In the past decade, publishing and mentorship schemes targeting BAME poets and writers, new profile-raising festivals and readings, national prize winners and judging panels, as well as crucial cultural debates around race, gender and ethnicity, have dramatically improved the diversity of British poetry. However, reviewing culture has not accurately reflected this important shift towards a more inclusive poetry community of readers and writers. As recent statistics show (https://davepoems.wordpress.com), reviewers and poets of colour are hugely underrepresented in broadsheet and journal publications, with just 4.3% reviewers and 8.1% poets from BAME backgrounds.
Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics Programme was conceived with this imbalance in mind. Set up by poets Sarah Howe and Sandeep Parmar, was founded to encourage diversity in poetry reviewing culture and support emerging critical voices. Over the course of the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics scheme, those taking part are assigned a poetry critic mentor with experience reviewing for national journals, magazines (print and online) and broadsheet newspapers. Those applying may already be an emerging critic with a few published reviews, have some or no critical or academic background, or they might be strongly committed to becoming a poetry critic in the very near future and keen to explore issues of diversity in British poetry.
We’re delighted Sarah Howe took time to answer some questions about the scheme.
What are the reasons behind setting up the Ledbury Emerging Critics Programme?
Ledbury Emerging Critics came out of a string of conversations between Sandeep Parmar and myself around the time she was at work on her landmark article, ‘Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK’ (2015). Sandeep remains the visionary and powerhouse behind the Ledbury programme. In that piece she shone a light on some of the engrained and troubling patterns in the critical reception of BAME poets: the way, for example, so many reviews seemed to fetishize the biography and identity of minority poets at the expense of thoughtful engagement with the poems. The result was a critical culture that tended to treat their books as ‘colonial curiosities’ – or worse, failed to review them at all.
Partly thanks to mentorship initiatives like the Complete Works, the landscape of UK poetry publishing has transformed in recent years: the proportion of BAME poets published by major presses had risen from 1% in 2005 to 16% just over a decade later. But our sense was that review pages hadn’t kept pace, either in terms of the diversity of books reviewed or the critics commissioned to write on them. At last poets of colour were making inroads into print, only for their books to be met by silence in a critical culture ill-equipped to read them. This was confirmed by a report commissioned under the auspices of Liverpool University’s Centre for New and International Writing, which Sandeep directs. With the numbers laid out, we could see that only 8.6% of poetry books reviewed since 2012 were by poets of colour. The imbalance was even worse when it came to critics of colour, who were responsible for less than 5% of reviews published.
When Sandeep and I co-founded it in 2017, Ledbury Emerging Critics was our way of trying to do something relatively swift yet lasting about those numbers. At the same time, it was never only a question of statistics: if the long-term goal is to shift the critical discussion towards greater awareness and sophistication around matters of race, what better way to do that than by supporting a new generation of BAME critical voices? As critics and editors of colour ourselves, we had a sense of the distinctive kinds of readerly understanding BAME critics bring to bear on their reviews, as well as the hurdles they face in finding a platform. The immense success of the programme’s first round is a tribute to the hard work of its eight talented participants. In the year and a half since they started working with us, they have published engaged, perceptive and brilliantly written reviews in our partner publications The Guardian, The Telegraph, The New Statesman, The Times Literary Supplement, The Poetry Review, Poetry London, and many other magazines and literary journals. Article by article, they are changing the culture.
What was the first year’s intake of aspiring critics like?
A joy. After an open call for applications, the eight critics we selected in autumn 2017 were Dzifa Benson, Mary Jean Chan, Jade Cuttle, Sarala Estruch, Maryam Hessavi, Nasser Hussain, Srishti Krishnamoorthy-Cavell and Jennifer Lee Tsai. At that stage all of them had published at least one review, but we soon discovered what a multi-talented bunch they are: poets in their own right, as well as performers, editors, teachers, academics and, of course, incisive critics of poetry. Our seminars and workshops together ran like a dream: the room was charged with a sense of shared purpose and intellectual exploration. I think it struck everyone how rare it is to have a chance to reflect on the art of reviewing, full-stop (and it is an art). It felt like urgent work, probing the subtexts and blindspots regarding race in UK poetry reviewing of recent years – and at times unexpectedly cathartic. The critics brought just the right mix of humility and forthrightness to the business of working out how we as a literary culture, as well as individual critics, might try to do better.
