Next Generation Poets – 1994, 2004 and now

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? 
I was completely surprised to be on the list. No doubt many people say that, but in my case – I was with a well-thought of but small publisher, I certainly wasn’t well known – I was not as interested in the promotion as many people, hadn’t thought much about it as I assumed it wouldn’t affect me in any way.  I was excited, but a bit nervous. I wasn’t sure what it would mean. Opinions from poet friends varied – ‘You can give up teaching now and just write, everyone will want to publish you’ (hahaha) to ‘Everyone will resent you.’ Neither of these rather extreme positions came to pass. I hate having my photo taken so the photo-shoot for the Guardian was uncomfortable (literally as well as metaphorically – I decided the photographer was a sadist as he made me sit on the edge of a hard white cube for what seemed like hours, so my expression is pretty grim).  I enjoyed the nice, fun, glamorous  bits, post-announcement, the readings etc – who wouldn’t? The PBS was lovely and did their best for everyone, and being invited to read and take part in a ‘Next Gen’ discussion at the Hay Festival was thrilling – Arthur Smith was very charming and held a portaloo door open for me, which was a personal highlight. But I found the negativity and sniping wearisome and occasionally hurtful. None of us asked/demanded/paid to be on that list – it was a decision by committee, no doubt with a lot of heartache and argument behind the scenes. I heard that a few poets were ‘outraged’ that they were not included. It all seemed a bit melodramatic and daft to me. Weren’t there bigger and better things in the world  to worry about?
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? 
‘Best of’ lists are imperfect. They reflect a majority decision, so there are, inevitably, casualties and omissions. There’s no ‘perfect’ mechanism for constructing a ‘Best of…’ list, as far as I can tell – the people charged with that responsibility just have to be honest and do their best. I think, unfortunately, in our culture, lists can be divisive. Those ‘excluded’ can feel hurt and diminished. If we writers were all absolutely honest, we’d admit to jealousy.  I’m regularly jealous – of others’ talent, industry, success. There are many, many people writing to a high standard, and not enough accolades to go round. That’s life. Maybe it’ll change, but I doubt it.  Poetry publishing in the UK isn’t perfect, or even fair.  I think Bernardine Evaristo and Daljit Nagra were absolutely right to call attention to the fact that pitifully few black and Asian writers were published by mainstream publishers. They are good people, prepared to stick their necks out and make a fuss about injustice. I have much more respect for those who work to change what they consider to be an unfair system than those who are  obsessed with their own place in the pecking order, and feel the need to be vicious online.  Being on the list opened doors that would have remained firmly closed – no doubt about that. It was, and is, a lovely thing to have on my CV. It would be ungracious and dishonest to pretend otherwise. But would I have written different books, attempted different creative projects, if I hadn’t been on the list? No, I don’t think so. If you need to write – you’ll write. If you don’t – you won’t.
3. How influential was the ‘Generation’ before you? 
I think they influenced a great many ‘up and coming’ poets; I’m assuming their work was more widely read because of the publicity of the promotion. Certain poets became very visible, not just in terms of readings, but also on radio, TV, etc.  Confession – I didn’t start writing poetry until years after the ‘New Gen’ so it wasn’t particularly on my radar.  I read Susan Wicks’ work before realising she was ‘one of the chosen.’ It blew me away, and still does.
4. Can you tell me the good bits? The high points of being a Next Generation poet?
The readings, the question and answer sessions with audiences, the chance to mentor other writers, whose work and commitment I admire hugely. Arthur Smith, portaloo door…..
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?
In 2004, my sons were 12 and 14, so already at secondary school. I had more time and head-space to write by then. How anyone manages to write poems with babies in situ is a mystery and a miracle to me, but then my babies were of the ‘sleep is for wimps’ school of thought.
When I told them about the list, before the announcement was made public, I would love to say they were impressed, but I think ‘bemused’ is probably a more accurate description.
I’d written about them a bit, but not very much; the older one objected and the younger one complained that I didn’t write about him enough. A mother’s place is, of course, in the wrong. Some years ago, I was commissioned to write a poem for a postcard on the theme of ‘identity’ and couldn’t think of a single interesting idea. The deadline was approaching. I felt a failure, a fraud. Then my older son came home from the last day of secondary school with his school shirt signed in felt-pen with colourful, funny and touching messages from his mates. This seemed an interesting take on ‘identity’ – their view of him, at this significant stage of his life, at that strange place between childhood and adulthood.  I asked if I could use this in my poem. He refused. I begged. He still refused. In desperation, I offered to pay him part of the fee. He grudgingly consented, but made me change all the names.
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?
I wrote short fiction before writing poetry as an adult, (though I had written poetry as a child/teenager) and it still feels like ‘home’ in many ways. I’ve always loved reading short stories, and listening to them on radio.  I’d say a lot of my poetry is ‘narrative’ and I love the way poems can function as condensed stories; I’m about to start teaching an online ‘verse poetry’ course for the Poetry School. As Ian Duhig famously said – ‘A poem is a novel without the waffle.’  I feel  short stories and poems often have more points of similarity than short stories and novels: there’s the compression, often the use of an extended metaphor/image to shape the story, the need for each word to pull its weight. In terms of switching between poetry and prose – often when I have an idea – I tend to visualise somebody doing something in a particular location, or sometimes a phrase or an image just pops into my head – I don’t always know if it’s a poem or a story. I go with the flow and see what happens, and if it changes ‘genre’ at some stage – so be it. I’ve written short stories that have started as poems, and one narrative poem, ‘The New Bride’ was also the basis for a short story, ‘Reclamation.’ I like to be surprised by what I write, to let my imagination go where it will, and not have too much sense of control over an initial idea.
My current project, a long narrative supernatural/satirical poem called ‘The New Cockaigne’, could also be read as ‘a short story in verse’, and it’s about to be adapted as a Live Literature project, in conjunction with Lewes Live Lit. It’s been great fun and I’d like to write more long poems (though it was very challenging, and increased my admiration for those poets regularly writing long poems or sequences!)

