,
Should know what issue is at stake;
It is myself that I remake.
                W B Yeats

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.  
TS Eliot, from The Sacred Wood (essays)
For the [American] Gurlesque poet, the use of the lyric “I” does not confess a self, but rather a raucously messy nest of conflicting desires and proclivities that can be costumed this way or that. Disjunctions in identity are not to be worked through or resolved but savored and tapped for their cultural power. 
Lara Glenum in Jacket

Off and on I have written out a poem called “Grandmother’s Glass Eye” which should be about the problem of writing poetry. The situation of my grandmother strikes me as rather like the situation of the poet: the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real; the natural with the unnatural; the curious effect a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye. 
Elizabeth Bishop (in an unpublished talk. Thanks to Jacqui
Saphra for unearthing this quote.)

A short poem in which the poet, the poet’s persona, or another speaker expresses personal feelings.  
Poetry Foundation definition of lyric poetry

A highly concentrated and passionate form of communication between strangers.               
Edward Hirsch on lyric poetry, Poetry Foundation website

The speaker is a device for making the invisible visible.
Princeton Encyclopaedia gloss on a definition of deconstruction

***   ***   *** 

To end, here’s a favourite haiku that seems relevant in 2016 when some blossom is past its best by the end of February.  Issa was talking about old-Japanese new year, of course, in early spring, and meant something completely different...  I think this translation should be read (or heard in the head) in an ironically grumpy elderly American male voice, to get the absolute most out of it. 

New Year’s Day –
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

Issa (1763-1828), translated by Robert Hass       


Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Open Letter to the Poetry Trust

Dear Poetry Trust –

I cancelled my Friends standing order, at your request, with a heavy heart.  At least I think I did: there’s no record of the cancellation in my account or of the order itself except that it was last paid, appropriately, in November.  If the money arrives again next November, that’s too bad…  Electronic bank transactions aren’t much good for metaphors so I can’t help thinking that a cheque will fall on the doormat at your Halesworth attic, the letterbox clatter echoing in the emptied office. 

Thank you for going ahead with the 2015 Festival despite accumulating financial and other worries.  Everyone who was there, packing out Snape and Aldeburgh rooms of all sizes, will have been grateful for that.  Of course there were rumours.  One of the things being said was that you’d been encouraged by your sponsors to risk the ambitious move to Snape, and perhaps they were now letting you down. 

When you made your announcement in December there was a predictable outpouring of dismay, lamentation, support etc.  From signed-up Friends and supporters but also from people who don’t go to Aldeburgh, or only occasionally, but still value the festival as a vital part of UK poetry life. 

Since then it’s gone quiet but that doesn’t mean people aren’t still thinking and talking about it: what’s going to happen?  

I haven’t tried to contact anyone for inside knowledge.  I know that you the trustees (and maybe some of the former staff?) are being careful about what you say – fair enough, any comments would spread quickly.  There is a rumour going round that there either won’t be a festival at all in 2016 or it will be very informal, symbolic, enough to prevent a total break in the 27-year-long chain.

Before looking forward I want to go back – to your annual report & accounts for 2014/15 (up to March 2015), see here.  On the face of it, despite the loss of one major donor (the Garfield Weston Foundation) and box office income not rising as hoped, your financial position looks OK, with £270k income and £265k spend over the year… except that any organisation (especially with low reserves) relying on Arts Council Grants for the Arts funding and/or charitable donations is constantly on the edge of a North Sea cliff.

While showing appropriate caution about future funding, the plans suggest a certain optimism.  Your report (p8) set out an ambitious fundraising programme, including a public appeal and a search for major donors to complement Grants for the Arts money.  This is matched by the ambition of the artistic programme built around the Festival, which includes:

A year-round programme of events and projects …a re-introduction of the Schools programme, an increased youth offer, a move towards partnerships, and a widening of access to the benefits of contemporary poetry, delivering a year-round live and digital programme, creative education opportunities, courses, prizes and publications. 

Clearly this didn’t work out for various reasons, perhaps chiefly a combination of staff changes and over-ambition?  I don’t know enough about this and it’s easy to be wise after the event.  A business guru would say: stick to your core competence, which in this case is –


Other near-integral elements, part of the Aldeburgh brand, are the Aldeburgh Eight (though as a former participant I’m biased) and the First Collection Prize.  The rest sounds positive but isn’t core though I’ve heard that the work you did with English teachers, helping them teach poetry in schools, was really good.  Someone should be doing that. 

By now you may be asking, why am I writing to you?  Hardly to say, stick to the Festival, since I’m sure you’ll already have worked that out.  I think I’m writing into what has felt, since Aldeburgh in November, like a vacuum.  I realise you must have decided that you need quiet time for your strategic review, without intrusion from the poetry crowd: fair enough. 

But nature abhors a vacuum.  I can’t fill this one so I’m sending a letter into it.  It’s a plea for communication.

Do you know how much goodwill there is out there, and might it be a good idea to have it working for you /with you?  If you could consult and involve us in your decisions – or at the very least, update us on how your thoughts are evolving – you’d be repaid by Friends, audiences and supporters feeling some ownership of the future Festival and whatever shape it takes. 

This blog should be illustrated by a photo I failed to take in November, of a notice on the sea side end of the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh saying that renovation plans were being developed (which at the time made me wonder if a return there might be an option).  Anyway the Jubilee Hall website is now announcing public meetings in February, with presentations and discussion on the future of the Hall.  One building can’t be compared to a whole, complex Poetry Trust, but still it seems like a good idea.  

While writing this I’ve kept thinking about what I read in November on one of
the local history signs by the sea path south of Aldeburgh towards the Martello tower.   Fishing families used to have houses there which would get flooded during sea surges.  They knew about this so their houses were constructed accordingly.  They left the doors open on both sides so the sea washed through and back again.  I’m not sure what this is a metaphor for (there’s got to be one!)  Perhaps it’s about human / festival adaptability.  Or about letting us all in.   
My Aldeburgh friends (ie the ones I always go with) and I are thinking of booking a stay in Aldeburgh around festival time.  If you’re not there we’ll hold our own festival under the stars, by/in the sea, on the marshes and in the pub.  Perhaps others will come and do the same.  But we hope very much you will be there too. 

All the best


All Festival photos by Peter Everard Smith