An extract from Bad New Government, by Emily Berry (left, top) and Embarrassed, by Hollie McNish (right)

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The women turning to poetry into protest – and why we're all listening

Poetry is having a big moment in popular culture. And, as the world feels ever more bleak, we need the female poets leading the way more than we know, says Zoë Beaty

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By Zoë Beaty on

Hollie McNish is peeling potatoes. She’s peeling potatoes for her tea, which she needs to prepare before she heads out to her young daughter’s school to pick her up, before she goes to watch her daughter’s school play, before they eat and go to bed and start over again tomorrow. And in between, Hollie needs to write some poetry. 

It’s not the setting that immediately springs to mind when you imagine arresting, poetic prose pouring on to a page. Poetry: “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” which “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”, or so says William Wordsworth. Recollected in tranquility – and, in 2016, by poets with a global following like Hollie McNish, crafted in between scraping the veg. Consumed, if you listen to the rhetoric, with difficulty, in dusty old studies from leather-bound books; contemplated meaningfully by sand dunes, under the threat of storm clouds. Boredom. Pretentiousness. Academia. The universally acknowledged “poet voice”. The cliches and misnomers about poetry, bar a few reprises, have hung around for decades. But for the last few years, poetry has been busy shedding itself of them entirely. It’s edging back into popular culture, reforming and evolving. And women are leading the way. 

You don’t have to look far to see it. This year’s poetry category on the Costa Book Award 2016 was an all-female shortlist. In January, Somali-British poet Warsan Shire famously featured on Beyonce’s Lemonade, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, nominated for countless poetry awards and winner of many, was hailed the most politically pertinent piece of literature this century. After a 37-year publishing break, the first books in a new Penguin Modern Poets series were released in July. Commentators mused, back in the summer, whether Alice Oswald is our greatest living poet

Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos, a story of seven people, and their lives and thoughts as they each sit awake at 4.18am on a south London estate, published by Pan Macmillan and produced by Polydor, was a poetry project set to music that leapt straight into the top 30 on the UK Albums chart. Poems travel now, fast, and women are harnessing that: Hera Lindsay Bird’s naked, lonely depiction of sex, Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind, (“Slowly and with carnal purpose”) launched her global career when it went viral this summer. New poetry is serious, and existential, political, boundary-less – and it’s funny. Spoken word poet Vanessa Kisuule writes poems like Not Worth Shaving Your Arse For, about dates who are, er, not worth shaving your arse for. For the first time in years, a new flock of writers are getting people excited about poetry again. Brands like ASOS are holding poetry gigs, nights are no longer insular, special-interest events, but sell-outs. So-called Instapoets are number one best-sellers. But why now, and why has it been so lucrative for women in particular? Why exactly are we hovering around the poetry section in 2016?

The reason I guess that more females are coming into poetry is more to do with the fact that you don’t have to be picked by a publisher now to get your writing out there

Well, for starters, it can’t hurt, can it? Never in our lifetime has the world appeared so whole-heartedly bleak. Never have we – or, I, at least – been so aware of war, and poverty, and oppression, and men speaking out of turn about abortion, and the insurmountable injustice which just seems grow heavier each day. There is argument for turning to art like poetry for an escape route – a momentary porthole to another world, inside someone else’s mind. But, more likely, I think, is the widely accepted notion that poetry is born out of protest. And, in 2016, protest is what we need. 

“There’s something about how very difficult experiences – emotional experiences, national and international crises, a bit like we’re going through now – are very hard to talk about in a conventional and rational way,” explains Emily Berry, a multi-award winning poet, published by Faber & Faber whose debut collection, Dear Boy, won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. In 2014 she was named a Next Generation poet – one of 20 poets named by the Poetry Book Society once every ten years as those who are expected to dominate the poetry world in the decade to come. Her second collection, Stranger Baby, will be published early next year.  “I think that’s a role that art takes on,” she continues, “to communicate something in a way that’s intelligible, but that can be understood on a different level. It can go to other places and take you with it. Maybe that’s why people reach for it or start writing in those moments that are difficult. I’ve definitely noticed recently that more people who wouldn’t normally take an interest in poetry are reading and hearing more about it.”

When times get hard, we reach for Hardy. Or, perhaps, women like Hollie McNish. It’s no coincidence that poetry website poets.org had its biggest ever surge of users sharing content in the 24 hours after Donald Trump won the US Presidential election in November. And, though female poets have been celebrated throughout history, women’s voices are being elevated more than ever as part of the reprise. 

“The internet and the ways in which things can be shared has had a big impact on poetry becoming more accessible,” explains Emily. “And that has likely led to groups that were previously underrepresented in the poetry world, like women and people of colour, being seen more and their work getting out there more.” Indeed Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which dissected race issues in the US and laid them bare on the page, gathered an instant global audience when a Twitter user took screenshots of the page and shared them. 

