Everyone’s aware, and fearful, of the drastic reductions to come in Arts Council funding, starting with the requirement for Regularly Funded Organisations to reapply over the next few months. It’s obviously likely that many important forces in literature will be hit and may well disappear altogether. The purpose of this post is not to suggest that the government demands the banks pay back what they owe us, with interest, out of the revived profits taxpayers have funded. No, leave that for another time.
Most poetry in the UK – small presses, magazines, workshops, readings, performances and the rest – receives no public funding and depends on people who run all these for nothing except the price of a glass of wine at the end of the evening. Or not even that. Perhaps it’s wrong to give your labour for nothing but the thrill of offering readers and audiences access to poetry you consider to be important, but we can’t deny that there’s very little money in poetry, except for a select few, and that if the voluntary publishers, producers, entrpreneurs and of course, writers, the ‘poetry activists’ decided to turn mercenary, there wouldn’t be much poetry. I’ve rarely heard anyone in this position complain how hard it is to work for no financial reward, except to bemoan the limited amount of spare time their day job allows them, though it’s unlikely that they would turn down an income for what they do voluntarily, particularly if it enabled them to do more for poetry. Poetry Bites at the Kitchen Garden Cafe receives no ACE funding – I’ve never applied – and just about breaks even. The Making Poetry workshops received a small grant this year and are also supported by Birmingham Libraries who give the venue for free. Flarestack Poets raised its own start-up funding by launching with a pamphlet competion which obliged the two editors to read in their spare time, for two months, as many poems as the editor of Poetry Review reads in a year. By giving so much of their time for nothing, ‘poetry activists’ keep their prices low and poetry accessible. In an ideal world, ACE would hunt out and force money on the small presses, the popular readings and local workshops rather than dishing it out to unwieldy national organisations which charge twice as much for their products in spite of constant transfusion of public money. But they won’t because economies of scale make it more efficient for ACE staff to tick the boxes of a few large institutions – which tend to be in London – than hundreds of small ones.
This is not to say that bodies which do receive funding are necessarily unworthy of it. Far from it, when public support ensures the continuance of so many festivals, publishers and the rest and also demonstrates that the state values the arts, if not quite as much as street lights. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with anyone making a good living out of the arts. But the problem, which is exacerbated by the current widely publicised apprehension about funding cuts, is that consumers of poetry tend to assume that all presses and organisations receive funding. Maybe it’s hard to believe that anyone would give so much for so little material reward. But as a result, many potential audiences and buyers don’t realise that the £5 they spend on a reading or £4.50 on a pamphlet is crucial to the survival of the event or the press. There’s a danger that they’ll spend that small sum on a cappuccino and a cupcake instead, cushioned by the belief that ACE will keep the presses and the events afloat. It’s time to expel this misconception and to make poetry lovers aware of the crucial need for their support. When you receive a grant from ACE, you also get instructions on publicising their generosity – printing the ACE logo, thanking ACE in acknowledgements, mentioning their benificence in interviews. I propose that those bodies who receive no funding (and there will be many more in the future), publicise this assiduously. From now on, I intend to put the strapline THIS EVENT/ORGANISATION/PUBLICATION RECEIVES NO STATE FUNDING at the end of any publicity I send out about my activities, and mention the fact, frequently and loudly whenever I talk about then. If anyone cares to design a NO FUNDING logo (distinctively different from ACE’s) I’m sure many of us would display it with pride. When I was at school, every day I heard the line from the prayer of Ignatius Loyola – ‘to give and not to count the cost’ – which seems to have become the motto of those of us who do so much for so little to keep poetry going. So let’s stop being self-effacing and diffident and remind the beneficiaries of the true costs, which are not just financial.
And now for the advert. The good thing about all this is that it doesn’t cost much to support small, unfunded poetry organisations and it isn’t charity. For your money you get a book, a reading or a workshop and the satisfaction of knowing you’ve made an important contribution to literature. Flarestack Poets depends entirely on sales to continue producing beautiful volumes by leading and emerging poets such as Selima Hill, Cliff Forshaw, Mario Petrucci and Laura Seymour. We even published the Michael Marks Pamphlet of the Year. Check out our new subscription offer – £20 for five books and the satisfaction of knowing you’re making a contribution to literature.
So why am I starting this blog? Is it because I’ve mistaken the world for somebody who cares about my every thought and action? Do I blatantly want to promote Flarestack Poets, Poetry Bites , Making Poetry and myself? Could it be that a Facebook status is just not big enough to contain someone as opinionated as I am? Is it because, for the fourth time, I didn’t become Birmingham Poet Laureate but I still want to start the blog celebrating Birmingham poetry that was part of my pitch? Am I trying to sell the jewellery I make? It might well be because September Poetry Bites was one of the greatest nights of poetry I’ve ever experienced, and I want to tell people about it. Or perhaps it’s because four West Midlands teams are in the Premier League and the Baggies have reached fourth place but the ‘experts’ on Match of the Day still speak of only Manchester and London teams with reverence and awe.
Most likely, it’s about all of those things, but the actual trigger was reading the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (which I got from the Oxfam Book Shop in Kings Heath). Things generally outlast thoughts, but just occasionally, someone speaks to us across a thousand years and a couple of continents. Sei Shonagon was blessed with an abundance of paper on which to record her observations of the Japanese court and her views on just about everything (she was almost as opinionated as I am). Reading her words, translated by Ivan Morris to sound not unlike those of a character from Jane Austen, I thought I’d take a shot at writing for now and hoping posterity might catch a few scraps. I once wrote a story set in a dystopian future, in which a world war had consisted just of the destruction of the internet, so that subsequent generations sought to reconstruct a fabled golden age out of the few fragments that could be saved. How wonderful would it be to be among those fragments? And the internet is as plentiful for us as paper was for Sei Shonagon. So this is my pillow book. And it won’t all be about poetry.
What’s a Brummagem screwdriver, then? According to Roy Fisher, it’s something like a clawhammer that you use to drive in a screw when you haven’t got a screwdriver, a nail or the will to go looking. ‘Birmingham’s what I think with,’ Fisher said. ‘It’s not made for that sort of job, but it’s what they gave me.’ Birmingham’s what I think with too, so while this isn’t all about Birmingham, it’s all filtered through my West Midlands consciousness. Or Greater West Midlands, wherever that is, except that everything about the West Midlands is greater than most other places. That doesn’t mean that readers and contributors have to come from that geographical region. If you think with a Brummagem screwdriver, you’re eligible for citizenship of the Greater West Midlands of the heart. I can’t promise to keep this going with any regularity, but I do intend occasionally to feature information about events, achievements and perhaps a few poems. If you want to submit anything, contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org