In Conversation with Dave Coates
-With Charles Whalley–
Dave Coates, writing on his blog (davepoems.wordpress.com) and elsewhere, is becoming known as one of the most consistently entertaining, wide-ranging and prolific reviewers writing online, giving detailed and good-natured appraisal of high profile new collections. Paul McMenemy, editor of Lunar Poetry magazine, recently described his work as “possibly the best poetry reviews on the internet.” In recognition of this, Dave was shortlisted in the 2014 Saboteur Awards for Best Reviewer.
Recently, he passed fifty reviews on his blog, and reflected on his work and what he has been trying to achieve with it. I took this opportunity to ask him some questions about reviewing…
Charles: Your reviews always start by declaring any vested interest, such as whether you’re friends with the poet. (Perhaps this is the place to say that you and I have never met.) Frequently a complaint about poetry reviews (and about magazines, and publishers, and prizes…) is that they’re just ‘log-rolling,’ friends helping out friends. Do you see this as a problem? How would you describe your perspective on, or relationship to, the UK poetry scene?
Dave: I guess friends are always going to help each other out, particularly when the community is as small and tightly-bound as the poetry crowd on these islands. One thing that is concerning is the confirmation bias that sets in, where recognisable influences and benefactors appear to be a valuable passport to publication. I doubt it’s deliberate but it’s concerning when so few poets of colour or LGBT poets (for example) make it onto the big five poetry lists (Fiona Moore’s research is vital on this point). Pretending there’s only a narrow range of writing going on in these islands is a stultifying falsehood.
Regards reviewing, there has to be better transparency, and it wouldn’t be difficult to address. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume any given reader doesn’t know the connections and friendships between people working in the same industry – I’m still figuring it out – and should have as much information as possible. Poetry isn’t written and certainly isn’t published in a vacuum, and again the pretence is disingenuous. Some of the most glowing reviews I’ve written have been for people I know, and it’s hugely important to me that whoever’s reading can take me at face value.
As far as the Prizewinning Pals go, that these lists are a true reflection of the most important work in the country is almost an acknowledged fiction. What’s encouraging is it feels like a growing number of people are fed up with it. Which asks the question of what poetry prizes are really for, and I’ve got to defer to Joey Connolly’s excellent article in Poetry Review. He’s absolutely right that we should know how the judges are chosen and who champions what and why. What I’d give to see a shortlist that just brazenly holds to whatever aesthetic prejudices the judge holds in their heart of hearts, and more importantly a justification for their decisions.
I’m not sure what my relationship to the UK poetry scene is. Edinburgh has its own scene, some really talented poets (and there’s even more in the rest of Scotland), and I’m really proud to be even a small, peripheral part of that. I’m sure many non-SE England folk could empathise that the greater proportion of what goes on in the poetry world feels very distant. Most of that is for understandable, practical reasons, but in the case of the Next Gen poets it felt like Welsh poetry missed out for not having an advocate on the panel, as Scottish-based poets had Robert Crawford. Sometimes positive discrimination is a brave and valuable first step to opening a closed circle.
Outside of Scotland all of my interaction with the UK poetry scene is online, and without Twitter and the exposure to London folk via the Sabotage nomination I might still be talking to a very small audience.
I read somewhere that one of the ways in which television discredits, if not censors, alternative viewpoints is by the limited time it gives people to express themselves, in that the farther an idea is from an accepted norm, the more time it required to be justified or explained. Given the limited space afforded to reviews in the broadsheets or even in some dedicated poetry journals, do you think there is a similar problem?
You can only do so much in a short-form poetry review, and it’s hard enough to identify a book’s aesthetic ambitions at all, let alone in 400 words. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest this might create a feedback loop in which more experienced poets learn exactly what kind of poetry wins prizes, swooning Guardian reviews and another book deal. Slam poetry in North America has such rigid means of understanding creative success it actively stifles work that doesn’t fit the template, and mainstream UK poetry seems to be doing likewise.
I do think there are some really talented critics getting their thousand words or so to really dig into a poet’s philosophy as well as their turn of phrase. If that was the norm rather than the exception it might foster a whole different way of approaching a book of poems. A lot of books are kind of just assembled occasional pieces rather than an aesthetically or philosophically unified whole, which is how I approach reading them, and why I get slightly frustrated reading poems in a journal or an anthology. There’s some poets, like Rachael Boast, whose work I didn’t like or really get until I’d read the whole book twice over. I’m kind of suspicious of individual poems with ambitions to be discrete authoritative entities.
