Monday 9 April 2012

Poetry and Tribalism (Mirror post!)

'Tribalism' is, of course, a negative term, a word we use to criticise. We scorn it, want to be done with it, and yet it seems to perfectly describe a kind of attitude that few human beings avoid entirely. We identify ourselves as being part of a certain group, and round others up, usually without their permission, into contrasting groups which we define ourselves against. It afflicts British poetry culture, at least to an extent I see played out in various public and private interactions, and it could do, I think, with some objective analysis, as well as further discussion.

The three main tribes I'm referring to are: the mainstream, the spoken word scene (alternatively, performance poetry, slam or stand-up poetry) and the avant-garde (alternatively, non-mainstream or innovative poetry). Some of these terms are hotly debated, rejected or modified for clarity, but in order to get on with an article like this, I simply have to use them loosely. Via Facebook, internet forums, articles and pub conversations, I've experienced various discussions of the differences or lack thereof between the three, but these discussions tend to take place between like-minded people. I rarely see a proponent of the avant-garde square off against a regular from London's spoken word scene, for example. If parts of this post therefore seem to labour a screamingly obvious point, it's because I am addressing myself to myriad different viewpoints which, to my mind, seldom agree on what is and is not obvious.

So I'm going to try to pull some threads together. First of all, let's consider some positive (and crude) generalisations, just to get our bearings:
  • The spoken word scene is grass roots poetry, increasingly popular and well-attended, priding itself on being inclusive, non-elitist and politically engaged. Spoken-word artists eschew obscurity to address topics directly and passionately through stage performance and are active in overturning the popular image of poetry as fusty and self-obsessed. The scene has its roots in the centuries-old traditions of tavern performance and oral storytelling.
  • Avant-garde poetry emphasises radical thinking, playfulness and the critical importance of language. Its principle belief is that powerful institutions and the outdated ideals that sustain them can only be challenged by revolutionising and reenergising language itself, by undermining and overturning the registers and modes of exchange that reinforce current orthodoxies. It embraces feminism and minority poetics and seeks to dispel myths about poetry that limit its scope and reach, including the idea that poems should be understood merely as self-expression or versified narratives.
  • 'Mainstream' poetry is not so much a scene or movement as it is a catch-all term for the most widely acclaimed poets of all stripes, as well as the numerous others whose work bears a familial resemblance to these 'leaders in the field'. Its style is defined only by whatever is popular and enduring, and shifts over time. If there is a modus operandi at all, it is one of inclusivity through emphasis on the individual poetic 'voice', rather than any particular style or school of thought. Good mainstream poetry avoids both elitism and populism, attempting to meet readers half way, the idea being that good poetry needs to be challenging but also that poets must make every effort to engage their audience.
All three tend to give primacy to reader pleasure, but the latter two tend (to differing extents) to anticipate or require a certain hunger or adventurousness from the reader.

Now let's look at the harsher negative stereotypes of each which are sometimes bandied about:
  • Spoken word is the domain of aspiring comedians, hip-hop artists and rabble-rousers who like a more pliant audience, shoehorning jokes and tirades into the loosest of verse structures. It's the medium of choice for those who make little effort to refine their poetic craft and lack the patience for poetry's more subtle effects, making much of the output derivative and rambling.
  • Avant-garde poetry, despite its pretensions, is dominated by middle class white academics who have failed to break into the mainstream and now disingenuously associate incomprehensibility and opaqueness in poetry with daring and cleverness. The literary equivalent of Brit Art, it's Emperor's New Clothes syndrome writ large; endless pontificating on random assemblages of text using plenty of jargon in order to prove you're part of the club.
  • Mainstream poetry is a small enclave of largely white, upper middle class men who live comfortably enough to obsess mostly over trivial things and ignore most politics, look down on popular culture and compete for status in a classical canon, taking care to avoid offending too many sensibilities or challenging too many orthodoxies. Because of their (unearned) power and prestige, they are in a position to pick and choose the next generation of 'mainstream' poets from those whose beliefs and writing styles flatter their own, and, of course, from the creative writing courses they run.

