The young Scottish poets “problem”: some possible steps.

If you’ve been reading recently, you’ll have heard me banging on about StAnza Festival, and in particular the now-infamous Poetry Breakfast, at which the “problem” of Scotland’s current lack of poets under the age of 40 was debated. For those of you who are new to the issue, the overview is this: no Scottish poet (and the definition of ‘Scottish’ is a slippery thing which doesn’t help matters) has won an Eric Gregory Award in the past 15 years. Few Scottish poets under the age of 40 are currently published by major UK publishers. There seems to be a general lack of young, upcoming poets showing their faces on the Scottish poetry scene. Of course, this might just be a ‘dry spell’ for Scottish poetry… and a fair few people are suggesting this as an explanation. However, over the past couple of weeks I’ve been mentioning this to some of the young poets I know, and they all seem to think that there genuinely is a problem, and there are things which need to be done to provide help and encouragement to them and their peers. These are some of their suggestions, and my thoughts. They are not all logistically workable, and they are perhaps not all totally sensible… but this is what young Scottish poets reckon needs to happen. It makes for interesting reading — see what you think.

1: A series of pamphlets by young Scottish poets, hopefully produced by a major Scottish publisher.
This suggestion was made by Colin Will and has been seized upon by a lot of his readers, myself included. I think it could be incredibly successful, and show younger Scottish writers that attention is being paid to them! However, I have mentioned this to some of my MSc classmates, and they all seemed to be of the same mind: fine, but how open would it be? Would you need to have a glittering CV already? Would a major poetry award be a prerequisite of being accepted? Would there be open submissions? They all reckoned that a pamphlet should be something for poets who are ‘just starting out,’ but wondered whether any major publisher would be willing to gamble on such ‘unknowns.’ The young poets I know all seem to dislike the idea of publication-by-invitation, and wouldn’t be interested in this kind of pamphlet series if it were produced 100% on that basis.

2: More help for young writers from Scotland’s Universities.
The Poetry Breakfast panel spent a lot of time discussing the place of Universities in the Scottish poetry scene and arguing that they needed to do more to encourage young writers — the Writer in Residence scheme was praised but the general opinion was that it was no longer as accessible or effective as it once was. I am just completing an MSc in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh and could not agree more: Universities need to do much, much more to help and encourage the writers housed within their walls. I can only speak from experience (and I hear that the Glasgow MLitt is actually excellent in this regard), but my MSc was 100% geared towards ‘how to write x type of form’, coupled with workshopping — great for just-starting-out writers, but with little emphasis given to progressing into the publishing world, getting your work “noticed” or keeping the writing spark alight after the course finished. Something else being discussed over at Colin’s place is a general negative attitude among University tutors towards pamphlet publishing.

3: More (and cheaper) help for young Scottish writers outwith University.
Something my MSc friends have suggested — which rather surprised me — was that they would prefer to have more mentoring, workshopping and reading options outwith University to explore and take advantage of. Andy Philip has suggested setting up something akin to the Poetry School on this side of the border and this suggestion met with enthusiasm among my young poet peers. They said they’d definitely be interested in paying a per-week or per-month fee for workshops if they were led by a reasonably major poet or someone who could steer the proceedings. They also said it would be nice to have some kind of mentoring or critiquing service available in Scotland — something more accessible and more affordable than the Poetry Society’s Poetry Prescription or the occasional pricey services offered by poetry editors. Accessible services like this are surely a good idea — apart from anything else, many young writers choose not to take the creative writing qualification route, and therefore don’t have the opportunity to take advantage of University Writers in Residence or the like.

