When poets go to war

It's time for the Poetry Society to reconnect with the grassroots.

Being a poet, or being interested in poetry, looks bad enough. It's the dowdy aunt or eccentric brother of the literary world: once the dominant form in terms of sales, exposure and cultural capital, until displaced by the novel starting in the 1840s, in the 21st century it's considered a strictly minority art form. Those who write it are either inappropriately emotive teenagers or spinsters whose efforts could better be turned towards ceramics or local history. But when poetry gets into the papers, it gets worse still. The debacle over the election for Oxford Professor of Poetry in 2009, with accusations of both sexism and foul play and its subsequent postponement, made the poetry world look like a small and fractious place.

And then things got even worse. There were increasingly obvious problems at the top of the Poetry Society, the main charitable organisation for poetry in the UK, visible in a series of high-profile resignations. But no explanation for these convulsions was forthcoming until a group of members, formed in an online campaign by the poet Kate Clanchy, pressed for an Emergency General Meeting at which they demanded answers. When said EGM occurred, what came out was a litany of mismanagement by the board and personal spats spiralling out of control - George Szirtes has a good summary here. The board agreed to step down, but only after a few seething months of controversy.

The coverage of the affair has, as poet Polly Clark has pointed out, been very one-sided, "a lazy kind of PR for the Board... with added parmesan shavings of insinuation about the ex-Director Judith Palmer". There are, as others have made clear, a great many dedicated, capable and enthusiastic members still participating in the Society at a local level, and in the Society's many activities (such as its education section). Nonetheless, the Society looks discredited.

The fact is that, as throughout the history of poetry in the 20th century, much - and much of the most interesting - activity in recent years has taken place outside the institutional parts of the poetry world. Small presses, live events and new magazines being set up by young poets have become the main loci of poetic innovation in this country (discounting, of course, the usual old bastions of neo-modernism). Increased access to print publishing and the web has fostered an expansion of outlets for young poets run on a DIY basis. Brash, irreverent, incorporating vast swathes of pop-culture forms and material - video-games, spam, chunks of sampled text - and frequently surreal, the work of poets like Simon Barraclough, James Wilkes, Kristen Irving and Rachael Allen has injected life into a scene that can sometimes seem to just be ticking over on the margins. It's come out through magazines and e-zines like Pomegranate, New Trespass and Fuselit, through presses like Sidekick Books, Penned in the Margins and Donut Press, run out of flats and, just occasionally, offices. And all this has happened without support, or even much attention, from the main institutions and organs of British poetry. Many of the poets in this new generation of writers have little in common with those who currently dominate the poetic mainstream, who are patronised by the big poetry publishers and control the main journals and funding bodies - they are, in fact, closer to the groups of experimental poets who, starting in the 1960s and '70s, produced a thriving poetic counter-culture and small-press scene in Britain. Regarding the goings-on at the Poetry Society, cynics might well say: "Who cares?" But what implications does they have for the poetry scene?

David Keenan's claim, in an essay published in The Wire in July, that the slashing of state support for the arts would foster small-scale and radical culture that refuses the "narcotic compromises" of an art world sponsored on the basis of economic impact, "social worth" and accessibility, isn't really borne out in the case of poetry. Arts Council money that kept alive mediocre work also gave a start to Stop Sharpening Your Knives and its associated Egg Box Press, and a host of small presses - those putting out more traditional and newer or more experimental work alike - depend on their annual infusion of cash to put out work for which there is a small market. Moreover, the role that the Poetry Society, in particular, plays in all of this is at a tangent to the problem.

For Tom Chivers, director of Penned in the Margins and a board member of the Poetry Book Society, there is little connection. On the one hand, there is "a lot of work to be done" in terms of the full representation of spectrum of poetry by these institutions, and the Society's role is "not really relevant" to Penned in the Margins. But the Poetry Society still plays a vital role in the "poetry ecosystem". They play "a very different role" from the indie organisations and the poets that support and constitute them - in terms of education programs, the National Poetry Competition, local work with Stanzas, the network of local poetry groups, and so on; the Society's performance shouldn't be understood in terms of how much newer poets are interacting with it. The press coverage of recent events at the Poetry Society, not to mention the mishandling of how it was dealt with publicly, he says, has made what was "a purely organisational problem" seem like a real crisis.

The poet, editor and novelist Jane Holland agrees to some extent, but feels there is definite room for improvement. "I would be glad to see a return to a more inclusive programme at the Poetry Society, and by that I don't necessarily mean 'anyone who writes poetry' but a better understanding and sympathy for the aims and achievements of the small presses, including smaller magazines." The vast extent and diversity of the poetry world - "we have many different schools of poetry, we have multiple cliques and ghettos, we have new and established alternative presses, we even have the looming possibilities of digital poetry" - do not "seem to make it into the consciousness of the Poetry Society". A re-engagement between the small presses and grassroots groups and the Society is necessary: "it's about time we returned to a position of cheerful amateurism".

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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