There is at least a kernel of truth in all of these descriptions. There's also much in the latter three that is informed by snobbery in its various forms, and by the problem of accessibility/simplicity versus difficulty/obscurity in art, which seems to result in deeply entrenched positions. I'd like to think most people agree that both difficult and accessible writing can be democratic and a force for good, and that each can respectively feel pointlessly obtuse or artless if handled poorly. The debate that rages seems to be about where we can draw the lines, although the most heated remarks are often so hopelessly broad-brush that the debate never really gets going.

It's very likely that there are poets operating in each of the three spheres I identify who feel they are there because the other two won't have them, or because they believe their own particular scene grants them access to the widest and most diverse audience. That experience is highly subjective though. Most poets looking to carve out an audience will undergo a process of gradual refinement, improvement and compromise that finds them gravitating towards one or the other, depending on how their personal judgement evolves.

As an example, my own work fits mostly in the mainstream bracket, and it's likely that I've consciously made an effort to reconcile my ambitions to the dominant forms and aesthetics in that area. But I've also attempted to find my footing in some spoken word arenas, and a portion of my work has always seemed to be more in keeping with avant-garde fashions (albeit I don't see it as being in any way out of step with my other poems). This has led to me to some vexing and seemingly nonsensical considerations: this old sestina that guarantees a laugh when read aloud, should I discard it utterly or keep it around as a surefire crowd-pleaser? How many collage poems do I dare slip into a submission for a mainstream poetry magazine? Which poems from my pamphlet can I safely perform without being dismissed as a dull page poet?

Coming out of this, my own subjective experience is that the spoken word scene is the most difficult to engage with. I've found that it demands a kind of force of personality that I don't have and don't want to have, and that my tastes are generally out of kilter with most of the audience. The world of avant-garde seems to line up more with the kind of work I want to write, but also seems to demand a degree of familiarity with certain niche poetics and a strong academic leaning, neither of which I possess. Therefore, for me, the mainstream has probably offered the shortest distance to travel in order to find the right fit, as far as I can find the right fit anywhere.

But that's, as I say, simply my own experience. I don't believe the case has been proven that any one of these three is fundamentally more embracing of all styles and approaches than the others. People being people, the process of becoming included, of working out where you fit in, requires a negotiation that challenges and tempers some egos while inflaming others (particularly where the 'fit' is near instantaneous). People being people, those most comfortable and most settled in their space can become arrogant and lazy. Arguably, this is most achingly obvious in the mainstream world, because of its relative apportionment of status and power. The same names are recycled by prize committees and editors stricken with nearly identical preferences. We don't need to believe the rumours of flagrant nepotism; flawed human nature is explanation enough. Without an unaffiliated, independent critical culture or scrutiny from an external source (in other words, without constant prodding, nit-picking, niggling and badgering) people of influence settle into a clan-like arrangement. Hence Ted Hughes Prize winner Lavinia Greenlaw tellingly remarking that the shortlist she was on looked like "a family photo" last month. The belief that, say, that Sean O'Brien or Robin Robertson has produced yet another outstanding collection is genuine and uncynical - it's simply based on a lack of consistent exposure to contrary views and tastes, and susceptibility to the 'aura' of a poet who has made their name.

It's worth noting, though, that the spoken word and avant-garde scenes suffer from the same human fallibilities, albeit theirs are less visible and (because they do not have access to the same resources) less disagreeable. "Avantpo criticism," as one poet describes it on Facebook, "is somewhere between an echo-chamber and a circlejerk", and when one starts drawing lines between poets based on book endorsements, namechecks in essays, guest editorships of underground magazines and the like, the web of affiliations quickly becomes apparent. Similarly, many spoken word nights feature a carousel of familiar names, something particularly notable when performances are televised or otherwise of a higher profile.

