The Possibilities for Scottish Poetry
But it’s easy to get discouraged. Poetry sales in bookshops continue to decline, which leads to reduced range and makes it harder for independent literary presses to survive. Respected press Salt Publishing, who publish Scottish poets such as Tom Pow, Alexander Hutchison and Andrew Philip, recently reported a sales decline of 80% on 2008. However, in spite of these bleak statistics, now is a time of opportunity for Scottish poetry. The awareness and popularity of poetry continues to rise, through poetry slams and literary festivals in the live arena and through publishing on the web.
New technologies such as e-books and print-on-demand have the potential to lower the overheads involved in publishing (by eliminating the need for large, advance print runs) while increasingly interactive websites offer a more direct means of contact with readers. As the effectiveness of print and television advertising becomes more and more questionable, the growing significance of online marketing has, in a way, been levelling the playing field - its main cost being time, rather than money.
To return to the example of Salt Publishing above, an innovative online fundraising campaign (‘Just One Book’, where readers were encouraged to buy one Salt title to save the press from going out of business) has been hugely successful thanks in large part to viral tactics – first published in a Facebook note, readers and fans from all over the world have reposted the original plea on blogs, websites and social networking sites. As a result the campaign was picked up by the media and gained support from booksellers, both independents and chains. (Would this have happened if director Chris Hamilton-Emery had gone door-to-door, asking stores to increase their orders?)
Social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter emphasise the personal aspect of communication. The qualities found most endearing in social networking – individuality, personality, ideas, enthusiasm and integrity – are those stereotypically associated with smaller businesses and the artists themselves, rather than large corporations, and so can be used to reach new readers and establish relationships.
Poetry is especially well adapted to this new media. Far more so than an extract of prose, a poem, a line or even a poetic phrase can be used as a striking sticker, poster, flyer, text, email, onscreen advert or piece of graffiti. Poetry can be recorded and circulated as short audio or video files, as well as being performed at live readings. Bite-sized poems can be shared, hosted, distributed and given away in much the same way as three-minute MP3s.
And Scotland certainly isn’t short on poetic talent. Well-established poets Don Paterson and Robin Robertson have both won high profile prizes in recent years, while last year’s TS Eliot prize was won by the Shetland-based poet Jen Hadfield. The poems of Richard Price, the Head of Modern British Collections at the British Library, take place in Renfreshwhere, the half-urban, half-rural landscape based on his Renfrewshire childhood, and other examples of poetic innovation from Scotland can be seen in, to pick just two examples, Janice Galloway’s Rosengarten and the works of Tom Leonard. These are though, of course, just the tip of an iceberg that includes Jackie Kay, Roddy Lumsden, Kathleen Jamie, Robert Crawford, W.N. Herbert, Douglas Dunn and John Burnside, among many, many others, and encompasses a broad linguistic range, with poets writing in Scots and Gaelic as well as English.
Scottish poetry is already an established presence online. Resources such as One Night Stanzas, Poetry Scotland, Word Fringe and Scottish Pamphlet Poetry offer poems, advice and information on publications and events. Textualities magazine and poetry presses such as Happenstance and Kettilonia have comprehensive websites, as do several poets themselves (Dee Rimbaud and Anita Govan being two). This is certainly not an argument for doing away with poetry in a printed form – far from it – but the web is a continually expanding arena in which to reach new audiences (and stimulate existing ones) and lead them to the pleasures of roaming the aisles of the tranquil Scottish Poetry Library.
As President Obama hosts poetry jams in the White House and events such as the BBC Poetry Season seek to make poetry a more integrated part of people’s lives, the most important aim for poets and poetry publishers now is to keep the public aware not just that poetry exists, but that it exists in such broad variety. Poetry remains highly subjective in terms of people’s tastes, but the web now offers a direct path to the poetry-hungry public for Scottish poets and Scottish poetry.