United Kingdom-based poet and critic Sandeep Parmar was a special guest, along with the poet Ilya Kaminsky, at the Poetry Coalition convening of founding members held at the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University on November 2-4, 2018. At this convening, Parmar and Kaminsky talked about the importance of poetry criticism and a new program Parmar launched in the UK, the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics Scheme for BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) reviewers. Parmar and Kaminsky will be launching a US-based version of the program in 2019.
In the following Q&A, the Academy of American Poets speaks with Parmar about her work supporting emerging poetry critics of color, why a range of voices in poetry criticism is so important, and how she and Kaminsky plan to bring this project to the United States.
Poets.org: Last year you launched a project in the United Kingdom to mentor emerging poetry critics of color. What prompted your doing so?
Sandeep Parmar: I think there has been a conversation brewing in the UK about poetry reviewing, particularly in the past few years with a rise of books published by poets of color. As a bit of background, in 2005 an Arts Council–funded report on UK poetry and diversity found that, astonishingly, less than 1% of poets published by major UK presses were poets of color. Partly due to The Complete Works mentorship scheme for poets of color, directed by Nathalie Teitler, that figure is now up to 16%. Only a decade later, many of The Complete Works Fellows are valued poets whose visible contribution to British poetry is unquestionable.
Sarah Howe and I co-founded the Ledbury Emerging Critics program in late 2017 to address a similar imbalance in poetry reviewing culture. In 2017 a report compiled by the critic and blogger Dave Coates found that between 2012 and 2017 (some 3,000 reviews), less than 5% of poetry reviews were written by critics of color and around 8% of books reviewed were written by non-white poets. This report was commissioned by the Centre for New and International Writing, which I co-direct at the University of Liverpool and can be found here. But it’s important to remember that numbers are only part of the problem. Sarah and I are both poets, critics, and reviewers, who sometimes also work in editorial capacities, so we are both keenly aware of the many facets of poetry culture and where we most think things now need to change.
Poets.org: Why is poetry criticism important? And why is it important that poets of color review collections by other poets of color?
SP: In the UK, there has been a sharp, market-driven decline in reviewing space for poetry in major newspapers. Even though poetry has a healthy readership, this is not matched by reviewing, which is the public face of critical discourse for poetry. Reviewing serves many crucial functions, not least of which is to gauge poetry’s relevance to our always shifting cultural moment among a community of readers.
In the case of poets of color, too often British reviewers emphasise their identity or biography rather than engaging with the poetry itself. The lens of what can only be described as critical whiteness fixes on the poet of color as an anomaly and seizes on their writing as a direct expression of their racial otherness. As I wrote back in 2015 in the Los Angeles Review of Books, a mostly white poetic establishment prevails over a patronising culture that reflects minority poets as exceptional cases—to be held at arm’s length like colonial curiosities in an otherwise uninterrupted tradition extending back through a pure and rarefied language.
I can think of many, too many, examples of (unconscious or conscious) framing of work by poets of color as unliterary, ‘light verse,’ ‘performance poetry,’ or whatever dog whistle might be on the go at any time. As someone who cut their teeth on revising critical histories of neglected modernist women’s poetry, I am deeply conscious of the ways in which identity is invoked to undercut the seriousness of craft, to collapse the distance between the author and the literary value of their text as though they were one and the same. As I’ve also written elsewhere, in the long-term, a real and meaningful shift in cultural value must come with critics whose first loyalty is to the work at hand, to reading it knowledgeably and with an awareness of the structural power within which works of literature are produced and received. It is my strong sense that critics of color bring with them a complex awareness of this structural power that is so desperately needed.
Poets.org: Can you describe the model you created?
SP: In October 2017 we put out a call for applications and chose eight critics, all of whom had written at least one review. They are all exceptionally brilliant critics and indeed also wonderful poets: Dzifa Benson, Mary Jean Chan, Jade Cuttle, Sarala Estruch, Maryam Hessavi, Nasser Hussain, Srishti Krishnamoorthy-Cavell, and Jennifer Lee Tsai.
Over the following year, we paired them up with established critic mentors to produce a sample review, which we then sent to commissioning editors at our partner publications. Ledbury Poetry Festival also hosted a three-day residency, which was a series of workshops with experienced reviewers on approaches to reviewing, questions of style and voice, pitching to editors, and modes of critical reading. There were two public events on race and reviewing, one in London and one in Ledbury, at which the critics were able to meet again and share their experiences. The mentorship system is only one (essential) part of a wider community-building among our first cohort of critics. Sarah and I are so grateful for the time, expertise, and generosity of all the mentors involved, our advisory board, as well as Ledbury Poetry Festival for backing this program.
