Monday, September 15, 2008

Is this throwing your hat into the ring?

Fleur Adcock: Noises Off (Independent)

In 2009, Andrew Motion's 10-year stint is up and the quest for the next composer of poems for state occasions and royal birthdays is on. But who would want to do it?

Sunday, 14 September 2008

This week Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, complained, first, that his prestigious position had drained him of his muse and, second, that the Queen never expressed an opinion of his work.

The job, he added, had been "very, very damaging".

"I dried up completely about five years ago and can't write anything except to commission," he went on. I do sympathise.

Andrew's 10-year tenure expires next year, and many poets, including myself, have been canvassed by newspapers and other media on whether we would take the role. I'm sure it's going to be difficult next time. I've never spoken to anybody who said: "Yes, I'd love to."

It's not that I object to the Royal Family, or the Queen. She gave me a gold medal for poetry two years ago and does a very good job.

Nor do I think the role of Poet Laureate is obsolete. It's like the monarchy: one wouldn't want to do away with it entirely. One good thing about it is it's attached to the palace, not No 10.

Where I sympathise with Andrew is that it's now in reality two roles. It harnesses two rather uncomfortable partners, two different functions – one of promoting poetry and one of writing poems – and these attract two different types of personality. One thing Andrew complains about is that it's been damaging to his writing. If you're doing a lot of public promotion stuff, you can't do your own work. You think in critical mode rather than creative mode. To write, you need to sit down and just stare out of the window, waiting.

When I started writing poetry as a child, I thought you hid quietly in your room and got on with it in private. Having to put on your best clothes and go to the palace, or get up on platforms with microphones, is a public thing and demands an extrovert personality. I'd rather slop around at home in my old jeans, writing. Of course, I do poetry readings, and I also read in schools and invite discussion. It's easier to answer questions on your own work than to initiate public projects and worthy schemes.

I've been judging an awful lot of poetry competitions this year, and that also distracts you from writing poetry. Nor would I want to be constantly rung up by the people who must be always ringing Andrew asking him to appear somewhere or pronounce on this or that. I can see how it occupied too much of his mental space.

I'm surprised he didn't foresee this. Surely it is inevitable that the laureateship would leave no room for the muse, or inspiration, or whatever you wish to call it. Nor does it pay very much in compensation.

I think perhaps the Poet Laureate should be someone charged solely with promoting poetry, not necessarily with writing it. The person would have to be a poet – you can't get inside it unless you do it – but there are plenty of poets.

The actual writing of poems could be commissioned on a case-by-case basis from other poets. It's perfectly possible to write to a commission. I'm quite often asked to write a poem for someone's birthday, good cause, charity, or whatever, and you just dredge around in your mind for something that's floating there already and attach it to the subject. There could be poems on some other national events – even the Olympics. But you wouldn't want to do too much of it.

One of the difficulties when writing public poems is getting the tone right. Quite often you have to be solemn or reverent. When you're writing in your own natural tone of voice, you go through all the moods and types of language – you can be funny, rude, ironic, serious, and everything else. I can't imagine writing warmly about Prince Andrew's wedding, but I could have written about the Queen's 80th birthday because that's such a broad subject – you can bring in other aspects of her reign.

Andrew said the Queen had failed to say whether or not she liked his poems. Among her many qualities, I don't think critical appreciation of poetry is prominent. But he did say that Camilla wrote a note thanking him for his poem about her wedding to Charles, and I know the Queen Mother was interested in poetry. It just depends who you get.

I don't envy Andrew, but I think he's done a wonderful job promoting poetry. As for the poems he's had to write, all I can say is that I sympathise.

Fleur Adcock's 'Poems 1960-2000' is published by Bloodaxe

Expecting Angels (photo: Alan Sill)

Bowel Motion

The poet laureate should be freed from the dreary royals and sent off to Bradford or Iraq
All comments (0)

* Mark Ravenhill
* The Guardian,
* Monday September 15 2008
* Article history

Up and down this green and drizzly isle, the poets are getting nervous. Nibs, once tranquil, are shaking. Wendy Cope is stocking up for a long siege. Craig Raine is exploring the possibility of moving to Mars. Linton Kwesi Johnson and Liz Lochhead are appealing for complete identity changes and round-the-clock police protection under a hastily drafted Poet Protection Scheme.

