Thursday, 27 September 2012

Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam...

A couple of weeks ago a disconcertingly irate email popped into the inbox I run on behalf of a writers' group that I chair. The email had been sent by the organiser of a poetry competition based in another part of the UK. And I have to admit I was rather taken aback by it.

What had prompted this outpouring of vitriol, you may ask? Well, my feelings on poetry competitions are well known, and I have been heard to say quite scathing things about some of them. But this wasn't the reason for my correspondent's ire. After all, I occasionally judge poetry competitions myself. I know the trials and tribulations of the competition circuit, and I take my hat off to those dedicated folk who give up their time and energy in promoting their art.

Was he, by chance, a disgruntled poet whose work I'd slighted in a previous competition? No, that wasn’t it either. Besides, it's rare for work that comes in to any competition to get 'slighted'. Poetry competition judging is at least partly subjective. A piece that doesn't make the shortlist for me could still be a prize winner to a different judge, in a different competition.

No, the crime for which I was denounced was this: I had politely declined to forward an unsolicited email advertising this gentleman's competition. Apparently, to refuse to do so was (and I quote) "daft".

A part of me can understand this gentleman's frustration. Competition organisers put a lot of time and energy into promoting their competitions – and many do it for nothing. It's always heartening when someone offers to do that little bit extra to help you promote what you're doing. But what really irked me about this guy's response was that he seemed to think he had a right to DEMAND that I (and no doubt the many other organisers of writing groups to whom he'd sent the same email) drop everything and do as he asked. That I make no enquiries as to the bona fides of his email or of the competition. And that I blithely spam it out to everybody on my mailing list – many of whom would have no interest in it.

My writers' group, as I tried to explain, has a policy of not forwarding unsolicited email. This is purely a matter of 'netiquette'. I want to make sure that any emails which go out under the auspices of our group are actually useful to everyone in the group. The minute I start forwarding everything that comes to the group inbox, our own mail-outs get devalued, and people will stop reading them. I'd rather our members got one or two good emails a month, than five or six a day of dubious quality and questionable relevance.

Finally, and probably most importantly of all, I just don't have the time. Maintaining an internet presence on behalf of the group is a labour intensive operation. If I were to quality-control every unsolicited email that came in, earmark every one that looked genuine, and forward these to only those members of the group to whom they might be relevant, I'd be emailing all day. I'd have precious little time left for real-world tasks like earning a living – or even doing any writing of my own! Does this guy think I'm surgically attached to my computer keyboard, and have nothing better to do?

As a competition organiser, I've sent a few unsolicited emails, too. I've no idea how many of them were ever forwarded. Of course I'm grateful to those who took the trouble to look at what I'd sent, think about it, and considerately pass it on. But I equally respect the decisions of those who chose not to do so. I have never asked anyone to spam on my behalf. And I have never got personally abusive towards those who may not have replied to my emails, or not forwarded them. If you really want someone to be on your side and promote what you are doing, could I tentatively suggest that haranguing them by email and calling them daft is not the way to go?

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Review: "One of Many Knots" by Katie Metcalfe (Mudfog Press, 2010; ISBN 978-1-8995038-5-8)

Mudfog's slim, beautifully produced poetry pamphlets play a key role in promoting new voices from Teesside's thriving, but often unjustly overlooked, arts scene. Forward Prize-nominated Bob Beagrie and his long-time collaborator, Andy Willoughby, have done remarkable work as mentors to many of these new voices, and their influence is clear in a number of poems in this collection, both in subject matter and style. But that's not to belittle Katie Metcalfe's voice as a poet or her talent as a writer. She has already made her mark in the region as editor of the literary journal Beautiful Scruffiness, and was a published author when still in her teens.

What strikes me most about One of Many Knots is the visceral quality of the writing. These poems are gutsy, forthright, and unflinchingly face down the darker side of life. Bereavement and mental illness are recurring themes. This could easily have been a pretty depressing collection. But it isn't. It has energy to it; the poems are driven by a quiet, understated anger, an anger which elevates the bleaker poems and ultimately illuminates a path through the darkness.

