On Meeting Paul Keegan, Ted Hodgkinson, Naomi Jaffa and Emma Jones.

This happened a while back – I’m trying to play blog-catch-up today (I’m feeling ill, but feeling ill doesn’t stop me writing!).

On Meeting Paul Keegan  (Senior Poetry Editor, Faber & Faber), Ted Hodgkinson (Online Editor, Granta Magazine), Naomi Jaffa (Director of Aldeburgh Poetry Festival) and Emma Jones (Faber & Faber Poet).

This was a fair while back, so forgive me if I avoid lengthy descriptions of peoples facial features, or the movements of their hands during a conversation, because I have probably, unfortunately, forgotten those nuances!

This had been on the cards for a while. Lavinia had sent a couple of emails around informing us (us being the MA Creative Writing poets at the UEA) the where-when-and-what’s of the situation and to prepare ourselves, as we had the opportunity to read one of our poems to Keegan and the others. The idea of reading not only in front of our mentors (our tutors would also be in attendance) but to Keegan and the others – people I considered to have ‘succeeded’ in a literary sense, whether Poet, Editor, or Director – was unsettling. What poem should I choose? How should I read it? Should I choose one of the more mainstream poems, or should I hit out hard with something more difficult? Do I want to make a point, or do I just want to read as best I can? How nervous will I be on the day? Will those nerves affect my reading of certain poems? What will the room be like? And then there were further political difficulties – do I choose a poem that has already been through the marking process, that, maybe, I can alter just a little bit more – in keeping with my tutors red pen? But then, would my teachers not recognise it? What if I felt the original was stronger than the one marked? Would my tutor-of-the-time be irritated by this ‘regression’?

Nevertheless, I picked a poem (by picking ten, then five out of the ten, then three out of five etc.), and turned up the UEA to find the rest of the poets lulling under a large tree outside the humanities building. I popped upstairs to grab my recent portfolio (a lower grade than the last, which is disappointing, but I’d taken certain liberties so wasn’t surprised…) and joined them in the shade. The poem I was considering reading at the meeting was in this marked portfolio, which I hadn’t seen yet, so I flipped my way too it and re-wrote out the poem in pen on the back of an envelope with some minor, potentially ‘regressive’, edits.

I was nervous, but excited at the same time, and from talking to the other poets we all seemed to be in the same boat – which was nice! Some people were more confident than others, as you’d expect, and some of the other poets had done a few readings before, so had an idea as to what to expect. Nevertheless, everyone recognised that the people we would be meeting today were very important people indeed, and that forced nerves onto all of us. This was a poetry reading like no other, a poetry reading where the audience consisted not only of people that enjoyed poetry, but people that were/are engaged in the industry – that know the good from the bad (if there is such a thing), the publishable from the unpublishable, the good reader from the bad – we were all keen to impress, keen to accept the challenge, but the nerves were there.

The room itself didn’t help. We wandered into one of the UEA’s more business-orientated showwy-off rooms with nice blue carpets, big windows, and a large projector screen at one end of the room. There was a large table in the middle of the room in the shape of the Viking longboat, or a massive eye, which only added to our nerves (I think, certainly added to mine!). These nerves were eased when Lavinia entered the room, and, upon seeing the Viking longboat settled on the gentle ocean/lake of the blue carpet, exclaimed something along the lines of, ‘this is remarkably formal’ and proceeded to explain that the whole meeting was meant to be more an informal chat/reading/discussion than anything else. The bureaucratic table was not what she had intended when she had asked for a table. We settled ourselves around the corner edges of one of the tables, and it became apparent to me very quickly that this odd table configuration was not going to be particularly conductive to a discussion. When looking left or right you were greeted by the side of the face of the person next to you, and beyond that, not a great deal could be seen. Moving to the other side of the eye (the longer, slower, gentler curve) was also somewhat unthinkable (for me, anyway) because all the poets would inevitably sit together, and then the guests, when they arrived, would be forced to sit on the other side of the eye. It would become an us-and-them. An interview-esque scenario. The horror, the horror…

Insert nervous chat-chatting. The sound of the wind blowing at the blinds. The scratching of pens and pencils on pads. Drumming of fingers on longboats. Then the other tutors emerge: George and Monzia, and Keegan not far behind. He sits next to me, and begins discussing the changing nature of publishing. I quote (and I think this is an accurate quote), ‘the landscape of publishing is changing’ and then disappears into a discussion of technology, self-publishing, and the magic and non-magic of the internet, but it wasn’t nearly as simple as it sounds. Keegan’s voice was slow and methodical, and he seemed unsure of his words – which makes sense, if the world of publishing is changing, then publishing must adapt. Adapt or die, perhaps. His talk, then, was more of an opening-out, it felt like some form of confession – and I felt somewhat uncomfortable in that moment. I had given thought to the recent developments/changes within the publishing industry, but only small thoughts, or passing thoughts. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of larger publishing houses, I’d naively seen it from my own point of view, and from the view of other writers. The possibilities open-out, but the dangers increase too. Keegan’s talk was far more philosophical than any of us had imagined, I think, and we all struggled to keep up with his pseudo-scientific technological terms, terms we were either unfamiliar with or knew as something other. I realised then that here we were – the UEA poets – many of us young, and many middle aged, but we had grown up in an age of computers – we had evolved alongside pixels and graphics, programs and hardrives, we know our SSD’s from HDD’s, but not everyone does. Not everyone grew up like this, and that became apparent when the topic turned to the way in which we draft poems, and our tutors confessed to the pencil-and-paper method. You can delete things easily, you can move things around, and you don’t run the risk of pressing three buttons and the whole thing slipping into the bin without a trace.

