In all regions of the UK, the appointed role of Poet Laureate are all held by women. In Northern Ireland it is Sinead Morrissey, Scotland Liz Lochhead, Wales Gillian Clarke and of course, the UK’s Laureate is Carol Ann Duffy. Duffy is the first woman to gain this title after almost 400 years of its instatement. The London Laureates for the past three years have been women and Kate Tempest is one of the most successful poets of all time. Even in the realm of performance poetry, women seem to be much more successful at having their voice heard so why is it still all about men? We asked Lydia Towsey and Hollie Poetry for their insights:

Lydia –

Considering that the poet laureates for all regions of the UK are female and Selina Nwulu has just been made London’s Young Poet Laureate, why do you think the BBC focused on predominately male poets on National Poetry Day?

I found the BBC’s coverage disappointing but not surprising. In pretty much every area of public life, women are still consistently marginalised.   A recent Channel 4 report highlighted just a small number of ongoing inequalities; full time working women earn nearly 10% less than men; out of 650 MPs only 191 are women and in the history of British politics there has never been a female Chancellor of the Exchequer. Less than a quarter of FTSE 100 company board members are women – and most disturbingly of all in the last decade the UK has fallen from 9th to 26th place in global gender gap rankings – suggesting that far from improving, under our present government things are getting worse. Racial inequalities in the UK are even greater – looking at the poetry sector more specifically, in 2007 less than 1% of writing published by major presses in the UK was written by black or Asian poets (The Free Verse Report) and Claudia Rankine recently won the Forward prize for Best Collection with the odds stacked against her – she was the only non-white poet on the shortlist. The BBCs coverage was so disappointing because for once they didn’t need to go out of their way to redress the balance – it would have been easy and appropriate to approach at least one of the laureates  – that they chose not to was at best ignorant at worst willful. It suggests to me that they are still very much part of the establishment and focused on maintaining quite a negative status quo.

If asked what kind of programme would you put together to celebrate National Poetry Day?

One that reflected the fullest possible variation in the contemporary British scene whilst taking account of both a more international and historical context. Whilst great to share more established names, dead and alive, I’d follow through on the approach begun in ‘Rhymes, Rock and Revolution’ airing as part of the BBC coverage on Oct 12th. Here it was great to hear from key, new and diverse contemporary poets like Kei Miller and Hollie McNish – alongside anti-establishment trailblazers like, Michael Horovitz, Benjamin Zephaniah and John Cooper Clarke – but in a programme purporting to cover revolution where was Linton Kwesi Johnson and ‘Inglan is a Bitch’? Where was the first women of dub, Jean Binta Breeze? It was great to see contemporary stars like Salena Godden – but it would have been better to hear one of her poems and hear her speak. For the fullest coverage I’d have thought it fairly essential to make space for key emerging collectives of younger and/or marginalised artists too – from Nottingham’s Mouthy Poets to Leicester’s Showcase Smoothie to Manchester’s, Young Identity.

Is there any particular poet, dead or alive, that you would interview and why? 

Too many to pick just one! Dylan Thomas for burning so brightly, Ginsberg for making madness mainstream, Selima Hill for taking the sublime to the surreal, Sylvia Plath for her honesty, Mary Oliver for her ease; T.S Eliot for his Love Song to J Alfred Prufrock alone – and his definition of poetry as ‘one person talking to another’ one that’s always stuck with me…Roger McGough and Adrian (‘most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’) Mitchell for putting the politics back into poetry without losing the poetry in the process. I’ve always loved Elizabeth Bishop and on the evidence of her actual ‘Letter to Miss Pierson, May 28th, 1975’ (Strong Words, modern poets on modern poetry; Bloodaxe; 2000) would think she’d have some good advice. Having said all that, I’d remain wary…some of the best advice I’ve ever had has come from Jean Binta Breeze and you only need read her ‘Interview’ poem to gather their limitations; as she says in her ‘Letter to Caribe’ perhaps the best thing to do is just ‘trust good poetry and read!’

Is the stigma of ‘page v stage’ getting in the way of a fairer representation of gender in British poetry?