The descriptive writing is direct, un-flowery (except for an occasional overdose of alliteration) and there is a sense that the poet is right in the middle of everything she describes, feeling and touching and tasting it:

"Come September, when the sun rises lower in the sky,
when the leaves fall red
and the ground is bruised with apples"
(from Open season wolf hunt);

"I met you in a phone booth in town.
You were scribbling cartoons on the inside
of a Rolo packet... liked Frisbee and we played
on the beach near the chemical industry.
You knew how to catch things and caught crayfish
in a hairnet"
(from After the hunger)

A strong sympathy for the sufferings of animals is shown in a clutch of poems – Open season wolf hunt, Monkey, Pig, One needs to be able to dream. These are not the most original poems in the collection, though Pig packs a strong satirical punch:

"We know you best in bits and pieces behind plastic sheets,
stickered with the date of your best before day,
years, years too early."

Peg Powler marries descriptive writing and social commentary with folklore, infusing the post-industrial wreckage of Teesside with an almost mythical quality:

"I dawdle where skivers gather to skim beer can ring-pulls...
...I wait for their flat faces to hover over the surface...
...Sometimes, they throw themselves in for me."

The middle section of the collection is a harrowing portrayal of the extremes of mental illness. The journey begins in D Day, quiet but unstoppable:

"People say it starts on a summer day,
when it's bright and it's lovely and it's fine...
when the house is warm
and making all the right sounds
and anything good can happen...
But then you lick your yoghurt lid
with too much umph
and cut your tongue
and that's it. You start in the middle
with everything from then."

The relationship between patient and counsellor is movingly explored in Security:

"I'd imagine what the wash room in your house was like,
wicker baskets, white sweaters, a carousel of colourful cotton skirts,
while you imitated my body language..."

Despite the glimmers of hope in this poem, its heartbreaking conclusion provides a chilling insight into the workings of the care system, the unintended effects it can have on those who are vulnerable, through no fault of their own:

"We'd sit in pockets of winter...
Eventually, you asked for change of air for both of us,
took down those stylish photo frames and didn't offer an address for security reasons."

Despite such setbacks, Metcalfe is determined not to leave her narrator – or her readers – in the darkness. The final poems in the collection – After the hunger, Curry Night and Through – each in their own way celebrate survival and starting again. These poems are infused with a joy in the small things of life which comes only from knowing what it is like to have those things taken away:

"I told you why my smile was still too big for my face
and you shrugged and kissed my wrists,
said 'I'll save my sympathy for the land.'
And you ran for the fun of it,
around the fire fed with driftwood..."
(from After the hunger)

"You patted my bum in the queue,
couldn't stop an invisible pencil
sketching a smile from ear lobe to scalp."
(from Curry Night)

In her book Anorexia: A Stranger in the Family, Metcalfe wrote about the effects of an eating disorder on her own health and on those closest to her. It is hugely to her credit that she has been able to use this experience to such powerful effect in her poetry. D Day, Security and (most especially) Inside should be required reading for sufferers, their families and the professionals who care for them:

"I ask if you took sugar in your tea,
if you did
would you mind not kissing me,
washing your hands before we hug.
Your arms pressurise like a brief squeeze on a blown egg...
...Wind flicks then chucks tears back into your face.
You lick them.
I tongue my top lip to try mine but
they’re not even salty."
(from Inside)

There are clear signs that One of Many Knots is a debut poetic work. A few of the poems are a little prosy, with just a few too many words; there is occasional over-use of alliteration. But Metcalfe is confident in her voice and sure of her subject matter. It is impossible to measure the value of writing which helps others to understand the life-shattering effects of mental illness and the brutal impact of the system in which patients find themselves. This is fearless, utterly truthful poetry, bleakly authentic yet still somehow hopeful – the rare sign of a poet who has something to say that actually matters, and deserves to make a tremendous impact saying it.