I found myself thinking, ‘do I draft in pencil or pen?’ and musing on something I read in a Guardian supplement called ‘How to Write Poetry’, in which Lavinia writes, ‘you may choose to write directly onto a computer. This is not, after all, the age of the quill. If you decide to do this, consider the following: It is important and useful to see what you have deleted. Words on screen look like printed text: whatever you type looks finished. The screen is a smooth surface and your eye slides across it. Print off your draft and read it on paper. Retyping each draft helps you to get on intimate terms with the poem. Writing a poem is not an orderly affair. You need to be able to leave gaps and scribble in margins, to dram maps, lines and arrows. You can cut and paste a poem out of existence just like that.’ I dabble between pen/pencil/whiteboard/blackboard and computer, and agree with much of what Lavinia suggests. I mused for a while, then dropped back into the conversation when Keegan suggested that technology, or writing on a computer, restricts or limits the ability to write. I can understand this within certain contexts, but not as a general truth – whilst I know from experience that sometimes it is helpful to disconnect yourself from the lumbering distract-o-matic that is the internet (Iain Banks has two computers, one connected to the net, the other disconnected – for writing), I can’t say that technology limits writing itself. If anything, it makes more things possible. You can make things move. You can make poetry three dimensional. You can create hypertext poems. You can create shapes you would have never dreamed of creating. You can print-over-print. You can colour. You can shape. You can hide. You can program actions in to and on to a text. You can meld with other forms of media. The possibilities are there so long as you know how to use technology to create such effects. Think House of LeavesShawshark Texts the poetry of Ted Berrigan, or Hannah Weiner, John Cage… technology is, as much a closed-in as an opening-out. It is a land of slavery but also of possibility. I couldn’t sit there in silence any longer, I had to point out that it doesn’t just restrict – there is potential there, just that, we might not know how it all works, or we haven’t made it work for us yet – but the examples are there, though few and far between. The same applies to systems, in any area – they control us, but we can break them at the seams. There are loop holes. We can make the system work with us, or work with the system.

So I went and opened my big mouth, and me and Keegan mused it out a bit longer (which was lovely), but the conversation got sidetracked. My tutors were keen to ask questions about how we send poetry to Faber, how should it be arranged? What kind of poems? Legitimate questions – questions I too was, or would be, interested in – but these questions seemed to be at a complete tangent to Keegan’s discussion. These new questions were unphilosophical, business-like, it was about how I send my poems to you, how do get published? I felt the other questions, the questions Keegan was trying to tease out of himself as well as the other students, were the more important questions. These were questions that affected the world of publishing, and if the publishing houses should feel the need to adapt, then those writers/authors/poets that find themselves alienated from the industry because the nature of their poetry/writing/art, might find themselves altogether less alienated. The experimental becomes the next step – the next foothold – perhaps the next popular thing, maybe (which can be good, can be bad – the truly experimental will, no doubt, try to break away from themselves here, which I heartily welcome). Anyway, it was an interesting discussion, then Naomi, Ted and Emma joined us, and we had to read…

No one wanted to go first (surprise surprise!) so Lavinia went alphabetically. I sighed with relief and frustration. The ‘W’ put me in towards the end, which meant I could sit easy for a while, but it also meant I couldn’t just get it over and done with. We were all nervous, we all read in different ways. Some of us had chosen long poems. Others short. We all stood. We all tried, and it was lovely. I was worried I wouldn’t  be able to read my own handwriting, but coped fine, and then Naomi Jaffa gave us a number of tips for readings:

  • It’s always better to carry a number of poems in your hands, or a folder – a single sheet of paper can shake alarmingly in the smallest twitch of the hand; emphasising your nervousness.
  • Looking up is always a good idea – the more you’re able to look up at the audience the better it is, so long as you don’t compromise the poem.
  • Self -awareness; knowing what your hands are doing, what you do with your face, and/or getting a friend to watch you perform and tell you what you are doing so you can avoid doing things like obstructing your face, or looking uninterested.

There were more tips, and then we talked about festivals and good places to read. Apparently East Anglia is a pretty good place for poetry; there are a number of festivals around they have poetry tents, and open mic’s – but as for big names it seemed Norwich, London and Edinburgh were the places to be if you want to attend/perform. Ted talked about the new Online Poetry section on the Granta website, how the site itself works and what they do – interviews, poet vs poet and the introduction of new poets. Then Emma talked to us about how she lives as a poet, which I found fascinating. To live as a poet! The idea seemed absurd, in a way. Living as a writer seemed absurd enough, or as a philosopher, but as a poet!? It was amazing. She read to us from her collection, and then we rushed off for wine, nibbles, and to ask questions outside of the Viking longboat environment.

We had an hour or so, maybe more, then our tutors and guests had to leave. We took the wine and nibbles outside and sat in the sun, talking about the meeting and how it had gone. We all felt very enthusiastic about the future, and how we should go about sending off poems to particular places. A meeting that inspired confidence, is a fine meeting indeed.

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