(Hollie McNish, disagreeing with me.)
I have always maintained that some of the best insights you can hear in any field often comes from the person two-weeks into their endeavours rather than a person who has been doing it twenty years.
This is also horrible, horrible advice and there is a reason I run a blog and not a full-blown literary journal. But then again, I have only been doing this for a year… Thus, I present to you my nicest hat I have to be trampled in the ring: here’s what I have to say about this whole PN Review debate…
If you have our ear to the ground on the poetry scene, someone said something not at all positive towards the current state of spoken word poetry. The piece is loudly proclaiming how it feels and I am not going to say what they are saying is totally invalid, I know I am a humble peasant in all of this. It is well worth a read. You can read Hollie McNish’s response here and, what I think is the most succinct defence out there, Melanie Branton’s well-written retort here. This isn’t a reply, it is a report from how things look from my point of view.
I hope not to prove that spoken word at large is indeed academic, or needs to be more technical or artful, or that the what reaches people fore-mostly is necessarily the best of what is out there. I think everything is fine, knickers simply need to be untwisted in this situation. Instead, I put forward that there is a reason that people are being reached by the poetry of this ilk, and it isn’t because we’re all beginning to drag our poetic knuckles as we frollick in delirious circles over the plug-hole of impending illiteracy blinded by our own conveniences.
I could use words like spiteful or vicious about the review, but I think the review knows that it is spiteful, and it is happy with its life choices. Watts doesn’t jive with spoken word as a genre and has mistakenly decided to attack it as a whole.
“What good is a flourishing poetry market… less appreciative of nuance, less able to engage with ideas, more indignant about the things that annoy us, and more resentful of others who appear to be different from us?”
I could write an entire piece around this statement which seems to misunderstand the fundamentals of the contemporary spoken word altogether but other poets have said it better and will continue to say it better than I can. But I will instead focus on what Watts missed.
She doesn’t deserve to be attacked for expressing her frustration and opinion in a genre that can often be an echo chamber of ideas. I welcome her voice as an outsider to spoken word. I read some of her work and it’s perceptive and has a lot of effort put into it, her voice deserves to be heard, she makes many good points but draws few good conclusions in my opinion.
I can’t even say I am neck-breathingly familiar with the work of Rupi Kaur or Hollie McNish or even Kate Tempest, of whom I consider myself a fan, who are all dragged into this piece. I decided to catch up on the work of Kaur and McNish for the sakes of this post, discovering I rather liked what I read and listened to. I won’t distract from my point by going out of my way to expand on my feelings. What I can say is that I am very familiar with the criticisms at hand here.
Mostly because Lindsay Ellis beat me to the punch with what was going to be one of my main points…
This came out after I had finished my first draft of this bloody blog post and I had to redo it all over again. I was going to talk about my unquestioning love of Jupiter Ascending and everything.
Ellis says it better than I ever could: this isn’t anything new, people just don’t like women. Even women don’t like women-y things. Our presence does not imply success. I’m not a woman myself, but I am easily mistaken for one all the time so I understand the resentment people have for when a medium is invaded by the feminine youth of today. People love to shake their fists at teenage girls; harbingers of degeneration in everything they touch with their grubby, right-swipey, manicured fingers.
Thankfully, I can ramble on more than just that aspect of why I think the review isn’t anything to be worried about. This isn’t a totally gendered issue, there are many facets to this and from what I can see it is a generational issue in many regards. Watts isn’t exactly middle-aged, but I know plenty of people who could be safely counted as millennials who dislike the technology that defines us as a generation and the possibilities that come with it.
Social media allows us to show too much our lives to other people, it ruins the magic. Social media lets us show the best bits of our lives, its all false. Social media lets everyone have a platform regardless of quality, everyone has a blog these days. etc etc. Which brings me back to the review: Watts makes a few logical leaps in the piece which seemingly amount to ‘this ideal of honesty before technique has come to the forefront of these popular pieces of work no one can take them seriously anymore and they are the knell of the populist take over.’
I don’t want to attack Watts when I say perhaps she believes there is a throng of seraphic artistic thinkers whose opinions are the only ones we should care about thereby making her statement non-contradictory. Maybe in a few years time I will no longer be a sparkly-eyed amateur and agree. For now, I personally think that spoken word heading into the mainstream is a sign that it is being taken more seriously, not less. As well as a sign that more people are engaging rather than mindlessly teething over it.
I think Watts has inadvertently proven that things are going rather well for spoken word; the piece brought up a defence hot on its heels and sparked rich debate, and must have been relevant enough to publish in the first place. Which is why I’m not angry, its why I don’t think McNish is all that bothered in her response. The review misunderstands how people take part in poetry these days. You can’t maintain that “the reader is dead” and also say the consumer has taken over; readers are consumers.