4: More (accessible) funding for writers.
Right now if you’re a young writer and you want to access funding in Scotland, you have to be willing at the very least to fill in a heck of a lot of forms, and deal with the fact that you only have a miniscule chance of being rewarded for your efforts. At present, financial help — in the form of grants, bursaries, scholarships, prizes or writing retreats and the like — is nearly always reserved for writers who already have a collection, or at least a pamphlet with a reasonably-well-known publisher to their name — that, or for writers involved with complex collaborative projects which “benefit the wider community.” There is little in the way of grants or bursaries for young writers who just need some financial help to allow them to put a first collection together, or who want to pursue a creative writing qualification but can’t raise all the funds required. In fact, the University of Edinburgh’s English Literature Department was recently awarded millions of pounds of additional funding from the AHRC, but when this was announced, the press release carried the disclaimer: “please note that this funding is available for scholars of English Literature only” — this basically meant that Creative Writing students need not apply. One suggestion was that even small amounts of funding be made available for young writers — sometimes £100 can be enough to pay for travel to a writing retreat or to attend a few writing classes. This seems pretty sensible and not totally impossible, either.

5: A more open poetry community and less who-you-know stuff.
A lot of the young poets I’ve spoken to have said that they feel Scotland’s poetry scene is very close-knit, and — whether this is actually the case or not — they feel a little excluded because they don’t “know” the right people, and don’t know how to get integrated. I have to say, I used to feel a bit like this, but have discovered that the blogging community is a great way to find out about events happening in Scotland… and attending these events is probably the best way to get to know people and start getting noticed. I think more effort could be made in parts of the poetry scene to make young writers — who are not always the ‘target audience’ for poetry readings and events — more aware of what’s going on and when, but a lot of events organisers are now starting to use Facebook and Twitter which does bring them a wider, younger audience. Blogzine and magazine editors could also make young and unknown writers feel more accepted by devoting the occasional issue to entirely new writing, putting out open submissions calls and judging work anonymously or solely on merit.

6: More attention on young poets who publish mostly online.
Desmond recently raised the point that there are a lot of young poets out there, but established poets, critics and editors are perhaps not looking for them in the right places. This is a point that has been raised by others here, including Juliet and H. These days, many young poets begin their publishing careers on the internet, through blogs and online zines, many of which get little to no exposure. More praise and attention for online zines like Pomegranate (one of the few which is properly acknowledged by Big Literature) could be really encouraging for young writers and may well make the difference between them continuing to improve and publish their work, and chucking in the towel!

These are just a few thoughts I’ve had, and discussed with friends. You don’t have to be Scottish to enter this debate — if you’re a poet, and particularly if you’re a young poet, I’d love to hear what you think. What encourages you to keep writing? What changes would you like to see in your local/national literary community? Your responses on this topic would be much appreciated so please do leave a comment!

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17 Responses to “The young Scottish poets “problem”: some possible steps.”

  1. Christian Ward Says:

    Excellent post, Claire.

    I think the issues you’ve highlighted here are ones that affect young poets on both sides of the border.

    Exposure is a major problem and I don’t think that some of the major journals give enough space to up-and-coming talent. Whilst it’s always a risk taking on new voices, devoting a couple of pages to these poets wouldn’t be so bad in my opinion.

    And I definitely agree with you on point 6. One of the things I often hear is how it’s important to get published in ‘well-known journals’ if you’re going to get taken seriously as a poet, which I think is a little unfair to younger poets trying to establish themselves.

    Internet based journals are more willing to take risks with new poets and should be given more praise for doing so. Any poet, no matter whether they’re experienced or not, can get published in these journals and I think that freedom is a little scary to the establishment.

  2. Sasha de Buyl-Psco Says:

    You make some excellent points, and more importantly, you are trying to do something positive with an issue other people are just moaning about.
    It’s interesting that the people to blame for the ‘it’s who you know’ poetry community, are now getting upset because they don’t meet anyone new :)
    I personally would be really interested in a series of pamphlets featuring young Scottish poets ( though i would also lament them, being a young unScottish poet, living in Scotland).
    I was wondering, how have you found pursuing a Masters in Creative Writing? Is it worth it? What is the course in Edinburgh like? Is there any critical work or is it solely based on creating your own work?

