We've had enough of Greek myths

The poetry establishment needs black and Asian writers to invigorate a tired old scene, argues Bernardine Evaristo
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The Independent Culture

Fewer than one per cent of all poets published by the mainstream poetry presses in Britain are black or Asian. You'd think it was the 1940s or 1950s but no, it's the 21st century. What is going on?

In 2004, I was asked to be one of the judges of Next Generation Poets, a major promotion to find the 20 most interesting poets who had published a first collection since 1994, organised by the Poetry Book Society. To my dismay this revealed that in the past ten years only a handful of poets of colour had broken through into print. This was in marked contrast to the 1970s and 1980s when, in a climate of pioneering social activism, many poets with roots in the Caribbean, such as John Agard, Grace Nicols, Jean "Binta" Breeze, E A Markham and Linton Kwesi Johnson were first published, often by small, independent presses.

When the prestigious Next Generation Poets list was finally announced, only one black poet made it: Patience Agbabi.

The Arts Council quickly responded to lobbying and commissioned a report, "Free Verse", which has just been published. Produced by Spread the Word Literature Development Agency, the report shows that all the editors of major presses are white and male. This might not be a huge surprise in our "feminism is so yesterday" society, but most fiction editors are also white, and this has not stopped them successfully publishing fiction which draws on many cultures.

When poetry editors were questioned about their selection criteria for publishing poets, they unanimously declared it was based on quality, irrespective of race or gender. Ah, "quality" - as if it exists outside the context of history, culture, literary traditions and values, all ingredients which constitute personal taste. As poets of colour are not being published, the message is received loud and clear: they're not good enough. In the past that was said about black people who wanted to be footballers, actors, novelists, golfers, judges, pilots and politicians.

Many poetry editors fiercely guard their independence. Elitism is not a dirty word in the poetry world, it's a badge of pride. No one in the arts wants to be told what to produce, yet if the status quo goes unchallenged, nothing changes. I can hear the foot- stamping already. No! You can't make me!

But it's about time those cast-iron doors were opened so that the poetry industry is transformed into one which is more inclusive and representative. (Oh, how dreadfully PC of me.)

The published poetry scene actually needs an injection of alternative histories, cultures and stories. Haven't we had enough of the same old same old: my childhood memories; my mildly dysfunctional parents; my repressed grandparents; Greek myths; my last lover; my new lover; my love of nature; more Greek myths; my holidays in foreign lands.

Moniza Alvi, one of Britain's most established poets, told me: "Poetry that reflects a changing Britain is still badly represented in the mainstream. We are deprived of black and Asian voices who would bring fresh air to British poetry. I do believe this is beginning to change. The space now given to poetry in translation in the Poetry Society's journal Poetry Review is a welcome indication of this."

One of the major features of the "Free Verse" report is the predominance of performance poetry as a popular outlet for poets of colour. The most high-profile poets are those who know how to work a live audience. Yet it has reached the stage when "Black Poetry" has become synonymous with performance poetry which, although it has its own production and literary values, doesn't always have the texture, depth and nuance to withstand scrutiny on the page. While performance poetry continues to flourish, as it should, it is the written legacy which will form the future canon and eventually survive a poet's own life.

In 2005, I was one of the judges of the National Poetry Competition, run by the Poetry Society and sponsored by The Independent on Sunday. As I sifted through thousands of poems, I noted that almost none of them seemed to draw inspiration from black or Asian cultures. This could mean that such poets are not submitting their work; that the climate of exclusion has led to a certain defeatism. If poets don't see themselves reflected in the culture around them, then they think the culture is not for them. Yet the solution is not to opt out, but to be tenacious and to keep engaging. The competition, judged anonymously, is genuinely open to everyone.

The enterprising poet and editor Nii Parkes set up his own poetry imprint, mouthmark, a year ago, in keeping with the traditions of the black, women's, gay and socialist presses of the 1970s which were formed for the very same reason - a culture of exclusion. Just recently one of his poets, Jacob Sam La Rose, was made the Poetry Book Society's pamphlet choice for his first chapbook Communion. A vindicated Parkes states: "When you start beating major publishers to awards, they can't dismiss your editorial standards or the quality of the writers you publish."

But while setting up alternative publishers is a welcome necessity, it shouldn't let the industry off the hook. The talented young poet Daljit Nagra is only the third poet of colour to be deemed worthy of publication by the venerable Faber and Faber in its 75-year history. (Hallelujah!) His first collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover, is published in February 2007. Nagra chose the well-trodden career path for poets pre-publication which is to submit to competitions and magazines. He found that "Magazines and competitions seems mostly to be run by the white establishment so that little cultural variety is ever fully appreciated. At that same time new black and Asian poets currently lack support to enable them to develop their skills on the page."

To this end Spread the Word will soon launch an important two-year programme to develop more poets to publication. Called "The Complete Works", it will offer mentoring, workshops and seminars to poets who are at the stage where they can produce a publishable collection within the next few years. Then they'll go knocking, and let's hope the editors will lower the drawbridge, slide back the lock on those medieval doors and begin a two-way conversation with Britain's 21st century multicultural demographic.

The Free Verse Report is available online at www.spreadtheword.org.uk

Entries are invited for the National Poetry Competition 2006. The first prize is £5,000, second £1,000 and third £500. There are 50 commendations of £50. The judges are John Burnside, Lee Harwood and Alice Oswald.

Visit www.poetrysociety.org.uk or, to request an entry form by post, send a stamped addressed envelope to: Competition Organiser, 22 Betterton Street (IOS), London, WC2H 9BX.

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