18 January 2012

On Poetry PR

I was lucky enough to attend the T S Eliot Prize Readings at the Southbank Centre on Sunday night.

It was an enjoyable evening, and it exposed me to poets I wouldn't otherwise have read (notably Esther Morgan, who I really liked), but it can't be denied that as an evening out it was sadly lacking. The readings, with the exception of Carol Ann Duffy, were all pretty bad as performances, for all sorts of reasons that I'm not getting paid enough as a performance consultant to go into.

Coverage of the T S Eliot prize this year, at least on the Guardian and the BBC which are basically where I get all my poetry news from, was very much focused on the 'scandal' of Alice Oswald and John Kinsella withdrawing from the award over suspicious of an ethical nature about the prize's new funder. In one particularly good example, the Guardian headline announcing the winner is:
John Burnside wins most controversial TS Eliot prize in decades
Scottish poet's Black Cat Bone beats strong shortlist in contest mired in protest over City funding
The relevance of the controversy to the story is minimal, in fact nonexistent. That Burnside has won the award (incidentally, he is my least favourite of all the short list) doesn't have much to do with Alice Oswald withdrawing. Unless you want to imply that he wouldn't have won if she was still in the running, but I'm sure the Guardian isn't that underhand.

It was with this context in mind that I sat down to write this post about the T S Eliot prize. I thought I'd get myself a fresh angle.

One thing I'd noticed during the reading was that the demographic of the audience was rather unusual. 99% of the audience were over 30, as one would expect at a poetry reading. It was the 1% of people under 30 that were extraordinary. They were all extraordinarily good looking.*

However, I didn't find much mileage in commenting on the above-mentioned observation. Instead, I found myself thinking more and more about why the coverage of the T S Eliot award has been so completely not about the poetry itself.

What I believe the Guardian's writers are doing with that article - and I think they do it really well - is making it interesting. The fact that John Burnside won the award, and the quotes about his work from the prize judges and so on are just a big pile of yawn. The real meat of the story is the potential scandal; and so that's exactly what the headline writer has focused in on, and why the article includes background info on the debacle and so on, even though there have been no new developments. And that, my friends, is why the Guardian sells. **

And now for the Remaining-a-Writer traditional segue into musicology in the middle of an otherwise promising post. The relevance? Like a poetry reading, a concert is an aesthetic experience which cannot be considered news in its own right.

You've heard of the Proms. You may even have heard the Proms. They're a huge deal, perhaps because they've learnt a lot from their competition in pop music. The target audience of the proms is ordinary*** people, and resources for understanding and enjoying the music are provided for ordinary people. There are companion programmes, post-concert commentaries, websites, and all sorts of things to help make the aesthetic experience something people can a) enjoy and b) talk about with each other. In other words, they have designed their programme to allow it to achieve social mass.

Where are the comparable resources for the T S Eliot prize? Those 1% of fit young people who somehow ended up in the auditorium were ripe for the picking. My cousin, 20, forced to come along by yours truly, could potentially have been converted to poetry for life on Sunday evening. Instead, her and all the other young folk's suspicions about poets are a race of disorganised mumblers have been partially confirmed. I say partially, because not every single one of them mumbled and not every single one of them was disorganised.

Poets like Carol Ann Duffy, who was the only poet on the bill my non-pretentious relations forced to come with me to the reading had heard of, have also found ways to make themselves discussable. Cazza Dee knows how to be news, by creating news stories about herself, but also by commenting on news events through her poetry. 

Ruth Padel too, bless her, definitely knows how to be news by now.

Excellent PR shot of John Burnside, of the type that should be attached to all press releases.
Terrible PR for Lady Gaga: nothing interesting to look at at all, and very unprofessionally produced.
It is not my intention to slate the T S Eliot prize or the Poetry Book Society, however, which both clearly suffer from a lack of budget rather than a lack of sense, and have had more important PR problems to be dealing with this year than simple audience engagement. That fact remains, though, that they need to catch up if they want poetry to survive.

One note of hope comes in the form of Simon Armitage's upcoming Poetry Parnassus. The festival's very concept is undeniably newsworthy - by nationalising poetry he makes it something to be proud of, competitive about, and something to build your identity from. The key thing for me is that the festival seems to be planning to do this in a way which makes poety easy to talk about.

* I'll let you choose if I should be included in that statistic or not.
** Metaphorically speaking, it seems.
*** Definition of ordinary: without a music degree.

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