I wasn’t the only person to be annoyed by John Burnside’s comment in a recent Spectator article that it has been a “thin year for poetry” but apart from the fact that it’s so patently wrong it seems to contrary to the spirit of the poetry community. The whole idea that any one man can translate their personal views into some kind of objective statement on the state of anything seems tone deaf in the current climate, anyway. Perhaps the world of poetry has moved on from the handful of stately white chaps patting themselves on the back for their cleverness but it’s been long overdue and poetry is the richer – dare I say, fatter – for it.
One thing I love about being a part of the poetry community is how welcoming, warm and supportive it is. I think it is this very drive to open up to people from a range of backgrounds which contributes to the fact that it’s such a positive environment. All that Burnside’s comment reinforces is the outmoded idea that poetry is some kind of elitist, old boys’ world. And listen, unlike that unfounded comment, I have receipts.
If you can wade through the noise and discover poetry twitter, you’ll find a community of writers who all spend a lot more time promoting others’ work than their own. There’s an infectious enthusiasm for any new work, for new voices and perspectives. US-based poet Kaveh Akbar uses his twitter following to share new work that excites him. When Zeina Hashem Beck shared an emotional poem about a traumatic experience from her past, I discovered her incredible writing because so many people were applauding and sharing her work and showing solidarity. That’s just two examples of something I’ve seen happening throughout the year, and it’s a demonstration of what an incredible year it’s been for poetry and for poets opening up into the wider world. The only negative impact I can think of is on my bank balance, as it significantly increased my book purchases this year (but I regret nothing).
The community extends beyond single poems or shared promotion. Deborah Alma, AKA The Emergency Poet is currently pulling together an anthology of women’s poetry in response to the #MeToo phenomenon. The collection provides an outlet for voices that have been previously ignored, and all proceeds will go to Women’s Aid UK. I currently have a poem shortlisted for the collection and I’ve got my fingers and toes crossed on that score as I would be immensely proud to be part of such a valuable project. Either way, I’m determined to promote the hell out of that book next year because it’s important and it will add another dimension to the world of poetry. There is nothing thin or mean-spirited about something like this project, from Deborah’s strength to read what must have been a distressing collection of submissions to all the women speaking up for the first time and the many others who can offer support to make the book a success.
And while I’m talking about a supportive community, I should also shout out the amazing Salome magazine, launched this year to support female writers. I am very proud to have a poem in their second issue but it’s about more than that; I love the atmosphere that they’re creating within the magazine. It’s a supportive community, all published writers are paid, all who submit receive feedback, the team are relentlessly positive and their launch events are a celebration of writing and writers. I simply can’t see how, if the year has been a thin one for poetry, how they would have achieved all this within their first year.
On a micro level, I’d also point to all the writers who encouraged me in gathering up my courage, fighting back the imposter syndrome and applying for a PhD. I am part of three workshops with truly incredible writers and there’s never anything but support and insight within those groups. No one shakes their head at how little poetry there’s been this year, no one suggested to me that I shouldn’t follow my dream. I’m now studying something I love, and it’s a direct result of it being such an inspiring year for poetry.
My first instinct on reading that Spectator review was unprintable, but on reflection what I want to say is this – “Hey John, come over here where all the other poets are, get yourself a gin and tonic and listen to all the incredible voices that have categorised this year – you’ll never experience a thin year for poetry again.”