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Who Run the World? How female poets are leading the evolution of the literary scene

Who Run the World? How female poets are leading the evolution of the literary scene

Top: Katie Ailes, Catherine Wilson, Nadine Aisha Jassat / middle: Sara Hirsch / bottom: Hannah Raymond-Cox, Ulrike Almut Sandig, Iona Lee / credits: see bottom

Some of this year's StAnza poets tell us why the future of poetry is about celebrating difference and breaking convention

As Scotland's international poetry festival, StAnza is a celebration of the best and brightest talent currently writing, producing and performing poetry in the UK and beyond. As well as drawing attention to some of the finest voices coming out of the poetry world, StAnza aims to engage audiences through readings, conversation and debate, interrogating key issues within both the poetry scene and the world at large. This year's themes, 'Borderlines' and 'The Self', respond directly to questions relating to difference and identity, both of which are pertinent in our current political and cultural climate.

Within the poetry world itself, these themes have been connected to much of the discussion taking place as of late, as a result of some of the commentary that has emerged from certain debates. The recent critique of the 'rise of a cohort of young female poets' published by PN Review details a divide in the poetry establishment on the growing popularity of poets like Hollie McNish, Kate Tempest and Rupi Kaur. But the undeniable truth of the matter is that the poetry scene is thriving, not just because of the mainstream success of these poets but because of the accessibility of their work and their ability to reach potentially new audiences. Whether or not the establishment agree, the future of poetry is bright, looking beyond borders, boundaries and convention.

To delve deeper into some of the debates currently dominating the poetry world, we caught up with a handful of poets taking part in StAnza this year to get their thoughts on why we should look beyond gender, technology and stylistic difference to push the form to new and exciting heights.

On whether young female poets come under particular scrutiny these days by critics and on social media

Nadine Aisha Jassat: Research shows that young women broadly are under heavy scrutiny and attack in the online world, full stop. So, it's interesting to examine the criticisms as both an extension of that, and an added element of elitism and gate-keeping. Much of the recent criticism of poets like Rupi Kaur, and another favourite of mine, Hollie McNish, makes you reflect on how structural power dynamics, and who has been positioned in seats of power, impacts the narrative about whose voice and contribution is valid and worthy of praise, and whose isn't.

Iona Lee: We all know that women's voices have been silenced or seen as unimportant for millennia. For my StAnza commission I responded to an anti-suffragette postcard that had on it an illustration of a hogtied woman with her tongue nailed to a post, underneath the phrase 'peace at last'. Keep in mind that this image was intended as light entertainment. Of course we have come on leaps and bounds in terms of women's issues since 1918. There is however a disturbing trend on social media of women who share their opinions or intellect being trolled, threatened and generally hounded.

Sara Hirsch: I have noticed a trend of young female poets getting a particularly hard deal on social media in comparison to male poets. I think this feeds into a much larger societal gender issue. It is such a shame that as soon as we, as women, start to find our voice, we are immediately seen as 'outspoken', because perhaps confident young women with something to say go against a patriarchal stereotype of submission and silence.

Rachel Plummer: It's been my experience that women are a lot more careful about what they say, and a lot more hassled for what they say, than men are. I don't think this is particular to young women poets either. Poetry critic Dave Coates published data from several of the top poetry journals in the UK that demonstrated that while female critics reviewed books written by men and women pretty much equally, male critics were much less likely to review books by women than by men. I think this is a more immediate problem than the specifics of what is being said by critics about the books they are reviewing, and I'd love to see more women poets getting review space in these journals.

Catherine Wilson: I think that women face harsher criticism in every sphere across the board. We all operate under a sexist system and poetry is within that system. It is also interesting to note the factors for which women receive criticism as it's very different to male poets. The main criticism I have received, both face-to-face and through messages to my professional Facebook, has been about how I dress or look, something my male colleagues were totally shocked by.

On whether performance poets are viewed with a more critical lens by the poetry world

Sara Hirsch: I think the key thing is that often performance poets are critiqued according to a set of standards established in a more formal poetry setting, rather than against the set of standards specific to the craft. So often the critical lens is so small that there is no room left to ask what performance poets are doing that has a positive impact in the world, rather than how our poetry might not meet certain formal standards that perhaps we weren't aiming to meet in the first place.