Conversely, it seems at first glance like all the rancour is directed towards the mainstream from the two 'outskirter' tribes. You almost feel sorry for mainstream poetry when you see it described, on the one hand, as needlessly complex and unintelligible by some spoken word advocates, and on the other dismissed as "the simple plundering of domesticated interiority for its symbolic potential" in a letter to the Cambridge Review. It seems to catch the brunt simply for being in the middle. Only Don Paterson hits back, and then only in the direction of the avant-garde, branding it "that peculiar and persistent brand of late romantic expressionism, almost always involving the deliberate or inept foregrounding of form and strategy over content - almost in a proud demonstration of their anti-naturalism".

But from a position of privilege, the persistent foregrounding of mainstream poets in broadsheets and government-funded bodies is counter-aggression enough, particularly when you have Carol Ann Duffy making remarks like "there's little competitiveness in the poetry world", self-evidently reducing 'the poetry world' to the mainstream only. Niall O'Sullivan, host of Poetry Unplugged, is judicious in remarking that he bears no ill will towards the mainstream prize circuit "as long as those involved don’t utter the usual lines about how they honestly tried to simply choose the best collection". But they do, and this is a problem.

The antipathy, therefore, is roughly constant across the three tribes. So, I would say, is the propensity for a lack of objectivity. And is there roughly equal potential for strong and innovative poetry in each? I would say there is. Is there roughly equal likelihood of tiredness and mediocrity being mistaken for consistency? Yes. Are there always overrated poets? Absolutely. Sean O'Brien, Keston Sutherland and Kate Tempest, respectively, are not so far in front of the bulk of their contemporaries as their reputations suggest.

There is one distinction that is worth deeper consideration, though, and which may reveal a fundamental cause (or reinforcer, at least) of the tribalistic attitudes. While mainstream poetry undoubtedly revolves around a system of meritocracy, ostensibly rewarding poets proportionately to their work's value, both the spoken word and avant garde scenes seem to operate more in the spirit of a collective, where active and frequent participation puts you on the same level as most of your peers. In terms of organisation structure, it's like comparing a pyramid to an even plain with the odd spike. I've picked up this impression from various sources, but just to give a couple of recent examples, this interview in The Morning Star describes the moment a first-time reader is announced at Poetry Unplugged:
"... the host hollers: 'Next up, a Poetry Unplugged virgin!' and a roar of approval spreads throughout the intimate audience, a cheer louder than anyone would rightfully expect to emanate from 50 people." 
In the case of the avant-garde, this article by Alec Newman (editor of Knives, Forks and Spoons Press) in the Cordite review paints a picture of publishers that "cooperate in the dissemination of our titles [...] share our experiences, our strengths & our resources, and [...] quite often publish the same poets in the same month in order to bring them to the widest possible audience."

That's not to say there aren't aspects of meritocracy alive and well in the imaginations of both avant-garde and spoken word artists. Avant-gardists in particular seem at times to propose an alternative narrative of recent poetic history that is just as figurehead-heavy as the mainstream's, while spoken word is prone to the populist argument: whosoever draws the biggest crowd is the most deserving (in this sense, populism is just the other side of the coin to elitism; both entertain a kind of artistic social Darwinism, whereby the desired outcome is that the very few are raised onto pedestals for mass dissemination and the rest fall away, even if that ultimately restricts choice and opportunity).

But the mainstream, for the most part, lacks the counterbalance of a collective spirit. Poets are gracious and generous, but there is an expectation that beginners must start at the bottom of a long ladder and spend a long time fruitlessly clambering. There is expectation also of reverence toward those higher up the food chain than you (not to mention argy-bargy when it comes to the exact order of that food chain), and a deal of agitation about the 'excessive' amount of poetry being written. Here's Hugo Williams, on judging the Forward Prize in 2010:
"But an awful lot of them seemed to be published just because they existed, really. [147 collections is] too big a number of books in one year in one country to put out. I think it's something to do with the democratisation of everything – that everyone's got a right to get a book out ... I've got the feeling that sometimes it's more about desire than worth."
When we ask ourselves why British poetic culture isn't a continuum of styles, but seems to be regarded in terms of these three reductive pigeon-holes, it's perhaps this difference of approach that gives us the answer. The mainstream, which is at the centre, is not porous enough. Poets from either end of the spectrum do not drift into or through it in a way that would completely disrupt any attempt to differentiate and stigmatise.