I first read this question as implying that there are more women writing to perform, than writing for the page alone, so that the stigma held by the ‘page’ world against the ‘stage‘ one would mean fewer female poets ending up in print. Whilst there are loads of key women writing for the stage or crossing between page and stage – from Kate Tempest to Jo BellLucy English, Hollie McNish, Selina Nwulu, Salena Godden (and all of the above undersigned Burning Eye women!), Rachel Mccrum, Jenny LindsayKate Fox, Aoife Mannix, Malika Booker, Shamshad Khan, Kat Francois the list goes on – in the absence of an audit, I’m not sure women in general in this context are any less discriminated against than they are in any other context – and certainly when compared to the page world. My anecdotal experience as a performer is that I mostly find myself on bills with more men than women. In contrast to this, though the 5 main publishing houses have (with the exception of Bloodaxe) a shocking track record of publishing vastly more men than women (see this audit undertaken by Fiona Moore) the ongoing picture is one of greater equality. As Roddy Lumsden notes, responding in the thread on this article

“More UK women are being published in book form than men – this has been the case for several years now (PBS list stats) but the bigger lists are not reflecting this, and this is partly down to the historical nature of those lists, editors sticking with (more male) poets who joined them in the 60s – 90s.”

However, in another article by Fiona Moore ‘Poetry and Sexism in the Guardian Review’ she notes that three-quarters of books reviewed are by male poets and just under two thirds of the reviewer’s men. Given the additional bias of mainstream and literary publications against those they define, or who self define as ‘performance poets’ this would clearly make female writer/performers doubly discriminated against.

If you were elected the first president of the Republic of Britain what would be your first act?

Free university education for all and a poetry anthology through every door…

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Lydia’s collection The Venus Papers is available from our online store and visit her website for updates and information about her gigs.

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Hollie –

Considering that the poet laureates for all regions of the UK are female and Selina Nwulu has just been made London’s Young Poet Laureate, why do you think the BBC focused on predominately male poets on National Poetry Day? 

Yeah, it pissed me off a bit at first. Then I thought I guess because the programme was centred around the links to Rock music and the Beat Poets / the performance side of things. I don’t know enough about the history of poetry in that era to know whether there was much in the way of female performers. Seeing the massive concert it was celebrating was all men. So I didn’t know enough really to know if my pissed off-ness was justified. I feel the same in terms of the Caucasian aspect – I just don’t know enough about it.

If asked, what kind of programme would you put together to celebrate National Poetry Day?

God I would love to do that! No, I take that back,  I wouldn’t! I’m sick of poetry just being shown on National Poetry Day. Just the same as I’m sick of having five times as many gigs in March and of things like George the Poet being a ‘Black History Month’ special at Cheltenham Literature Festival. Poetry is pigeonholed so much like this. What I would programme is an actual programme – a weekly show with poetry in it. Or get some poets performing on things like the Graham Norton Show, where there’s normally just music. That’s what I want! Not National Poetry Day!

Is there any particular poet, dead or alive, that you would interview and why? 

I would say Maya Angelou but she did so many brilliant interviews that I can mull over on youtube that maybe it wouldn’t be necessary. I’d like to speak with Sylvia Plath. I find her story gut wrenchingly tragic, possibly just cos there are a few related paths in our education, careers as poets and young mum status – she’s the one who springs to mind right now.

Is the stigma of ‘page v stage’ getting in the way of a fairer representation of gender in British poetry?

I don’t think it is in terms of gender, just think it’s getting in the way in general. Poetry is poetry, there’ll always be a mix of people who focus on the page rather than the stage, then loads, probably the majority who are somewhere in between. I’m just bored of that whole thing. I like watching all sorts of poetry, just like a I do music. I think if it wasn’t for Kate Tempest, there would be hardly any female poets shown in general! Except in March – or on programmes especially about women – like the BBC’s aptly titled ‘Women who Spit’. That was a step forward – four of the UK’s most talented poetry lovers getting hyped up on the BBC with blow job metaphors. Brilliant brilliant. That’s what’s stopping the representation – shit like that!

If you were elected the first president of the Republic of Britain what would be your first act?

Change sex education in schools so that not just young boys, but also young girls sexual awakening goes in this order:
Learn how to orgasm by yourself (wink)
Possibly have an orgasm with someone else if you want to do this.
Possibly have penetrative sex with someone else if you want to do this.
At the minute it seems to be that boys start out learning how to make themselves come, and some women still never do this before they die. Shame.
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You can get Hollie’s collection Cherry Pie from our online store and see where she’ll be performing next on her website.
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Do also have a look at Salena Godden’s blog this week on women who write – ‘This Is Your Writing Life in Pictures‘, beatdom’s review of Women of the Beat Generation and this article on the Poetry of Afghan Women.
If you have any recommendation, get in touch!
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