  3. Crafty Green Poet Says:

    Excellent post, I think the last two points are particularly important (thanks for the mention too!). I think that the ’serious literary’ part of the poetry community needs to realise that they may find their missing poets in blogland and in performance venues…..

  4. H. Says:

    Sometimes I wonder (and correct me if I am wrong) that we are all sending our work to online ‘zines because they seem to be slightly more avant garde in some way? Young poets - from what I can gather - like to push the envelope in writing and in larger print magazines, let’s be honest - their editors ARE basing things on “where have you been published” or “are you popular” (i.e. Billy Collins’ face is everywhere and will forever be accepted in most every place. I love the man, but I could put a piece of his up against a piece of an ‘unknown’ and the unknown can and probably would blow him out of the water.)

    First question I am wondering - are young poets even sending their work to large magazines? Like I said, we seem to think online ‘zines are more accepting of our ‘odder’ pieces. In my opinion and experience, this IS NOT TRUE for a lot of huge mags. I had one of my weirdest longest poems accepted into the Columbia Review (which is run by undergrads, I suppose you could counter, and has a history of embracing work that pushes the boundaries of “writing about grass and sky” poems. Point is, do a lot of us even KNOW that about the Columbia Review or would we cast of his magazine, this magazine that is the oldest in the US, as “too pretentious” because it HAS history??

    I DO get dissuaded from places, just as anyone, but we kind of have to suck it up and try again. Sometimes your editor or your prize judge is just an old codger who wants Robert Frost poems. That’s fine, but keep up on writing news to see if anything new and exciting is happening with older and larger magazines.

    I am unsure about ‘performance venues’ having much relevance with literature magazines (sorry!) Most writings that are specifically written to be performed are just that : performance. You would not market your play as a novel, it is impossible because of structure and the way things transpose from the stage to the page.

    Honestly, I think young writers will take a hit wherever you are in this world, because we haven’t “experienced enough in life to write about it.” I say, just keep submitting. Submit like a mad woman or man (which means, yes, you have to write CONSTANTLY, but if NEED a huge portfolio of work in order to keep the submission process moving.

    My comment makes me seem like an ass, but I have heard way too much “oh, that magazine would NEVER accept my work,” from young people. Hell, you do NOT have to say how old you are in a bio - you could be 16 or 60. Your prior work can and WILL speak for yourself as long as you do NOT get dissuaded by rejections (which is VERY easy to do as a young person, I know this for a fact, ee!!)

    Keep writing guys,

  5. swiss Says:

    tell me the ways that this ‘young scottish poet’ nonsense annoyed me. not just because i’ve been hearing it since the days of the dream state but because of its cloying inevitability, that young poets (whi are really not so young) become old poets and the young poets, who have the excuse of youth, claim they’re underexposed, that their voices aren’t heard blah blah blah and the old poets (who aren’t really old) chunter on about this sort of nonsense. so has it ever been.

    first young scottish poet? i hated this term first i heard it and i hate it worse now. poets writing in scotland i can just about accept. young poets? i think there’s more young poets out there that there are poets in their sixties, seventies and eighties and those young poets are both more flexible and more able to be heard. eric gregory awards? are we in the award business now? or does this youth somehow equate just to validation by establishment values?

    i was appalled by the emphasis on ‘career’ poetry at stanza. poetry it seems, really is about the money, public money at that. and there we all were, middle class white people, speaking english. what a great advert for ’scottish’ poetry. but really as soon as the discussion gets reduced to some sort of nationalistic debate what else can you expect.

    i believe in something called the people and art, including poetry as a function of their lives. i like the voices of the young because it reminds me of where i came from and we should never lose contact with that vibrancy. equally i like the voices of the old, which is something that becomes more important with age, simply because they’re older, hopefully wiser and plain more experienced. and unlike the young, who can become disillusioned, hang up their boots and give up before maybe trying again, the old get extinguished.

    so i don’t really care about magazines and i don’t care about publishing and i certainly don’t care about the corrupt world of prizes. and as the years go by i believe less and less in academic poetry. three words. get a job.

