Last week, Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen, won the Forward prize for Best Collection. Rankine, a Jamaican poet living in the US, was the only non-white poet on the shortlist. The list for best first book was more diverse.
It may be significant that it is with this particular collection that Rankine broke through to a wider audience. Citizen – with its searing anecdotes of everyday aggression and the murder of black people by white cops, delivered in clear and remarkably restrained prose poems – reflects more directly on racism than her previous books, which were arguably more avant-garde in form and language.
These themes are hardly foreign to British poets, from Linton Kwesi Johnson to Dean Atta. But British media coverage of Rankine and of a series of recent US poetry scandals suggests that conversations here about poetry and race still mostly happen by proxy.
The UK media is quick to cover racial controversies in the US poetry world. Michael Derrick Hudson stole the name Yi-Fen Chou – a Chinese high school classmate – in order to lubricate his passage into the Best American Poetry. Vanessa Place tweeted lines from Gone with the Wind spoken by black characters, under the banner of a lurid caricature Mammy. Kenneth Goldsmith read out Michael Brown’s autopsy report, strategically edited to culminate with a description of Brown’s “unremarkable” genitals.
In the US, these scandals prompted investigations into editorial policy, peer review, conference organisation, funding for academic speakers, community organising and activism, as well as serious essays on the history and currency of white supremacy in poetry communities. But there has been little discussion of that kind about British poetry.
Worse in Britain
Many American poets of colour have pointed out that these scandals are part of a structure of white privilege. Literary journals, anthologies, presses and syllabi are sites of segregation. This is even more true in the UK than it is in the US. Yet British poets, let alone the British press, seem reluctant to discuss it.
Numbers are notoriously difficult to come by, but the proportion of people of colour published by British poetry presses, magazines, and anthologies is low. According to the Free Verse report commissioned by the Arts Council in 2007, less than 1% of poetry published by major presses in the UK was written by black or Asian poets.
Off the record, publishers argue that there isn’t a readership for BME poetry. But the exclusivity of literary coteries impacts disproportionately on BME poets, only 6% of whom achieved publication through personal contacts, according to Free Verse. With the majority of commissions coming through agents, the urgency of opening up access to the whole publishing network is clear.
This is recognised, but efforts to build resources for diversity are often short-lived. The Arts Council’s Decibel programme closed down; the Publishers' Association hasn’t done much with its diversity charter, Equip. Up until a few days ago, Creative Access was on the verge of folding, and even now only has enough funding to continue placing interns until Spring 2016. According to Ruth Harrison of Spread the Word, it’s increasingly difficult to persuade publishers that diversity is business critical.
In an environment when all poetry publishing is under strain, poets of colour argue that they can only get through the door by writing “authentic” poems about identity. Publishers offer an “easy way to get published for a brown person”, poet John Siddique told BBC Radio Lancashire, which involves both invoking stereotypes – “collaborator”, “terrorist” – and then “setting yourself apart from those other brown people” in an attempt “to buy white privilege”.
And yet poems which dare to claim subject and voice, challenging the obsession with technique which characterises much avant-garde writing, are often regarded as naive expressions of “identity politics”. Such responses fail to recognise that the black lyric “I” is a radical invention, whose history belongs with the avant-garde traditions it also corrodes.
The history of under-representation of black writers is long. Fred D’Aguiar’s essay “Have you Been Here Long?” notes that only two Caribbean poets – Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott – had books produced by major British publishing houses in the 1960s. The Free Verse report meanwhile says that the “great strides towards cultural diversity” made in the 1980s have since been reversed. The good work done over recent decades to diversify school syllabi has been repeatedly threatened by government ministers besotted with Romanticism, or who warn against Arts Council “box-ticking” to fill diversity quotas. Politicians seem to regard poetry as a dusty museum art whose job is to preserve “traditional” British values.
These problems with mainstream publishers and academic representation have driven many poets to seek alternative ways of making their voices public, through digital publication, little magazines and small presses – formats which don’t usually benefit from large-scale funding initiatives, but which also aren’t obliged to meet standards of diversity for their practitioners or audiences.
So white privilege remains a problem in academia, mainstream publishing and the small presses. But what about the live performance venues where poetry is made and celebrated? Again, these are profoundly segregated: the spoken word scenes host and are curated by many BME poets, but the more traditional venues tend to be almost exclusively white, both in terms of the performers and the audience. It has been estimated that less than 1% of the programmes at the big literary festivals is occupied by BME writers.
As for the poetry you hear on the radio, in a half-slumber after Sunday lunch, it is invariably a conservative (white) tradition with its roots in the Movement and a defanged domestic modernism. If no one is that interested in it, perhaps it’s because it’s a heritage industry which rarely reflects on how it reproduces privilege.
Black writing also challenges the usefulness of categories like mainstream, popular and avant-garde. So long as it remains a gated community of white privilege, disdainful of more “popular” forms like spoken word, the avant-garde cannot claim to be radical. We may blame our obsolescence on the culture industry, but poetry is not extinct in all cultures: the Somali diaspora maintains a vital tradition, and the Shanghati Literary Society regularly draws audiences of a thousand to performances of Bangla poetry and song.
If white avant-garde poetry is threatened with extinction, it may be because it is on the wrong side of history.