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Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

The Thursday Post: Diversity Rich

An all-woman panel at StAnza 2016
An all-woman panel at StAnza 2016

I’m still recovering from what I believe will come to be known as ‘the poet’s flu’ of StAnza 2016. I’ve heard of at least five or six of us who had it during StAnza or came down with it right after. Donna Stonecipher gave an enchanting reading while completely ‘spaced out’ (her words) due to her poet’s flu. Respect to her for powering on in the midst of it: typing (let alone thinking) feels like a major effort at the moment.

Having said that, International Women’s Day deserves to be celebrated, sickness or no, so here goes. It was delightful to realise over the StAnza weekend that I’m sure I saw a majority of women on stage — how rare, how marvellous! It didn’t feel odd or forced, just as it should be, that there were so many great poets programmed and so many of them happened to be women. No one drew attention to it (here I go drawing attention to it!), but, for instance… the Breakfast at the Poetry Café: Translation or VERSschmuggeling event I attended on Sunday morning, featuring six women including the indefatigable Annie Rutherford as chair, was a powerful and thought-provoking conversation by a group of powerful and thought-provoking females, all working at very high levels in their fields.

Kudos to Director Eleanor Livingstone and Programme Co-ordinator Annie for such a balanced and female-friendly programme. Long may it continue, and may it be reflected not only in who is being published in the UK but also in more women taking on the role of publisher and critic (check out the remarkable Tender Journal). I strongly believe that we need a more balanced representation across gender and race in the decision-making positions as to who is getting published and programmed if we are ever going to open up notions of what poetry is in the UK and challenge the ‘dominant, authoritative mode of lyric speech’ as the brilliant Sandeep Parmar so eloquently writes in her important essay ‘Not a British Subject’.

I was moved by the quality of readings given by poets Em Strang and Nora Gomringer, both pushing boundaries of form and performance. I enjoyed female double bill Border Crossings featuring the aforementioned Donna Stonecipher & Sarah Holland-Batt and Meg Bateman & Clare Best, and a wonderful event called London Laureates that showcased three young London poets, Selina Nwulu, Zia Ahmed and Harriet Creelman, and was, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most diverse poetry events I’ve been to in a while. It is comforting to be reminded that diversity does actually result in a richer and more vibrant experience for audiences, and that it is vital for programmers and publishers to continue to fight for this in order that all poets working in the UK and their readers have the opportunity to broaden their influences.

It hasn’t passed unnoticed that the father-and-son team who edited Poems That Make Grown Men Cry (groan… you can read about my concerns with that one here) have now edited a sister anthology: you guessed it, Poems That Make Grown Women Cry. Of course they’ve got a hundred famous names on the cover. Of course they’ve partnered with Amnesty International, so they’re beyond reproach (No offence to Amnesty — we’re admirers and supporters!). Of course it came out just in time for International Women’s Day (nice timing, marketing super-brains). Of course it’s still a book of poetry edited by TWO WHITE MEN. I’m sure it contains a host of lovely poems. I wonder if it comes with a box of pink, rose-scented tissues?

And yet… the Guardian review by Sebastian Faulks suggests that ‘when we respond to poetry we engage a part of our being that is more primitive and in some way purer than the consciousness available minute by minute to our busy left-side brain.’ This relates to what really bugs me about these books: people are chided into feeling that poetry should bring them to some emotional climax immediately. Not everyone laughs at the same movies or cries at the same movies. Same goes with poetry, and none of us should be made to feel that we don’t understand poetry if a particular poem, or even many poems, don’t open the floodgates. I like to think of poetry as an intimate relationship; it might take a long time to find the poem (or person) that really touches you, and it might take a long time re-reading a poem (or getting to know a person) to come to the point where you connect with it on a really deep emotional and intellectual level. I agree that one of the poems Faulks mentions, ‘Donal Og’, is extraordinary, but it didn't make me burst into tears. That doesn’t make me like it any less.

On to happier thoughts. Why not treat yourself to a joyful afternoon and come down to the Scottish Poetry Library to read or borrow some splendid books by women? These are just a few on my current 'read as soon as I can get my hands on them' list: Measures of Expatriation by Vahni Capildeo, Stone by Em Strang, Claudia Rankine’s Forward Prize-winning Citizen and Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way by Linda Russo. I’m not sure if they’ll make me cry, but I suspect they’ll make me want to write, which is one of the main reasons why I read poetry.

Jennifer Williams
Programme Manager, SPL

Category: poets