In a manner of speaking…
Last week was the first week of my brand-spanking-new PhD. As well as being a mad time full of standing in queues and sorting out administrative issues, Week One also gave me the opportunity to attend a few lectures on starting out as a scholar, approaching a PhD and basically how to survive hours in the library surrounded by shelf upon shelf of terrifying literature.
One of the most interesting lectures centred around the question “what is scholarship?”, and a fair chunk of the two hours was devoted to the idea of becoming a scholar — not just by signing some forms and paying some hefty fees, but by ‘earning the right’ to call yourself scholar. To do this, we were told, we’d have to conduct ourselves correctly — learn to “be scholars” in our speech, approach to our work and general overall demeanour (I know this sounds a bit bizarre and draconian, but the University of Edinburgh’s English Lit department is the oldest in the world, and they like to go in for this stuff).
It all sounds very dry and typically British, but the lecturer was actually a very cool and enthusiastic Canadian guy who spoke in frank and simple terms about how we should project ourselves as literature enthusiasts — we would, he said, see a huge difference in other people’s responses to our work and interests if we thought carefully about how we talked about them. Essentially, if you can speak eloquently and interestingly about your field of study, pretty much regardless of what it is, you’ll get other people interested. And this absolutely applies to poetry, I think — any of you who are involved with editing, publishing or promoting it know that Getting People Interested is kind of the Holy Grail. Can it be as simple as the way we ‘project’ about our poetry?
I know “make yourself interesting and people will be interested” seems like common sense, but I think most of the time we (most people I think, but poets certainly) wander around not really thinking very much about what we’re projecting — or if we do think about it, we concentrate on the wrong things. Getting up at a poetry reading, I find myself all too often wondering “what if the mic fails?” or “what the heck was I wanting to say in my preamble again?” or “do these lights make my forehead look unnaturally shiny?” I got told off when reading at Utter! during this year’s Edinburgh Festival for saying “sorry my poems aren’t very funny.” I’m pretty much always concentrating on Getting It Right, rather than enthusing others about my work and poetry in general… even though that’s something I believe I’m very passionate about doing.
I see it a lot in other poets, too. So many of us are too worried about Getting It Right — whether that means getting people to ‘notice’ you, getting your work into a particular journal, getting a good review, finding a home for your collection, or all too often, just doing better than That Other Poet You Hate. There are cynics lining up around the block to tell us all that poetry is a dying artform, readers are few and far between, there’s no money, we’re all on a hiding to nothing… and we’re all searingly aware of that, whether we buy into it or not. Could the answer to this “problem” be as simple as realigning the way we talk about, think about and approach our art, just on a personal level?
Example: there are heaps of initiatives and projects out there aimed at ‘getting people interested in poetry.’ There are passionate but unpaid volunteers all over the place doing all sorts of weird and wonderful things to try and get Joe Public to pick up a poetry book. But what about the days before Arts Council Grants, publicity drives, reading initiatives and the so-called public literacy crisis? How did people enthuse others about literature? They sat down in the pub and said “hey, I just finished this book and it was bloody amazing — read it.”
Think: when was the last time you recommended poetry to a “non-poetry reader”… without apologising for yourself even slightly? How often do you start a literary recommendation with “look, I know it’s poetry, but…” or “just try it and see what you think…”? Is this the way to enthuse someone else to your interests? I could be offering you free deluxe double chocolate chip ice cream, but if I said “OK look, I’m sorry, I know it’s just ice cream, but you know…” would you be really up for eating it? Like the budding academics in my lecture were advised, we poets all need to step back from the nitty-gritty weird little issues surrounding our artform and be proud of it — speak about it like it’s vibrant, constantly evolving, exciting and new… because IT IS. Sure, non-poetry-readers can be seriously pig-headed in their ALL POETRY SUCKS attitudes, but instead of apologising to them, convince them otherwise. Rather than trying to convert The General Public through bells-and-whistles publicity and BBC documentaries, I say we go stealth… one person at a time.
Thoughts? Head South for the comments box!