Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The State Of Scottish Poetry 1 - The New Generation?

It’s about 15 years since a Scottish poet won an Eric Gregory Award (not including Frances Leviston who left Scotland at the age of 9) – awards made to poets under 30 who show particular promise. Before anyone assumes this is due to southern prejudice, Scottish poets won the award regularly in the years beforehand. The question of why so few young poets of talent have emerged in the past while shouldn’t be talked away. I’m told by one Scottish-based publisher that most of the strongest submissions are coming from outside Scotland. Major UK publishers seem to be queuing up to publish collection debuts by poets under 30 (some, I think, have rushed into it a few years too early, but that’s another matter), but none of the poets are Scottish. Major Scottish publisher, Polygon, has started to publish poetry again. Its first book was by Sam Meekings, a young English poet. Its second will be by an English woman, albeit one currently based in Scotland.

It could be that these things come in waves and that the Gregory Award recipients from the seventies, eighties and early nineties represented a peculiarly talented generation of Scottish poets who fed off one another. A few young women in their late teens and twenties are currently emerging who show promise and it’s vital that such promise is nurtured. Where the young Scottish male poets are is another matter! Perhaps it’s also worth asking where a new generation of poetry readers is likely to come from.

The emergence in Glasgow in the last couple of years of movements such as St Mungo’s Mirrorball and Vital Synz (their website seems to have disappeared), who offer mentorships and high-level workshops with skilled poets and editors, as well as programmes of live readings, might eventually lead to new, young poets breaking through. I don’t see anything on the same level happening in any other city or town. A few years ago, almost nothing was happening in Glasgow, but it’s now at the centre of things. Edinburgh’s complacency may well be its downfall.

This is the first post in an occasional series. I’ll take a look at
other aspects of the Scottish poetry scene every so often over the next few months.


Claire A said...

This is really interesting, and something I've been thinking about recently, too. I keep meeting other girls who are getting their poetry out there in the Edinburgh scene (and beyond) but barely any blokes. I know some who are decent poets, but who just don't seem to get the breaks. Perhaps that's because women are just more organised!

I think there's also a generational gap, definitely in Edinburgh and probably in a wider Scottish context, too. The poetry scene here is dominated by people our parents' age or older - these are the people who hold the events, run the publishing houses and write the reviews. It's pretty intimidating for us young 'uns, I can tell you! And I think there is a definite discontent with the whole state of affairs among young poets - that's certainly what I seem to hear. But it's hard for us to get our voices heard sometimes, unless we're willing to work within the system that's already there. I guess all upcoming generations have to deal with these issues. I just think that, because the Scottish poetry scene is so tight-knit and friendly and everyone-knows-everyone, it feels rather rude and interruptive to try and steer it in any new direction! Hopefully young people shaking things up - like Ryan Van Winkle seems to be doing at the SPL - will start to improve the situation.

I think there's something to be said for the teaching of creative writing in Scotland, too. I applied to do my CW MSc at various institutions all over the UK and of all of them, Newcastle looked the best. I stuck at Edinburgh because I won a scholarship, but otherwise I might well have gone south of the border. Glasgow's CW programme gets great reviews... but others, including Edinburgh's, less so. Perhaps it's a case of enticing our young writers away from English higher education??

Great post, Rob! Lots of food for thought! (and if you keep inviting young talent to the GG, you'll definitely play your part in a young Scots' poetic revival!)

Anonymous said...

As far as Glasgow mentoring goes, of the eight who are currently being tutored via St Mungo's Mirrorball, only two are male. I would say there's a dearth of male poets coming through, but this doesn't seem to be limited to Scotland. I would say it's a genuine cultural shift, not about breaks.

It may be swings & roundabouts: 7 or 8 years ago you'd be hard-pressed to name any London poets with first collections out ... an equivalent population to Scotland. There's been a boom in recent years, though.

As for creative writing Uni courses, it's likely that Scots will be the minority at places like Edinburgh and St Andrews, who tend to attract a lot of English and international students. Glasgow tends to attract home-body Glaswegians.

The generation gap: it's true that there is an Old Guard and the Local Worthies and the National Treasures etc etc. Having said that, I doubt any poet starts off with the conscious intention to steer away from them, since their work isn't generic. The ones I don't like I've just ignored, same as poets from elsewhere.

The difference is - in a small community, this is often viewed as a deliberate social insult as opposed to a matter of personal taste.

Whatever 'system' might be in place, over and above certain individuals that I like, I've ignored also. As have plenty others. You know ... it's only important if you think it is, and accord it the power of Special Approval.

There are other ways to skin a cat.


Hazel said...

