‘Man has continued to evolve by acts of disobedience […] daring to say no in the name of his conscience. His intellectual development was dependent on the capacity for being disobedient to authorities who tried to muzzle new thoughts and to the authority of long-established opinions which declared a change to be nonsense.’
– Erich Fromm, On Disobedience
The recent Twixter development with reference to the Eyewear Publishing’s abrupt fall from grace looks like a time-bomb waiting to go off for a few years now. (If you use social media, you can easily find out what I am talking about, so I am not going to revive it, for ethical reasons. It has already taken too much of my headspace, plus it is not the focus of what I am about to say.) Regardless of what is going to happen next, I cannot but bring up a wider issue – the present symptomatic state of the literary space, and, particularly, the publishing industry.
At a time when competition is supposed to promote quality and integrity, a well-oiled trophic chain keeps on growing; and the institutions building this up seem unable to ‘snap out of it’ as the pressure to ‘make it, and make it big’ has become a scope in itself. (I use the concept ‘institution’ in the sociological sense.)
The general turmoil is now backfiring on writers trapped between their need to get work published and the pressure to accept arrogance, humiliation and to conform, ad literam, to the publisher’s demand (in some cases). But if the book sells, all is forgotten and forgiven. Before you know it, it slowly becomes common practice. Then it is widely spread across, used as a functional business model and, finally, adopted as a cultural value. What for? Just to prove that neoliberalism works well.
There are many brilliant independent publishers too, with a natural propensity towards quality and excellence. Some are young, some are struggling to survive, and others are actually doing really well. I have admiration for all of them and I support their journey. The beauty in their work (and, ultimately, their success) comes from their ability to reject the established cultural food chain. But to break a system, one needs to create another. And why shouldn’t this system be about more agents which say no, which disobey, which continue to change?
As a writer, I can only keep my side of the bargain through writing and saying no in my own way.
I say no to submission windows, for instance. As I don’t write between nine and four with a lunch break and a bit of time for elevenses, I prefer publishers with ‘open windows’. I prefer to work with people rather than with systems. One has to recognise there is some scope in accepting submissions only at certain times. One must consider the publisher’s high volume of manuscripts, the financial constraints, staff availability and so on. However, there are two further considerations to make here:
a). some publishers recognise their struggle to manage two hundred submissions over a period of four months, whilst others, with less staff, manage over four hundred in two months. Is it a matter of grit, determination, passion, or just management?
b). secondly, rather more important to me, the problem of equality and diversity. The idea of preferential treatment to subscribers and their own protégées. And you can also jump the queue if you are Carolan Fluffy. What happens then with the young, the very young or the struggling writers unable to afford subscriptions, or talented writers at the very beginning of their career? They need to join the queue and wait longer to have their manuscript read. (And, in some cases, it takes months, if not years to get a response.) One would have thought that in such a competitive market things could have been more efficient, and more honest.
I say no to submission fees. This is simply based on arithmetic. Browsing through the writing competitions promoted via official channels, and adding up, the monthly sum for submissions is higher than some writers’ food bill. A high percentage of great writing and talent gets overlooked. And if this is not the publishers’ loss, it is certainly our cultural loss.
In a society where cultural losses are neglected, the freedom of expression has no meaning and obedience is identified as a virtue.
Maria Stadnicka, 21st July 2018
‘Until recently, we had convinced ourselves that there was nothing in the future but more of the same’. This has been, for a long time, our definition of ‘courage’ and ‘risk-taking’. But the notion of ‘inevitable future’ described by T. Snyder is now more nuanced; if we summarise the past twelve months of socio-economic and political headlines. And to add to this, the cultural space has not taken a step sideways either. I am just considering the #MeToo movement, the mediatic tsunami which followed, plus the implications it had on the Nobel Prize for Literature. There are so many other examples I could think of. And they all lead to an evident sense of empowerment and courage coming from the overlooked, the marginalised socio-cultural voices.
But when I think of courage in culture, at a practical level, I go back nearly a year ago. In 2017, I was invited to read at Tears in the Fence Festival, Stourpaine, Dorset. The Festival focused then on the theme ‘Politics of Engagement’ at a moment when the idea of Brexit started to become a slow torturous reality. Being part of the Festival, listening, reading, connecting with brilliant voices and writers, left me impressed to tears; for I had discovered a powerful and intelligent event, edgy and European, with great openness and with the potential to change our cultural trajectory. It felt avant-garde. Georges Braque would have liked it and so would Beckett.
This year, I will be privileged to be joining Tears in the Fence Festival, between 14th-16th September, and it will be, no doubt, another inspirational experience, with even more exciting poetry readings, books, talks and discussions, responding to the theme ‘Hidden Connections’.
In a recent conversation with David Caddy, the Festival director, I wanted to understand what the difference between the festival and other literary events across the country was.
David Caddy: Firstly, through the range of poetic approaches on display and the international flavour with poets from different cultures and languages. There will some language centred poets, some prose poets, New York School, Australian, South African and a number of European voices.
MS: And this would be…?
DC: The Festival has a long prehistory going back to 1995. From 1995 to 2001 we had an international festival which eventually ran for five days. From 2003-2005 we had three weekend festivals, in London. We resurrected the festival on a smaller scale in 2014. This is thus the 14th edition.
