In a previous existence I was a biologist at Cambridge (UK) and then Stanford (USA). But I never felt confident in my biologist identity: I had imposter syndrome, except that it hadn’t been invented then. Now involved in creative things I feel a fraud (with more reason) but this allows me to admit that I didn’t know of John Berger till I read his obituaries this week. I then binge-watched Ways of Seeing after work one night: fascinating. A few of my art-professional Facebook contacts damn the programmes as patronising but, as a non-arts-trained person, I think they were aimed at people like me: interested, intelligent plebs. Ways of Seeing was not about classical art per se but classical art’s social anthropology.
I’ve been thinking about poetry’s anthropology for a while – in fact, ever since I argued about a review piece in the Observer by Don Paterson as I began writing where he said that only professional poets should be aired. Because how do professional poets come into existence? Only through elite university courses? And, more pertinently, how do we define professional? If we mean paid exclusively for their poetry alone then there would be very, very few (if any) in Britain today. Most “professional” poets make a living by teaching and/or reading/performing.
My first personal experience of literary elitism came when I was chatting to a poet (teacher day job) who told me he was considering publishing a new journal but the costs were prohibitive. I said, ‘What about ACE funding, like [local magazine]?’ At which point he launched into a tirade of abuse about [local magazine] ending with ‘so they’ll publish absolutely any rubbish!’ I gave him a moment to get his breath back before I smiled sweetly and said, ‘Ah, yes, they took one of my short stories.’
So when I meet a poetry magazine called Prole, Poetry and Prose it piques my interest. Its online submission guidelines include: Anything that sniffs of literary elitism is highly unlikely to make it through the editorial process. […] Obscure references and highly stylised structures and forms that exist only to aggrandise the writer and appeal to the coffee lounges of our older universities are not welcome. There is also, in the print issue, a mention of that contentious word, accessible along with engaging, entertaining and challenging.
I devoured it cover to cover in one vivid, exhausting session on a day off. I’ve had to go back a few times to take it in more fully. There’s a lot to take in. The first half is short stories, the second half poetry. In the middle are the winning stories in the Prolitzer Prize, judged by Angela Readman.
The stories range widely over place and time. There’s nostalgia but not some rose-tinted hankering for the old days: instead, a seeking to understand our now in terms of our past. As a protagonist says in Jenny Booth’s The Butterfly that Stamped, ‘Once people see you in a certain way, it’s that that tells your story for you, not what you want to say.’ Characters include a child murderer who is still a child herself; a sacked coal miner determined to be ‘a pimple on the face of the coal board’; a brain-damaged man trying to reconcile his previous self; an alcoholic sales manager hallucinating advice from Stalin; a cab driver dealing with a legacy of The Troubles; a Romany girl in Ireland between the worlds of travelling and staying. There are no neat romances, no neat resolutions for protagonists even while a story itself resolves. As Readman says, good stories have ‘the ability to take a reader somewhere else and keep us there until the end. […] The stories I loved included a strong sense of character, and a sense of place so vivid I could smell it.’
The poems are a tasty spread of voices, moods and ideas, too. Place and displacement are well-used, as in the stories. Cheryl Pearson’s Bianca Walks the Wine Bottles is a gem about unknown (to me) history (‘The flat of old Sauvignon. The sharp of new sweat’). Travellers’ lives and nostalgia feature in some of the poems, as in the stories – some of the recurring motifs for the anthology. Then there are the unique features, like Ann Drysdale’s Ben Gunn Weeps, or Sharon Black’s Complaint (‘We need more sperm in our poems – /[…] / fervent, juicy streams of co-creation.’). Yes, there is delicious humour in some of the poems: overt as in Rachael Clyne’s Fifty Shades of Beige; subtler in Marc Woodward’s In Hope of Pleasing St Peter (‘The carp were ignorant and agnostic / […] / Still, their barbelled mouths constantly moved / as if they’d hatched with the hope of prayer.’); dark in Sharon Larkin’s Travel Advisory about a faithless lover (‘I ask how many inches you’ve got, how deep / is it lying’).
Overall, for my taste, a few of the inclusions would have benefitted from a final edit and trim; less is more. A few phrases (and a couple of full poems) are Trying Too Hard in some way (politically/verbally; again entirely my taste). And, to nit-pick, a few bits of formatting have escaped from house style fetters (I read and re-read one poem trying to work out if the different dash formats were significant).
If Berger was suggesting we look not just at art but at its placing and purpose in our world, Prole is, for me, cocking its snook at any elitism but, at the same time, determinedly selecting good work (how to define “good” is, of course, another argument entirely). There’s a feeling that the whole is grounded in something bigger than its parts. A feeling of participation and witness even if its world is far short of perfect. “Accessible” in prole terms seems to mean you don’t need a classics degree to get any in jokes but it’s a far, far cry from ‘any old rubbish’ in the quality of its contents. It’s crafted and yet raw and vivid and authentic; I loved it.