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Thursday, 7 November 2013

Does anyone still read genre poetry? Virtual WCF 2013

And while they obviously do, isn't all poetry "fantasy", who's publishing it, why do reviewers shy away from it, and where do we find it? Allen Ashley (moderator), Neil Gaiman, Hal Duncan, Jenny Blackford, Jo Fletcher, and Simon Adaf discuss.
31 October - 3 November was the World Fantasy Convention 2013 in Brighton, filled with very good writers saying interesting things to each other about writerly topics. For those who missed it, this series is your own virtual WFC 2013.
At the start, Gaiman pointed out that Roz Kaveny was in the audience - one of our best genre poets, whose LiveJournal offers a steady stream of proof that genre poetry is alive. The term "genre poetry" is peculiar, though: the whole panel offered examples of poets whose work might be "genre" - Yeats, Blake, Keats, Coleridge - and Fletcher suggested the question might be, "Are people in the genre reading poetry?"

Markets for genre poetry haven't subsided: off the cuff, the panel offered Peter Crowther at PS Publishing, Jupiter, Sein und Werden (A British magazine with a German title meaning “Being and Becoming”), Stanzas Magazine, Centrifugal, Unspoken Water, and the BFS Journal, which all publish poetry. Blackford pointed out that one can slip it into literary journals very easily (it simply gets extra kudos for originality!) and Gaiman said it's popular with publishers who need to fill odd-sized gaps.

Asked if poetry demanded a different mindset or audience, the whole panel raised their eyebrows at first, but Gaman said one does have to learn how to read poetry. It's a different action of reading - a learned skill (as perhaps all forms of reading are). Reviewers tend to avoid poetry, feeling they're not competent to gloss, summarise, review, or even give feedback on it. It's "an entirely different animal," said Duncan. Fletcher said that without poetry being taught as much in schools these days, people feel the lack of confidence that comes from being self-taught. An audience member compared this attitude to that of the modern art world and pointed out the difficulty of such elitism, where appreciation depends on knowledge. Gaiman said there was an added pleasure in recognising a form, such as a villanelle, but the form itself is also inherently pleasing and should always have emotional impact, whether or not the reader knows the form. Ashley suggested that poetry may have moved into music and rap. Blackford argued that some great stuff is being done, as actual poetry, but people just don't feel competent to judge it, and Gaiman mentioned stealth poetry, slipping it in without the reader noticing. The popularity of open mic and poetry slam events shows that poetry is still a thriving medium, in itself.

Does genre poetry have less crossover appeal than genre fiction, which slips into the mainstream? From the audience, Kaveny said that genre gives you a set of conventions that make it hard as well as easy - setting oneself difficult things to do makes it fun. "Sestinas are bastards," she said with relish, and quoted Yeats, "the fascination of what's difficult". Think of sudokus, crosswords, and so on: people do hard stuff for fun, but "a lot of people have never been taught that doing hard things is fun."

Adaf, an Israeli poet, said that Israeli poetry had no such thing as "genre" poetry, only mainstream realism, but there was currently an increase of politically aware poetry from young people. Asked whether genre poetry could be political and if that was its purpose, Fletcher said that some genre poems are, but that she worries when an art form must comment on and discuss issues. "Sometimes the purpose of poetry is just to be beautiful," she said. Duncan couldn't write fiction or poetry without social awareness, but for Blackford, her poetry and fiction were completely different.

Perhaps the problem, if there is one, is that it doesn't sell. Speaking as a publisher, Fletcher said point blank, they don't sell. It's hard to even cover costs. Gaiman offered the example of Now We Are Sick, which sold exceptionally well - and netted each author enough for a good dinner. Poetry collections aren't overpriced. Readers might blink that a fat sci-fi novel and a slim poetry volume are priced the same, but as Gaiman pointed out, most of a book's printing costs are fixed, irrespective of the number of words and pages. Fletcher added that publishing prices work in bands and that to judge a book by its thickness was akin to comparing the same sci-fi tome to a slim paranormal romance.

An audience member asked about the increase in magical realism within mainstream literary poetry and Gaiman reiterated that a lot of poetry is already inherently "genre" poetry: it must be, though its non-realistic use of metaphor and the imaginary. What would a "realistic" poem even look like? Someone else asked if genre poetry had different standards, to which Blackford replied, "Of course not!" - the bar of acceptance varies widely between different journals of all genres.  While fiction gets publicity through book blogs, why are there so few poetry review blogs? This returns to the question of reviewers feeling incompetent to judge poetry. Poetry is the most subjective form, offered Adaf; Fletcher, more pragmatically, observed that book-bloggers buy from mainstream outlets and most poetry from independent presses and journals just aren't available there.

And Megan says... If you want to read and publish "genre" poetry, then, the links at the top are a good place to start and don't rule out the small literary magazines and presses. You'll need to hunt them down, not just stroll into Waterstones, but it's there and thriving. The Writers' Handbook is a good place to start looking if you're stuck. If anyone wants to run a poetry review blog, the gap is there for the filling. And before you get too lonely, see what poetry open mic and slam events are on in your town.

Next on the Virtual WFC 2013: Neil Gaiman and the importance of rumpling one's bed

Next challenge on your virtual World Fantasy Conference: run through a carpeted maze in desperate search of a cup of coffee; bonus points if you get a nice big latte, but -20 if you're late for Neil Gaiman in conversation with Jo Fletcher, cos walking in late like that is just rude.

Notes: Panel notes are created from my own rapid scribblings at the panel and paraphrased - all as accurate as possible, but if you take exception to anything, contact me. Direct quotations are my transcription of someone's exact words as best as I can.


  1. Confused. What is non-genre poetry?

  2. In this context, genre poetry meant fantasy poetry. As Gaiman pointed out in the discussion, 'a lot of poetry is already inherently "genre" poetry: it must be, though its non-realistic use of metaphor and the imaginary. What would a "realistic" poem even look like?' (my paraphrasing, not his direct words)

    Some poetry very explicitly uses tropes and imagery that we recognise as being part of the fantasy genre and so does much poetry that we consider "mainstream" - think of Yeats's rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. Other poetry is very distinctly realist, for all it still uses metaphor. (The first example to spring to mind is "In Paris with you".)

    The organisers who created the panel topic were no doubt thinking of poetry that's centred strongly in the fantasy tradition, but as the discussion showed, most of the panellists felt that we can't make such a clear-cut distinction.

    Hope that helps!


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