    but i do believe in writers in residence, particularly in marginalised environment slike prisons. and i do believe in writers in schools and it bothers me that there seems to be some sort of perceived threat to this. it seems to me there’s never been a better time to write, paint, sing or do whatever you like in scotland and i rahter like that so i’d like that to continue

    and i do believe in young poets and i do believe in their ability to get themselves heard on their own terms and i believe in listening to them because, and we don’t get to realise this until we’re older, it reminds us of where we come from. and i do believe in the internet because here you can hear all the voices, regardless of age or nationality or any of that stuff, you can listen and work with people from anywhere without regard to anything else except the work

    and that for me is the only thing that matters. the work. the ability to write freely. all the rest is window dressing

  6. Rachel Fox Says:

    All good points Claire (though no surprise that no 5 is the one that I find most interesting!). Overall though I’d have to say I’m with Swiss on this one (what a great comment…I may have it made into a poster or something).

  7. Rob Says:

    You’ve raised so many issues with this that my reply is likely to be longer than the post. Let me think. I’ll come back and try to keep it short.

  8. Rob Says:

    1. Pamphlets: my feeling is that most publishers will want to feel free to invite submissions from specific poets they want to publish. However, I think there should also be an open submission process with genuine chance of acceptance from ‘unknowns’. Quality and (relative) originality of work should be the number one basis of acceptance. Secondly, any publisher will ask whether it’s likely to sell. Does it have an audience or can one be created? If I were a publisher, I don’t think I would need or expect a “glittering CV” but poets who hadn’t published anywhere would give me the impression that they aren’t seeking an audience. No point in publishing anyone like that! Pamphlets don’t sell themselves. They need poets to get out there and create audiences.

    2. Universities: can’t really comment on this, although they obviously do have an important role.

    3. Mentoring, Workshopping, Reading options outside of universities: The Poetry School model is definitely worth exploring. Good teachers with sound publications under their belts would be needed. The best poets aren’t always the best teachers (although some are). I have a few suspicions of the whole creative writing industry. Some teachers just pass on their own lazy writing habits to their pupils. Some churn out competent but too careful poets. But it can be excellent if the right teachers are in the right posts. I know a mentoring scheme has been piloted through in Glasgow with skilled tutors like AB Jackson and Gerry Cambridge and I’ve heard that this has been very successful.

    4. Accessible Funding: I’ve never asked for a grant in my life, so I’m not the best person to talk on this. However, I know that it’s hard to get money unless you’re good at filling in these forms and can convince the relevant grant-making bodies that your project is part of their strategy. The wrong people often get the money, there’s no doubt about that. I’m also not convinced that poetry is exactly a priority with the SAC. A new committee has just been set up to look at funding for Scottish literature, chaired by Rosemary Goring, the Herald’s literary editor (a good person, as far as I know). The committee will have arts bureaucrats, writers, publishers etc. Perhaps, once we know who is on that, we can approach a sympathetic person to petition on behalf of young writers.

    5. Less who you know, and a more open poetry community: I think there is no ‘poetry community’. There are hundreds of ‘poetry communities’. Now, some people are very approachable and inclusive. They want to meet young people, new poets and writers. They want to include them in anthologies, readings etc. Other people are more exclusive and would prefer to share out the vast spoils of poetry (sarcasm alert!) among their small coteries. It is unfortunate that if you are unknown, no one is going to know to include you, so you simply have to make yourself known. Young people need to go to readings and other events and network if they want to find new audiences for their own work. They need to find people they relate to and work with them. As far as knowing the “right” people goes, I reckon the right people are those you get on well with and can work with to get something done. I arrived back in Scotland from Italy four years ago and I didn’t know anyone in the poetry world, not a single person. I met people, made links with people I liked and bypassed those I didn’t like so much. That’s how it works. But sitting at home, or with other friends in the same position, and lamenting that you’re not known will never help (hope that doesn’t sound too punchy).

