Race and Reviewing

This event, held at King’s College London on Thursday 17 May 2018, was building on the work of its two convenors, Sandeep Parmar and Sarah Howe, in creating the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics scheme for writers of colour.  The argument for action to address imbalances of representation (in poets and reviewers published, and in editors) is backed by concerning statistics assembled by Dave Coates and the University of Liverpool.  The write-up of the event here is my own short informal take and doesn’t come near to the complexity and breadth of the issues at stake.

The evening began with a panel discussion.  The two commissioners of reviews on the panel, Michael Caines (TLS, Brixton Review of Books) and Sian Cain (The Guardian), both said that those pitching articles to them tended to be an extremely high proportion of Oxbridge white males.  Michael pointed with pride to the latest edition of the TLS with 43% male contributors, as against the 80% that would have been the case historically.  However, they both recognised the need for improvement.  In commissioning, there could be a tendency to, in Sian’s words, ‘disguise laziness as a simple pursuit of efficiency’ and, along with Kishani Widyaratna, the panellist from Picador, they agreed that the key was for editors to be proactive in finding new voices. 

Jericho Brown, the US poet, made a strong case that readers, reviewers and editors needed open themselves up to a wider awareness of the possibilities of poetry, in order to go beyond a stale sense of what made for a good poem when new and different voices were emerging.  Momtaza Mehri, the new Young People’s Laureate for London, described the problem of ‘who gets to imagine themselves as poets and critics’ – and welcomed moves to create new pathways for those who would not typically identify themselves as such.

There was some discussion on the panel which moved onto the floor, of the bind in which poets of colour were asked to review other poets of colour, sometimes on the back of assumptions lumping all people of colour together.  On the one hand, wasn’t there some duty on the commissioner and reviewer to promote the work of poets of colour that didn’t have as much of an audience?  On the other hand, there’d be no progress if reviewers were ghettoised and weren’t asked to review work by those not of their background.  

The subsequent discussion turned to questions of how much expertise a reviewer needed, and whether it was the requirement to have an ‘authoritative’ reviewer which led to the same people being asked again and again.  There were also potential anxieties of white reviewers afraid to deal with work by poets of colour.  With a twinkle, Jericho Brown made what felt like a very enabling point, that he had ‘no expectation that white people will get it all right’.

Then it was time for readings.  Momtaza Mehri’s poetry has a remarkably reflective capacity to extend tenderness to its subjects without sentimentality.  The poems she read explored all kinds of border states – on actual borders, on London streets, among diasporas subject to Trump’s travel ban – in an era where, as she argued earlier in the panel session, citing Agamben, the figure of the refugee and the more or less displaced are central.  The form of her work embodies a kind of inclusivity, studded with telling images which generate a panoply of voices and objects each with their own real or imagined story.

Jericho Brown’s reading began with a poem which conveyed an incredibly powerful and intricate sense of what it feels like to experience not only the immediate violence of the father’s hand, but also the structural violence of white America that underpins it.  His visceral work is articulated with subtle inflections of syntax and breath that capture passion faced with vicious constraint.  He closed the evening drawing on that passion and craft with funny and generous and intense and sometimes fraught love poems.

Jonathan Catherall