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!