Tamar Yoseloff’s most recent collections are The City with Horns (Salt, 2011) and Formerly, a chapbook incorporating photographs by Vici MacDonald (Hercules Editions, 2012) shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award. A Formula for Night: New and Selected Poems is due from Seren in 2015. She is a London-based freelance tutor in creative writing, and runs site-specific writing courses for galleries such as the Hayward and the Royal Academy.
Photo by Stephen Wells
The mainstream press reliably informs me, at regular intervals, that ‘poetry is dead’. What’s your opinion on the health of the art today?
Maybe it’s more that, like lots of art forms, 'poetry is in flux'. It seems to be alive and well in higher education, but taking knocks in schools under the Tory government. It’s doing well live as 'spoken word' but funding cutbacks have reduced development opportunities for artists. It’s suffering in print but thriving on the internet. A bit of me wants to shout at it, 'Oi – adapt to survive!' but that feels like it would be perpetuating how capitalism blames the arts for not making more cash.
Poetry is foundational to all sorts of writing and thinking, and greater recognition of this throughout a country’s education system is hard to implement without a government lead.
What are the opportunities for poetry? How can it reach more audiences? And whose responsibility is it to promote poetry – poets, publishers, arts funding bodies, schools, governments?
The opportunities lie in live performance at a time when people want authentic connection, digital media which can make niches global, and in the antidote that slow and considered words existing outside marketplaces can provide to late capitalism. Poetry is foundational to all sorts of writing and thinking, and greater recognition of this throughout a country’s education system is hard to implement without a government lead. A Corbyn/Creasy government might possibly help push this, otherwise I think poetry needs a strong lead from poets and arts funding bodies. We could do with much stronger lobbying voices for poetry in the Arts Council and poets speaking publicly about what poetry can do in a way that transcends the divisions in the field and helps schools feel more confident about working with all kinds of poets and poetries themselves.
I think we all have a responsibility to promote poetry: writers, readers, organisers, funders, politicians, media figures, teachers. It reaches audiences by being readily available – if people see poetry on billboards or in newspapers or being quoted by MPs it becomes part of the fabric of everyday life, and not something high and lofty and inaccessible. There are great possibilities in education – these days students have the opportunity to study living poets, in some cases even meet them. This kind of wide dissemination of poetry needs to be encouraged. But in this age of austerity, it is difficult for those who promote poetry at the grassroots – publishers, educators and organisers especially – to extend their activities. So many good poetry projects are run by enthusiastic individuals who cannot continue their excellent work without financial and practical support.
What in your own experiences as poets made you want to initiate a subsidiary group within the SoA? What are the specific issues you see facing poets and what do you hope the group will be able to do?
For me it’s been a mixture of times when I’ve been asked to work for free or for cheap, and gradually getting more confident at dealing with it – but then hearing of other poets' uncertainty when put in similar situations and recognising that these things would be easier if we had a united voice. Literary and music festivals have been an increasing issue – where lots of writers and performers are just not being paid but told that their profile will benefit from a slot. We surveyed over 200 poets and the main issues coming up were around variable pay rates for jobs, wanting the profession to be more valued (and for pay scales to be clearer) and wanting stronger networks – both for information and for development. I think a group with strong central communication resources can achieve these things when attached to a union like the SoA and now it’s just a case of motivating people to join and get involved. A key thing for me would be for us to draw up codes of practice and observed pay scales - it would be helpful both to poets and to those who book them. A 'Pay Poets Properly' campaign would also be good...
As there are a number of poets who also earn their keep from their writing, it is important for us to state that our work has value.
One of the main issues facing poets is how their work is valued. Just in the last month, I have had two separate invitations to produce new poems based on exhibitions, and one to give a reading. No payment was offered with any of these invitations, two of which would have required travelling (to be fair, the organiser of the reading did say she might be able to cover my travel expenses, but could not offer me a fee). I was certainly tempted to say yes to the commissions, as they were on subjects that interest me, and as the organisers pointed out, quite a few other poets whose work I like have already accepted.
I want to be fair to the organisers who invited me, who all pointed out that they do not have extra budgets for such activities. In this age of cuts to social services and the arts, it is understandable that they are in such a position, and it is admirable that they still want to initiate poetry projects, sometimes also offering their administrative services for no payment. But I also feel it’s time that this culture is challenged, and that artists and the people who support them are acknowledged and remunerated fairly. Craftspeople and artisans are paid for the work they do – it’s easier to put a price on an object which has material presence and worth (the materials themselves often having a monetary value). But poems are crafted objects too, and although their value is more difficult to pin down, the time and effort given in their making should be considered.
I now make a living from my writing, and the activities around it, most often do to with teaching. As there are a number of poets who also earn their keep from their writing, it is important for us to state that our work has value. I know a number of poets who are embarrassed or ashamed to accept money for their work (even one poet who refused to cash cheques made out to her for readings and magazine acceptances out of such embarrassment). How has it come to the stage that we are embarrassed to acknowledge our worth?!
I politely declined all three invitations. I was sad to do so, but as I pointed out to two of the organisers, ACE exists to provide additional funding for such projects. As both commissions had visible public outreach activities and goals, they would have been very suitable candidates for Grants for the arts applications.
I think this is something that a subsidiary group within the SoA can assist with, both in enabling poets to confidently value their own work, and to make organisers more aware of the opportunities in attracting funding for such projects.
Imagine you have a time machine and could go back and give your former self advice as you started out on your poetry career. What would you say?
Mainly to ask for help when I needed it and not to be afraid of asking advice of more experienced people – they often like to give it. I’d have supported my own decisions not to apply to Oxbridge or live in London – but I’d have cautioned myself that I might then have to put extra effort into letting people know I existed! I’d have said, 'for goodness sake don’t let people who don’t know what they’re doing produce your first poetry show,' and said that I shouldn’t be ashamed of self-promotion or blowing my own trumpet. I probably wouldn’t have listened to myself though, because I wasn’t as good at seeking out good advice as I am now! Though contrarily, I’d have said what I’ve said to some other people since – your path doesn’t exist as an already trodden route. You have to make it for yourself – and that’s okay.
In the past, I said yes to everything, even when no fee was offered, on the basis that all experience is positive, that it’s important to be active in the poetry world, that potentially I might produce some new work. But now I know the time and thought it takes to write a poem to order, the effort involved in travelling to another town to do a reading, the preparation required in planning a writing workshop. All these things are creative acts, and if done properly and professionally, need careful consideration and energy.
I try now to value what I do as a poet and practitioner, and that means accepting invitations when I can be remunerated properly for my work.
What or who are you reading, watching or listening to at the moment?
I’ve just had a post-Edinburgh book binge before I get back into PhD reading (lots of Bourdieu and Foucault). In the last few days I’ve enjoyed Pat Barker’s Noonday, Jesse Armstrong’s Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals and Michael Booth’s The Almost, Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia (I’m always wanting to move to Scandinavia). My guilty pleasure is Don’t Tell the Bride and I’m loving The Americans on Now TV and annoyed that I can’t get the Walking Dead spin-off Fear the Walking Dead on any of my devices. I’m currently aurally deprived - if I was anywhere near a real record shop I’d go get Kathryn Williams’ Sylvia Plath album but otherwise I’m mostly listening to my husband and cocker spaniel snoring.
I am interested in the work coming from some of the smaller independent UK presses at the moment, such as Penned in the Margins and Corbel Stone. They are producing beautiful books by innovative poets. I’m looking forward to the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair this year (26 September) which gives smaller presses an opportunity to showcase their publications and authors.
So, just to confirm, poetry isn’t dead?