Poets.org: An interesting aspect of your project and model is that you also then work to secure publication for the critics’ pieces. What kind of response did you receive from editors when you contacted them about this project?
SP: With the help of Ledbury’s publicist Rebecca Fincham, Sarah and I approached several newspaper and magazine editors at the start of the program. Mostly, when presented with the data, they were happy to read the critics’ sample reviews with a view to commissioning. Poetry magazines like Poetry Review and Poetry London were already starting to diversify their review pages and have been wholly supportive. Newspapers were slower to respond but have now commissioned several of the critics, with a couple of notable exceptions who will need a bit more convincing. The Guardian has been our most avid supporter and has commissioned all eight critics to review—some of these have appeared and they are absolutely the sort of critically engaged, deeply thoughtful and knowledgeable reviews readers deserve. My sense is that in the long-term, critics of color will find in-roads into every poetry reviewing platform, and editors will be encouraged, by a revived interest in reviewing, to raise the profile of reviewing on their pages. One crucial driver of this change must come from readers of magazines and newspapers who demand incisive, deeper, and more meaningful coverage of poetry books. Without a wider interest in poetry reviewing, we risk losing this vital aspect of our culture. But for now, on the whole, yes, the program has received tremendous support from editors, and, where necessary, we will keep reminding those few who have yet to take action.
Poets.org: How did you fund this project?
SP: In the UK these sorts of projects are usually supported by our national funding body, the Arts Council England. Often this funding is tied to a plan for eventual financial sustainability, which isn’t necessarily viable in this case. So in the interest of time, I was able to co-found the scheme with my winnings from the Ledbury Forte Prize for Best Second Collection and a bit of extra funds from my judging of the Forward Prize for Poetry. I am not advocating this as a preferable alternative model for these kinds of initiatives—we should expect wholly national arts funding to support critical work as well as creative work—but because I am privileged enough to be in a position to do so, this was the most efficient way of getting the program off the ground. Additionally, funds were secured for public events from the University of Liverpool, where I work, and Kings College, London, where Sarah is based.
Poets.org: You are now working with the poet Ilya Kaminsky to bring this project to the United States. How did that come about and when will you launch?
SP: The idea to extend the program to the US really came from Ilya, whose own work as a poet, editor, and advocate for poetry aligns with the Ledbury program’s vision of an inclusive poetry culture. Our conversations began around the same time as we invited Jericho Brown to speak as part of a panel discussion on race and poetry reviewing in London with the editors of the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and Picador, as well as London’s Young Poet Laureate Momtaza Mehri, back in May 2018. Jericho offered us his view on the state of US reviewing and spoke convincingly about the centrality of high-quality criticism to a shared literary culture. Over the past few years especially, new American poetry is being read and published with considerable interest in the UK, especially books by American poets of color (Ocean Vuong, Claudia Rankine, Jericho Brown, Kaveh Akbar, Ishion Hutchinson, Danez Smith, Terrance Hayes). It seems only natural that the critical conversation that we’ve begun here should be expanded to the US, following our increasingly transatlantic readerships, to perhaps engage with the different dynamics of reviewing and diversity in the US. Through a series of discussions with several US poets and critics, Ilya and Sarah and I have developed a pilot year for the American program, which we will launch in the fall of 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Poets.org: How will the US project be different from the UK project?
SP: Sarah and I are both very mindful of the fact that we are not US-based, so we are developing the US model in collaboration with several American poets, critics, and poetry organisations. Diversity in the US does not parallel the UK, nor are both countries equivalent in terms of the visibility of poetry reviewing within a wider critical culture. Even the logistics of mentorship are different in the US given the geography (and its regional poetry communities). I am sure, as we proceed, we will continue to work in this initial pilot year to see what best fits a US context. As a result of conversations with American partners, we’ve opted to broaden our remit from race and reviewing to underrepresented voices in poetry reviewing more generally. As we gather data over the next couple of years on who is reviewing and being reviewed, it is very likely that we will sharpen our focus on the range of voices that we hear from the least. As with the UK program, the US version will similarly involve a discussion about the wider implications of reviewing on poetry culture and interrogate the language, critical approaches, and assumptions that reviewers bring to their subjects. Otherwise the core principle is the same: to provide mentorship, a community of reviewers involved in a meaningful discussion about poetry and diversity, and a forum to give critics access to spaces that might not otherwise be available to them.
Poets.org: What help do you need to ensure that the project is a success?
SP: Most of all we need critics, poets, and editors to be receptive and open to making our current reviewing culture more diverse and inclusive. Ilya and Sarah and I welcome any advice, practical support (from sponsoring mentorship of critics or suggesting participants, to editors willing to commission reviews in future). And, as I suggest above, we need an avid community of poetry readers to get involved in the conversation: to talk about new poetry, to review poetry, and to read poetry reviews.