Hannah Raymond-Cox: No, in fact I think we're viewed with a less critical lens than page poets because we hardly ever get critiqued! Katie Ailes and Freddie Alexander are doing crucial work reviewing spoken word and trying to come up with the language to assess the genre. I think that a lot of poetry criticism doesn't understand the stylistic aspect of performance – we're far closer to the monologue or the persuasive speech than people want to admit.

Ulrike Almut Sandig: I don't think so. But I think there is a tendency to lump all sorts of performance poets together as if performance poetry were a specific literary genre itself. You wouldn't compare dixieland jazz to free jazz either, but there is no doubt about what is the jazz in them. And thus performance poets who tend to do more of what I'd call lifestyle performances tend to be viewed with a lens that reflects more of what the reviewers wish these poets would write than what they obviously intend to. It is not only inadequate to measure them with the wrong instruments, it also shows a form of intellectual disrespect that I feel very awkward about.

On how social media and the digital age have affected the way poetry is created and produced

Katie Ailes: For me as a spoken word artist, it's been great taking advantage of new technologies to share information regarding live events and spread audio and videos of work online. The collective I work with, Loud Poets, films videos of performances and places them on YouTube for anyone to freely access. It's useful to have an archive of videos of live performance to send out as examples of your work – plus there are loads of folks experimenting with making cinepoems, so that's an exciting new art form.

Polly Atkin: I write more now on screen and less on paper than I used to, which is partly because as a dyslexic with hand mobility, pain and sensation issues it's far less laborious. But that's more a technology and less a digital shift. I think the most important thing for me has been bringing a whole world of poetry to me, wherever I am. If I'm too sick to leave the house, I can still participate online. I can find the latest poems and reviews and join in conversations without having to get dressed or travel. I can get advice about where to submit or how to apply for things, or what to charge for services that would have been hard and off-putting to find before. Most importantly, I can find other people who are having similar experience to me.

On why poetry is attracting a new and younger audience now in particular

Katie Ailes: Social media's played a large role in engaging younger audiences. It's now easier to access a range of material by a range of artists. This also means that audiences can more easily find material by artists who look/sound like them and are writing about experiences closer to theirs, and this increased representation is so important for engaging a wider audience.

Iona Lee: Poetry allows young women the space to talk about what affects them in their lives that is seen as taboo and often not talked about: menstruation, masturbation, female pleasure in sex, displeasure in some sexual encounters etc.

Hannah Raymond-Cox: Poetry speaks to a truth and an immediacy that works for a new and young audience hungry for that kind of media. We're also trained to appreciate confessional media more with increased acceptability of making the private life public. Poetry's also pretty accessible – start up costs are small. You want to write poetry? Write. You want to read poetry? Google.

Catherine Wilson: In 2018, Scotland's Year of the Young People, I do feel like we need poetry now more than ever. The arts occupy that unique space of being both escapism from and the best coping mechanism for political hardship. Poetry is about articulating yourself, your story, your argument however you like: abstract or straightforward, it's all about being heard.

On whether recent innovations in poetry have resulted in a greater sense of accessibility

Nadine Aisha Jassat: Definitely – which is why it's so important that we push back against some of the criticisms that have been levelled at poets like McNish and Kaur, for fear that those criticisms may not only impact the writers in question, but also hinder or intimidate the next generation of writers. I want to see a greater variety and breadth of engagement of women's voices in poetry, especially young women and women of colour, and I think everything from Instagram and YouTube poetry through to well-thumbed anthologies in your local library have a role to play in that growth.

Rachel Plummer: Poetry has never not been innovative. Innovation in poetry is happening all the time.There have been some notable attempts to increase accessibility of poetry in very concrete ways lately, with projects such as Stairs and Whispers by Nine Arches Press, an anthology of work by D/deaf and disabled poets, and Magma magazine's The Deaf Issue. And there are groups like Proletarian Poetry that are working hard to raise the profile of working class voices, schemes such as The Complete Works which seek to encourage and promote the work of BAME poets, and very recently in Scotland the Queer Words Scotland project, which I've been delighted to be involved in, that aims to raise the profile of emerging LGBT writers in Scotland. Good things are happening.

