July 1991 I had just completed an interesting but fruitless temporary post at The Poetry Library on the South Bank through 1990 and had my poems and songs illustrated by my sadly deceased friend Laura Stenhouse at St. Martin’s College of Art in the old building on Charing Cross Road.
My brief tenure as a photocopying assistant and customer service adviser (weekends only) didn’t do much for me financially as I travelled up from Didcot for several months but it did introduce me to poetry and poets which I had dabbled with in a thoroughly modernist way since discovering William Carlos Williams in my early twenties.
In six short months in 1990 I met( and served) a whole gaggle of new generation poets ( Dooley, Shapcott, Greenlaw, Donaghy all great and one Maxwell who was a rude prick) and also met some greats like Ivor Cutler, Bob Cobbing ( who equalled Maxwell for rudeness showing that manners and avant-garde no guarantor) as well as seeing a whole host of great readings.. C.K. Williams, William Trevor and best of all Raymond Carver’s widow Tess Gallagher.
Thus inspired I self-produced a small poetry pamphlet ‘Towns on Shallow Hills’ which I remember Ivor Cutler reading but not buying on account as he said he had read it…said pamphlet I sold to various friends and poets ( I still have a list) and I am pleased to say still in the National Poetry Library collection. See HERE.
It didn’t launch me into contention as a new generation poet that honour had been carved out almost exclusively for acolytes of the Poetry Review editor Peter Forbes who I had the misfortune to hear read one of his dull longer form poems out once and who was an arrogant SOB who virtually controlled poetry in those days. He loved Maxwell which figures ..birds of a feather etc.
Remember in those days Oxbridge white middle class was a defining factor and only Simon Armitage broke through that and that lead to some tokenism in the New Gen list but overall the power base remained intact which not good for a politically orientated writer like myself. That Oxbridge dominance is still true to a high degree. If you want a current assessment of political make up of the poetry audience go see David Coates research here https://davepoems.wordpress.com which overly academic but is telling.
I myself come into the category of his category of cishet white men which ironic considering he neatly leaves out the ‘middle class’ bit of that definition which handy as if as he is you from Northern Ireland studying a PhD on Macneice you pretty much tick all the boxes of those you attacking…..but at least he trying to flag up the inequalities for which I have to say well done.
The poems published in the pamphlet were pretty hastily written but I left the Library confident that I as good as the above mentioned careerist poets (not knowing a thing about careerism) and wrote some much better stuff which through 1991-2 I started submitting to journals and lo and behold started to be published. I was pretty much unemployed and broke all the time so it lead nowhere. I did some unpaid reviewing for the Arts Council met a lot of people who supportive but too busy providing themselves with opportunities and funding and ended up meeting a lovely Spanish woman and buggering off to Edinburgh where I continued and flourished as a poet.
Today is pretty much 30 years to the day since I received my first publication letter from John Harvey at Slowdancer Magazine ironically based then in Nottingham. I still have a copy. This in retrospect was the high point of my poetry career until the retrospective ‘greatest hits’ pamphlet Last Farmer from Salt in 2010.
So 30 years on I starting to look at the poetry world again. A lot of the magazines and editors who published me have disappeared or simply died. Some I happy to see like The Frogmore Papers still going and poets who supported me in Edinburgh like Stewart Conn still alive which amazing. I do not know what kind of poetry I will write or if there even a poetry world that cares in a era of selfie PR and diversity tick boxing. Even the working class ticket has been abused and moulded to generate support and funding. It is a more visual, less middle class landscape but the powerful still lead at Faber and Faber , cape etc. It reminds me of a late Larkin poem about a mind folding under snow ..it feels a chilly climate to walk out into poetry land…..
I am just going outside and may be some time…