The poets are panicking because Andrew Motion, the current laureate, is counting the days until his royal duties are over. At least the task is not as onerous as it once was: our national poet is no longer condemned to clasp the royal quill until death. Now it's a mere 10-year sentence, muzzled in a drafty palace. Truly, of all the rusty chalices that clatter around in public life, there is none more thoroughly poisoned than the post of poet laureate.

After a decade in which he has miraculously given the post a little dignity, the poetry is, it would seem, no longer in Motion. Speaking at the Ealing arts festival recently, the Queen's pet bard revealed that the role had been "incredibly thankless" and had left him with writer's block. While many of us have admired the way Motion has used his position to promote the writing and reading of poetry, few are likely to remember with any great fondness the work he produced while in the post, particularly the rap-inspired offering he presented for Prince William's 21st birthday. And Motion's ceremonial verses don't seem to have done much to enthuse the house of Windsor either: the poet reported that, after Judi Dench's reading of his offering for the royal diamond wedding celebrations, all he got from the Queen was a curt thank you.

Laureates have been a mixed bag over the years, from the few who were sublime - Dryden, Wordsworth - to the many who were ridiculous and are barely remembered. John Betjeman was the last laureate who truly seemed to fit the role of house poet for a family with no taste. And we're unlikely to find someone now who can combine suburban snobbery and jangling verse as Betjeman once did. Created by James I, the position was almost laid to rest in 1896. Following Tennyson's successful 45-year stint, many suggested that no one could better him. Gibbon had already written of "abolishing this ridiculous custom". William Morris turned down the invitation to succeed Tennyson and that, it seemed, was that. But then Alfred Austin (no, me neither) took up the quill. And so the "ridiculous custom" staggered into the 20th century.

I'm not against the position of public poet. In fact, I think poetry could benefit from a more public role. Poetry has increasingly become a record of individual moments of private reflection and personal epiphanies, but it still has the potential to be a great vehicle for profound questions about national identity and our collective history. The Irish poet Brendan Keneally, in his brilliant collection Cromwell, creates a modern narrative that, with humour and anger, explores the echoes of history that ring around the streets of contemporary Dublin. It is as much a national epic as The Faerie Queen was four centures before.

But we're not going to get national epics or searching questions about collective identity by shackling a poet to the House of Windsor. The link between God, crown, country and people was always, of course, a shaky one. But it was a great construct in which to write national poetry. And then Queen Victoria invented a new model of monarchy: a model that attempted to present the royals as just another cosy middle-class family. The ridiculous banality of this royal rebranding finally killed the potential of any serious poet being inspired by the monarch.

So let's not twist the arm of one of our best poets and expect them to endure the same miseries as Motion. Instead, let's use the changing of the bard as a chance to rewrite the job description. We should start with the title: "national poet" would be better. And let's give the new national poet access to national life: from the forces in Iraq to the mosques of Bradford. Let's make sure they're present when we make discoveries about sub-atomic particles and host the Olympics. And let's invite him or her to the christenings, birthdays and marriages of ordinary people across the country. We couldn't, and shouldn't, dictate what they write. But, if we make a major poet part of our national life, we must surely end up with an artist who enjoys the post far more than Motion and who might just be inspired to write some great public poetry. But the "ridiculous custom" must come to an end as soon as Motion hands in his quill.

Saturday, May 31, 2008


Etcetera (for Ellis)

You reflect me
And the woman I love,
It makes me smile.

We urge you
To stay

Your feet are too small
For footprints.

Our heads are too full
Of you to not feel
Your little weight.

Etcetera is a better word
Than others I might use.

We are yours if you want us.

When you don’t need us
Let us down gently
Without the need
For lies and etc.

