‘For Poetry’ Poet-in-Residence Stella Bahin
A few weeks ago, a dear friend made a firm upbeat comment about a flourishing regular poetry event in the city where she works and I live (and work), Portsmouth; that this event’s success was ‘good for poetry and good for Portsmouth’. I agreed, but not wholeheartedly. There were implications in her apparently self-evident statement upon which my heart snagged. Unable to articulate precisely what my hitches were in any non-pooh-poohing way, right there and then at that tea room occasion of cream and steam of ours, I smiled, nodded, sipped Earl Grey from my decorative china cup, changed the subject, and thought on. Later. Privately.
Last Tuesday morning I came into a windfall of time and energy I was free to allocate as I chose – no mastering priorities to drive me along their slave – and after considering what I might do with this happy commodity, I set about doing some writing. The weather was inclement. I knew that if it picked up, within a few hours I would be heading off out to bicycle some nine miles to a grassy spot on the National Cycle Network, Hayling Island, for a three-hour solo shift of greeting other cyclists and talking to those interested about the charity Sustrans, before attending my first Blake Fest meeting nearby. Then cycling nine miles back again. So, mindful of keeping some of my beans for what was ahead, I took measures to minimise my physical exertion, at least, if not my mental exertion, throughout my elected writing task.
Sometimes I write at a standing workstation. This day I sat in a comfortable armchair propped up by cushions, laptop nestled handily on my lap. Deliberately relaxed. The subject I decided to write about was – never mind for the moment what may or may not be ‘good for poetry’ – what does ‘for poetry’ mean?
The house was quiet inside except for the sounds of the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece and the breathing, in erratic breezy summer breaths through its dry and open throat, of the chimney. Outside, beneath a grey showery sky, cars passed slow-ishhh-ly, a power tool buzzed, and young children shrieked in play at a school a paper aeroplane’s throw away. (If a well-made, well-thrown paper aeroplane.)
I noted those sounds would’ve been resonating with or without my mention; noted that my act of describing them was a sort of record-keeping; and noted that noting that, was therefore a sort of record-keeping of a sort of record-keeping. I thought how time would have been passing whatever I’d been doing, too. Home- or self-pampering; loading the washing machine or painting my fingernails. Admin. Resting. Preparation. Listening to the radio. But I had chosen to write, and to be cognisant of the process of writing as I did so – self-aware and self-reflective – to help me address the question of what ‘poetry’, or any other sort of writing, could be said to be ‘for’.
Writing, in all forms, needs a writer. No matter how cosy the person makes themselves to do it, no matter how much fun the person has while doing so; writing, poetry or not, is work, I concluded. It takes time, application, and effort. In this instance, it was unpaid work. No commission, no deadline. I intended to eventually share it via a website with my friends and anyone else who might happen upon it. I was certainly not doing it ‘for writing’. (Nor was I doing it ‘for Portsmouth’, despite having lived in Portsmouth for near-on 22 years. Not to eschew or deny my sea-circled island hometown, or to trivialise my endeavour, either.) I was writing, first and foremost, to think, to construct, and to communicate. And my motives would’ve been the same if it wasn’t prose I’d been working on, but a poem.
Pondering, what could possibly be the nature of ‘poetry’ if creating poems could be said to be ‘for’ it? A dying beast that needs compassionate poetry-related ministrations to keep resuscitating it? A noble cause that requires charitable donations of devotion, donations of hours, donations of pen-action (or keypad-action), and donations of headspace? An irresistible and demanding muse? A bossy master, after all, that we, its practitioners, attendants, and adherents, may only humbly bow to, as its hierarchical inferiors? An abstracted ideal? If poetry is perceived as somehow transcendent from the day to day practicalities of life, such as, keeping the wolf from the door, does any practice that is ‘for poetry’ mean practice that is ‘for nothing’, or at best, next-to-nothing? Like a hobby? Or a grace? Or an escapist distraction?
Does a song-writer write ‘for song’? Does a painter paint ‘for art’?
Thinking along these lines quickly depleted my energy and taste for the topic. Sometimes I find writing a great joy, a bubbly outpouring of surplus energetic thought and feeling. Sometimes, particularly with highly-structured forms of poetry such as the sonnet, it’s an engaging and intriguing puzzle to both create and solve. Sometimes it’s the primal answering of an inner, primal, call; an articulated cry. Sometimes it’s a response to external stimuli. Sometimes it’s a need. Sometimes a giggle or even a laugh. Whereas, this writing, about what ‘for poetry’ could mean, was unfolding as a dreary mission, with, apparently, an entropic leak built into the process. Leaking away my spirit, leaking away my momentum, leaking away my grit. Small wonder I hadn’t wished to broach the subject during an otherwise pleasant catch-up with my friend at that tea room weeks earlier.
Still, not one to always take the easiest option, I pressed on. Knowing how writing so often helps me to clarify, simplify, and organise my thoughts and feelings. And I wanted to get to the bottom of what troubled me about the term ‘for poetry’ all the more for the strange and unpleasant sense of exhaustion and defeat my attempts at doing so were stirring in me.
Focussing now on my emotions of – almost despair – was like facing an unwanted weakness. Alone. I thought how solitary a pursuit writing so often is. I became sensitive to how very personal my perspective was, and began to fear it would therefore be difficult for others to relate to. Perhaps most other people took delight in doing poetry-related things ‘for poetry’, I thought.
