Thursday, 30 January 2014

Poetry Judges

Last year Wendy Cope was the Bridport poetry judge. This year it's Liz Lochhead. I detect a trend.

The Leeds Piano competition isn't judged by Jazz pianists. There's a wide enough range as it is, without introducing further complications. Indeed, I'd be surprized if there were a worthwhile competition anywhere that Classical and Jazz pianists could both enter. But also I doubt that a judge would be chosen who only plays Mozart. Poetry judges have to cope with a range of poetry styles far exceeding that of the Leeds Piano competition. They won't be equally appreciative of all types, and practitioners might be expected to have more biases than outsiders have. Indeed (as in Art with some Turner prize entrants, and in Music with Schoenberg, Glass, etc) they may have trouble accepting that an entry qualifies as a creative work at all, let alone a good one.

So what features should a judge have?

  • Able to evaluate a poem, whatever its type - This is so infeasible an objective that competition organisers probably don't bother too much about fulfilling it. It's clearly not the highest priority.
  • Able to attract entries for the current competition - Crucial. A practising poet (or famous non-poet) is much more useful than an experienced anthologist or teacher. The judge may even be in a position to promote the event
  • Able to attract entries for future competitions - Important. The person's judgement shouldn't attract adverse criticism. Competitions want to attract regular clientele, and organisers certainly don't want people demanding their money back because the winning entry "wasn't a poem".
  • Availability - Judging the Bridport consumes much time at a point in the year when some of the best candidates won't have time to spare

Editors of major magazines might be considered well placed to be judges, you'd have thought. Their well-calibrated sensibilities should be immune to the tricks of the trade. Essay and text-book writers might be good candidates too. But unless they're also poets, they don't usually have a chance. Judgement by committee might broaden the aesthetics, so why not pair up Liz Lochhead with (say) Keston Sutherland? Well, for a start it's more expensive to have multiple judges, and it's not a risk-free option -

  • In Bad Poem, Fergus McFadden queries the success of the Andrew Motion and Gillian Clarke pairing in judging the 2013 Cardiff International Poetry competition (first prize 5000 pounds). His views were shared by several poets I know. In any case, why have 2 poets who are so similar?
  • In a 1990s Stand Poetry competition, judges Denise Riley and Ken Smith couldn't agree on a list of winners so each chose their own list
  • "When we were judging [The Booker] we tried three different voting systems and each time a different winner emerged", Rowan Pelling, the Observer, March 9, 2008

So why has the Bridport committee chosen Liz Lochhead? I presume because last year was a financial success. I don't doubt her ability to select a winning poem that's good of its type. However, I think there are aspects of my poetry that she might not take into account, and at 8 quid a shot it's not worth the gamble.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Poetry and Truth to materials

Sculptors working in wood sometimes paint over the wood. Others work with the grain, exploiting any knots or defects. Apparently this "truth to materials" credo goes back to William Morris et al - a reaction to decorative Victorian design and architecture, to mass-produced veneer. Modernism (in the guise of the Bauhaus movement, etc) continued the "honesty of construction" credo. In the 1930s, Henry Moore, argued "that sculpture in stone should honestly look like stone; that to make it look like flesh and blood, hair and dimples is coming down to the level of the stage conjuror". In 1941 he wrote that "[o]ne of the first principles of art so clearly seen in primitive work is truth to material; the artist shows an instinctive understanding of his material, its right use and possibilities" though he later admitted that he'd been too obsessed by the principle.

According to Greenberg in "Towards a Newer Laocoon" all arts in the twentieth century "have been hunted back to their mediums and there have been isolated, concentrated and defined. It is by virtue of its medium that each art is unique and strictly itself. To restore the identity of an art the opacity of its medium must be emphasized". Poetry's medium is language, but oral or written? Though oral poetry came first, the written word has an increasing primacy. The rejection of transparent language leads to a treatment that takes into account the quirks of words (pronunciation for oral poetry, spelling and typography for text) exploited most ruthlessly by "sound poetry", "concrete poetry" and some Oulipo works.