    6. Established poets, critics and editors aren’t looking for young poets in the right places: I don’t think most of those groups are looking for young poets at all, anywhere. Writing is all about writing, in the end. It’s not about fame, fortune, or waiting for someone to discover your genius. Praise might come occasionally, but rejection and disappointment will come more often. Anyone not ready for that will find it very difficult. Some fall by the wayside, other keep plugging away, some break through. For those who persist, there will be a welcome from the more established poets who have, after all, gone through the same thing. I think there’s a lot of goodwill from established poets towards younger and new poets. Generally, people are keen to help, partly because they have been helped by established poets when they were starting out. But few, if any, established poets, critics or editors will be scouring the Internet, print magazines, or anywhere else to search out new talent. There are billions of poems on the Internet and most of them are terrible. No one is going to search through it all in the hope of discovering something good. Real talent tends to get itself attention simply because it’s so good, whether online or in print, although it’s sometimes not noticed at all – that’s life! Sometimes (often), the talentless go far and the talented get left in the cold – but not always.

  9. Rob Says:

    I said I wouldn’t be lengthy and now, having been lengthy, I’m back again.
    Just wanted to make a couple more points.

    First, on pamphlets. I think quality is key. I wouldn’t want any Scottish initiative to be seen as a ’second-rate tall-lighthouse’. The pamphlets would have to be of a similar standard. I hope that any young Scottish poet interested in this whole scheme can pool together with others, buy a batch of pamphlets from strong publishers like tall-lighthouse, HappenStance and Templar, share them out, and get an idea of the standard - if that hasn’t happened already. then there’s nothing like a challenge!

    Secondly, I read this from Sasha - “I personally would be really interested in a series of pamphlets featuring young Scottish poets ( though i would also lament them, being a young unScottish poet, living in Scotland).” - I wouldn’t want to restrict these pamphlets to pure Scottish-born poets. People based in Scotland and born elsewhere should also be eligible.

  10. David Floyd Says:

    Agree with Rob on most points, I think.

    “First question I am wondering - are young poets even sending their work to large magazines?”

    Well, we (Brittle Star) don’t get a lot of stuff from young poets from Scotland.

    Not sure what the ‘it’s who you know’ stuff means in practice in Scotland. It England there’s now quite a lot of young poets (25 and under) getting in to the more notable journals such as Magma, Poetry London, Ambit and even Poetry Review.

    Many (probably most) of these young poets do know some well known older poets, publishers and arts development people but they’ve developed these connections by turning up to poetry events, going to courses, sending stuff to magazines etc. and by being good at poetry.

    I don’t know much about the establishment in Scotland. There’s some fantastic shoestring small press operations but, beyond that, is there much of an establishment to break into? Is their a major publisher in Scotland that publishes poetry? I get the impression that young poets with good ideas are in a good position to actually be the ‘people to know’ and just get on with doing what they want.

    The Poetry School started off with a couple of poets renting a small community hall and organising some workshops for other poets that they knew then built from there.

  11. David Floyd Says:

    “Is their a major publisher in Scotland that publishes poetry?”

    There. Dear oh dear, that’s very poor.

  12. Roddy Says:

    Most of the points I might make have been made well by Claire and Rob.

    Yes, a Scottish poetry pamphlet series for young Scottish writers might end up being a ’second-rate’ Pilot series but, on the other hand, there may be many young writers I have overlooked or who haven’t approached us or been recommended by the poets and tutors we ask. I’ve had to put Pilot seeking on hold, as we have got our poets in place all the way up to early 2011. Meanwhile, Faber’s New Poets pamphlet scheme has picked eight young poets to publish over the next two years. I hope that if Faber continue the scheme they might open it up to Scotland, but if SAC continue not to join in and fund initiatives which are not just Scottish (eg The Poetry Society, Poetry School), then Scottish writers will miss these opportunities.

    The Pilot series, by the way, isn’t funded. ACE gave us a modest but welcome grant toward marketing and distributing the work. The rest is down to the passion and input of t-l’s Les Robinson and my interest in working with new poets.

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