MS: How is the festival funded? Through self-funding? And when I say this I have in mind the degree of autonomy and independence which come with the freedom to choose a focus, as well as your participants, rather than respond to popular literary demand.
DC: Yes, the festival is entirely self-funded. We rely upon tickets sales and donations to cover the costs. This gives us a high degree of independence in terms of whom we can invite to participate. We are not subject to any prescribed official list of funded poets. We can take more risks and have more alternative or experimental poets, whether they are spiritual, political or language centred. Poets that wish to read know that they will be able to take more risks and be themselves as there will be a well-read audience. It’s also a coming together and celebration.
MS: Taking risks is a complex concept within the literary space. Each literary festival likes to take risks, but it needs to sell tickets too and sometimes the market is dictated by over-promoted writers, with big publishers and literary agencies behind.
DC: Exactly true. There needs to be a space for the less marketed and more independent poetry voices. We give space to the outsider voices and poets; our earlier festivals had themes such ‘Difference and the Other’, ‘Visionaries and Outsiders’ and ‘Commitment’ to illustrate the point that dissident voices need to be heard.
MS: Your risk-taking does not shy away from experimental nor from critical analysis. You have chosen ‘Hidden Connections’ as this year’s theme. At a time of socio-economic and political turmoil, coming from North America, the Middle East and the EU, how does the Festival intend to respond having chosen this topic?
DC: Such themes generate good discussion and conversation. Poems will generate sparks and illuminate less well considered areas within these wider issues and perhaps debate, as the audience grapples with new implications and contexts. By bringing a range of strong and independent voices together there will be poems and sub-themes emerging, that shed light on darkened areas. Poets respond to one another’s poems and impulses. They will talk and think anew as a result of new insights. This is a complex and unpredictable phenomena, also very exciting and stimulating. New friendships are made, and books bought.
MS: And..as a preview, what events should the readers and the audience look forward to?
DC: There are a number of special events. Lou Rowan, the poet, novelist and editor from Seattle, will be reading. He is noted for his great clarity and humour. To hear him will be a treat. Elisabeth Bletsoe is a spell binding performer who recently hasn’t performed much. She will be a joy to hear. Martin Stannard has returned from China after a decade and his witty poetry will be as hard-hitting as ever. Perhaps with Chinese translations. Louise Buchler’s feminist poetry from a South African perspective will be different. Carrie Etter, an accomplished American poet and prose poet, has another distinct voice. Laurie Duggan is giving his last UK reading before returning to Australia. He is a poet with a big heart and internationalist perspective. There will also be a celebration of late Lee Harwood, whose multi perspective poetic approach offers a way to uncover hidden connections.
Tears in the Fence Festival will take place 14th-16th September, Stourpaine Village Hall, Dorset.
Maria Stadnicka, July 2018
– unedited preview from ‘The Unmoving’ coming out next month at Broken Sleep Books, published this morning in ‘International Times’:
I imagined the return at the end of my sentence
on a street in Moscow
thinking the worst was already over.
[ more to follow…]
‘Poetry at Pembroke’ is a series of poetry readings organised by Peter King, lecturer in philosophy at Pembroke College. The beautiful grounds bring together a wide range of national and international poets, readers, critics, musicians, students, on Mondays at 6pm.
With great joy and enthusiasm, I will be performing at Pembroke on Monday 19th February, at 6pm with the composer Janet Davey.
Janet and I have a few things in common. Radio broadcasting. Both involved in news. Janet worked for the BBC World Service, I worked for Radio Europa Nova and then for Radio Hit Romania. We share the love for music, for poetry and for sound. And we share a common memory. The Chernobyl accident 26th April 1986. I was eight years old and went to a nearby gymnasium school. 26th April 1986 was a Saturday. In those days, we went to school six days a week and, on Sundays, we had homework. There was nothing else for us children to do. We had no television during communism, there were no magazines and we had only two newspapers. I had started to write poetry by that time; write on old notebooks, on my mother’s factory coupons, on food wrapping paper. We had no books at home, so I wrote to have something to read in the evenings.
Once a month after that Saturday, the school’s paediatrician would come to deliver our iodine tablets quota. We had to swallow one every day for almost a year. We kept breathing and eating and learning and sleeping and growing, not knowing why the iodine was good for us. The boys mostly played with the sweetish small tablets or used them as crayons. I was a short-haired nervous girl. Shy and small for my age, and I think I took them all, with precision. Or maybe for fear of being publicly reprimanded during political propaganda lessons we had on Wednesdays.
Around the same time, Janet was in London producing a live telephone programme, with Sue MacGregor between London and Moscow for BBC World Service and BBC R4. Jan noticed on the “wires” a cloud over Finland and more. The interviewee, set up by Jan, was Georgi Arbatov, Soviet spokesperson. He was asked about this cloud……and told the world. The rest is history.
These two journeys met 31 years later. The composer Janet Davey and I will be performing at ‘Poetry in the Pink’. I will be reading from my collection ‘Imperfect’ published by Yew Tree Press (Philip Rush) and the forthcoming book ‘Uranium Bullets’, with original piano music and orchestration produced by Janet Davey’s grace.
Thank you, Peter King for your brilliance in promoting poetry and thank you, Janet Davey for your superb music.
A new poem published this morning in ‘Stride’ magazine:
I covered my face with black ink
rounded all my possessions up
and set fire to everything
at the top of a hill.
click here to read the full text.