Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Irrationality of Rationality

There’s a brief flapping at the letterbox and half a second’s delay until the by-now-all-too-recognisable ‘thump’ of the half dozen poems, plus subscription form and printed rejection slip (sans comment) land on the door mat.

You don’t know for certain it’s a rejection, but the weight of the envelope, scrawled in your own handwriting of ten weeks ago, tells you that if they wanted the poems, they’d probably have kept them and sent only a sheet of acceptance back: some congratulatory note detailing, perhaps, how the editors were impressed by poem ‘x’ (and maybe, if you’re lucky, also poem ‘y’) and want it/them for the magazine, so please could you confirm that it/they haven’t appeared elsewhere? There’ll likely be a cursory note to say that magazine ‘z’ receives thousands of submissions for each issue, so it’s testament to the strength of your poems that they found their way in. 90-99% do not.

How do you know this? Because you’ve been involved in both sides of it so many times before. As editor of magazine ‘a’, you’ve rejected hundreds of poems by hundreds of poets—sometimes flippantly, with the click of a button on Submittable; sometimes after sustained deliberation with your fellow editors. You’ve also, half a dozen or so times in nearly a decade of trying, been privy to the other side of the coin: the acceptance slip coming through after months (occasionally weeks) of waiting has flipped the day on its knife-edge, and for the weeks and months that follow, you’ve been buoyed by the knowledge that an editor (or group of editors) you’ve never met have decided to take your poem or poems and align them in a manuscript alongside other poets, some of whom you know or have met or have read, others who are just names to you. You spend the time until the magazine containing your poem(s) drops on the door mat in a state of elevated spirits. Perhaps you Tweet or post a message on Facebook about it in advance. And while online acceptances, for e-journals and the like, can be just as salient in terms of their prestige (if not more so in terms of ‘reach’, theoretically at least), there’s something about this art form you’re involved with that tells you, irrationally, that the printed page is still superior; and that the journals you’ve been reading since you were an undergrad eight years ago are still the ones where your poems ought to be published.

Then there’s the third state, which you discuss anecdotally with colleagues, peers and friends involved in this world. This is the written-on rejection slip: the halfway house between the poem(s) being hypothetically good enough for the magazine, but for whatever reason or combination of reasons, not quite making the grade. Occasionally, this can be as simple as the poem being a couple of lines too long, thus pushing the setting of the rest of the mag entirely out of kilter. More often, it’s to do with a small fissure in the poem(s): some irredeemable flaw which, while not fatal, does nonetheless leave the poem(s) feeling ‘not quite there’. In a jostling match in which one poem is not quite there and another is, it makes absolute sense to side with the stronger candidate. Oftentimes, a theme begins to emerge, binding the poems already accepted for the issue, and whether or not yours is a firecracker, the issue, in its own stubborn way, does not demand your presence right now. The editor will occasionally imply all of this, in muted, conciliatory tones, in a few sentences of his or her own hand, with appended well-wishes and encouragement to try again soon. If human-printed ink accompanies laser-printed ink, so the theory goes, the editor can see and has acknowledged tacitly that you are a Good Poet. However, you had best be prepared for that default printed slip: try not to be consumed by the gravitational pull towards oblivion that you know it means to avoid, but nevertheless exerts.  After all, magazine editors need and want to publish the ‘best’ collections of poems they can. I know: I’ve edited magazine ‘a’ twice now. The reason the subscription form comes through with the rejection isn’t a cynical attack on the rejected (a less-than-subtle suggestion that if only you’d subscribe, we might take your work next time); no, it comes through because subscriptions, if they are voluminous enough, guarantee the magazine’s future survival, which, after all, shores up the continued promotion of the art form we’re all apparently-invested in.

What is the purpose of this little diatribe? I don’t entirely know. Sour grapes? Yes, partially, inevitably. We’re human: rejections hurt, even if we pretend they don’t; that it’s just par for the course. But I wonder. Is there something inherently flawed in the way our poems are expected to grace the eyes of a potential readership? Something askew in the commonly-accepted parlance which has it that magazine publication (years of), followed by pamphlet(s) publication, followed usually by another year or two of ‘higher-brow’ magazine publication, invariably leads to first full-length collection with a publisher (ideally one of the dozen in this country who can command if not international then at least fully-national reach) and the commensurate prizes (slew of, or at least shortlist for) and maybe later (long after both your death and further eight books, of course) full assimilation into Poetic Singularity: a five-page spread in the Guardian magazine; anthologisation en-masse; your name boring hundreds of thousands of GCSE students each spring or spoiling (when misquoted) many an otherwise-enjoyable after-dinner game of Articulate!