On the relationship between poetry and activism

Nadine Aisha Jassat: I believe that storytelling is at the heart of activism and social justice, and poetry for me is just another way of telling a story. I think there's often something about the rhythm of poetry, the power of the language and sense of something communicated directly from the heart, which can really engage with people from an emotional place, too – and help lead movements not just from a campaigning head, but from a place of genuine passion, empathy and connection.

Polly Atkin: I'm of the mind that poetry allows us to speak of and communicate difficult things, and nuance, and contradiction, in compelling ways; in ways which might be more emotive and accessible than other forms of writing. A poem spoken at a protest or rally, or shared online, has a power for drawing people together in thought and feeling that prose might not. There is something there about complexity, but also about memorability and quotability. Poetry might not often have an immediate measurable impact, but it grows in people; it changes minds. But I would say this, because I'm a poet, and I believe in poetry, I believe in poetry as a made thing and a making.

Rachel Plummer: Poetry has been a tool for activism for as long as it has existed. Words, slogans, stories – they can light a fire under people. Poetry can capture huge, complex ideas succinctly, in ways that are easy to remember and repeat. Poems can be rallying cries, or they can share personal experiences that humanise and foster empathy. And sometimes this is loud and obvious, but sometimes it is quiet and understated.

On how poetry will evolve over the next decade and whether the future of poetry will be female

Katie Ailes: It's hard to say! I hope that more and more people feel that poetry is something they're welcome to write and perform, so that it feels less like an ivory-tower-bound, exclusive art form and instead the broad church it should be. I hope poets continue to innovate and find new ways of translating our experiences through playing with language.

Nadine Aisha Jassat: I think the future of poetry is going to be pushing past barriers and boundaries; whether those of gender or the gender-binary, political barriers and borders, or even pushing past the boundaries and limits of what poetry has been traditionally framed or seen as (or as not) be it in form, content or style. And that is something I'm very much excited to witness!

Polly Atkin:In the UK it feels like we're still light years away from women feeling safe enough to share their experiences publically, without fear of injurious retribution. Until we do, there cannot be real change. The poetry world is small. The UK poetry world is tiny. If you removed every abusive man in poetry, there'd be a lot of top-level positions for everyone else to fill. I hope I live to see this happen, and that it happens sooner rather than later. But do I think the future of poetry is female? I think the future of poetry is probably genderqueer. I hope the future of poetry is pluralist, fluid and will deny the strictures put on it by the male gatekeepers of the past.

Sara Hirsch: I would hope the future of poetry is the same as what we want for society. Equal. I definitely think female poets are standing out for me all over the page and stage but I also think it is important poetry becomes an equal and inclusive platform for poets of all genders, not just the straight white male dead ones we studied in school and not just an elite cross section of 'other poets'.

Rachel Plummer: I honestly have no idea what the future holds, and that's what makes it exciting! I very much hope that we continue to see greater equality in terms of race, gender, disability, sexuality, class. I hope that the poetry community becomes one in which we can all enjoy the writing we like openly, and express our differences of opinion without acrimony. Most of all, I'm excited to read the poems that are coming in the next decade. What a wonderful, rich time for poetry this is.

Hannah Raymond-Cox: I hope poetry keeps widening its accessibility scale. I hope the future is female, nonbinary, queer in all stripes and colours, BAME – I want proactive working for equality of voices coming from publishing houses, being critiqued in journals and pubs, heard at open mic nights.

Catherine Wilson: The future of poetry is all of us: women, men, non-binary: we're all part of this. Ten years from now there will be female poets, there will be male poets, there will be people who are both and neither – what we can aim for is that we will all be working together and base our criticism and enjoyment solely in the work, rather than the gender.

StAnza: Scotland's International Poetry Festival, St Andrews, Wed 7–Sun 11 Mar.

(Main image credits: James Armandary: Katie Ailes / Perry Jonsson: Catherine Wilson and Sarah Hirsch / James Barlow: Nadine Aisha Jassat / Tyrone Lewis: Hannah Raymond-Cox / Wolfgang Frank: Ulrike Almut Sandig)

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1. Si Pi21 Feb 2018, 12:40pm Report

Hi, my name is Si Pi, I wear tie dye and I believe I am just as much a pioneer within poetry, no word of a lie.

I am not trying to take away anything from the female poets above. I am simply here as a poet who believes he also has space in this world. Thanks, Si Pi the Po, No need to look high and low. Just FB y'know.

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