Kevin Cadwallender

Gigs for your Diary

Tuesday June 3rd ROYAL OAK 'Foakies' Edinburgh Martin Stephenson and Kevin Cadwallender

Thursday June 5th Meadow Bar Buccleuch Street 7.30pm VOX BOX TEAM SLAM

Wed 18th June at Kath Kenny's Firesprung book launch BRIDGE HOTEL Newcastle

Sat June 22nd Afternoon at the Angel of the North Ten celebration POETRY FILM : Angelus Septentrio by Kevin Cadwallender.
then at Bridge Hotel for Red Squirrel Drey Poetry night with Kevin Cadwallender, Kath Kenny, Steve urwin, James Oates, Alistair Robinson, Nancy Somerville plus the launch of Mike Dillon's book Child from Water.

June 27th-30th Jockstock Festival

July 4th London Launch of Kath Kenny's new book 'Firesprung' with reading by Kevin Cadwallender

July 3rd Wicker Man Festival


Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Give Poetry back to the people!

New Statesman article by Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books.It reminds us who we are, argues Neil Astley - but only if we shake off academic elitism and celebrate voices from our communities and around the world

Poetry in Britain is both thriving and struggling: it is flourishing at grass-roots level while poetry publishing is floundering. Bookshops have drastically reduced their ranges of poetry. Publishers have scrapped or shortened their poetry lists and are taking on very few new authors. Small presses have folded. Yet, paradoxically, public interest in poetry has never been higher.

More people write poetry than go to football matches, and poetry is popular in schools, at festivals and at the hundreds of readings staged every week in pubs, theatres, arts centres and even people's homes. Poetry has reached a wider audience through films, radio, television and the internet, as well as through initiatives such as London's Poems on the Underground, which has been imitated around the world. More people than ever believe, as Jackie Kay wrote in her National Poetry Day blog, that "poetry makes us think about who we are".

And this is not just a British phenomenon. Big names in world poetry read to full houses at Scotland's poetry festival, StAnza in St Andrews, every March, and at Ledbury in July. This month, hundreds of poetry enthusiasts will flock to the biennial Poetry International at the South Bank Centre in London (24-29 October), where the international line-up includes Elizabeth Alexander, Martin Espada and Jane Hirshfield (US), Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon (Ireland), Tua Forsström (Finland), Tomas Tranströmer (Sweden), Arundhathi Subramaniam (India) and Gabeba Baderoon (South Africa). The following weekend (3-5 November), Aldeburgh Poetry Festival will fill the town's Jubilee Hall with readings by writers from Kurdistan and Catalonia to the US.

Despite this obvious diversity and vitality, all the talk in poetry publishing is of crisis. The bookshops are blamed for declining sales - but this is not the whole story. The major chains have vigorously promoted poetry books aimed at a broader readership, with books such as my anthology Staying Alive selected for displays and offers. Yet broader-based initiatives are not working either. While in the US National Poetry Month helps sell thousands of poetry books, our annual National Poetry Day is far less successful in bookselling terms.

Poetry is both flourishing and floundering in Britain because it has a split identity. If bookshops ignore their customers, they go out of business. When poetry publishers and reviewers ignore their readership, this is called "maintaining critical standards". And they still expect the public to defer to their judgement and accept their offerings, because they know best. The producers of poetry aren't in tune with the lovers of poetry. Many poets and publishers are actually hostile to the promotion of poetry - as the poet Michael Hofmann put it in the Times: "promotion violates the innocence and defencelessness of poetry". They see marketing as a dirty word instead of simply the means by which their books are made available to more readers.

This reluctance to engage with readers comes at a heavy price. As bookshops stock less and less poetry, concentrating on safe bets such as anthologies and selected poems by big-name authors, publishers reduce their output of new titles. Cover prices rise as print runs fall, which further affects sales. Major bookshops derive 94 per cent of their income from 25 per cent of their stock. In accountancy terms, three-quarters of their stock is a waste of capital, taking up valuable shelf space - and that includes all the poetry.