Even now, levels of facetiousness ramped at least halfway up, I am loathe to mention names. I am aware of my ‘reputation’, which whether I say so or not, I wish to protect, as well as the reputation of the publications and bodies alluded to. I am not aiming this at any one of them in particular. My gripe – I think – is with the very means by which poetry is published. The word ‘means’ there is crucial: implying a plurality of publication routes (the aforementioned ‘trajectory’ may be typical, but it is certainly not unique) and a plurality of reasons and justifications for wanting to publish in the first place. What do we ‘mean’ when we say our poetry is published?

I talk to a lot of poet-friends about their craft: forthcoming readings, publications, projects, commissions, residencies and so on. What we often fail to talk about is why we are doing it in the first place, and the implied sub-question: who is our work for? At a conference last week surrounded by twenty-five other Arts and Humanities disciplines, I was asked by two other researchers – one from an Archaeology background, another an Art Historian – why I started writing poetry. That, I said to both, is a very good question. On both occasions, I replied (honestly) that I was inspired at undergraduate level by a series of extraordinarily talented and passionate lecturers; knowledgeable academics-come-writers who both introduced me to the types of poetry that could say meaningful things about the modern world (reading the Bloodaxe anthology, Staying Alive, during a ski trip to the Italian Alps in 2008, I mused to one of my questioners, was a transformative experience) and began me on a journey, which I’m very much still on, into thinking about how and why I could and should attempt to transform my own experiences into a body of poems that other people might gain some insight or joy from.

Since then, I’ve committed myself to that journey. It has brought me mainly happiness, and some more understanding of my life and the place I’m from and where I’d like to be in the future. I hope, sincerely hope, that in one way or another – via the many readings I’ve given and the few hundred pamphlets I’ve sold, not to mention the handful of poems which have found their way into the pages (textual or virtual) of a few magazines and journals – that I’ve affected people: made them stop for a moment and see something of their own humanity reflected back at them.

In a first-year English Literature module, I remember the then-Head of the department I was studying in asking the assembled hall of two hundred students why they had signed up to their chosen course (no matter of its potential combination with Drama, Creative Writing, History or Whatever). The feeling I had at the time was much the same as it is now: to have some kind of effect on the life of at least one other person, via the rendering in original text, of complex emotions and feelings.

Another related anecdote: at the Queen’s conference last week, I saw a talk by Anthony Bradley, an associate professor of Religious Studies at the King’s College in New York (much of which, I freely admit, baffled and estranged me, based as it was on heavy theoretical terms and a non-linear argument) who posited the belief, which I fundamentally agree with, that our research, try as hard as we might to prevent it from becoming so, is absolutely subject to our interests, experiences and biases. This prompted an audible ‘Hmm’ from the lecture theatre, with a student at the end commenting to Bradley that, contrary to his experience of the American academic system (in which scholars are encouraged to ‘personalise’ their work), she had been advised to do the opposite, adding as much distance as possible between herself – a flawed human being – and her research, with its designs (no doubt inculcated by her School or Faculty and its historic modus operandi) on calculated, objective reasoning.

Something about that argument seems daft to me. Maybe I don’t get it. But somebody who I think does is Phil Scraton, Professor of Criminology at QUB, and author of Hillsborough: The Truth. Listening to Phil’s two talks, in which he recounted in immense and unsettling detail the twenty-eight-year long struggle to appease the families of the 96 Liverpool fans who were tragically killed (and later vilified) at a football stadium, I couldn’t help but thinking that his whole lecture, not to mention the book and possibly even his career as an investigative researcher, was probably founded on his decision on the morning of the 15th April 1989 not to travel with his son to Sheffield to watch his hometown team.