I considered how many poets’ purpose seems to be sharpened by the goals and targets offered by contests and competitions – but not mine – for example. My own sense of purpose can be quashed at the very thought of having to make one unsolicited submission to enter one competition. It’s a procedure that, so far, I’ve rarely followed, and uncomfortably at that. And only ever at the sharp-end of some encouraging spur from a friend or so. For many other poets, making such submissions is a regular, additional, job. ‘What’s anathema to me might be ambrosia to others,’ I thought, disheartened. Just because we most definitely feel a certain way, doesn’t mean that, whatever we might make of that, is right. Was my ‘for poetry’ beef simply a quirk of my personality?
But, I supposed, even if so, the less-familiar viewpoint can sometimes be the viewpoint that’s interesting to read. And what’s more, I still wanted to write it through for myself.
I thought about the festivals that exist in which wonderful poetic happenings abundantly happen, often connected to a place: ‘Evland Poetry Festival’, for example, I invented. With charity status. Run on a shoestring. Predicated entirely upon a ‘for poetry’ ideal. Some of the participating poets paid for appearing there by one sourced grant, sponsorship, or arts-supportive fund or another, and ticket sales. Other poets appearing gratis, viewing their participation as their taking advantage of a beneficial opportunity. Or, generously, for tiny fees. Some of the organisers, including committee members and trustees, receiving modest remuneration for some of their professional services. Some not, providing their time and expertise as a gift to the charitable cause. All on board for maximising the profits, any profits, to be channelled into next year’s pot. For the next festival. ‘For poetry.’
The word ‘Poetry’ in ‘Evland Poetry Festival’ signposts what the festival is about in the same way that ‘Evland’ signposts its (in this case, fictional) location. Which all seems perfectly reasonable. As with the expressed enthusiasm of my friend, in the tea room, I had no wish to pooh-pooh ‘Evland Poetry Festival’ either. Long may it (hypothetically) continue. But in the term ‘for poetry’, ‘poetry’ is used as more than a helpfully descriptive label; it is transformed to an elevated essence, a disembodied entity. One problem is that ‘Poetry’ in ‘Evland Poetry Festival’, can so easily be understood as the overarching subject, centre, and purpose of it all. As opposed to its medium, and vehicle. Which concept then positions the makers of poetry who serve that end, where? Those hungry-bellied, thirsty, shelter-requiring poem-writers? It seems to me that the role of the poet is subsumed by such a standard and can all too easily be underestimated, if not all-but forgotten in the festive furore. Or, in any single, celebratory, poetry event.
By what means was the production of (let’s say, for argument’s sake) the total of seven hundred and sixty-eight poems featured in the last ‘Evland Poetry Festival’ achieved? If the cost were calculated per unit of finished poetry, taking the time involved in construction into account? And the roofs over the heads of the poets? The way they must live to be in any position of poetic productivity? Their illumination by electric lightbulb? Their meals; coffees? Their festival-rehearsals; their journeys there, and back?
In 2016, the author Philip Pullman resigned from his position as Chair of Oxford Literary Festival, a registered charity, because, in spite of the fact that everyone else was paid from the marquee-suppliers to the administrators, “…the authors, the very people at the centre of the whole thing…” were expected to work for free.
Or, ‘for literature’?
Perhaps for prestige, publicity, book sales, and maybe, for the company. The fun. All can be said of ‘Evland Poetry Festival’ too, for those poets with a book or more to sell. But ‘Evland Poetry Festival’, as an organisation, whilst always welcoming the reduced-rate bargain and freebie, will always pay what, who, and where, it can – especially poets – within its limited means. Helped in that charity model, in part, by Pullman having made his stand. But still, unless contractually commissioned, the production of poetry is commonly discounted or devalued. If it were priced-up, fairly – as it stands – many scintillating events would either never happen, or be greatly reduced in scope. (As Oxford Literary Festival similarly replied to Pullman.) Novice poets often wouldn’t dream of charging for their fledgling, heart-in-mouth, appearances. Many seasoned poets can simply, by some fortunate how or other, afford not to have to charge at all. Are ‘poets’ at the centre of ‘Evland Poetry Festival’ though, or is ‘poetry’?
The weather had worsened and I cancelled my planned shift on the National Cycle Network. Paid by the hour, under a zero hours contract, that meant I’d be earning nothing that day. Calculated the loss, and its effect. I thought how some potential charitable-givers recoil from the idea of anyone involved in the running of charities being paid for it. Especially the top-earning CEOs. As if all that money goes only the one way, and not back into the community in outgoings. As if the value a great CEO brings to a successful charitable organisation isn’t both vital, and so exponentially advantageous to its beneficiaries and supporters, that it’s a bargain. Particularly given that CEOs of charities typically earn a fraction of what they might earn elsewhere. But most people will accept a functioning charitable organisation has costs, including those of employing professional staff. At all levels, including mine, as a fundraiser.
Despite the extra time my cancelled shift afforded me, other priorities pressed in and my boon-time; my precious writing-time, and energy for it; had nonetheless expired. Later on, I drove through pouring rain too heavy to cycle through, to my first Blake Fest meeting. Spending fuel. (Accidentally, without my fILOFAX.) Since then, I’ve been invited to write blogs for Blake Fest 2017’s website, amongst other pieces for the festival. I’ve already written my first blog (about the mislaid fILO) before returning to this piece of writing I’d already started, then put on hold, with a renewed sense of purpose: to submit it for consideration (AAGH!) as Blake Fest 2017 PiR’s Blog Two.
‘Blake Fest’. A festival with a named, specific, brilliant poet (and artist) at its centre who, through his ‘Corporeal or Vegetative Eye’, as if through ‘a Window’, spied ‘a World in a grain of sand’. The vision, not the medium, the factor. The centre. William Blake. Now that’s more like it! ‘For Blake.’