Given the large potential market, poetry publishers could stake a claim to some of that space - but only if they are publishing a range of books and authors that people actually want to read. Continuing to package their books to appeal only to an intellectual elite has severely disadvantaged them. If readers find a book visually unappealing, they won't pick it up. And if the back-cover blurb is a piece of turgid literary criticism, new readers will be scared off.

Readers don't have access to the diverse range of work being produced, not just in Britain, but from around the world, because much of the poetry establishment is narrowly based, male- dominated, white Anglocentric and skewed by factions and vested interests. Too often, poetry editors think of themselves and their poet friends as the arbiters of taste, selecting only writers they think people ought to read. They are unresponsive to much poetry by women (who comprise more than two-thirds of poetry's readership) as well as to writing from Britain's rapidly growing ethnic minorities. Ignoring the readership would be commercial suicide in any other field, but this malpractice in poetry publishing and reviewing has survived into the 21st century thanks to "academic protectionism". This is something that has also tainted poetry reviewing: the few reviews that do appear are mostly of books by the same small group of mostly male, white British poets who also judge the main poetry prizes and are often either poetry editors or academics in university departments of English or creative writing.

Editors' "personal taste" is too often an excuse or disguise for elitism and arrogance. In my view, my responsibility as an editor is to be responsive to writers and readers, and to give readers access to a wide range of world poetry. Publishers and writers who address a broader readership (as Bloodaxe has done with Staying Alive and other anthologies) are attacked by elitist critics for "dumbing down" - but receive overwhelming support from readers as well as from intelligent poets. Contemporary poetry has never been more varied, but what the public gets to hear about are the new post-Larkin "mainstream" and the "postmodern avant-gardists" (with their academic strongholds in Oxford and Cambridge respectively). More broad-based poetry expressing spiritual wisdom, emotional truth or social and political engagement is of little interest to either camp. Exciting new work by major American, European and Caribbean writers, from Martin Carter, Galway Kinnell and Yusef Komunyakaa to Jane Hirshfield, Mary Oliver and Adam Zagajewski, has been almost totally ignored by national-press poetry reviewers.

But where print editors or their reviewers lag behind, radio producers, who have to be responsive to their audience, are much more in touch with the full range of what's current. Black and Asian poets with large grass-roots followings are frequently heard on national radio programmes. Radio has realised that modern English-language poetry is in fact a set of multiple interconnected traditions, including the oral-based and literary traditions of African-American, black British, Caribbean and south Asian poetry. The same changes in our idea of the novel have transformed fiction publishing - the recent success of Monica Ali, Zadie Smith and Kiran Desai would have been unthinkable a generation ago - and it is time for those changes to extend to poetry.

The establishment must be responsive not to literary and academic cliques, but to readers, especially at a time when public interest in poetry is growing so rapidly. Poetry's dinosaurs have to realise that our country, culture and economic climate have changed, and so have their res ponsibilities. Their wake-up call needs to come before poetry publishing self-destructs. Internet sites are not enough. We need books.

Neil Astley is editor of Bloodaxe Books, which he founded in 1978. His books include the bestselling poetry anthologies "Staying Alive" and "Being Alive"

Poetry International is at the South Bank Centre, London SE1, from 24 to 29 October.
For tickets and further details log on to

The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival is at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, from 3 to 5 November.
For tickets and further details log on to

Read more articles from our poetry special issue at

Tell us your favourite poems at

Sunday, March 02, 2008

MINE : Poem


No it’s not for me
They closed down the colliery village
I was raised in two or three elections ago
And I moved on, never looked back.
It’s not for my children
Their plans will always be
On bank.
It’s not even for my Dad
Who exchanged pits for ships
Who got out, never living to see
His friends redundant.
It’s not for my forebears of migrant miners
Following the coal dust trails
From Cymru to closure.
Most of us knew it was over
Long before 1984
And southern outrage
Was too little too late.
The rows of For Sale signs
Are rows of gravestones.

Happy hour in the Trust
On Black Tuesday
£1 a pint
Why thirty thousand pints
I’d be able to buy with my redundancy

Thirty thousand pints.
Not enough to flood a seam with.

Kevin Cadwallender