Sunday, January 14, 2007

Poets-in-residence or parasites-at-lunch?

Guardian Unlimited recently ran an article on the usefulness of the poet-in-residence phenomenon (hat-tip to Ron Silliman). Being the Guardian, the article reports both sides of the debate - quoting both supporters of the phenomenon and also those who have reservations.

Unlike the Guardian, I can happily show my bias in this blog. I consider poet-in-resident grants to be both morally wrong and also an abuse of taxpayers' money.

I do agree that there is a place for using tax revenue to promote poetry. We should be spending money on educating the kiddies to appreciate a wide range of poetry - preferably before they reach secondary school age (though teaching poetry should be part of the whole curriculum). The key outcome of this education should be to give the kiddies the tools to access poetry throughout later life, and to minimise their fear of poetry. Because that's where poetry education fails at the moment: it concentrates on giving kids the opportunity of writing a couple of poems as an assignment, but then insists on landing a whole host of rules and regulations on their brains about how poems are supposed to be revered and worshipped. Wrong. Reading poetry should be a fun experience, not a chore, or another line in the national curriculum to be ticked off with minimal effort.

But I see no point in giving jobbing poets public funds to do a "residence" in some community or enterprise or whatever. I mean, the state doesn't see fit to pay brickies to wonder round a community committing random acts of wall building, or mounting public demonstrations of pointing, does it? Are accountants employed to knock on doors in sink estates to offer the residents a quick 1-to-1 course in creative book-keeping? So why are poets accorded such special dispensation?

And while supporters go on about the "good" such residencies can offer local communities, you rarely hear views such as that of Andrew Jordan (quoting from the Guardian article): "There are all manner of unmet needs among detainees in Haslar [detention centre for assylum seekers]. They did not need a poet. They needed interpreters, advice, information, legal representation and healthcare, including, for many of them, help with coping with the effects of torture in their country of origin and the effects of being detained without trial in the UK. Some detainees told me things that were difficult to hear. I didn't encourage this as I could see the dangers of playing the therapist, but it happened anyway. In Haslar, nobody wanted to listen to the detainees. Some of them really needed to talk to somebody."

And what of the product? Who benefits from the poems the poet writes while doing a residence? The communities or the poet? Now, I have no objections whatsoever to poets using whatever material they can find to help generate their poems. But to pay them to go into a community and leech out their source material from that community? Who really benefits from such activity? How many social problems does a couple of verses really solve? How much food does a poet's strophe put on the community table? Do poets share the royalties (ha! yes, I know) they earn with the communities that inspired them, or the organisation - government - that sponsored them?

Didn't think so.

Proponents of residencies say that it is important for poets to go out into the community and promote poetry. Well, maybe if these people had not cut themselves off from their surrounding communities in the first place, they wouldn't feel the need to re-integrate themselves now. Contemporary poetry may well be a ghetto, but it's one built by poets themselves, not the rest of society.

Spend the poetry pound on the kiddies, not the poets. You know it makes sense.


  1. I have so enjoyed my trip through this site; as one of the poets you speak of and an avid reader, I found it both enlightening and enriching...Thank You!

  2. Thank you for taking the time to visit and read. Much appreciated!