The final round of Have I Got News for You: filling in the blanks. The correct answer (the headline is from a newspaper I tripped over on the pavement yesterday) is the Rugby Football Union. The blank, in this case, not being the Poetry Society, from which – in case you hadn’t known, but why should you? Poetry-world admin doesn’t sell newspapers – the president, the director, the finance person, have all got out in recent days and weeks. And there’s curiosity, and more than that, in the poetry world, not least because, as Matthew Cain says in a recent Channel 4 blog post, ‘of all the arts, poetry is easily the one with the strongest sense of community’ (because it’s up against the wall? Because aside from whether that is true or not, that’s how it likes to define itself?).
I have no inside info; I don’t even have gossip. But what to me is a little bit interesting is that in the absence of hard fact, the speculation that fills the vacuum can become what a thing is about and start to influence what happens next. Some of the current speculation has the old guard (people my age) being self-protective in the face of the rising tide of a new generation (at ease with a range of things that were barely within the older generation’s experience: new technology, other ways of publishing than with Faber, public performance and the skills for that, creative writing courses that offer not just knowledge and ready-made structures in which you find your exemplary people but networks in which what you do is validated just by being part of them). There is always some institutional blockage to new talent: try getting new names through the ranks of broadsheet lit eds, Waterstone’s buyers and prize judging panels, for most of whom poetry still means Faber (a word I use as shorthand for mainstream conservatism, not that they don’t publish some very good things). On the other hand, people rarely divide neatly into two distinct camps. On the third hand, as the Poetry Society thing plays out, many (journalists not least) will see it in simple binary terms.
Meanwhile, Chris Hamilton-Emery, the Salt man, is posing on Facebook the idea of a British Academy of Poets and asking what do poets want done that such an organisation might do, and who do they want to be represented by. He refers to a US model (but the US is so different: even if only 0.01% of the population read poetry, that is so many more readers than here, and so much more sustenance for small presses). Wanting to answer him, I’m as confused as everyone else. Do I want more administrators? Do I want more people to know about and perhaps even read and buy more poetry books? Do I think that anything worthwhile really happens without madcap individuals making it happen? Would I like support to be available that enables those madcaps? No yes no yes. Questions are things poets are good at; answers, not.
Meanwhile, some lines in an email attachment, out of the blue: did I want to read more? That was J.O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical, which went on to win the 2009 Aldeburgh Prize, plus shortlistings for the Forward first book and others and reviews to kill for. Morgan had published nothing previously, even in the magazines, and if there’s an argument to be made for no public money to be spent on poetry at all you could start here – except that without the PBS (who gave the book a recommendation) and without the Poetry Trust (who administer the Aldeburgh), both of which have had their funding cut to zero by the Arts Council, the book would have sold 13 copies, or maybe 26. Now I’m typesetting his next book. For a tiny press, this is as good as it gets.
Meanwhile, the book fair idea is progressing. Saturday, 24 September, the market hall in Exmouth Market, London EC 1R 4QE. A dozen presses have committed; another ten or so are umming and erring. There’ll be a separate room, above where you buy books, for readings or whatever through the day. To get people in through the door, I’m going to need help – I sit at a desk, I can write and edit and design but that’s about my limit – and people have come forward. Young, with spark, and as seriously involved as anyone older with the language we use to write and wonder what we’re doing here, and I trust them absolutely. If the Russian avant-gardists turn up – I’ve heard about them: they strip off and pee on stage – we’ll cope. We might join them.
Sentence of the day, from the Observer, Tony Blair: ‘Sometimes it feels strange not to be prime minister.’ This afternoon I had this niggling feeling of dissatisfaction I couldn’t put into words, and now I can.