My daughter started school last week. Only just four, and looking far too tiny in her blue pinafore uniform, she has skipped in quite happily every day so far. A relief. Then the news was announced that I had been selected for the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation 2014 promotion, meaning September has been slightly more eventful than planned. I am fully aware of the Next Generation backlash on social media, only because I have read the considered blog posts by Helen Mort, Melissa-Lee Houghton and Andrew Oldham, but I have not read a single word of the unpleasant comments myself. There’s a lot to be said for not being on Facebook. The Poetry Book Society (PBS) was keen for us to blog about the announcement. Part of me wants to keep my head down because I know it’s been horrible out there, but at the same time, I don’t want to pretend it hasn’t happened. I’m really pleased to be on this list. The Poetry Book Society has launched a Next Generation website. Like all the poets on the list, I’m interviewed and read a few poems. But as Helen Mort recently mentioned on her blog, the site is worth visiting, just to hear Ian McMillan’s comments on all the poets’ work. They really are heartening poetry moments: I defy you not to beam when you hear what he has to say about the work of Luke Kennard and Tara Bergin. When considering what to write as a ‘response’ to my Next Generation news, I kept thinking about the poets who were included in the previous generations. I remember keeping the Sunday supplement issue with its picture of the 2004 NG line-up in my pile of poetry cuttings for years. I am fortunate enough to know two poets from previous generations: Pauline Stainer and Catherine Smith. I thought it might be interesting to ask them a few questions about being a New and Next Generation poet respectively – and ask them what life is like, on a list.
Catherine Smith was selected for the Next Generation promotion in 2004. She writes poetry, fiction and radio drama, and teaches for the Arvon Foundation, The Poetry School, The Creative Writing Programme in Brighton and Varndean 6th Form College, Brighton. She was chosen as one of Mslexia’s ‘Top Ten Women Poets’ list in 2004 and the ‘Next Generation’ promotion of the same year. Two of her poetry collections have been short-listed for Forward prizes. Three of her short stories were adapted for a Live Literature performance, Weight, which was performed in Reading, Brighton and Lewes. Her current project is ‘The New Cockaigne’, a pamphlet-length satirical, supernatural poem imagining the declaration of a surreal revolution and its aftermath, which will be published by Frogmore Press and adapted as Live Literature in collaboration with Mark Hewitt (at www.leweslivelit.co.uk) She is also working on a fiction project. Website www.catherinesmithwriter.co.uk
Catherine and I met this summer, at Latitude festival. Reading at a festival was a whole new ball game for me, and I was nervous. Catherine was a warm, welcome presence back stage, instantly putting me at my ease, showing me the ropes and making me laugh. I got to hear her read for the first time too, which was a treat.
1. So here we are, both in receipt of the same ‘accolade’, albeit a decade apart. It’s very exciting, but the first thing I want to ask you is how did you cope? Does that make sense? Why is that do you think?
2. You’ve said some interesting things about the relevance of lists, in your response to Helen Mort’s recent blog post. Can you expand a little here? How did being on the list change your writing life?
3. How influential was the ‘Generation’ before you?
4. Can you tell me the good bits? The high points of being a Next Generation poet?
5. You and I met reading together at an event called ‘Pram in the Hall’, about writing and motherhood. At what stage of motherhood were you, when the announcement was made and what impact did it have?
6. I love reading short stories, and sometimes see myself as a frustrated short story writer. When did you begin to write fiction? How easy do you find it, switching between poetry and prose?
1.You were part of the first list in 1994, the New Generation, twenty years ago. You’ve talked to me about ‘the unexpected publicity’. Can you describe how you felt in the beginning? Apart from being pleased no doubt, did you feel a pressure of any sort? That things would now be expected of you?
When I found out I had been included in the New Generation list I was pleased and hugely surprised. I had not had that much recognition. I had always scribbled away, for many years, but I did not start submitting my work until I was forty. I was a mother of four children, that was my life. My first book was published in 1989, my second in 1992, and my third was published in 1994, the same year as getting on the list. I was 53 and my family still needed me. I am not a naturally public person. Suddenly, I had to get used to going to events and reading my work a lot more. Twenty years ago, the ‘pressure’ came from knowing you were going to have to perform.
2. How did being on the list change your writing life?
My writing life didn’t change much. I was busier. I was asked to do more things. I was writing for a long time before my first manuscript was accepted. This meant I had a backlog of poems. Being on the list gave me the confidence to continue and know that the backlog of work could become books.
3. Twenty years ago, the world of social media was yet to take over our lives. This decade’s Generation has a website, YouTube videos, blogs and so on. Are you a part of that world now, or have you felt you’ve needed it? How different was it then to promote the project?
I do not engage with the world of social media. I’d say I am more Antediluvian! Back in 1994, there was initial coverage of the list in the national press, but public readings were the main way of promotion. The poets on the list ran writing workshops too. Partaking in those events, meant that my name became more widely known and I was asked to do other things, like judge poetry competitions. The New Generation promotion did require more physical commitment then. You had to actually appear somewhere, whereas now, with the internet, you can read and promote your work from your computer at home. It is such a huge change in twenty years.
4. The Next Generation projects, for me, are not simply about promoting the poets. They are about encouraging the reading of poetry by presenting an eclectic list of writers. From there, hopefully, people will go on to explore the wider world of contemporary poetry. Do you feel the past two lists have achieved this?
Poetry is a funny thing. People are afraid of it. I remember meeting a man and telling him I wrote poetry. His response was ‘Oh, I can’t grapple with that’! I was so struck by his word ‘grapple’, implying poetry needs to be wrestled and held down in order to be understood. Poetry is not regarded here, as it is say in South America, where poetry is a part of every day life and culture. It is still regarded as difficult here. But there is so much more available now, so many more resources and better access to poetry. The New/Next Generation lists certainly have played a part in ensuring poetry reaches a wider audience. And it is broader now, the list is eclectic this year, as proved with the inclusion of Kate Tempest.
5. Motherhood is a big topic of mine. Once you were on the list, how did you deal with new creative opportunities and being a mother of young children?
When you are a mother and at home, but also writing from home, it is difficult to be perceived as ‘working’. I often felt what I did was not regarded as work. I was seen as someone who had the time to take two hours off in the middle of the day because I didn’t really ‘do’ anything. But I saw writing as my job. It is a craft, a skill. I had to be disciplined and ruthless, and people had to know that I couldn’t ‘give’ all the time. I do feel women have a better deal now, when it comes to writing and publishing. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but there are more opportunities, more support with the likes of Second Light Network for example. And you see more women taking on editorial roles now.
6. You have written many collections. I regard you as very successful and prolific in your output. How do you regard the past twenty years of your life, as a poet? High points? Regrets? The future, what next?
The ‘Next Generation’ high point was being recognised as a writer of quality. I was very pleased to be selected and placed alongside poets I admired. I don’t feel a pressure to publish anymore. I have a very good relationship with my editor and publisher (Neil Astley at Bloodaxe) and have written eight books of poetry, with plans for another, but I also paint. I have been painting for five years. I’m part of an artists collective called Stour Valley Artists and I enjoy it very much. I am retaining a connection to poetry – using it as inspiration. I’m currently experimenting – taking a single line of poetry and seeing what I paint as a result of reading it. I began to exhibit two years ago, but I would like to treat the painting as I did the writing. To be creative, but not have to think about where it’s going. Whether it be a gallery wall or published page, I prefer to concentrate on the craft, not its destination. And no, no regrets. I felt privileged to be part of the New Generation. It was a good thing to happen.