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Ten New Poets by Bernardine Evaristo – Poetry Book Society.

“This moving, challenging and inspiring new anthology introduces ten sparkling new talents who demonstrate the richness, energy and confidence of the poetic voice in our multicultural country. It is a joyful and important moment in publishing.”

Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate

Ten new poets:
Rowyda Amin, Mir Mahfuz Ali, Malika Booker, Nick Makoha, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Roger Robinson, Janet Kofi Tsekpo, Denise Saul, Seni Seneviratne and Shazea Quraishi.

Editors: Bernardine Evaristo & Daljit Nagra

This anthology, Ten, published by Bloodaxe Books, features ten new poets who recently took part in the two year The Complete Works development scheme where they attended seminars, workshops, courses and were individually mentored by some of Britain’s leading poets.

None of the Ten poets are complete beginners, all are already seriously committed to poetry and a couple are working towards a first or second full collection or pamphlet. The idea behind the project is to take them that little bit further and to help them break into the publishing networks.

The Complete Works scheme was the direct result of the Free Verse report that the Arts Council commissioned into why so few poets of colour are making it into print. The report revealed the brutal truth that under 1% of poetry books published in this country are by black or Asian poets. The Free Verse report itself came out of an approach I made to the Arts Council in 2004 with the support of Ruth Borthwick, then Director of Literature at the Southbank Centre. I had been a judge on the Next Generation Poets List, selecting the twenty ‘most interesting’ poets of the past ten years, and I was shocked at the absence of books by poets of colour.

The report revealed that poetry editors unanimously declared that they made their publishing decisions based on quality, irrespective of race and gender. But ‘quality’ does not exist outside the context of history, culture, literary traditions and values, all ingredients that also constitute personal taste. As new black and Asian poets are finding access to publishing all but impenetrable, the message is received loud and clear: they are not good enough. In the past they said that about black people who wanted to be footballers, actors, golfers, judges and, yes, even American presidents.

Although it is natural for editors to want to guard their independence, if the status quo goes unchallenged, nothing changes. That said, the desire for change has to happen from within if it is to have a lasting effect. Tokenism eventually becomes transparent. What if poetry publishers, nearly all of whom are white and male, used their position of power and privilege to be more proactive in actively seeking out new voices away from the usual networks? It might mean publishing beyond personal taste. It might mean nurturing talent when it is found, rather than dismissing it as not good enough – yet. It might mean being open to poetry that comes out of unfamiliar cultures and traditions. It might mean being aware that including more diverse voices on a poetry list can only enrich and strengthen it.

Sad to say that, since the report was published five years ago, there has been no noticeable difference in who is getting published in this country. Bloodaxe and Peepal Tree Press are almost alone in publishing numerous poets of colour.

Politics and issues aside, this anthology is about excellence. It features ten talented poets who enrich the poetic landscape. They are British poets with family backgrounds in Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Guyana and Ghana, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uganda, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Ireland and of course, England. And their mentors, each of whom has written a critical commentary introducing their mentees, are among the leading poets in the country. These commentaries, unique for an anthology, provide a fascinating insight into the poets’ work, a guide to the reading of the poems, and begin to shape a critical framework that takes the poets seriously.

The mentors are Paul Farley, W N Herbert, Stephen Knight, Mimi Khalvati, Pascale Petit, Michael Schmidt, John Stammers, Michael Symmons Roberts, Catherine Smith and George Szirtes.

The Complete Works and this anthology are not the solution to the challenge we face but in the absence of publishers’ doors opening, it is a step in the right direction. It is a positive move towards redressing the undoubted iniquities that plague the poetry publishing world and it is a way to develop and support a new generation of poets who will go knocking on those doors in the hope that they will open.

Bernardine Evaristo‘s six books include Hello Mum, Lara, Blonde Roots, Soul and The Emperor’s Babe. With Daljit Nagra she is the editor of Ten: New Black and Asian poets, published byBloodaxe in September, which was the outcome of The Complete Works development scheme for black and Asian poets. She received an MBE in 2009.