People read and listen to Kaur’s work, they make hundreds of choices a day, they listen to Elliott Smith on their turntables whilst they eat toast with almond butter, or play Drake on repeat on their iPhones on the way to work as they shove a meal deal into their face. They might own tote bags, they might own tote bags and constantly forget to use them. They may or may not use groupons or own houseplants. You can’t just call the people consumers when things don’t go your way.
These are people, teenage girls on Instagram are people, many of whom care about things like caesuras and others who just feel resonant with the work of people they find in their every day lives. Maybe they are both.
I’m sorry not everyone knows where their local independent bookseller is and regularly listens to BBC radio shows on the latest publications but I don’t believe correlation is causation. Kaur and her colleagues across the social media spectrum are not discouraging engagement beyond their own works.
The internet just happens to be where young people live and I mean that literally. Online is where our friends are, where we watch our favourite vloggers, where we listen to our podcasts about shrimp and not, say, something useful. We aren’t always doing something ethical and studious, I’m afraid, and neither are you. I think poetry should embrace being a part of people’s lives when they aren’t wanting to feel smart.
Something I’d like to propose, however, is that you can listen to podcasts concerning jokes about shrimp that and know where your independent bookseller is in your city. The internet is another home, so I am going to allow myself to appreciate the poetry I find closest to home.
I don’t know what to suggest about poetry outside the internet and spoken word, it is where I choose to engage with it, as a reader and consumer, thus I cannot say let it wither away and die nor can I list ways to engage us further in strictly paper publications. This is a false dichotomy.
I think it is pithy for anyone to complain when you don’t think a surge in interest in your passion is being done properly. I think it is ludicrous to say that short, clipped insta-poetry is akin to Orwellian Newspeak and “celebrating amateurism and ignorance…” All in all, it’s a bit mean-spirited and not all opening the floor to the people the attack is aimed at.
And the targets are not just McNish, although it was addressed personally in some regards, they are the people who brought McNish and others to prominence. Which brings us back to the Millenials and our self-created habitat of knee-jerk reactions, instant gratification and social media platforms that singlehandedly allowed Donald Trump to happen. We, the club-footed careless Godzillas crushing the old without thought, to make way for our new world order.
T.R. Darling’s work is a good example of something beautiful and lichenous that would not survive in its entirety outside of the ecosystem to which it has adapted. I wouldn’t call one screenshot of T.R. Darling’s work on Twitter a whole representation of what they do, I highly recommend scrolling through the muttering cavernous archives of Quiet Pine Trees yourself.
But in an interview on WordPress Darling brought up something that I thought applied very well to the situation at hand, as a fellow peddler of literary internet snippets they had something to say on the nature of their work:
“Being brief isn’t enough. You can boil down a story to a sentence or two, but often you need context.“
It’s almost as if there’s a skill to this. Much like a haiku isn’t just about syllables but grounding in place and time, one of the online microfiction’s essential tools is the fact it is cut off by Twitter character count. Even Darling will admit their failures often curtail to not following through with the setting they’ve placed their work in.
McNish is more than honesty. They are more than just an outpouring of what they feel, and if Watts can’t see that then it shows they are not seeing past the vehicles that have brought the work to a book’s pages. Rupi Kaur is more than soft-spoken delicately typed Instagram posts. Kate Tempest is more than blasting the tories on youtube. They are more than just what we perceive their draw to be, they are more than their audience, and the audience is more than that.
As I was watching McNish’s piece ‘Embarrassed’ and searching for devices to make some sort of argument against a professional poetry reviewer that her work is just as well crafted as anybody else, left me realising that what cannot translate to the page are the breaths held and spaces left open for thought and reply. As well as the fact my scrutiny was a fool’s endeavour.
Maybe McNish doesn’t want to do a finely tweaked disembodied personification of her feelings on breastfeeding in public because she wants people to reply and that would impede the voice she has created. I have absolutely no doubt that someone who shows as much intelligence and depth in their observations and work could do something adequately complicated to please us.
In my head, as I listened to Embarrassed and other poems, I felt myself start conversations in the pauses she left. Not just mmmms and yeahhhs, but actual interjections directed at the poet. And this is part of the medium, in finger clicks, in retweets and reblogs, there must be room to reply.
And it is not just about accessibility or the fact it says something you can tutt about my generation’s need to butt in with their opinions at all hours of the day. I think this could be what people are finding nuance in, I think there is an art to this. It isn’t just the legion drawling consumers with their apps and scant free time, but the people who buy poetry books and go to open mic nights.
This is why people care. And I believe that is the goal in all of this, not in how many gold stars we get in using devices for devices sakes (or for the sakes of halting the rise of fascism, as the article implicates as the social media generations fault… somehow…) but communication and engagement.
I think the aforementioned authors have hit upon this better than almost anyone before them, and whilst I might be a scraggly infant on the scene, I do believe I care. And that is why I decided to write this, not because I necessarily had the most nuanced, experienced contribution but because I could.