I like to think I'm reasonably good at spotting genuine talent when it comes to poetry. By "talent" I don’t mean "a combination of wilful obscurity and intellectual pretension", unlike the people who run certain poetry presses I might care to mention. I mean a genuine understanding that words, properly handled, are like music. An ability to make unusual and improbable connections between the world of the physical senses and the inner world of emotions, thoughts and dreams. And a certain fearlessness – a willingness to take the risk of speaking out against the prevailing opinions and fashions of the time, confronting the abusers of power and taking a stand for what they believe to be right.
Every now and then I get a little vindication. Back in 2005, when I judged my first poetry competition, I awarded the First Prize to a new poet on the scene named Kate Rhodes. Ms Rhodes has since appeared in the Forward Prize annual anthology more than once – a sign that she has written (and continues to write) some of The Best Poems of the Year.
This year's Purple Patch list of the Top 20 small press poetry collections was a particular source of delight. Purple Patch, for those who don't know it, is a fiercely independent poetry journal that has been going since 1976. It has a well-earned reputation for not following trends and fashions and for championing what it likes; and it is respected for sticking to its principles. Every year Purple Patch produces a "Best Of" list to recognise poets who pass under the radar of the literary "establishment" – usually poets published by small presses that wouldn't merit a mention in the Grauniad or the TLS. And this year there were not one, nor two, not even three, but four of "my" poets in the Top 20 Best Individual Collections list.
In that respect, I have something in common with Purple Patch. I spend a lot of my time trying to support and promote poets and writers who haven't had a chance in the world of corporate literature. I don't publish journals or anthologies; I don't run festivals or big, Arts Council-funded events programmes. But in my own small way, through open mics, performance nights, poetry slams, and hopefully in the near future the odd masterclass or two, I do what I can to help good local poets get their work across to a wider audience. They deserve it. Their work is every bit as good as what I can browse on the poetry shelves in Waterstone's (and a million times better than most of what's on the internet).
The fact that four – that's a whole 20% – of this year's Purple Patch Top 20 collections have come out of the York-and-the-north-east poetry scene which means so much to me, is confirmation of the fact that I'm not crazy. These people are actually bloody good.
I've worked with the No. 9 poet, Rose Drew, many times over the last five years. We've critiqued each other's efforts at getting a first collection into print (she got there way before me). There's a passion and gutsiness and a carefully controlled anger about her work that makes her a formidable live performer and a creator of startling imagery.
Tim Ellis, at No. 20, was one of the first poets I booked as a guest feature at Speakers' Corner. He's another first-rate performer; he might shock an audience by leaping around the stage pounding a bongo drum, or quietly captivate with poems of unexpected poignancy. His work is full of humour and colour, filled with an unashamed political and environmental consciousness, and he's one of the best contemporary rhymesmiths I've heard.
Miles Cain has only been writing poetry a few years. He became extraordinarily good, extraordinarily quickly. I had the unexpected honour of being acknowledged in his debut collection, The Border, which appears at No. 8. There are poems in this collection which I recognise from their infancy, as experiments with words and thoughts. The fact that they have crystallised so memorably – and this is a collection that's bursting with memorable images – is testimony to the dedication and hard graft Miles has given his art.
My fourth “Top 20” poet, Katie Metcalfe (at No. 15) is the youngest of the set, and perhaps the most visionary. Katie is an indefatigable poet, blogger and literary editor (she's the founder of Beautiful Scruffiness magazine, about which I've blogged before). It'd sound terribly patronising to call Katie a young writer – perhaps "pre-middle-aged" will distinguish her more accurately from my own generation! – but it's surely a sign of hope in a depressed age that a writer who clearly has so many more good writing years in her is finding the poetic soul in the recession-hit north-east of England, and making something almost mythic out of it.
All four of these debut collections are near the top of my review pile, and the Soapbox will be reporting on them in detail in due course. For now, I'll offer my official congratulations to Miles, Rose, Katie and Tim. You've made a cynical poet very proud – and convinced me all the more that this sometimes thankless passion that we share is still worth shouting about.