Turning back at the Threshhold
Had a conversation with Khaled Hakim last night (9/10/18) after a reading. Discussed amongst other thing the affluence of women and ethnic minority artists to the poetic avant garde, in the past. The reasons for the lack of diversity in the avant-garde are impossible to disentangle, but the outcome is a Thing, it’s an object of discussion and I have thought about it a lot in the past year – which is why I think you can’t resolve it. However, if you look at Conductors of Chaos (1996), you find 5 female poets out of 36. (And zero “non-European immigrants”, or however you put it.) This shows a much worse (i.e. less diverse) situation than in the mainstream at an equivalent date, and furthermore attempts to assemble an anthology of the Underground poets who emerged after 1977 have failed because the pattern which emerges is now sociologically unacceptable (and not subject to admiration when developed in an anthology).
If you compare Conductors with an anthology which came out a year later and covered the same period (but from a neo-mainstream point of view), you find that Conductors has roughly 14% women and The New Poetry has roughly 29%. Actually, the Underground was significantly more male-dominated (or, unattractive to women), and this is one of the things it is beneficial to discuss. It’s part of the picture – even if the only story that the participants want to hear is of “lonely and impoverished virtue”. (Further comparison. The 1988 anthology the new british poetry has two sections of alternative poetry. They contain 43 poets of whom six are female. These are almost the same figures as in Conductors.)
Part of writing about modern poetry in a connected way is that you realise that the result isn’t connected, I mean that you can’t answer most of the questions which people could ask about “why?”
Khaled was talking about The Film-makers’ Co-Op and how Bob Cobbing had been one of the people who set it up (in 1968 or whenever it was). The film-makers, the London Musicians Collective (which meant free jazz, exclusively), and various poetry gigs, all happened in that old British Rail equipment depot in Gloucester Avenue. God knows how many times I went there in the Eighties. Times past counting. Khaled was involved (don’t know when, maybe from 1995 on?) in both the film-making and the poetry scene. He was telling us that the film-makers didn’t have this diversity problem, they had lots of ethnic minority people and lots of LGBT people as well. The problem just didn’t exist for that collective – or, the obstacles weren’t off-putting for the young people who turned up wanting to be creative. So we didn’t get to the stage of making invisible obstacles speak and utter their names, but we did see everything going well for one branch of art –and badly for another. I found the contrast quite devastating to think about. I think people want to deny that any such obstacles ever existed. I also think that making the “silent rules” audible and subject to discussion, subject also to tweaking and reform, is going to be a feature of the arts scene in the next couple of decades, something which will be there but wasn’t there over the last 50 years.
I think at this point people think sociological awareness means “there should be a rule that anyone who doesn’t like me has to leave” and “because I wasn’t promised enough rewards for participating and didn’t participate the Scene should offer me fabulous levels of compensation for turning up at all”. It is not going to work like that, and these vain demands are a sign of an immature stage of what in maturity will be splendid and robust.
The New Poetry has Irish poets (11 out of 55 people). Conductors doesn’t do Ireland – this is just one of the differences which is hard to analyse. Most questions can’t be answered.
I used to spend time with someone who knew a lot of poets’ wives – she was a recipient for the gossip, and the social scene around poetry (Cambridge poetry) in a way that I wasn’t. She stated that most of the wives had a witheringly indifferent attitude towards the Cambridge poetry which their husbands wrote. Like, “if you aren’t going to get written about in the Observer magazine there is no point you doing it”. Or “you don’t get events put on at the ICA so you are a failure and persisting is just selfish”. It was disapproving tolerance and certainly not support and admiration. The advent of feminism meant that it was fashionable for women to define men’s private artistic interests as “egotistic and indulgent” rather than as a way to the truth. At an elementary level, the flocking of new women poets into the mainstream was the cause of the revival of the mainstream in the Eighties and of the defensive and cut-off situation of the poetic Underground. The discrediting of female art debilitated the innovative poetry scene because most of the innovative poets of the past had been male. There are a thousand stories and I don’t even want to tell all of them. Clearly there has been a past of women selflessly supporting unpopular male artists, reading what they did as a versions of a Saint’s Life. In history, saints’ lives stopped, at some point, being the most popular reading and listening matter – and maybe the male artist’s life also stopped being so central (and specifically, after 1980 or maybe even after 1975). This was bound to affect unpopular (”Underground”) male artists born in the 1950s. If you shed that mythology of art, it became undeniable that poetry had to access an audience, and that the only way to do this was to write in a very simple, open style, using stylistic effects which everyone was familiar with because of their traditional nature. So it was that new women poets arriving on the scene in the Eighties overwhelmingly plumped for a mainstream style.