That makes it all sound quite solemn: the critics are also great fun! In fact, the enduring bonds of friendship and mutual support among the eight are without question one of the best things to emerge from this first round. This has a lot to do with the residential model of the programme, I think, which sees us all periodically descend on Ledbury’s gorgeous environs for whirlwind weekends of poetry reviewing workshops – like poetry boot camp, but with cake. It’s a community that continues to expand: four new emerging critics are due to join the programme in 2019. For any aspiring BAME poetry critics out there keen to explore issues of diversity in British poetry, there’s still time to apply for this second round. The deadline is 1st April 2019, and all the details of how to put in an application can be found here.
Who else is helping to run / teach the Programme?
Sandeep and I are incredibly grateful for the support of we’ve received from the workshop leaders and mentors who have taught on the programme: their forward-thinking and ethically engaged example has very much set its tone. Last year, the emerging critics benefited from workshops led by the poets Vidyan Ravinthiran, Claire Trévien and Sasha Dugdale (all of whom also wear hats as critics and editors), as well as Melanie Abrams of Renaissance One and the Sunday Times Poetry Critic, Jeremy Noel-Tod. This year they have sessions to look forward to from Clare Pollard, poet and editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, poetry blogger Dave Coates and the New York Times book critic Parul Seghal, as well as other journalists and editors still to be announced. In addition to some of the names I’ve just mentioned, our network of mentors for the previous round included experienced poet-critics such as Vahni Capildeo, Sam Riviere, Miriam Gamble and Karen McCarthy Woolf.
Behind the scenes, Ledbury Poetry Festival gives us a great deal of administrative support, as well as acting as generous hosts for our residential weekends. We’d especially like to thank Ledbury’s Artistic Director, Chloe Garner, for putting her own and the festival’s organisational powers at our disposal. It was Ledbury who connected us with Rebecca Fincham, who started out as our PR fixer, but rapidly became a spearhead of the programme’s advocacy and activism. Her tireless efforts to approach reviews editors have helped open many doors for our critics, which might otherwise have remained shut years hence.
Finally, the programme wouldn’t exist in the same form were it not for the editors of our partner publications, ranging from poetry and literary journals to national broadsheets, who have committed to nurture and champion overlooked BAME talent in the field. Above all, Sandeep and I hope that the gains of the last year or so won’t prove a brief comet, but a more lasting change: ultimately, it’s up to reviews editors to take up that mantle in their ongoing commissioning.
Talk me through what someone who is accepted onto the Programme will participate in.
Once our new cohort of four has joined us, we’ll begin by assigning them mentors to guide them through the beginnings of their professional journey as poetry critics. These mentors will have experience reviewing for national literary journals and broadsheet newspapers, so will be able to advise on matters of critical style and approach, but also the more practical side of pitching and freelance journalism. Their mentors will work with them one-to-one, either virtually or in person, offering detailed feedback on a sample poetry review the critics should aim to complete by November 2019. We will then share that draft review with the editors of our collaborating partner publications, which include The Guardian, Poetry Review, Poetry London, Mslexia, Poetry Wales, Magma, The White Review, Sabotage, Prac Crit and others. Alongside individual work with their mentors, the new critics will also join our programme of intensive development seminars, beginning with a two-day poetry reviewing workshop in London at the end of June.
The roles of poet and critic are often seen as adversarial but I notice quite a few of those taking part in the first year of the Programme are poets too. Can writing criticism make you a better poet?
It’s true, our first cohort proved – though this wasn’t intentional on our part – to be full of writers who spanned both those roles. Several have already published (or will shortly publish) pamphlets or books of poems to considerable critical acclaim, and no doubt more will follow in the coming years. One highlight of the programme’s first round was the way Ledbury Poetry Festival offered all the critics prime spots in its July 2018 programme, both to show off their depths as critical readers, but also to perform their own poems. Personally, I’ve always found writing poems and writing criticism to be mutually informing and enriching activities. That said, I find I have to come up with ways temporarily to baffle my own critical faculty, or at least stay two hops ahead of it, if I’m ever to get out a first draft, but that’s another story…
The Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics programme is open for applications until 1st April 2019. Full details of how to apply are on the Ledbury Poetry Festival website https://www.poetry-festival.co.uk/ledbury-emerging-poetry-critics-2/