Do I think the mainstream needs to lose its meritocratic attitudes then? Partly, but not entirely. An absolute lack of selectivity across the board would do more harm than good. It's been expressed to me that a serious problem among avant-gardists is that if you have the right attitude, the right chops, you're in, and there's no further editing of your poems or demands made of you as a writer. Discussion and debate about the relative merits of art and artists in any medium seems to me not just a healthy but an essential thing, but when it comes to a poem like Hot White Andy by Keston Sutherland, lauded by some as one of the best poems of the 21st century, I've read much intelligent analysis but nothing that even attempts to explain what it does that other, comparatively similar-looking texts do not. All poetry suffers from the problem of seeming to be, at first idle glance, indistinct and samey, which is why articulating distinctive qualities and features is essential. This articulation begins in blurbs and cover quotes and memorable remarks, and includes reviews and essays. One of the great flaws in our poetic culture, across the whole spectrum, is that it tends towards addressing inner circles and the converted, rather than attempting the more onerous task of engaging the sceptic. The avant-garde, on present evaluation, suffers even more heavily from this affliction, and the spoken word scene is almost totally lacking in written analysis, outside of the odd site like Sabotage Reviews.

This aspect of mainstream poetry's self-coverage, then, is one I find flawed but crucially important to any healthy poetic culture.

I also think the collective spirit can be over-emphasised to the extent that it becomes less, not more democratic. I had a brief exchange with Niall O'Sullivan on this in the comments section of the post I previously linked to where he usefully described the conflict between the inclusivity of folk cultures and the capitalist/corporate encouragement of solipsistic individualism:
"Mainstream poetry is all about the audience as a passive receiver, especially to the point where the poet often instructs the audience not to applaud until the very end. Inclusive tropes and turns of phrase are dismissed as cliche. 
"Originality and individualism are as much a part of capitalism and consumerism as they are a part of mainstream poetry and this is why I’m not that surprised to find a lack of engagement with the current social movements within it. It channels the university lecture where a few short questions are allowed at the end rather than the boisterous trade union gathering or the revivalist church service."
I partly agree with Niall here, but I also want to defend the university lecture model as an alternative and necessary means of including as many people as possible in progressive discourse. Popular rhetoric is simultaneously empowering and alienating. Many people exercise their social conscience by behaving sceptically towards mass sentiment and fashionable anti-establishment feeling, preferring to reach their own conclusions and to not to be grouped together with others whose views are broadly similar but not quite the same. Although there are toxic kinds of individualism, finding one's own way is also a kind of empowerment, one that is more familiar to many of us than the process of becoming part of a popular movement.

Without getting too sidetracked, the point here is simple: everyone arguing or conversing with each other in an unstructured way can lead to the most simplistic arguments and loudest voices being foregrounded. Affording a temporary elevated status to a poet (or lecturer), as the person addressing an audience, who are there to listen is, in theory at least, a recognition of the time and care they have put into what they are reciting - by definition more time and care than can be put into an immediate reaction. This permits a greater wealth of nuanced and intelligent viewpoints to be shared.

Let me try to further break this down: there is an irreconcilable disagreement, as I see it, between those who say, "If anyone can be a poet or writer indiscriminately, then it all becomes worthless - only a few will ever be worth listening to" and those who argue that any amount of selectivity is non-democratic and necessarily endorsing of the current regime (ie. those at the top of any social order will oppose change). There has to be a path between those extremes which aims to justly reward any artist who is willing to commit, continually improve, and not avoid their social responsibilities. Mainstream poetry does not achieve this - it is too married to a certain family of styles, too non-fluid to recognise its own deficiencies - but some of the framework is there, and it's a framework that needs to be preserved and built upon.

