Wednesday 28 July 2021

The Dark Horse (issue 43)

In Orbis 196, Philip Dunkerley wrote "Those of us who are white, middle-class, of a certain age and gender-conventional have to work hard at our poetry to find relevance in today's fast-changing world". I know what he means. I'm a middle-class computer programmer living in a semi-detached Cambridge house. I'm Caucasian and wear glasses. I have an allotment and ride a bicycle. I shop at Waitrose. I get mocked at comedy shows and in novels. And I'm not young. In an interview, Helena Nelson wrote - “Neil Astley will say openly that he wants poets with a future — young enough to build a profile”. So I'm not sending manuscripts to Bloodaxe.

It's becoming harder for me to find places to send work to. I feel I've had my chance, in conditions that favoured me, and now it's the turn of others. Magma magazine's next issue "will focus on Black poets", a wording which came as a surprise to me. Increasingly, there's a requirement for the poem's persona to be the poet - not so much an obligation to be confessional (that's last season's trend, which left a few victims in its wake), but to "write about what you know" without risk of appropriation. In the UK, an item can only be sold as a "Cornish pasty" if it's made in Cornwall. It's up to the consumers to decide whether this improves the quality of the product. In general I'd rather have a good cook than authentic ingredients.

At least I'm not very tall. People would called me "Lofty" or refer to me as "That tall guy". Tall people have to bow when entering rooms. They lack leg-space in public transport. It's as if society wants to take revenge, making them cower, confining them. They can't help being tall. Why aren't there more 'mind your head' signs? Why isn't there a satisfactory minimum height for doorways? Tall people on average have higher IQs than short people, so perhaps the idea is that a few bumps on the head would even things up.

Anyway ...

Two guest editors of a BAME background curated just over a third of the recent The Dark Horse issue (164 big pages). The prose attracted me the most.

Miguel Barretto García's piece about annotations, footnotes, bodies, and nationhood was good in parts but too bitty and flashy for me - phrases like "the colonised body is punctured of agency" don't help.

Karl Knights' 'The Face Not Seen': Disability, Staring and the Canon article made me think. It's cogent and informative. I can believe many of the points made, though sometimes I think he oversteps. Here are some quotes and my comments -

  • "The repertoire of disabled images and themes used in literature through history to the present is very small ... Firstly there's the bleeding heart, or what the disabled community calls 'inspiration porn' character ... Dickens' Tiny Tim is a prime example ... Secondly there's the bad cripple ... most James Bond villains come to mind. Finally there's super-crip ... Paralympians are almost always portrayed in this superhuman way"
  • "The disability scholar Tobin Siebers summarised that 'Disability has provided the public imagination with one of its most powerful symbols [...] but it always symbolizes something other than itself'"
  • "[Edwin Morgan's] 'In the Snack Bar' is, to me, a greatly overrated and dislikeable poem ... Morgan may have had the ability, but did he have the right? " ... "Nuala Watt rebukes Edwin Morgan in 'The Blind Poem'" - but even if (as in the Morgan case) there's evidence to match the persona with the poet, there's no need for the reader to. The character's response in this poem seems typical of the times - not an anachronism.
  • "[Louise Glück] used that voice to return to disability on numerous occasions to write what to me are badly-executed arid poems"
  • "[Ted Hughes'] 'Deaf School' achieves nothing but denigrating a group of children. They become merely another entry in the beastiary of Hughes' mind" ... "Raymond Antrobus writes two responses to Ted Hughes' 'Deaf School'". When I read the response that involved redaction it seemed a stale idea to me - not the first poem I'd seen to use the device that year. The book was interesting, though I'd describe it as a prose/poetry miscellany rather than poetry, which what it was marketed as. There are a lot of misleading labels around nowadays.
  • "Disabled speakers are often used as symbols of the writer's outsider status"
  • "Rilke and Glück participate in one of the most harmful hallmarks of the ableist poem: an imaginary monologue by a disabled speaker ... the author suffers none of the consequences of being in a minority group, and profits from the prestige that their masquerade brings. Meanwhile, actual disabled people experience the very real effects of being an outsider" - when an actor plays the role of a soldier they don't risk dying in action. I presume they get the job because it's thought that the film will be more successful with them in it than if a soldier performed. Indeed, the public may think the actor a more believable soldier than the soldier might appear to be.
  • "ableist poems abound in the tradition. More appear each day in periodicals, pamphlets, full collections ... Such a poet's overused metaphor of disability robs all meaning from the lived experiences of disabled people" - examples of Ableism provided in the article include phrases like "blind to criticism", "lame", and the use of phantom limb imagery. Poets shouldn't "rely on stale metaphors, images and ideas" (e.g. phantom limbs, which is a bugbear for disabled poets like Jillian Weise)
  • "As a visibly disabled person, being stared at is nothing new. Almost every memory I have of my life involves staring ... On the page, what is otherwise a brief annoyance or discomfort is immortalised ... I can hardly open a magazine or a collection without being stared at"
  • "Nothing about us without us, goes the slogan in disability activism"
  • "disabled literary criticism began in the form we know it today in the early 2000s. Queer criticism, the closest to disability criticism in age, began in earnest in the 1980s and has become a part of the academy"