Thanks for posting on this Rob. I don't think the male/female, older/younger generation should be seen as a problem.

What matters is the recognition of good poetry and the need to encourage young Scottish poets. After our recent chat on this, moves are afoot to try and address this lack of recognition for young poets and thereby hopefully encourage more.

Claire - I'm sure if you tried to steer things in new directions, you'd be surprised by the support you'd receive. A good shake up is always healthy.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure of the value in trying the self-consciously new in relation to one particular scene, local or national: it binds the writer to a set of limited oppositions and comparisons which in the end is likely to limit the work.

And not least because what's new in comparison to one scene will be old hat in another. Better I think to follow positive enthusiasms, national and international, rather than rail against a perceived negative. Broader, healthier, not so much misguided ego at risk.


Roddy said...

I hear good things of a talented young (male) poet from Uist, currently at StA.

Scottish poetry can probably handle having had a statistically quiet period. When I was introduced to a London literary bunch as the latest 'next big thing' from Scotland, back during the New Gen readings in 94, someone loudly said, 'oh Lord, not another one!'

But it's worrying that we haven't had a Gregory winner since the mid 90s, given that we averaged over one a year for the previous 15 years. An event at StAnza in March will discuss this.

A more awkward question would be about how many of my generation (born 1955 - 1974) or the one above (c1935-1954) are still any good?!

Eleanor Livingstone said...

Yes, an interesting issue. As Roddy says, at StAnza in March at one of the Poetry Breakfast events ( http://www.stanzapoetry.org/2009/event.php?event=134) we'll be asking the question: Where are all the young poets in Scotland today? And another of our events (http://www.stanzapoetry.org/2009/event.php?event=166) is a showcase of some of the tall-lighthouse "30 poets under 30" you mention.

The full programme for March is now online at http://www.stanzapoetry.org/2009/events.php, and tickets are for sale.


Rob said...

Claire, I think what Andy is saying is spot on. The idea of steering the 'Scottish poetry scene' in a 'new direction' has no application because there is no single direction or monolithic establishment. 'Scottish poetry scenes' would be more accurate. Small groups of people form alliances due either to personal friendship or to similarities in poetic outlook, or both - but these groups are various and often interlink. There is no 'system' or, if there is, it's of no interest to me.

The work Ryan does seems good, but my perception isn't that he is 'shaking things up.' He is, I think, building on what's there, creating new opportunities for exposing people to poetry. In other words, he's doing what other people who care about poetry are doing, and he seems to be doing it with energy and commitment.

I'm keen to invite poets of all ages to read at the GG - poets have to be capable of holding an audience for at least 15 minutes (no easy task), but age isn't an issue.

Hazel, I'm all for encouraging promising poets. I wonder what the right way of going about it is though. Perhaps, in the context of Edinburgh and its environs, we need a symposium of all poets, readers and interested teachers (at all levels) in the city who can form an agenda, work towards it and attract the necessary funding for it. The question of young poets would be one strand of this, but it would encompass everything.

Roddy, Eleanor - good to hear about the StAnza event. I'll defintely be at StAnza in 2009 and may well get to that one.

Claire A said...

Just giving the state of things as I see it as a Scot writing poetry in Edinburgh at the age of 22... also informed by the opinions of other young poets I know in this area. This is how things seem to us -- accurate or not. I just thought you might like the input of someone in my position...

And Rob -- I KNOW age isn't an issue at the GG, that was the point I was making! It's a good thing!

Rob said...

Claire - sorry for being unclear. I understood exactly what you were saying both on perception and on the GG.

Claire A said...

No worries. & I'm sure that once we young 'uns get established and "join" the community/one of the communities to a further extent, we may well see things differently. Just depends which side of the proverbial fence you're on, I suppose.

Colin Will said...

I'm wondering about the role of schools and the education system in encouraging literary creativity. Working in schools as I do, I find that primary pupils are generally keen to explore language, and they often produce refreshing and interesting poems. There's a dip in early secondary - I don't know if it's peer pressure or maybe exposure to other interests. This dip can be overcome by a good teacher who wants to encourage creativity, and supports those who continue to explore and experiment. Today's Scottish education system doesn't encourage creativity, nor does it adequately reward those teachers who can made a difference. I've sometimes revisited 'good' schools after such a teacher has moved on, and the level of interest and activity in creative writing falls off quite quickly. I wrote to the Scottish Dept of Education about this through my MSP (who reads poetry), and received a depressingly anodyne reply about 'pressures on the curriculum'.

Rob said...