What this all comes down to is, you might think, rather bland: all three 'tribes' I have identified are important to British poetic culture and ideally should form a continuous, non-staggered spectrum. There is far too much of a tendency towards dismissiveness across the board, and too little effort made to properly recognise the merits of one another. Our collective responsibility, I think, is to change the mainstream without destroying it - or worse, replacing it with something similarly flawed.


The Editors said...

Jon, an excellent and closely-argued piece, and I'd like to respnd more intently, but sadly I've not had enough coffee as yet. I totally agree that some degree of conversation amongst the various tribes of British poetry is necessary (even if this does not take the form of an active attempt to break the boundaries between them down altogether). The work I value most in contemporary poetry - from old hands like Lee Harwood and Roy Fisher, to the poetry of Hannah Silva and Matthew Welton - seems to hover at the edge of particular scenes or groupings, falling foul of the excesses of none of them. It's notable that a number of the attention grabbing anthologies of poetry's youf brigade - Identity Parade, Voice Recognition, the Salt gathering of young poets - make a big noise about plurality, the weathering away of the old animosities that have fuelled poetry debate since, ooh, at least the first Georgian anthology. I guess by the tenor of your argument that you're less convinced that those divisions are on the way out than the editors of those volumes are. Is there light at the end of the tunnel, and if so, what form does it take?


Simon Turner @ Gists and Piths

PS: Sorry, that really went on forever. I'm not a fan of paragraph breaks, I'm afraid - I blame Faulkner.

David Floyd said...

One thing that interests me connected to this is that, while in music and, to an extent in fiction, there's some crossover between 'mainstream' and 'commercial', that's not the case in poetry.

There's virtually no one earning an unsubsidised living from poetry in the UK.

I'd guess there's fewer than 10 living UK poets whose work would be published on the basis of unsubsidised publishers earning a living from selling their work.

And the majority of that tiny group would be regarded more as being 'spoken word' than 'mainstream'.

I'm not pointing this out to attack subsidy of poetry - or commercial publishers publishing non-commercial work on the basis of prestige - but to suggest that poetry operates on a different economic basis to (some) other art forms.

That creates a world where comments liked the one from Hugo Williams (which I disagree with) make sense becauses it's an industry primarily based on non-commercial value judgments not commercial ones.

Harry Giles said...

Jon asked me to copy this comment, which I fist tweeted (hence the cursoriness):

Jon Stone's talking loads of sense. The main thing missing from that @SidekickBooks article is an appreciation of how criticism and success work in the spoken word scene. Jon's definitely right to say we don't have as healthy a culture of criticism in spoken word as in page poetry. But it's not absent entirely. Criticism is largely oral, informal and dialogical rather than written, formal and discursive. You get feedback if you ask for it. Meritocracy isn't as clear as publishing, but it's there: length of set, size of fee, which nights you do, whether you tour, who tweets you. But spoken word also deliberately does stuff to shake up hierarchy and meriotcracy: slams, open mics, the tradition of cheering first-timers.

You can find the ensuing discussion, about how poets ability to engage and self-promote affects this, is here:

The other thing I'd add is that the conclusion of Jon's article is maybe a little bit too easy. Jon's done a great job of talking about how class, race, power and privilege characterise the debates -- but it's then important to remember that those dynamics characterise how people tallk about the debate. You can't blame everyone equally for the way debates between these scenes get so simplistic and unhelpful -- the way a "mainstream" poet dismisses spoken word is very different, politically, from the way a spoken word artist will dismiss the mainstream. Or it should be understood differently. To put it very crudely, because spoken word is populist, and is so often the poetry of marginalised voices, mainstream's dismissal of spoken word is the exertion of power, whereas spoken word's aggressive response is an attack (perhaps not always constructive) on that power.

Jon Stone said...