Around this time last year you caused a minor stir with your review of Ahren Warner’s collection Pretty, which you described as “comically over-wrought” and “aggressively self-worshipping.” Further, you pointed out what you saw as a streak of aestheticised misogyny that “has no place in a mature and inclusive artistic community.” I remember the review being described as brave and refreshing, perhaps because of Warner’s gatekeeper status as poetry editor of Poetry London. It’s certainly pleasing to see a review spending considerable effort on exploring “bad poetry,” as opposed to contributing to what you call the “warm glut of middling, mildly positive blurbism.” How did you feel about this review and its reception?
Yeah, there was just such dissonance between the book’s standing and its substance. Maybe I went overboard on the psychoanalysis front, and I certainly remember writing the thing slightly overcome with righteous fury, which isn’t always useful. But Christ, the ideas in there. They’d make you stand by principles you didn’t know you had.
As far as ‘bad poetry’ goes, if I can’t quit parse your rhythms, if the themes and images don’t resonate, that’s fine, no ear or imagination is alike. But I can’t tolerate poetry that endorses the very worst aspects of our culture. That poetry remains such a conservative, exclusive space is one of the things that keep me writing. That it still privileges regressive gender politics in books written by both men and women is dispiriting. And there’s little discussion of these wider trends, maybe because the community is so small. Maybe we’re not ready to have that conversation.
As someone who spends a lot of time working through mainstream poetry – diligently reviewing many collections from the Forward shortlist this year, for instance – are there any common trends or ideas or features in these books that excite or surprise you? Or any that frustrate you?
Gosh, I don’t know. That’d be an interesting project though, seeing what poets write about most often, what tropes start emerging. My bet would be images of self-reflection, though I doubt I’d get decent odds. If there’s a frustrating element it might be with the general myopia of a lot of recent poetry. I’d like more books with ambitions beyond personal reminiscences, because I think that’s an easy way to elide problems that don’t directly affect you. There are a lot of important conversations happening, many of them freely available online, about exclusion and erasure in mainstream culture, and it doesn’t seem to have strayed onto poetry’s radar for the most part. A lot of collections toy with presentations of oppression for added spice, for the danger of broaching ‘taboo’ subjects, and few do so with sensitivity or genuine subversiveness. Maybe the big secret is that in a culture that privileges certain formulations or presentations of sexuality, writing that actually challenges our assumptions doesn’t tend to announce itself or even seem all that appealing at first glance, and it might take some imaginative work to draw out its implications. There are millions ways to be in love with someone, but only a handful get any kind of air time, and depictions of mutually empowering romantic relationships are few and far between. Odes to TL61P, for instance, makes a lot of noise about revolution and smashing the system, but its sexual politics are thoroughly traditional. I suspect this isn’t news to a lot of people, mind.
Do you think a poem should be moral?
Should isn’t the right word, I think. Writing a poem is a moral choice, as is publishing it. Like I said, writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and when you choose to publicly contribute to popular culture, even in as small or ostensibly innocuous a way as writing a poem or even a book of poems, you’re making the moral choice to endorse or criticise that culture, or any of the stances in between. Even painting yourself as operating outside traditional ideas about morality is a moral choice, and a hugely privileged one at that. I guess the point isn’t so much asking whether or not you are doing something morally ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but asking how your actions (and publishing your ideas is definitely an action) affect other people, or how we think about other people. It’s about recognising your place in wider society, or even recognising that there is a wider society that you’re part of, and taking responsibility for it.
What then do you think is the role of a reviewer? And if, as you say, poetry is an “exclusive space,” what can the reviewer do? How does a reviewer promote the writing that has been excluded, as it were?
I’d love to have good answers to those questions. I’d definitely hesitate to go round giving advice on how reviewers ought to operate. You read to the best of your ability and try to be aware enough to check yourself when you do meet something you don’t understand. Reading helps, there’s a lot of people who’ve thought their way through the same things.
And I’m not gunna lie, living within walking distance of some of the sharpest minds in UK poetry helps too. Do that if you can. Otherwise, point out bad ideas and sloppy thinking where you see it, particularly when it’s being promoted out of all proportion. Being accurate and articulate about how cultural oppressions manifest (sometimes unintentionally) in this poem or that book can be tough and can feel like sticking your neck out, particularly when you’re sometimes guilty of those same things yourself.
The point is being who I am (white, male, well-educated etc) makes life so goddamn easy, makes writing so completely stress-free by comparison to so many people. The least I can do is say that out loud from time to time. Because it’s true and because it’s messed up. I know so many great people who suffer terribly because our culture teaches them to deny or diminish or dismiss their best qualities. I guess being a reviewer means acknowledging your part in that system, and having the choice to play along or not. And of course, being in a position to opt out and still be heard the way I have is a major privilege.
I hope this is useful to someone. Being interviewed is super fun by the way.
Finally, after three years and fifty reviews, what are your plans? More of the same (I hope!), or something different?
I’m in talks with James Franco.