Claire, you (and other young poets I can think of) are already part of the communities, although I appreciate your perspecive is that you're not. But it's pretty much the way Andy describes it, "Whatever 'system' might be in place, over and above certain individuals that I like, I've ignored also. As have plenty others. You know ... it's only important if you think it is, and accord it the power of Special Approval."

Colin, you're right. The schools are very important. I'd love to get east coast poets, readers and concerned teachers (at primary, secondary and universìty level) together on some Saturday in 2009 to examine how we could promote the reading of poetry and support promising writers better - with the aim of taking an agenda to the funding bodies and decision makers. We've allowed the bureaucrats to set that agenda for long enough, I think.

Anonymous said...

There have been plans afoot to create a Writers' Centre in Glasgow, perhaps in existing premises or perhaps involving new build, accommodation for visiting writers, mentoring, talks, etc.

Not sure how and when it'll take shape ... but hopes to provide a focus for literary activity. I think there are existing writers' centres in Dublin and New York, so it's following that kind of example.

Colin's point may be crucial: I was introduced to Robert Frost by an enthusiastic teacher in 5th year, which in turn led to the English degree, and in turn meeting other writers.

It is odd that the last Gregory Scot was Kate Clanchy in 1994, with significant others being Jackie Kay & Roddy in 1991, and Don Paterson in 1990. In poetry terms, that's a generation ago.

A more random feeling: maybe it's easier to write original stuff if you're not surrounded by a zillion other poems by new writers and trying to conform to whatever 'craft' is being taught on creative writing courses in order to squeeze you into the Market Place? There's something rather utilitarian about that side of it (at its worst, I mean).

Maybe too many folk are being encouraged to write by numbers, and thus never get a true sense of what they've got which is unique. If they have anything at all. Are folk expecting too much too fast, and get discouraged when they don't break through? Lacking the long-term nurturing / self-discovery principle? I dunno.


Rob said...

"maybe it's easier to write original stuff if you're not surrounded by a zillion other poems by new writers and trying to conform..."

Andy, that's a really interesting topic in itself. I'll post something on this next Monday, I think.

deemikay said...

"maybe it's easier to write original stuff if you're not surrounded by a zillion other poems by new writers and trying to conform..."

I'd like to think that's true. I've intentionally stayed away from any sort of "poetry communities" for years... why? Because I didn't want to feel the need to conform. Perhaps the perceived lack of any demographic is due to this hermiting away?

Perhaps. I'm typing out loud here... :)

Anonymous said...

I think the One Night Stanza's team are injecting a fresh wave of energy unseen before, breaking into the global and thinking big. I predict this mob may well eclipse their previous generation, as they show a grit and intelligence which is not bogged down in provincial politics.

They are combining commercial with creative and not looking to London for any kudos.


Rob said...

deemikey - yes, defintely, this subject needs a post on its own!

DS - nice pitch for ONS! I guess you're extending that to the whole 'Read This!' group and the Forest Café collective etc.

"Energy unseen before?" Don't know about that, although the energy is certainly palpable.

Commercial, creative and... quality needs to be in that mix. There is quality there of course.

Between 1980-94, I've picked out 11 Scottish EG Award winners, although I'm sure I've missed a few (not being aware of everyone's nationality). The list is:

Kathleen Jamie
Carol Ann Duffy
Mick Imlah
Robert Crawford
Don Paterson
Jackie Kay
Roddy Lumsden
Stuart Paterson
Tracey Herd
Angela McSeveney
Kate Clanchy

Names not on the list from that generation, who were nevertheless influential in the eighties or nineties (and remain so) include WN Herbert, Richard Price, and John Burnside.

I wouldn't really want to tackle Roddy's - "A more awkward question would be about how many of my generation (born 1955 - 1974) or the one above (c1935-1954) are still any good?!" (do we want WW III to break out in this blog?!) - but I'd say it would take an amazing upsurge for that generation's quality to be "eclipsed" (to use DS's word) by the current one.

However, a stiff challenge never hurt anyone...

Anonymous said...

If it is eclipsed, we have to wait another 15 years at least, which means we will have an answer by the time the arldies are 55 and the Forest cafe collective our age now.

The most obvious difference is they have the net, and - theoretically - no need to look to London for a lead. It will be interesting to see how it pans out, and as ever, there will be stuff we never would have thought, happening - and stuff we predict, being wildly off the mark.

My own reading is, it's all competition. We all want to be the best we can, and top our peers, using whatever rules and measures we have. The whole poetic culture, across the board, is founded on this idea, of winning a competition.

The danger is, getting feted when you are very young, garnering accolades and awards and buying into all that goes with it, letting what are essentially exterior baubles and fripperies, lead the way in how you develop.

