Thursday, 13 January 2011

Biography | Poetry | Bio-Gravy

In a way that reflects our current political culture, people don’t buy poetry anymore, they buy poets. I think this is best exemplified in the recent generational anthology, Identity Parade. People love bitching about this book for various reasons but I think it is fair to say that it does a very competent and necessary job of giving poetry outsiders, outer-insiders and newcomers an accessible introduction to contemporary British poetry.

What instantly sets it apart from its predecessor, The New Poetry, is the way that the good people at Bloodaxe have put biographies to the fore; every poet’s contribution is preceded by a photograph and some biographical (and in some cases critical) notes.  Compare this to its  1993 predecessor, which had all biographical notes squeezed into nine pages at the end as an appendix rather than a visual show-stealer.

I personally do not enjoy the latest format, as it makes the reading experience seem fragmented and encourages the reader to thumb through to the poet with the most interesting face and bio-notes.  It all seems indicative of a reading public who places too much importance on a poet’s spiel rather than letting the words speak for themselves, but then in an anthology composed largely of poets with only one collection to their name, sometimes spiel can be the difference between healthy sales and obscurity.

I am also well aware that lots of people much prefer this style of presenting the poems, and my lack of interest in the poets’ biographies and photographs is simply a matter of taste.

I do find the modern poets’ biographies fascinating though. Let’s have a quick peek at Siân Hughes’ bio from her excellent debut collection, The Missing (read it if you haven’t already, it is one of the finest collections of 2009):

“Siân Hughes is a lone parent who lives in the middle of nowhere with her two young children and works part time as a teacher and in a book shop/ café. In 2006 she won the Arvon International Poetry Competition with The Send Off, an elegy for her third child.”

So, conventionally enough, we have a mention of an award. This is undeniably important when convincing the customer that a debut collection is worth reading. We also have a mention of the tragic loss that has influenced some of Hughes’ poetry. Again, this is essential in establishing some indication as to a poet’s subject matter.

What really sticks out to me though, is that phrase ‘lone parent’. It makes me wonder if this was a phrase suggested by Hughes herself, or the marketing team at Salt. When we read that a woman is a ‘lone parent’, there is automatically that semantic tentacle that flails towards the more conventional phrase ‘single mother’.

So why ‘lone parent’ and not ‘single mother’? Is it because of class associations? Or because ‘single’ has associations of looking for a partner? Or because ‘parent’ is not anchored to gender and therefore implies somebody playing both roles? Or is it because ‘lone parent’ has that sense of someone standing tall against adversity, working two jobs to make end’s meet whilst somehow managing to write some award winning poetry, where as ‘single mother’ has been semantically glued by the Daily Mail to a bunch of benefit leaches?

Either way, this is a prime example of the biography as a fleeting opportunity for a poet to win you over with their ‘story’, especially early on in their career. There is also a small trend within debut collection bio's to offer seemingly innocuous pieces of information in the final sentence:

“She currently lives in Norwich.”
from Metrophobia by Stephanie Leal

“She has travelled and worked in Central America, particularly Mexico.”
from The Secret by Zoe Brigley

“At the chess board, as in life, he defends – even when not besieged.”
from Dream of the Condom by Nicholas Swingler

Actually, I quite like that last one. The point is though, that biographies on debut collections are such a strange art. You have to make it either deliberately sparse, consciously quirky, unashamedly braggy or somehow imbued with an attractive enough sense of mystery for the reader to bite and want to find out more.

In an age where most collections are festooned with a press-shot, we must accept that whatever blurb to our lives we offer in biographies will be read in tandem with what our face looks like… like a social networking site on a bookshelf. In this sense, I feel that biographies now must all be written with the photograph in mind, like some capitalist strand of ekphrasis, drafted and redrafted until we have a perfect combination of words and image to give us the appearance of being someone that you want to read.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

Phil Brown was born in Redhill in 1987. From ages 7-11 he performed to captivated audiences at the school ‘Book Character Event’ where he performed as, in order, Just William, Hogarth (from The Iron Man), The Riddler and Nick from Brandon Robshaw’s ‘The Amazing Adventures of Raincoat Man’. He quit this tradition whilst at the top of his game, and has since become an English teacher.

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