Devolved Voices – Transparency and Trust

Peter Barry

In our work on the ‘Devolved Voices’ project so far, we have tried to spell out precisely what we mean by some of our key concepts. We are studying ‘emergent’ poets of the post-1997 period in Wales, but what exactly is ‘emergence’? We tried to define it precisely and objectively in one of our first documents. I think we were right to do so, as we want the principles by which we are making our choices and emphases to be as transparent as possible.

However, I haven’t always felt exactly as I do now about transparency. I edited an academic journal for 20 years, during the period when the notion of peer reviewing was becoming established in the UK as the litmus test of academic quality. But at the heart of every journal is an inner core of day-to-day practice which is simply unknowable to outsiders. Exactly who decides what, and exactly how, is not always open to external audit, and is not necessarily the same as official policy might dictate.

For instance, I would sometimes receive an essay from a famous academic, accompanied by an oddly self-effacing note. I would think, ‘That can’t really be the famous Prof X – s/he wouldn’t write a cover-note of that self-deprecating kind’. But on a number of occasions, involving different people, it really was the Prof X.

It was evident to me that having a piece by this person in the journal would be noticed, and would improve our standing. What should I do? Should I render it anonymous, and send it out to two academic readers, letting it take its chance, as if it were the work of an early-career beginner? Or should I make the decision myself and take responsibility for it?

If the article turned out to be not so good, even that might be a noteworthy and significant fact, simply because it was by Prof X, and would give some indication of that person’s latest thinking. As a fairly new editor, whenever I went against this principle of seizing an opportunity and taking editorial responsibility, I later regretted it and felt I had been over-timid.

The submission which focuses this issue for me now, was written by a household-name. It was a speculative article about the sex-life of the young George Eliot, based on an interpretation of the coded sex diary of a figure associated with her. I agonised about it for several weeks, and have never before mentioned it to anybody. Was this not a sexist piece, I said to myself, irrelevant to the novelist’s worth and standing as a writer? Should I not high-mindedly reject it? And so on. Eventually, I did reject it, in that self-flattering spirit, but I now know I was wrong.

It would have been an unmistakably news-worthy item, and I should have had the courage to publish it, tipping off national media in advance about its contents. That is what a proper editor would have done, one who was an editor through and through, in spite of the obvious personal and academic risks involved

So what lessons do I take from that experience for Devolved Voices? It’s something like this: Yes, I want our procedures to have the maximum possible transparency, and, yes, I want us to be able to show the principles by which we are working. But in the end, we have to make the judgements, and we have to take the responsibility for doing so. In the last analysis, that is what the money entrusted to us is for.

Mapping Poetic Emergence

The focus of Devolved Voices is on poets who have emerged since 1997. One of our key initial tasks therefore has been to develop a discussion document that seeks to pinpoint 7 stages of emergence. We’ll soon be publishing our document on this blog.

Emergence here should not be confused with poetic development. The former relates to profile, while the latter relates to craft. Obviously, these two processes – emergence and poetic development – very often do go hand in hand; but sometimes they do not. When the document is made available, it is important therefore that the scale should not be seen as equating emergence with a measure of artistic worth necessarily. In the best sense, we aim to produce a document that is objective. It may be used to locate a poet on the scale; but it also considers what poets actually do within the poetry community as well as the impact of what they do. It is finally quite important to note that our scale of emergence relates to emergence through poetry for the page. We greatly value and appreciate the increasing role spoken word has within the poetry community, but the primary focus of our project relates to those poets who establish themselves in publishing.

The discussion document is an important part of our beginning. But we hope that it will also raise some interesting questions about the very nature of a poet’s trajectory in itself. It may also provide us with some indication of how a poet’s career trajectory has changed over the course of time – for example, how a comparatively recent phenomenon such as the establishment of creative writing programmes has impacted on entry routes and endorsement for new poets and has achieved further prominence for established poets.

Emergence, as we’ve been considering it at length, can prove fascinating. The scale of emergence shows that poets can sometimes skip phases if one phase has gathered enough momentum or cultural ‘cluster’. Poets can, of course, recede in prominence as well as moving forwards over the course of their career (although, as my previous comments try to emphasise, this is not a quality judgment). Poets can plateau. Some poets may, in fact, plateau at a relatively early stage or a middle stage, while other poets can reach – and remain at – the highest stage on the scale (our ‘Stage 7’), acquiring a national or even an international profile, generating study at schools or universities, and developing a cultural presence of some distinction through the media.

How have we gone about shaping this document? We’ve pooled our knowledge of the field as engaged critics and practitioners. We’ve reassessed our initial thoughts. We’ve discussed and considered at length individual poets and their career trajectories as examples for our thinking. We’ve factored in certain classic, prestigious entry routes towards book publication, such as the winning of a bursary or an Eric Gregory Award. Poets make their way through magazines and journals, as we know. But particular attention from an editor in regularly publishing specific new poets and fostering their talent on a magazine’s pages can have a great impact, making the poets in question especially recognisable new names – as well as notable attractions for a book editor, who might then make a direct approach. We’ve considered the role writing reviews or essays has in helping to increase visibility and interest – sometimes before a full collection has even been published. Then there’s the issue of poet advocacy – a major figure endorsing the work of a new poet. Similarly, we have had to ask ourselves about the part played by complementary roles – work that a poet may undertake that is somehow related to literary practice and yet is distinct from the act of making poetry itself. An example here might be the interplay between a role in academia or a role as an editor (traditionally the ‘cultural gatekeeper’) and the profile of a poetic output. What role does the winning of prizes or shortlistings play in career advancement? On a clearly related note, what sort of impact does judging poetry competitions and prizes have on a poet’s position in the scale? How, exactly, can one be considered to have arrived? Each stage on our scale contains a range of factors, some or all of which a poet has secured.

Of course, it is in the nature of a discussion document that adaptation will play its part. Once we publish this document, we’ll be interested to hear your views and welcome your comment on this blog.