Explaining the male centre of the Underground through the lack of material rewards does not work when you look at the Film-makers’ Co-Op. Nobody could have turned up to that more than once without realising that everyone was broke and no-one was going to start making a living out of their “structural speculations” anytime soon. If people found it so attractive, it must have had something that poetry didn’t have. It’s reasonable to think that the very same people would have got involved in poetry if the public events had been equally inspiring (and inhibition-breaking). Thinking about it now, it might have been better for me, in terms of having fun and getting close to other people, if I’d got into film-making in 1981 and not gone on with poetry (which no-one published).
SubVoicive was a series of avant-garde readings taking place fortnightly (except during the summer) throughout the Eighties. It was stable, so it could gradually have built up an audience. Audiences were stable but tiny. They took place in London, a city of 8 million people, in the South-east region, which held probably 17 million people in all. Why of 8 million people did only 20 turn up? Once you explain this, it becomes much simpler to explain why so few poets (including Asian and female ones, obviously) didn’t want to participate. Crudely, a lot of eager poets who turned up probably saw the small audience, the primitive arrangements of the venue (upper rooms in a pub), the home-made quality of the publications, the lack of connections to a wider world, and didn’t come back. The idea of spending 30 years of endeavour to reach the level of non-success (failure?) of the senior poets in that world just wasn’t a big turn-on.
Reconstructing what someone saw, on a single visit, and why they didn’t come back, has become a Thing. Because you can’t get at the ‘lack of diversity problem’ without getting at why people said No. The lack of evidence is overwhelming – if people entered the pipe and went on for 20 years, you can easily get information about them. It’s cheap. But as for half a million people who saw the announcement for SubVoicive in Time Out, once, or every two weeks for decades, how do you get information about them, and why they didn’t react with excitement?
What I think is happening today is that people, especially would-be managers, are intensely imagining the threshold moments where people decided not to come in and join the scene. These moments could be very rich in psychological content, but they don’t leave any documentary evidence. My guess is that people take the key decisions at the point when they have the smallest amount of information. People who encounter the Alternative Scene once and say “no” have very little to base the decision on. Actually the Alt Scene has generally been so close to invisible that you could only find it by accident. To read that little listing for SubVoicive, you would have to know that it was “the alternative scene” and also have a concept that there was such a scene in existence. It took me ten years, after I moved to London, to get involved with that scene. People want to ask the retrospective question ”what was the Underground’s recruitment strategy and what resources did they make available for new starts”, but that just exposes the fact that the Underground had no resources, was a “body without organs”, and didn’t have any policies or organisation. To some extent, people are inventing something that was never there in order to de-legitimate it.
This line of intellectual inquiry starts to overflow into the area of marketing. OK. You can’t do market research on a zero budget. No budget, no data. This could be an infinite discussion, because without data you can never disprove any explanation, however stupid, and people will sustain their tawdry and self-serving fantasies for ever. Is that the ideal discussion? Ideal because never boring and totally inconclusive, maybe. The idea that nobody will ever be proved wrong is attractive.
SubVoicive wasn’t the only entry point for modern-style poetry, of course. It is likely that most of the gifted poets in London were absent from any SubVoicive event on any named evening. Modernity was happening beyond the edge of the Underground rail network, I suspect. It’s just a point to focus on.
The Underground had this exclusivity. And this determination not to get involved in star-myths. To deconstruct the idealisation of the Artist. Perhaps by achieving those goals it doomed itself to marginality, and incidentally to not achieving “diversity”. It blocked out the signals which novice creative people found most attractive.
Having reached the end, I am wondering if I have answered any questions at all. Oh dear. But maybe I haven’t disseminated any self-serving myths. That would be a start.