Pauline Stainer was included in the first Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation project in 1994, then called New Generation. After many years in rural Essex and then on the Orkney island of Rousay, Pauline now lives in Suffolk. Her Bloodaxe titles include The Lady & the Hare: New & Selected Poems (2003), which draws on five previous books, as well as a new collection, A Litany of High Waters, and two later collections, Crossing the Snowline (2008) and Tiger Facing the Mist(2013). Along with The Lady & the Hare, her collections The HoneycombSighting the Slave Ship and The Ice-Pilot Speaks were all Poetry Book Society Recommendations. Her fourth collection The Wound-dresser’s Dream was shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Award in 1996. Pauline Stainer received a 2009 Cholmondeley award for her poetry.

Pauline and I met last year, after I moved to Suffolk and discovered through a mutual friend, that we lived in the same village. It’s been good getting to know Pauline and I’ve felt some comfort knowing she was on the first list.

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.

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6 thoughts on “Next Generation Poets – 1994, 2004 and now

  1. I love this post, Rebecca. Maybe it’s because I’m so newbie and hungry, but I can’t stop watching, re-watching, reading, re-reading, the Next Gen Poets interviews and poetry on the official site. Why can’t poets, both new and “old”, appreciate the list and the interviews as insightful and mind-blasting? Don’t artists want to evolve and keep learning forever? Isn’t that the only good part about art, given how much angst we come from (often) as artists? For crying out loud, the spectrum of painful and uplifting stories from the poets interviewed, at the very least, should make us writers feel more “normal”, right? It certainly makes me feel less neurotic for a few minutes at a time. Blah, blah, blah… Thank you for this, Rebecca. Even more for me to devour and yammer on about to my poor husband and our little boy!

    • Thank you for your positive response Natalya. I am so pleased you’re enjoying the Next Generation website. Like you, I’ve really enjoyed the interviews, getting that insight as you say. Thanks for reading blog, Catherine and Pauline have shared some wise words x

  2. A beautiful post Rebecca and your place on any list that promotes great poetry is well deserved. ‘Her Birth’ is a work of such clarity and beauty in a world of confusion and complication and does things that I think only poetry can. We poets do like adding our own dose of complication and confusion too, usually on ‘social media’, which if you ask me does a great service in stopping some truly awful poetry being written by providing a diversion activity for the offenders. Thanks again for ‘Her Birth’, stunning poetry which rises way above all the puff and bluster that surfaces every time anything significant happens in ‘our world’.

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