One thing i have heard across the board, is poets publishing stuff in book form that do not comply with the standards one develops over time, as the mind matures and experience leads us to be the fully rounded article.

I'm only riffing here, spinning ideas, but yeah - all for the good.


roddy said...

DS wrote "bogged down in provincial politics... not looking to London for any kudos."

That was the first mention of any provincial politics, but let's go there...

Which Scottish publishers exactly should writers aspire to (beyond the healthy small presses)? Where is the focus on young writers across Scotland - in terms of publication and promotion and encouragement and good affordable teaching? Where are the prizes, the interesting magazines that young writers want to read, the good poetry groups, the first rate mentoring (without a fee of thousands), the opportunity to read more than once every three years if you don't organize that yourself?

Kudos will remain from London (and elsewhere over the border)if Scotland is not offering an alternative.

roddy said...

"Between 1980-94, I've picked out 11 Scottish EG Award winners, although I'm sure I've missed a few..."

Rob, you missed Lachlan McKinnon, Iain Bamforth, Eleanor Brown (debatable as she wasn't born in Scotland but spent many of her young years there).

Anonymous said...

Knowing zilch about the Scottish scene, everything stated is purely theoretical, and a projection of the imagination only - so with that in mind, who knows, the young chancers might flower of their own accord and get things up and running on with minimal adherence to the previous mores. Bump into Douglas Dun and get him on board their project. Of the few Scottish poets I have seen in Dublin, he was the best on the night, and I got the palpable sense that there is a difference between the Scottish on home turf and the emigres. Dun had poems that took a subtle and sophisticated pop at the plummier brethren, as i read it, and this being only theroetical projection, the futures up to bag perhaps, for the cannier gobs with belief they can make it without intervention or paying a mentor.

Astley said recently that the old ways have gone, there are a plurality of voices, and this due to many things, not least the web, where we can access remotely what once we had to in person, and the one night stanzas mob, i have noticed it is their resolute enthusiasm which hits one first, and the lean to America rather than London or UK norms in the linguistic expression. And they are drawing in people of the same age and generation from across the pond, in a way impossible prior to the web, playing with their peers across an ocean, the cultural difference and gaps in the English language, closing and if Claire starts shifting those cups, badges and pens to a world outside Scotland, this is the cultural hook others not resident on these islands, will prefer to England, as they have a 1300 year bardic tradition to claim which few Scots do in any depth, and maybe this, like the Irish can flog theirs to death, will be the fate of Scotland in the coming years.

I dunno, only riffing, and choosing the words for the musical and metrical efficacy, rather than any conscious sense, just to see what appears on the page after hitting send - so God bless the rose, leek thistle, sham rock 'n rollers weaving in a wave of whatever falls to make the cards we're holding in the flop, high, low flush or bust, because at the end of it all, past the prizes, accolades, agreements on what's what, who's who in the jack queen king and royal ace that sweeps a pot, Love is what will save us and poetry's a game-with-self first, if and when Taliesin to Amergin's the hand we're found to have.

gra agus siochain


Rob said...

Roddy, you've hit the nail on the head with that "...if Scotland is not offering an alternative" comment.

I'm not sure how I missed Iain Bamforth. I confess I'd never heard of Lachlan McKinnon, and yet he's on Faber! He must keep a low profile. The excerpts I read on a site looked pretty good.

DS, Scottish poets have habitually turned their eyes across the pond to North America and also to mainland Europe for inspiration. I'm not sure why, but I know that's been the case for the past century at least. It's been true for me too.

Andrew Philip said...

Scottish poets have always looked elsewhere for influence at least partly because of a need to push against the influence of the bigger neighbour south of the border (one pole of the creative tension in Scotland's relationship with England), though in the medieval/Rennaisance periods it's probably more a reflection of Scotland's connection with the mainstream of European culture.

I don't know what's happened to the 30-somethings (my generation). Off hand, I can think of only a couple of names. Hardly any of the students poets I knew when I was at uni were Scots and none of them is still writing to my knowledge (could be my ignorance, that!). The good 'uns were from south of the border and returned there.

My own development has been too measured to grant me a Gregory. I tried twice, but looking back, I'd say I wasn't ready. However, I've kept at it and sought out advice from people I admired and trusted. A couple of Arvons is the closest I've got to the developing creative writing establishment.

I have to say, I'm concerned about what effect the development of creative writing as an academic discipline has on the opportunities for students outside English departments. I didn't do an English degree (though I did some outside courses in literature).

Rob, I'm interested in your symposium idea.

Colin, you have an MSP who reads poetry?! Hallelujah!