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AUTHOR Lionel Shriver recently said something along the lines of all a bland, middle-class writer has to do to get published is to be a bland, middle-class writer. That degree’s not wasted, she’s not wrong.
Meanwhile, poetry’s own Bullingdon Club has been wearing diversity like Derek Smalls wears a tinfoil-wrapped cucumber. When you realise that the black authors they’re pointing to on their prize list have already been successful with US publishers, you have to ask yourself, who was it that took any risk there? No snark at the authors, they’re fine writers.
But ask again, where are the black British authors and just what has the poetry establishment done to diversify audience rather than their own lists? Establishment trumpeting is more a waddling tuba.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — and again and again — the Establishment has never overlooked us.
Working-class writers of every colour, gender and twist of diversity have always been exactly where the Establishment wanted us. When they start to pump the tuba it’s for their own benefit. They want to sell us something. But I’m not rushing to a shop that’s had doormen to keep us out for years and will be showing us the door again once the sales are over.
Poets themselves opened up poetry and that includes many “page” poets and it was spoken word in particular that widened the audience and put all sorts of bums on seats. Enough seats that the Establishment has to be seen to do diversity — just don’t mention class.
Bucking the trend is Stoke Newington Literary Festival, which ran at the beginning of the month. It's a small festival that packs a big punch and festival director Liz Vater is clear about how to ensure a wide audience. “It’s easy to be diverse with writers,” she tells me. “The audience is what’s rewarding and needs focus.
“We pay authors to work in local schools so every kid can attend a workshop. We fund literacy projects such as a refugee library with local migrant writing group Akwaaba and workshops with local Turkish and Kurdish groups. Our big event this year was Chelsea Clinton and we offered free tickets to every primary school in Hackney so low-income families could come for free.
“You have to take a loss at some events and see it as an investment, knowing other events will cover it. You have to chip away, be aware of who is reading to who and where.”
The festival’s booking policy is welcome too. “We’re open to new voices and prepared to take a risk, and a knock, knowing sooner or later a hit is gonna land. It’s important to take a punt on local publishers and writers, give them programming space and trust them with it. They have authors and an audience, it ups their profile and maintains our integrity. Giving away programming allows different parts of the community to represent themselves.”
That realisation is refreshing. The rare but vital fact that the community represents itself is one that makes festivals — such as Stoke Newington and Liverpool’s Writing On the Wall — good. What Guardianistas don’t get is that many of us aren’t fighting to be middle-class. Diversity doesn’t mean clicking fingers at spoken-word gigs. It’s being ourselves and our voices being heard in our own spaces.
Yet much of the poetry establishment can’t understand working-class voices. In The Young Ones, when Scumbag College play Footlights College on University Challenge, Rik asks Bambi if he’s going to let Scumbag win. Bambi replies: “The posh kids win. They always do.”
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