Philip Pullman, recently speaking to a packed audience in Oxford Town Hall, on the county council’s proposals to cut 20 out of 43 public libraries in the region. He makes the very vaild point that it is somewhat insulting to librarians for there to be the ‘Big Society’ idea that volunteers can just take their places.
Yesterday I did my first e-learning visit of the academic year to demo to English Studies colleagues the kind of activities I am describing on this blog. Many thanks to the English team at the University of Derby for the provision of institutional biscuits, coffee and orange juice and their friendly welcome. If you are reading this from another English Department and would like to book me for a visit please contact R.Miles@wlv.ac.uk.
What the visit also meant was that I was returning home to Birmingham, by train, in the middle of the day. I’m rarely in the centre of the city in the daytime so I decided to make the most of the opportunity to go to Birmingham Central Library for a very particular reason. Last term, as part of my MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Manchester Metropolitan University I had a term of workshops with Carol Ann Duffy. There’s no denying that this was a great privilege and I am very lucky to have had such an opportunity as an aspiring poet. Carol Ann has a ‘Poetry Corner’ column in The Daily Mirror approximately once a week. She picked one of the poems I submitted to our workshop to appear in the column. However, I never knew when the poem was going to appear. Trying to contact The Mirror via their website feedback form to find this out was useless. So for quite a number of weeks/months I stalked various newsagents in both Birmingham and Manchester, surreptitiously flicking through entire copies of the newspaper and then putting it back and exiting quickly. This is a practice one can only keep up so long. I was getting to the point where I thought some newsagents could be about to take out an ASBO order on me. On the plus side I got to know The Mirror very well. I’m wondering how they’re holding up without The X-Factor to devote half the paper to… ( I do actually really like the fact that Carol Ann has chosen to feature poetry in this paper of all papers. She says she gets lots of letters in response to poems that appear). Eventually I asked Carol Ann to enquire of her editor for me … only to discover I had completely missed the date, and hence seeing my poem in print.
The Mirror’s Poetry Corner does also appear online. I had also been checking this diligently — religiously — EVERY DAY and my poem had never appeared. Once I actually knew the date it had appeared I tried various ever-increasingly-obscure google searches and eventually found a reference to my poem online embedded in someone else’s blog. By some kind of circuitous route I managed to find my poem on The Mirror‘s site, and this is what they’d done to it. This is what happens when poems get put up online with no formatting. This isn’t what the poem looks like, and it’s why poets are maybe rightfully cautious about what can happen to their work if it gets put online by people who don’t really have a concern for correct presentation.
So … where was I actually to find my poem in print? Had I simply missed the moment? Then a friend suggested Birmingham Central Library, and a check of their website suggested that as they kept back issues of quite a range of national newspapers for up to three months in print form then I would still be able to access it. And indeed I was! Yesterday I saw my poem, ‘Cuts’, in print. I was delighted and set about photocopying it (including in colour). I was so delighted that it was only several hours later that it actually dawned on me that even in the printed version The Mirror had presented it wrong, having removed all the spaces in a poem that was originally written in two-line couplets. This may sound a pedantic point to people not that interested in poetry, but if you write it and teach it, as I do, it MATTERS, MATTERS, MATTERS. There is no such thing as a poem — a good poem — where content can somehow be detached from a consideration of form. Whatever a poem ‘means’, it’s form is part of that.
So to the left is ‘Cuts’ as it appeared on 28/10/2010. In a following post I will put up the poem as it’s meant to appear. I think Carol Ann liked my poem and thought it merited a wider readership because it seemed satirically political — some kind of slightly strange comment on NHS ‘cuts’. This wasn’t at all in my mind when I wrote it, but as we all know, authorial intention is relatively powerless in the face of what readers might make of words once they are ‘out there’.
I got home after my Central Library visit to find a friend had texted me about a news item that had appeared on BBC news earlier in the day about threatened library closures. Carol Ann Duffy speaks in the clip about how she could never have become the poet she has, and hence Poet Laureate, without access to public libraries. The reporter in the clip also implicitly makes clear what the Cameroon notion of ‘the big society’ is all about: valuable community, arts-based and charitable organisations are taking hits in state funding. in order for these organisations to function/remain in future they will need to be staffed and maintained by volunteers. This is called ‘doing our bit’/'the right thing’.
There is a great deal to protest about at the moment. There’s going to be more. In its small way, I’m glad my poem has contributed to the critical voices.