Friday, May 24, 2019

The difficulty of prizes and ageism

A prize shortlist is a telling thing. A litmus test, an indicator of the state of whatever the prize is being awarded for. 

Prizes comprise most of the news from the poetry world. Anyone on a shortlist has a better shot at readers - who are disappearing like topsoil and beetles

This year in the gallery of book covers and faces, all the faces are curiously unlined. Click on names and make your way through three categories, best collection, best first collection, best single poems. Dates of birth start to repeat. 1990, 1990, 1988, 1988, 1988, 1986, 1984, 1984, 1982, 1980, 1978, 1972, 1979,1977....the rank outsider is 1969. 

Not one poet who's published a collection or poem eligible for the 2019 Forward prizes is over 50. 

Should I write this? The hurdles come fast, like synonyms for oversensitive: touchy, paranoid, neurotic, awkward, difficult, thin-skinned, uptight, twitchy, emotive. 

Like racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism has a quantifiable impact on well-being and health, to such a degree that the World Health Organisation warns: "Ageism is everywhere, yet it is the most socially "normalized" of any prejudice. 

"For older people, ageism is an everyday challenge. Overlooked for employment, restricted from social services and stereotyped in the media, ageism marginalises and excludes older people in their communities."

I belong to many communities - my street, my city, my allotment, my work. I feel increasingly out of place at work. An incident this week shocked me. I am still processing it. Which brings me to the poetry community. This community's taken decades to be serious about equality. 

Dragged to its knees by nepotism, old boy networks, bad old ways that set a 'standard' achievable only if you were a spitting image of someone else, poetry had to wake up eventually. It's teaching itself, slowly, about diversity. The thing about ageism is that it affects black, white, gay, lesbian, trans, blind, deaf....and it's global. It's a bit of a shock to realise that representatives of this community don't believe anyone born before 1969 has written anything noteworthy this year. 

Wednesday, May 08, 2019


The first thing I said out loud to myself as I drove behind the beekeeper on my way to the house, was 'asphodels, a field of asphodels'. The beekeeper would tell me their nectar made the champagne of honey. 
My brain had provided a plant name but I had no conscious memory of the flower.  I only knew asphodel as a flower of the dead.
Online searches tell me its constituent parts are used as glue (for shoes and books), to make bread, huts and cord. Persephone wears a garland of asphodels. Poets from Milton to Leonard Cohen give it a name check. The goats tear off its flowers.
Asphodel was the start of talking to myself. By the end of a week alone I was regularly bouncing thoughts off the walls of the courtyard I spent my days in, weeding.
Above me, birds flew between trees, roof tiles, rocks, water troughs and undergrowth. They swung on the wild euphorbia and as the days lengthened into April, I looked forward to the gang of sparrows making noise every evening, the familiarity of a blackbird's song.
The sheep came to visit almost immediately as if they knew they had a visitor. I went for a walk and came back to a small group of goats claiming the builders' bags by my hire car. The big male had horns as magnificent and curled as a kudu. A small female was pulling at leaves with two kids nearby. Then I heard the bells. These Mallorcan sheep have long faces, mournful but appealing, and floppy ears. I was going to get to know them better than I imagined because they'd be attacked by dogs.  

This was writing time. Five weeks as a house-sitter. The deal, an hour's work a day. I'd never have gone to Mallorca otherwise, never have stayed in a place like this, high above the sea, where north African invaders made it part of a prosperous caliphate in 902, terracing and irrigating the land.
Water is everything. It comes from the mountain and is directed into great rectangular pools along channels that were carved out of stone.
After the first week of furious gardening and a miserable day trip to Palma when I wondered if I'd made a terrible mistake, I began to write properly. A story, then another, and another. At the beginning of April I decided to write a poem every day. I hadn't intended to write poems, my priority was short stories and editing When The Birds Carry A River, the travel memoir that has, in the past, been called Venda Sun and Road to the North.
In the middle of one night my phone alarm went off. Then I heard another alarm outside my window. I was alone, listening hard for footsteps. But it was another Mediterranean visitor, the Skops owl. And that would become another story.
Before long, friends were coming. We shopped in Carrefour, buying enough for a fortnight. The track to the house from a lethal turning off the main road was a feat of concentration, a 30 minute bump into potholes and ruts. There was no popping anywhere for something forgotten. On each journey I mentally forfeited the deposit on the hire car.
There were markets to visit, baskets to buy, and Amazon Prime as we stoked the fire at night. Then the dog attacks meant the sheep had to come out of the woods. A local farmer came to take away the young rams.
On every walk, asphodels, pine trees, euphorbia and on the terraces, olive trees and carob. Below the carob trees, the dark brown pods collect like punctuation marks. I needed to believe in writing again and when I came back, I did. On one of my last days at the house, when fog settled and stayed, I finished the editing I'd set myself. The dog was caught. The sheep were freed and Blue, an hour old when I first saw her (or him) went off with the flock back into the mountains.