What does all of this have to do with being rejected from a poetry magazine? Maybe not very much. A friend of mine recently told me that the reason they write poetry is for themselves. Some within the arts world would caution against this view, regarding it as sycophancy, or even nihilism. Poetry, the purist attests, transcends capital-driven ownership structures to reside in, with and for the world. That the self-congratulating professional poet, making strategic decisions to bolster his or her career, should hold this view is inimical to the supposed sanctity of capital-p Poetry: that un-tainted art form which is both primary and transcendent.

I believe that this opinion is still important and relevant, but I also believe (and perhaps, as a holder of two degrees and somebody with vested interests in finishing his PhD within a well-regarded English Department, I would say this) that we absolutely write from the ground up. Yes, creative writing workshops and exercises, as well as in-depth reading of literary heavyweights from the past as well as protégées from our own generation, is fundamentally important, but what I think is more important is nurturing the quiet, troublesome voice in each of our own heads which says ‘You need to find out who I am.’

That voice has nagged at me for at least a decade now, and at all times it has been in competition with the voices of both form and reception. Allow me to explain. In a poetic sense of judicious, editorial decisions being weighed up, my approach to ‘form’ often involves a conflict between deciding instinctively where to insert line and stanza breaks into a ‘poem’ (or, going further, as I sometimes do, whether a pre-modelled form, such as a villanelle, might be applied advantageously to the draft content) and where to permit it to bleed into the much more nebulous category of the ‘prose poem’. To complicate matters, I have nearly always regarded these blog posts as variants of the prose poem, even if they will likely never be re-published as part of a ‘book’. Further, form does not for me strictly mean deciding on whether or not a fourteen-line poem is, in fact, a sonnet; but has much more to do with myriad (often contradictory) niggles I face with regards to how to negotiate and amalgamate ‘content’, which of course includes things such as ‘tone’, ‘image’ and ‘[meta]narrative’.

Secondly, then, ‘reception’ might be thought of as the product of the process which is ‘form’. Example: I write a batch of poems, I send sub-batches to three or four magazines, wait a few months, and perhaps one or two ‘stick’ and are published, and perhaps two or three years later, I have a pamphlet of perhaps two dozen of those original poems (alongside a few of the newer ones I was too proud to omit from the manuscript) published. Widening this process out and tying it to the project-in-question – my PhD: a practice-led investigation into my fractious relationship with England’s northeast – the form[at] (not to mention demands and constraints) of practice-as-research becomes problematic. You have three or four years in which to ‘practice’ this ‘form’ (poetry, music, film &c.) but at the end of that period, you better damn well be able to provide us with a product which persuades us that you are the expert, or else this platinum-grade degree to which your work ostensibly gestures might as well go on the bonfire, pal.

All of which takes us a long way from the half dozen rejected poems hitting the door mat. Sort of. If the ‘product’ of a practice-led PhD is only half-received (and conceived) in its academic context (manifesting in the viva: that blood-curdling hour and a half in which an external and internal examination panel scrutinise your work, deciding for how much longer you must polish it before it is awarded the platinum-standard of degrees), the rest of it is usually thought to be ‘received’ (or not) incrementally – by a series of small publications, performances and talks of almost-endless variety – before finally finding cohesive, publishable ‘form’ (taking us hopefully full-circle) as a ‘thing’ which can be packaged, sold, broadcast or else disseminated to the body politic in some way known or hitherto unbeknown. The hope, and this is one which transcends the academy and numerous institutions with which we poets plot in order to be read or heard, is that a minimum of one other person is in some way changed by our efforts; and that, perhaps if we are fortunate enough indeed, might affect a somewhat more substantial coterie. The rest, as they say, is for the future-makers: the canonisers and editors; the clique-makers and trend (re)-setters.

Meanwhile, we who feel compelled to do this thing, and all of its associated quirks, tendencies and habits, must hope that the next time the envelope comes through the letterbox, the news is good, so that we don’t again have to reel of two and a half thousand words defending our own inscrutable imaginations and niche fixations; so that we might get on with the job at hand, and once again rise to the kettle with some firm resolve to try again harder, or at least mull it all over with a packet of biscuits, feeling the caffeine hit and the dread of the void subside into buttery, sugary goodness.

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