The professional poetry world is a curious place: despite regular laments about being neglected by (for example) mainstream print media, it frequently seems to relish its own marginality, wearing it like a badge of distinction. Poets interested in broadening the audience for poetry can be accused of “populism” and “dumbing-down” – as though poetry ought to be exclusive, and the only way to bring in new, “non-expert” readers is to compromise proper artistic principles and write anodyne pap. I disagree vigorously with this point of view: I think it does a disservice both to poetry as an endeavour, and to the so-called “general reader”.

Why should we concern ourselves with “audience development”? I believe poetry at its best can serve some of the same human needs that music does – and yet compare the number of habitual poetry readers with the number of iPod owners! Poetry will never be for everyone, but there are large numbers of readers out there who enjoy well-written fiction, but were put off poetry in their school days (or simply never given a decent chance to switch on to it.) These readers are missing out on something that might provide a great deal of enjoyment, consolation and stimulation – and without the participation of this literate mainstream, poetry will remain marginalised to the remote fringes of contemporary culture. Since one of the salutary virtues of poetry has always been to give contemporary culture the occasional good kick-up-the-arse, this is something of an unfortunate place for it to be.

My own interest in audience development is relatively recent. In 2008 I started selling the remaining copies of my first collection to raise money for UNICEF. As part of this fundraising drive, I cozened various “real-world” friends and acquaintances – people who would never normally read poetry – into buying a copy and coming to readings. They often commented that they were able to get into poems more easily at readings because of the preambles: those little bits of background context, or explanation of motivation, that a poet will typically provide when introducing a poem. Even that small amount of informally-delivered information was enough to give this somewhat ambivalent new audience a “way in” to poetry (and yes, some of them retained this newfound interest, borrowing anthologies and exploring further in their own time).

Too often, formal education leaves people with the impression that contemporary poems are cryptic, mocking little devils with (only) complex meanings that must be tortuously unpicked. Combine this perception with the cultural mysticalisation of the poet as a tormented and unstable artiste inhabiting some exotic bohemian niche – wholly “other” – and it’s not surprising that people consider poetry with a sense of mistrust, expecting to be tricked by it and made to feel stupid and excluded. It seems to me that a poetry reading will sometimes help to overcome this mistrust precisely because an engaging and informative preamble, delivered in an honest and open way, gives new readers a reason to trust: they can see that the poet is just another ordinary person, who is not attempting to deceive, mock or belittle them but rather to communicate. This allows them to listen neutrally – or even positively – rather than defensively, and be pleasantly surprised by their own enjoyment.

It’s an accepted, even expected, element of poetry culture that poets may give introductions to their poems at poetry readings;  what a shame, then, that there’s not more support for such introductions in written media.  In my own small gesture towards counteracting this, I started adding “author commentaries” to the poems on my Poem Of The Week blog.  Encouraged by the response to these, I decided to provide a full set of such commentaries for my new collection Perfect Blue, and to publish them online and as a free PDF e-Book, The Perfect Blue Companion.

In this free companion material, I’m hoping to provide the same kind of informal preambles that I might offer when introducing the poems at a reading. I’m not trying to set down some “canonical interpretation” for each poem (readers often interpret poems differently from the poets that wrote them, and fair enough too!), and nor am I trying to “explain” it in some tedious line-by-line dissection – though I might explain the occasional potentially-non-obvious allusion. The commentaries aren’t aimed at other poets, critics, literary academics or “professional” poetry readers, but rather, they are explicitly intended to provide a handhold, a stepping stone, a small reason-to-trust for readers new to poetry. I hope that at least a few such readers, thus encouraged, might go on to develop an enjoyment of poetry-in-general.

I have no idea whether these commentaries will succeed in their aims, but I do believe that the experiment is worth doing (and I hope that other poets might consider producing something similar for their own books – especially some of those whose work, unlike mine, is at the more “difficult” or avant-garde end of the spectrum.)  One of the wonders of the internet is that it makes doing such experiments cheap and comparatively simple.  You don’t have to risk your shirt;  all you risk is a bit of egg on your face if it doesn’t work out.  That’s never a good reason to avoid trying something new, especially when it’s something that might help even a handful more people to discover the joys and consolations of poetry.

Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland.This column is the start of a monthly feature. She is facilitating the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries. There will be a third batch of sessions here in the library on Wednesday 21 April. You can now hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’ and  follow her on Twitter. This month’s column is an extended version of the introduction to The Perfect Blue Companion.

LIBRARY ASSISTANT INTERNSHIP OPPORTUNITY

SCOTTISH POETRY LIBRARY (SPL), Edinburgh

April 2010 (minimum length of one month)

Unpaid, 25 hrs / week (preferably 1-6pm Mon-Fri, negotiable)

The SPL is offering a short-term library assistant internship position. This position will provide an excellent opportunity for a recently qualified Information and Library Studies graduate to gain CV experience and to receive practical training. In return the successful candidate will make a valuable contribution to the day-to-day work of a special library. To learn more about the work of the SPL, please visit www.spl.org.uk and https://scottishpoetrylibrary.wordpress.com/

Responsibilities

–          based at reception, dealing with visitors, calls and enquiries

–          managing circulation, assisting borrowers, shelving

–          general administrative assistance

–          new acquisitions processing, some cataloguing (training will be given in MARC21)

–          assisting with events programme and public campaigns

–          occasional special projects and assisting Librarian and Assistant Librarian when needed

Essential skills/qualities

–          a recent Information & Library Studies post-graduate qualification, or current enrolment on a distance learning programme

–          a friendly, helpful manner (this is a frontline position dealing with the public)

–          IT skills (although specific training will be given where necessary)

–          ability to multi-task

Desirable skills/qualities

–          knowledge of Scottish literature, and an interest in poetry

To apply, please send, by email, a covering letter explaining why you are applying for the internship, together with a CV to Julie Johnstone, Librarian, Scottish Poetry Library

T: 0131 557 2876 F: 0131 557 8393
E: julie.johnstone@spl.org.uk

Closing date: Friday 19 March 2010 | Interviews will be held for this post.