Ode to whiteness: British poetry scene fails diversity test

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Alison Flood (The Guardian) writes about a recent study, commissioned by poet and academic Sandeep Parmar, which shows that poets of color are underrepresented in the United Kingdom. Parmar’s main point is that the British poetry world is “failing to meet even the most basic measurements of inclusivity” because, although “there are lots of poets of color who are publishing now,” critics simply have not kept up. She says, “There has to be enough critical attention paid, and the right kind of critical attention – critics who are knowledgeable about race and knowledgeable about culture and identity and belonging,” adding that “There have to be reviews … otherwise there is just a really skewed picture.”

Parmar highlights, as a positive example, the work of the Forward prizes, which have just unveiled a shortlist for the best collection, which ranges from the US poet laureate, African American Tracy K Smith, to the Trinidadian award-winning poet Vahni Capildeo.

[. . .] “In order for poets to have a certain prominence there have to be reviews, there has to be a critical evaluation of their work in the contemporary moment in which they exist – otherwise there is just a really skewed picture we have of people’s importance,” said poet and academic Sandeep Parmar, who commissioned the report. “We can see that in the 20th century, and we can see it happening now. There has to be enough critical attention paid, and the right kind of critical attention – critics who are knowledgeable about race and knowledgeable about culture and identity and belonging.” [. . .]

“We’ve hit an important moment in poetry where there are lots of poets of colour who are publishing now, but criticism has not kept up,” said Parmar. “It’s about opening up what we think British poetry is. When I arrived 15 years ago, poetry was extremely white, in magazines, criticism and published collections. That’s changed a lot, and it is to do with forward-thinking people.” She highlighted as an example the work of the Forward prizes, the prestigious awards for the best new poetry published in the British Isles, which have just unveiled a shortlist for the best collection, which ranges from the US poet laureate Tracy K Smith, who is African American, to the Trinidadian former winner Vahni Capildeo.

Bidisha, who chairs the jury for the £10,000 prize, said the books “represent the stunning variety and breadth of poetry today, with contemporary international voices that are urgent, engaged and inspirational”.

Smith is shortlisted for Wade in the Water, a confrontation of race and history in America. Capildeo, who took the Forward in 2016 for Measures of Expatriation and who chooses to be identified as “they/them” in the context of their work, makes the shortlist this year for Venus as a Bear, which gives a voice to the inanimate and non-human, from sheep to Roman relics.

The Scottish poet JO Morgan was chosen for Assurances, a response to his father’s role in maintaining Britain’s airborne nuclear deterrent, which imagines the thoughts of civilians, enemy agents and even the bomb itself. The shortlist is completed with the English poet Toby Martinez de las Rivas’s exploration of history and theology Black Sun, and American Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, which takes on race and gender in America. Smith, a former world poetry slam finalist whose poem “dear white america” was viewed 300,000 times on YouTube in just a few days after featuring on PBS NewsHour, is African-American, queer, gender-neutral and HIV positive.

[. . .] According to Susannah Herbert, the director of the Forward Arts Foundation, poetry “has become the space for articulating the unsayable, the unspoken, the unspeakable and this means its where voices that have been historically silenced finally get to be heard. [. . .] No coincidence that sales are rising while those of literary fiction are falling,” Herbert said, “it’s just more exciting right now.” The winners of the Forward prizes will be announced on 18 September.

Writing in the report for Ledbury, Coates argued that excluding writers of differing backgrounds strikes at poetry’s ability to understand “ourselves, other people and the world we live in”. “A substantial number of talented writers of colour already exist,” he wrote, “and the data in this study makes clear that the systemic exclusion of those writers is very real. I urge poetry editors throughout these islands to take notice and take action.”

The 2018 shortlist for the Forward prize for best collection

Venus as a Bear by Vahni Capildeo (Carcanet)
Assurances by JO Morgan (Cape Poetry)
Black Sun by Toby Martinez de las Rivas (Faber & Faber)
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (Chatto & Windus)
Wade in the Water by Tracy K Smith (Penguin UK)

Shortlists for the Felix Dennis prize for best first collection and the Forward prize for best single poem can be found at forwardartsfoundation.org.

The Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics scheme is supported by the University of Liverpool’s Centre for New and International Writing and the Ledbury Poetry Festival.

For full article, see https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/24/british-poetry-scene-fails-diversity-test

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