Monday, 24 March 2014

Is poetry a feminist issue? Part 1

Last week I had the pleasure of being one of the support acts for performance poetry star Hollie McNish. The event was a special one for International Women's Week, organised by my friends at Stairwell Books, and advertised to a largely (but by no means exclusively) female audience.

The material performed by the singers and poets covered a vast range of topics. Motherhood featured prominently, as did tributes to women who were inspirational in the lives of the performers. But so did nature and the turn of the seasons, love, sex and heartbreak, and one or two more outlandish subjects – a song about tapeworms, for example!

I was struck by the fact that this wasn't an evening of “women's poetry” – it was an evening of poetry, pure and simple. It's possible that some of the subject matter may have been more appealing to female listeners than to males – one male audience member did comment to me afterwards that there were slightly more poems about childbirth than he was entirely comfortable with! But on the whole, it seemed to me that the idea of “women's poetry”, as sometimes raised in critics' circles, was a pretty much artificial one.

This does not appear to be the view of the literary establishment, however, according to one recent article. Poet Angela France, writing on the Litro blog, reports a positive disdain from poetry critics towards female poets who write autobiographically or in the first person, particularly about subjects such as childbirth and parenthood which were traditionally considered as being of interest mainly to women. Such poetry, she says, tends to get dismissed as “confessional” and treated as if it is of lesser worth than more intellectually centred poetry. Worse still, she claims, a double standard exists which allows male poets to write autobiographically to great acclaim (in the case of, for example, Christopher Reid), but exposes female poets who do so to derision, sometimes of a disturbingly misogynistic nature.

France's hyper-awareness of this critical disdain, she says, has inhibited her own approach to her poetry. She's almost scared now of writing in the first person, anticipating what she sees as an inevitable critical backlash if she does.

These claims seemed far-fetched to me when I first read them. All poets take it personally when their work is rejected, after all – so was this just an attempt by the writer to shift the blame for a bad review away from herself? Sadly not. What makes this article particularly galling is that France presents compelling evidence that what she perceives is actually going on.

To take just one example: publisher Neil Astley and blogger Fiona Moore have both surveyed reviews of poetry books in the Guardian over a period of several years. It turns out that in 2012-13 only 25% of the poetry books reviewed were written by women. The situation was even worse a few years earlier; in 2003-5 only 10 out of the 66 books reviewed were written by women, and all but four of the critics actually writing the reviews were men. This in a climate where women significantly outnumber men as readers of poetry, and (judging by the newsletters and emails I receive from poetry publishers) as writers too.

France's article is detailed, and contains a sorry catalogue of evidence that I needn't reproduce here. The picture it paints is of a culture – endemic amongst the more traditional publishers and critics of poetry – that's stuck in a patriarchal, 1950s-esque mindset and hasn't actually noticed that society has moved on. It's the literary equivalent of WH Smith filing their science and politics journals under “Men’s Interest” while “Women’s Interest” is restricted to magazines about baking and knitting. And this bothers me intensely.

As a (male) writer of poetry, I often instinctively use a female narrative voice – or else try to explore the male response to issues that traditional thinking would categorise as “women's concerns”. A Long Way to Fall, the title poem of my recent collection, revolves around a terrified father-to-be coming to terms with impending parenthood. At the other end of the scale, my prize winning Separate Taxis reflects the guilt felt by the partner of a rape victim for not being there to prevent the abuse inflicted on his female partner.

These days I read far more female poets than males. The three local poets I've most vigorously championed in York are all women. And when I've judged poetry competitions, the poems I've selected as my First Prize winners have to date all been written by women. If this reflects a bias on my part, it isn't a conscious one; poems are submitted to competitions anonymously, after all, so I have no idea of the gender of the writer.

Am I reading (and writing) “women’s poetry” then? I don't think so. As far as I'm concerned there's no gender label on good poetry. It's just poetry, and should be celebrated as such. As last week's event showed, a poem about a tapeworm can be “women's poetry” every bit as much as one about childbirth. But if Angela France is correct, there’s an outside chance that my fascination with the female poetic voice may just explain one or two of the bad reviews I've had when submitting to the more, shall we say, highbrow journals...

Discrimination exists. That seems unarguable. But to play devil's advocate for a minute, it can cut both ways. I can remember one rather snide review of Oz Hardwick's excellent collection The Illuminated Dreamer, in which the (female) reviewer took great umbrage at the sensuousness of Hardwick’s imagery. The subtext of the review appeared to be that only women had a right to write sensuous poetry, and that for a male poet to do so was somehow in bad taste. This seemed to me to be imposing a rather warped extreme of feminism onto a collection of poems which had nothing to do with the politics of gender identity. The poems in question were about love, no more and no less.

