Sunday, August 19, 2007

Exclusion by your peers never stops hurting.

Last night at supper, a friend of my daughter was explaining how she was excluded by a group of friends. She's now trying to persuade her mum to let her change school.

The girls came across this group yesterday in town. My daughter had never met them before but they shouted at her, mocked her, insulted her, because she was associated with the girl they'd decided to exclude.

Most of us have some experience of this. I still remember the name of the girl who attempted to exclude me from a group I went from primary to secondary school with. I have no idea why she did it; probably for the sheer exercise of power. As a result my friendships became wide and non-exclusive. I hopped between groups and was happy to have allegiances with many.

I've retained this need for variety and loathing for exclusivity. It has informed my working life, my social life and my reading - particularly my reading. In fact I remember my English teacher's surprise I was reading Geoffrey Hill at the same time as the Liverpool poets.

Naively, I believe that by rooting around in the unknown, by being curious, by talking to people I don't know or haven't seen for a while, by challenging the received view, the orthodox, the conventional, I might learn something, I might be entertained, I might feel uplifted.

Which is why, ironically, on the same evening I received an email from a friend about the Poetry Book Society's decision not to give her book a recommendation. The PBS wields phenomenal power in the shark infested poetry world. How does it wield this power? Well, it's a case study in self-perpetuation. A couple of poets decide on a handful of books to recommend each quarter. One book is a choice and is sent to all members, a massive boost for that title. Selectors are in post for a substantial period and are instrumental in deciding who takes over from them.

The PBS dominates the TS Eliot prize, poetry's biggest publicity machine, and the repercussions of these quarterly choices and recommendations extend far - into decisions made by bookshops about which poets to stock, bookings of poets for festivals, invitations to submit learned articles or work to poetry magazines, other competition shortlists like the Whitbread and Forward, and newspaper coverage.

Sadly, the PBS and its decisions, has become a byword for quality throughout the world of poetry. A royal stamp of approval.
Those of us who are dismissed are expected to remain quiet in our provincial home and doff our caps to the aristocrats who've fought off all opposition to their right to shape the map of contemporary British poetry.

Some of these so-called opinion formers go for the jugular to keep poetry "pure", arguing there's too much being published, that formalism is the way forward and so on. These are the dirty fighters. Their tactics are akin to those of political spin doctors, public relations consultants. Their aim is to keep their brand names on the shelves and others off.

Other opinion formers cuddle up in the halls of academe, the Royal Literary Fund and book launches, hoping no-one will break ranks and let in the unknown, untried or rebellious. These are the camp followers, joiners of private members clubs. They support the dirty fighters by weight of numbers and keeping up appearances. They keep the bench warm. They are rewarded with editorships, fellowships and shortlisting.

But I remember the school bully. The impact she had was brought home to me at the kitchen table last night chatting to two 12 year old girls.

The PBS and its associated influence does the same. There is a cabal of names in contemporary poetry that should know better than to mistake personal opinion, an emotional judgement, for value judgement. It is time to challenge them.