Thanks for the comment, Simon! I think the editors of those anthologies have good cause to be optimistic and that Roddy Lumsden has made a genuine sustained effort towards greater plurality. His tastes are broader than mine in many ways. But they are all predominantly mainstream anthologies, and the Salt Book of Younger Poets (which I think is a brilliant book regardless) is very much dominated by Oxbridge students, as Stonborough notes in her introduction. That suggests to me that there is still a way to go, even though we are seeing poets starting to cross over and straddling mainstream/spoken word or mainstream/avant-garde. I think the ultimate goal is for those labels to become redundant. Niall also pointed out to me recently that even though it's from the best of intentions, the Poetry Society's separate Foyle Young Poets awards and Slambassadors separates out young talent at an early age into mainstream and spoken word, and I'd like a future where many young poets can easily slot into both.

But yes, I think there is light at the end of the tunnel. We have Tom Chivers' 'Adventures in Form', and we have poets like Inua Ellams, Warsan Shire and Kayo Chingonyi straddling the divide. Flipped Eye Publishing also deserve more than a nod. I should have really mentioned all this in the article. Damn.

I'm a big fan of Welton too - I have 'Book of Matthew' out on the desk in front of me! Saw Hannah Silva twice in short succession recently and she is also very impressive.

Nellissima said...

I liked this post. I particularly appreciated the careful way you outlined a way of looking (meaningfully) at the current situation. I was nodding as I read, which must mean your way of seeing this is not a million miles from my own.

I am not sure where things will go or need to go. I think there is always a dynamic tension for any individual writer between their own sense of what they are doing and where that fits in terms of what they thing 'mostpeople' (e e cummings) are doing.

I know that if there was more discursive analysis, in the form you have here, in the Times Literary Supplement, I would buy it far more often.

I am posting a comment here not only because I really DID enjoy this, but because it is by you, Jon, and so far comments are from you, Simon, you, David, and you, Harry. All good traditional mainstream British names. And every one of you a man. Mainstream or manstream?

Tim Love said...

Thanks for posting this. A few points -

You say there are likely to be "poets operating in each of the three spheres" - I suspect you're right, with both friends and foes doing the typecasting.

"One of the great flaws in our poetic culture, across the whole spectrum, is that it tends towards addressing inner circles and the converted, rather than attempting the more onerous task of engaging the sceptic". Agreed. On The poetry mainstream I wondered about what a workshop to broaden the minds of mainstreamers would be like, comparing it with a similar workshop for avant-garders. Lots of sticks as well as carrots, but where are the role models? How/where do the domains overlap? Where are the channels of communication? Who are the explorers, the ambassadors?

Poetic Culture by Christopher Beach considered the situation in the States, looking at how different types of poet gauge and achieve success, and whether there are routes from success in one domain (e.g. Slam) to others. It mentions tactics used by one tribe against another: isolate and ignore; praise one of them at the expense of the others; focus solely on a benign component of their work (e.g. form) or focus solely on a non-poetry aspect (e.g. politics, attitude to drugs, rude words).

Sarah Snell-Pym said...

Just when I think I have got the hang of being a poet in the poetry world I read something like this :/

The conclusion - I am somehow missing the middle and am partaking in the two outliers simultaneously.

I just assumed that people liked different styles so migrated to events/publications that suited them. Poetry is really very fridge anyway.

I shall think upon this little lot some more.

Thankyou for posting


Anne said...

Fascinating article. You say that all three tribes "tend to give primacy to reader pleasure", and characterise the spoken word audience as pliant, but I wonder how you'd characterise the audience/readership for the other two tribes. Certainly there is no shortage of readings from either. Avpo performers can be quite dramatic, often eschewing any sort of preliminary audience-engaging chat. Mainstream poets are more likely to chat to the audience.

But what sort of audiences are they? Who reads these books? What is the sort of pleasure they are getting, and does that merely respond to the poets' work or is it in part a driver?