Less extreme approaches show a palimpsestic awareness of the medium without being dominated by it. A poet might be drawn to use a cognitively unexpected word because it rhymes conveniently, or because of alliteration. "rough" and "through" are sight-rhymes - a quirk that one can gloss over or work with. Such awareness of the underlying substrate (be it letters or sounds) is characteristic of one type of poetry that tries to distinguish itself from prose (though not from "Finnegan's Wake"). Heather McHugh and Paul Muldoon are amongst the exponents of this linguistically embedded poetry, poetry for people who can see both the wood and the trees much as some people can appreciate both the sound and the meaning of poetry.

For more, see my Something old, something new article in Hinterland.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Poetry and Money

"There's no money in poetry, but there's no poetry in money, either" wrote Robert Graves. Here are some fairly recent news items about poetry and money

  • Magazines - Iota poetry magazine now charges £1 for online submissions (they print the attachments). Some US mags charge $3. Postal submissions are still an option, though they're more expensive.
    Neon magazine has posted its Submissions Summary for 2013. A 1.9% acceptance rate. About ten percent of submissions came from authors who had supported the magazine in some way – either by subscribing, donating or purchasing a sample copy - though the magazine's free to read online. This success in raising donations offers hope to other magazines.
  • Book Publishers - Eyewear Publishing has suddenly lost its funding. It was receiving £25k/year from an anonymous donor, news which came as a surprize to me. Salt pulled out of single-author poetry books not long ago.
    Fiona Moore in Poetry prizes: the elephant on stage has collected statistics on how "the big five" poetry publishers (Bloodaxe, Cape, Carcanet, Faber and Picador) have dominated the last ten years of shortlists, from 2004 to 2013, for both the TS Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Best Collection. She points out that "only 2% of TSE-shortlisted books came from small publishers".
  • Bookshops - When I lived in Nottingham I used to go to Mushroom Bookshop. Five Leaves Bookshop opened in November 2013, run by the eponymous small press, so at least some small press publications are now on sale in a city centre. I'm looking forward to visiting.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Poetry and/or prose

I cycle past the little window of a whitewashed cottage on the way to work. I can never see inside. One summer's day the window was open. I heard a lady sneeze and a piano reverberate.

I've several snippets like this in my notebook. The underlying notion of this piece - something hidden becoming known in an unexpected way - can be exploited in a poem. E.g.

  • Tighten the language, throw in some linebreaks and with a hint in the title, present it as a little Imagist poem. Maybe like this
    One morning, cycling past the little cottage
    that I can never see inside, I hear a
    woman sneeze, a piano reverberate.
    (the syllabics are a bonus)
  • Juxtapose a second stanza to the Imagist poem - maybe about discovering an old friend or colleague's secret - leaving the reader to find the common factor.
  • Make the anecdote the heart of a longer, more leisurely poem, the description embellished (flowers in the windowbox, the uneven walls, the small panes of glass in black frames, how all I could see through the window is the back window) and the analogy explained.

Alternatively I could slip it innocuously into the start of a story, then make the character refer back to it, perhaps getting the character to explain the analogy to him/herself as a way to interpret some other episode, some uncovered revelation.

When people read short stories I doubt whether many of them would enjoy an embedded anecdote like this as much as they would enjoy the poem, even though the story might contain several such poems. To claim that the story option is better - or at least, less lazy, less of a cop-out - is as silly as saying that the Beatles should have made the "Yesterday" melody into a symphony rather than a 2' 06" track. That said, "Yesterday" is rather short.

Fortunately, the decision needn't be made. I could write both a story and a poem. It's a ploy used by Jim Murdoch too - at least 5 ideas from his poem collection This is not about what you think have another outing in his novel Living with the Truth.

I think one could extract many "found poems" from novels. I suspect many paragraphs (especially final ones) could be adapted. Consider this, from "Flight Behaviour" by Barbara Kingsolver

At the upper east corner of the field they began to make their way down along the property line between their pasture and the Cooks' dead orchard. The skeletal peach trees in their rows leaned into the slope with branches upstretched like begging hands. Casualties of the strange weather. The window in Preston and Cordie's room looked out on these trees, and for a while she'd kept the curtains drawn, it was so depressing. (p.355)

This is clearly from a novel rather than a short story. It could be made into a poem

Beyond our garden, a dead orchard.
I close the curtains of our child's bedroom
so he won't stare out too long.