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Editorial from PN Review 164

Editorial from PN Review 164
How far should the facts of a poet's ethnic or cultural identity impinge upon the editorial mechanisms that deliver poetry to its readerships? A different question: How far should the facts of a poet's ethnic or cultural identity impinge upon the programming mechanisms that deliver poetry to its audiences? The crucial difference is between poems in print and poems in voice, face, body, gesture, choreography. The answers to these two questions should differ: but much will depend on how informed about publishing, or event organizing, the asker is; and how page versus how performance-oriented. Editors are not generally aware of the ethnic or cultural identity of a new poet submitting poems, even when subject matter or diction suggests a specific background. An events organizer necessarily knows, and this knowledge is an element in the programming mix.

Spread the Word, a literature development agency, has been commissioned by the Arts Councils of England, Scotland and Wales to conduct a survey of all the Black and Asian poets in their catchment areas, to "discover your experiences of the publishing world". The research "is focused strongly on achieving results, using the information we collect to produce strong recommendations to improve opportunities and support for poets in the future. These will be backed by all three Arts Councils and used to influence the publishing industry directly." The "industry" is implicitly defined as the magazine and book publishing industry; other, one is tempted to say more modern, forms of "publishing" are hardly considered. Built into this research are a set of pre-suppositions and an implied mechanism of persuasion or implementation. Unease has been expressed among black writers themselves about the very terms of the research, welcome though it is in tenor.

Who are 'all' the Black and Asian poets? For the purposes of the Spread the Word survey, anyone, at any stage of their "career", who says he or she is. The first question poets must answer separates page from performer poets (some may opt to be amphibious); after this the categories are blurred. Many of the questions asked ("How many submissions did you make before being published for the first time") are meaningful only if statistical information, garnered in the same way, is available for the poetry community at large. Otherwise there is no point of comparison, only an implicit assumption that the poets being surveyed have a harder time. Poets who have been published must "identify the most important factors (other than your talent and ability) of your being published for the first time". The multiple choice answers do not allow the poet to adduce the fact of ethnicity itself, crucial in connection with those presses which specialise specific areas.

Spread the Word also anticipates that those canvassed desire to "become an established poet". At no stage are aesthetic question broached: does the poet want to do something unexpected and new? To change the course of the river? To bring new sounds and tonalities on to the page? The word "career" displaces the word "vocation" and everywhere the issue of money is in the forefront of the survey's questioning. Not performance earning, but earning from paper publication.

I view this survey in a troubled spirit. It is important for writers and editors to understand the processes of exclusion and inclusion. If they are to do so, it is vital for those who ask the questions to establish, first, a norm against which abnormal trends can be measured, then the differences between forms of transmission and composition, and finally to acknowledge that publishing and performance can require texts and pretexts different in kind. It has historically been hard to accommodate "literature" within the forms the Arts Council supports because the terms used in appraisal and validation are often borrowed from the performing arts. Such terminological slippages must not distort research work: if they do, a foregone and not very useful conclusion is unavoidable. If "editors need to recalibrate", as Simon Armitage is quoted as saying, their "recalibration" needs a valid basis and must entail artistic, and then other criteria. For an inquiry into magazine, chapbook and book poetry publishing to privilege performance work is to contradict terms, like chiding recording companies for providing inadequate literature. The issue, at this level at least, is generic, and should be recognized as such.

This is a reproduction of Michael Schmidt's editorial to PN Review no. 164.
-- Michael Schmidt (10/08/2005)

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