So should female poets (and those like me, who aspire to match the great female poets) give up the female narrative voice altogether? Should they write only material with which condescending male critics are comfortable (about cars, or football, or abstract philosophy perhaps?) Wouldn't the world be a much duller place if they did? Much better to shake up the establishment altogether. These sneering male critics are pompous arses, and the best way to deal with them is to deprive them of the oxygen of attention. They are only arbiters of taste because the establishment allows them to be.

So here's to a new establishment – or maybe better yet, no establishment at all. Here's to sisters (and brothers) doing it for themselves: writing and promoting work that actually speaks meaningfully about life, to those who are crying out for it.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Creative writing courses - are they really a waste of time?

Hanif Kureishi, the grumpy old man of modern English literature, ruffled a few feathers at the Bath Literary Festival recently. Kureishi, who is Professor of Creative Writing at Kingston University, was reported in the Guardian to have told his audience that creative writing courses are "a waste of time" and that the idea of a one-year MA in Creative Writing was "madness".

Kureishi's comments concerned his experiences teaching prose fiction, but they touched a few chords that were familiar to me as a poet. He criticised the unrealistic expectations of his Creative Writing students, their preoccupation with the style of the writing rather than the substance of the story, and above all the idea that writing talent could be hot-housed in the compressed timescale of a university course. "After about five years [students] really realise something about writing," he said. "It's a very slow thing. People go on writing courses for a weekend and you think, 'A weekend?'"

I have to admit I find it hard to argue with his line of reasoning. I've always taken the view that poetry is a craft that requires patience. Just as poems need time to mature, so poetic talent isn't something that can be rushed. I blogged not that long ago about my concern that Creative Writing courses were trying to rush people into publication before they, as poets, had really found their voice. I can't help but suspect that many Creative Writing graduates are the literary equivalent of forced rhubarb. Quick to flourish, their output is full of flavour, for a short time; but take away the supports, and they collapse.

There are other agendas at work here too, over and above the largely benign one of hot-housing literary talent. Universities are commercial enterprises now. In the wake of the Dearing Report, the imposition of tuition fees, and the constant 'reforms' of the academic sector since the 1990s, universities can only survive if they bring in the cash. Universities can only bring in the cash if they can show measurable output. And churning out dozens of aspiring writers with Creative Writing MAs and premature publications is a way of demonstrating 'measurable output'. It's the only way the institutions can justify the frankly astronomical price tag that the ConDem government has imposed on university education.

This is where I start to feel very uncomfortable. It would be a sorry impoverishment of our cultural life if the only way for an aspiring writer (in whatever genre) to develop their craft was to fork out £9000 a year for a Creative Writing degree. Much of society already accepts the lie that writing and literature is something a little bit elitist. My socialistic instincts balk at the thought of education only being available to those with the means to pay for it.

We are not yet at a point where the dominance of the Creative Writing degree is absolute. There are plenty of grassroots, amateur writers' groups (our own York Writers, for instance) willing to provide ongoing support and instruction to writers for a tiny fraction of the price tag of a university degree. There are individual writers and promoters who give unstintingly of their time and expertise to nurture the talents of the up-and-coming poets and authors who will be packing out the festivals of tomorrow – and often do it for nothing. There are writing programmes designed to take creativity into the streets, even into Young Offenders' Institutions, to improve the quality of life of people for whom a £9000-a-year tuition fee bill would be inconceivable. And long may it continue to be so.

Don't get me wrong. It's the system that's at fault, not the Creative Writing degrees – and not the fantastic tutors, poets and authors who teach the courses (several of whom are friends and colleagues of mine – all of whom I admire and respect). Where I think Kureishi misses the point is by reducing the Creative Writing degree to a purely utilitarian concept, a production line to turn people into marketable writers. It's more than that. Any university course is more than that.

He's forgotten (or perhaps it doesn't bother him) that, for many people, the impulse to write is a lonely, misunderstood state of being. We're lucky, in York, to have so many writers and a great support network for those who choose to tap into it. But not every writer has that. I've met many who confess that friends, families, even partners are indifferent to their urge to write, or downright hostile to it. An aspiring writer who grows up laughed at, belittled and shunned for his – or her – passion will find, in a university, acceptance, support, encouragement and the chance to expand their horizons. They will find people who are genuinely interested in what they are writing, and why. People who get that it matters. They will, in all likelihood, find themselves – or at least find how to start out on the journey.

And even if they never sell a single piece of their writing, that's still something you can never put a price tag on.