He doesn't address the d/Disabled (D/disabled?) issue, which I presume exists.

The advice is -

  • "If you're desperate to write about your crippled aunt, think twice" (which seems a little mean)
  • "Don't use what you imagine is a disabled person's experience to fuel your poems". Are disabled poets allowed to use what they imagine is a non-disabled person's experience to fuel their poems? I suppose so, because they're a minority, and because they once might have been abled themselves.

I know wheelchair users, and I have dyslexic relatives. One reason that few disabled people appear in my pieces is my worry about getting things wrong - risks outweigh benefits. When, years ago, I read that to a person in depression the self was like a phantom limb, I was impressed by the analogy - I'd seen the phantom limb image used before of course, but not in this way. I'm going to have trouble avoiding Ableist phrases in my work.

There's a trend in poetry towards writing about self-identity and social unfairness, where the poet is the persona pointing out issues. Worthy though much of it is - important even - it's not my type of poetry - the subject matter tends to displace the kind of poetry I'm looking for. Wallace Stevens isn't my favourite poet, but in times like these I turn to him. Or Hart Crane. Or Michael Donaghy.

Sunday 18 July 2021


Cambridge's University Library is a copyright library - a very tempting place to browse. Books are roughly sorted by size and subject. They're sequenced by acquisition date, so all the new books on a topic are on one shelf.

I've never visited the British Library though I've passed it many times. Behind these gates somewhere lurks my book.

There was talk of shutting down the National Poetry Library on the South Bank. I popped in whenever I was in London to catch up with current magazines.

Libraries are turning into hubs. Within reason, students can snack in my department's library. There's a library within the library where old habits like silence still apply.

I've been around Pergamon, Turkey - the place-name that "parchment" derives from. The library was second only to Alexandria in its prime.

These mini-libraries are common in the nearby villages

Just outside my house the mobile library sometimes parks.

A community library in Sweden which looks like a wooden shed.

Monday 5 July 2021

The changing world of reviews

Given the limited interest in poetry and short story books, the reviews/adverts need to be targeted. Small press magazines may have a limited readership, but at least it contains a significant percentage of book buyers. So in the olden days review copies were sent to many magazines. It was costly to send copies out with no guarantee of a review. Publishers tend to send out queries and PDFs nowadays.

I've heard publishers say that reviews don't sell books, and reviews sometimes took a year to be published. Sales are not the only purpose of reviews. All the same, it does no harm explore other options. There are mass audience sites for reviews nowadays, and "influencers". These methods work for novels. I don't know how useful they are for poetry and short story books -

  • In a Twitter announcement by Dahlia Books about a book release they said - "Please get in touch with us via DMs if you'd like to receive an ARC. Don't forget to include a link to your blog or review site." On Goodreads and blogs I see many reviews that begin by thanking the publisher for a free copy of the book.
  • I heard on a podcast how Jen V Campbell (story writer and Bloodaxe poet) reviews. She's a booktuber with 50k followers. She uses Patreon to attract donations. Here's part of her "REVIEW POLICY" - "If you would like to contact me with a review request, please ask your publicist to email me with an AI sheet. As I receive over 40 requests a week, I can only take on a couple"
  • Elizabeth Baines pointed out that "that many book reviewing bloggers are now tied up with the market campaigns of big publishing houses. The big publishing houses have - they can afford - long pre-publication marketing periods, and as a result those bloggers are too committed for the future with advance copies from those publishers to be able to consider the necessarily more short-term review request of a small publisher."

An alternative targeted approach is to do a blog tour.