If there were a Venn diagram for audience, I'd be in the overlapping middle, like you. I can't avoid the suspicion that what keeps some people out of that intersection has little to do with poetry and more to do with assumptions about it.

Anonymous said...

I'm really surprised that you think the mainstream is male-dominated. I'd mention Jo Shapcott, Lavinia Greenlaw, Jane Draycott, Gillian Clarke, Kathleen Jamie, Gwyneth Lewis, Jackie Kay, Sinead Morrisey, Leontia Flynn, Mimi Khalvati, Alice Oswald, Jen Hadfield, Moniza Alvi, Helen Dunmore, and the blessed Carol-Ann herself, as evidence that the mainstream is full of women.

Afric McGlinchey said...

Very interesting Jon, and also the commentators. I find I'm attracted to each 'tribe' for different reasons, and enjoy experimenting with both avant garde and more mainstream forms. I also enjoy reading a wide diversity of poetry. There is a kind of trap, I think, because of the pressure to identify with one group or another, limiting your creativity and experimentalism in order to present a consistent and distinctive 'voice'. Which can be frustrating! Part of the reason I write is for FUN, for the challenge, the excitement of language, and curiosity about where a poem will lead me. Too much pigeon-holing can be destructive.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting Jon, and also the commentators. I enjoy experimenting with both avant garde and more mainstream forms. I also enjoy reading a wide diversity of poetry. There is a kind of trap, I think, because of the pressure to identify with one group or another, limiting your creativity and experimentalism in order to present a consistent and distinctive 'voice'. Which can be frustrating! Part of the reason I write is for FUN, for the challenge, the excitement of language, and curiosity about where a poem will lead me. Too much pigeon-holing can be destructive.

Adam Horovitz said...

Thanks for your article, Jon. Whilst I agree with the main thrust of the piece, I would question the idea that poetry is divided into three tribes. In my experience, poetry is a tribe in its own right - the mainstream, the (for want of a better phrase) performance scene and the avant-garde are, rather than tribes, factions within the tribe. We're all poets, after all - whatever some may think of others.

The negative connotations are, I believe, rooted not so much in tribalism as a concept, more in the idea that all three factions are so far removed from each other that they can be called tribes and feel so apart from each other.

It might make it a little easier for people to accept the generous, unificatory thrust of your article were that distinction made.

Tom Chivers said...

Thanks for your article Jon. A very honest take on the situation, and one which reflects your wide interests and reading.

Through my work as an editor/publisher/producer/promoter I have always been interested in finding points of connection within the triangle; that is, mainstream / avant-garde / spoken word. In the last 5 or 6 years I have definitely felt new currents, both within discrete 'scenes', between them, and outside them. It's what Roddy Lumsden calls Post-Division Era, but of course that tagline (any tagline) inevitably brings a degree of fixity to what is increasingly a fluid landscape.

I have some sympathy with the idea (which I've heard a few times) that the kind of breaking down of divisions you and I are calling for is not necessarily a good thing; that the 'biodiversity' of the artform may require that some species, if you will, develop in isolation or with only limited contact with others.

My own feeling is that a balance must be struck in poetry between - to borrow from theological terms - ecumenicalism and syncretism. Ecumenicalism is a way of reaching out between different scenes, of sharing and finding common ground, of respectful dialogue - what might also be called 'unity in diversity'. Whereas syncretism would be a kind of sludgy, homogenised middle-ground, in which the uniqueness of different forms of writing poetry would be at risk of collapsing.

Anonymous said...

Yeah there are these divisions, tribes, etc. Good and bad poetry in each. Good to check them all out and talk with people, know which of the many different kinds of work affects one deeply etc. There's also another group, that rarely thinks of itself as a group and probably most of it's 'members' are hardly aware of it, so it's not really a group, which is just isolated individual poets, sometimes referred to as outsider poets, who sometimes don't mix much, and probably we'll never know of most of them. Then there's a lot of non-English language poets in our midst, another valuable bunch of poets there. chris