Some thoughts on the Free Verse poetry book fair
In the wake of the Arts Council of England’s opaque and strategically incoherent funding cuts we’ve had the Poetry Book Society’s campaign to stave off collapse (and its further, quieter, rejection from Grants for the Arts), the Poetry Society’s shocking £24,000 waste of public money on legal costs in its incompetent and unsuccessful putsch (the star chamber is now a mere smouldering clinker) — and then the media accusations that the same old men will be winning the same old prizes from the same old friends in the hegemonic backwash of institutionalised PoBiz, with a select few going to the right metropolitan parties (and some simply terrified of exclusion and the equivalent of being transported to the Steppes) — well, one might be forgiven for thinking that the whole poetry enterprise with all its power brokers, toastmasters, toadies, revolutionaries and reprobates was about to collapse into various kinds of splinter groups and cells of self-publishing coteries, backslapping their way to amateur oblivion. Who in all this gave a damn about the readers? No one did. It’s been a dark summer.
But then along comes a deliciously grumpy and adversarial Charles Boyle, the Lee Marvin of poetry, to kick against the pricks and, with a great deal of chutzpah, he argues privately and provacatively for a simple little book fair.
Now, poetry book fairs can be chastening experiences, you can be confronted with the sheer maniacal diversity of the art and its (oftentimes) bearded and ageing enthusiasts — you can be left bewildered at the range, the tiers, of production and quality — in fact, some book fairs can be downright depressing experiences when a (seriously) amateur world collides with different levels of professional delusion and, well, trajectories of intention: from the technically proficient to the anarchically crappy.
I remember being trapped at one affair ten years ago with a large middle aged man in a stained overcoat droning on an on about submissions policies and his passionate commitment to (ahem) poetry as he coughed and hawked up phlegm into a disturbingly large handkerchief, talking just a few decibels louder than anything else in the shabby room, pushing customers out of the way as he held forth for an hour and lost me a few hundred quid in book sales …
Saturday’s ‘Free Verse Book Fair’ in Exmouth Market Centre in London was not like this — not in any way. Sure, it was in a brown church hall with last year’s Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling, there were WI-style trestle tables, yet as the day commenced it was filled with serious publishers and was (I use this adjective carefully) flooded with customers — the kind of customers you don’t meet online, the anonymous crowd that you only come across when actually, physically, bookselling. Far from being depressing, it was uplifting. Here were over twenty amazing publishers from Anvil to zimZalla offering the best in contemporary poetry in gorgeous books and pamphlets.
There were some quiet moments — lunchtime saw the browsers thin out just a little. There were fewer sales late on in the afternoon. I’m sure the closed Northern Line didn’t help things. Farringdon Station being closed didn’t help. However, people came in droves. Really. Not only did they come, they spent money; lots of money.
There were readings, and an astonishingly good set on the crimson-draped stage of the main hall from a young and very sexy busker: Brooke Sharkey. And there was the chance of catching up with mates and competitors in the recently disestablished world of poetry.
Some may choke at the absence of necessary elitism, some may choke at the absence of political and aesthetic segregation, some may choke that there wasn’t a regulated Grants for the Arts bid for the event, but it was all nicely cranky and delightful and poetry readers clearly loved it. Everyone was happy. The customers kept coming from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m.
What did I learn from this?
Lesson one: for all the arts bureaucracy with their endless ‘step changes’, desire for vision and participation and access, all the national policy advisory working groups and sub-working groups and focus groups, all the sub-sector task forces of polo-necked professional form fillers shuffling through the artspeak drivel of the anti-life, there are still real readers out there who simply want to read poetry. Give them the space to find it and they’ll come. I think the Arts Council simply have it wrong; national literature policy (should one ever desire such a monstrous thing) is built and should be built from the aggregated individual and independent strategies of the businesses that help bring poetry to customers, whether this be in performance or physically in the form of books and pamphlets, there simply should be no top down politburo-style cascade of State requirements leveraged out on to the benighted legions of the country’s diminishing State presses. It all needs to come back down to earth and, to mix metaphors, back to the coal face, to be wrestled free of the pen pushers and those adept at working the system, even those with some knowledge and modestly good intentions. Leave poetry to the professionals and simply support what they’ve always done best — focus on readers. Without readers we’ve no hope at all. If I had one abiding sense of this year’s bizarre realignment of funds I’d suggest it centred on a complete hatred of readers. Why have so many people given up on them? You can’t have a national art without them. Free Verse showed the way forward.
My second lesson, well, revelation, was that for all the millions poured into poetry each year in the UK, why isn’t there a programme for supporting book fairs and, god forbid, a shop — why persecute and asset strip the Poetry Book Society instead of reforming it? The battle poetry has is largely a battle for oxygen in the broader world of the culture industry — it’s amazing what one little fair did for showing that the readers are still there, and even with numerous barriers set up against them, they still came. We need bookshops and book fairs to make poetry thrive and enable new audiences to find out about this life transforming art. Let’s support more grass roots bookselling.
My third lesson is that poetry is still about discovery. Of course it is, I hear you cry. We’re all on our little journeys through the art, some at the beginning, some twisting through the vibrant underpasses in the mad expanses of the art — some of us are stuck around the Birmingham conflux of poetry, others have moved on up to the A9 in a camper van. Discovery is largely about collision and the net doesn’t provide as much collision as one thinks: you can’t navigate towards the unknown on the Web, you can merely travel down the tram tracks of URLs or click on the first page of a search result — there are relatively few accidents on the Web. Physical book browsing rules. A bookstore, a book fair, can still provide the space to find something amazing and disturbingly new. A book fair can be a revelation and, on Saturday, Free Verse was.
I hope the idea spreads and that up and down the country we can see guerilla bookselling taking place in halls of every shape and size.