The differences in choice of how we consume poetry – traditionally, in books, at readings, and, now, online, in sound bites and screenshots and under hashtags – has also shaped the way it’s defined. Or, more fittingly, how it’s undefined

And, as Hollie – whose viral poem Embarrassed, a clever, personal, engaging take down on the shame of public breastfeeding, has been viewed more than 10 million times online – explains, it has allowed women to open up opportunities for themselves, without the need for editors or publishers. That alone counters some if the gender bias still harboured in the publishing world. “I wrote a book about being a mum,” Hollie says. She became a professional poet "by accident" after studying french and german at King's College Cambridge, followed by a master's degree in Development Economics. “And it was a hefty book. It’s more than 450 pages, there are over 100 poems in there. It is poetry, of course. Except, it’s billed and categorised as a parenting book. Or it’s in the memoir section – never poetry.

“The reason I guess that more females are coming into poetry is more to do with the fact that you don’t have to be picked by a publisher now to get your writing out there,” she continues, in a strong London accent. “The literary talent has been decided by white men, for years. Which is probably why so many white men do well. Now women are writing about issues that, for a long time weren’t deemed literary – like periods – and they’re being picked up.”

The differences in choice of how we consume poetry – traditionally, in books, at readings, and, now, online, in sound bites and screenshots and under hashtags – has also shaped the way it’s defined. Or, more fittingly, how it’s undefined. It takes on many guises: traditional, modern, spoken word, performance art, rap. (“Poetry is, in its nature, diverse,” says Hollie, “because unlike other art forms you’ve got the page, then the reading out loud and then the listening.”) And poetry is, of course, incredibly musical – it has a heartbeat, and cadences. Despite the uproar it caused amongst “purist” poets and readers, the Nobel Prize for Literature being awarded to Bob Dylan couldn’t be clearer about this. (And it was surely poetically anarchistic that he refused to even bother to pick it up.)  

There is no clear answer as to what constitutes poetry – or, at least good poetry – in 2016. Critics are often cynical about so-called Instapoets, who write verse which fits the dimensions of a likeable, shareable, Instagram square. It’s not experimental or strikingly artistic. Much of it is softer and more literal. It's undoubtedly popular: Instapoets are killing it in the charts. Rupi Kaur, a Canadian feminist and self-titled “poetess, author” and “spoken word performer” has amassed almost 800,000 followers on Instagram, and her self-published book, Milk & Honey – which tackles violence, abuse and issues surrounding femininity – sold more than half a million copies worldwide. It became an instant New York Times bestseller, outselling Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, which is considered one of the most important pieces of literature in Old English history. 

Poetry is heard loudest, and is felt strongest, when the parts of the world it speaks to are weak

It is certainly breathing new life into poetry, whatever the criticisms of its quality. It’s hitting a nerve. And it has people reading, and listening. At a gig I went to two weeks ago, where Hollie McNish performed with a live orchestra, to an original score inspired by her words, the two support poets had the entire room – more than 1000 people – in uproarious laughter, stamping their feet and whooping through stanzas. The poets were untraditional in their content and their execution – Vanessa Kissule read a poem from her phone. They were funny, and serious, and political and not afraid to be loud and honest. And people really responded. 

“I do think we’re quite lonely,” Hollie says, when I ask her why people love to hear poetry being read. “And I think that poetry does seem to connect people in a room more than other genres of writing. I’ve learned so much about people and what we like and what comforts us through watching my daughter. She loves reading, but more than anything she likes me to read to her.

“You don’t get that connection in the real world. In poetry, you can listen to someone else’s thoughts – thoughts that you relate to – in a story. We forget how really bloody nice it is to hear someone reading out loud to you.” 

“I always thought that you’d have more of a sense of shared experience by going to a music gig, where everyone knows the words to the songs, and everyone can sing together,” says Emily. “That isn’t possible in poetry. But perhaps it’s something about intimacy. 

“Frank O’Hara described poetry as being like a phone call – a poem is between two people. It’s a very direct, intimate experience. It might seem like you’re listening to someone else’s story when you hear someone read a poem, but actually you’re listening to a response from yourself, from something inside you. Hopefully a good poem articulates something so that it makes sense to the listener or the reader, in a way that they previously hadn’t been able to understand.”

And right now, things are consistently difficult to understand. As politics becomes more disparate, and people become more disenfranchised, it’s that unity that we need to bring us together. Poetry is heard loudest, and is felt strongest, when the parts of the world it speaks to are weak. It brings new perspective, fight, human spirit and intimate moments, and is, says Claudia Rankine, “the one genre of writing that takes narrative and feelings equally seriously”. 

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” Mary Shelley once wrote. We need them more than ever. 

@zoe_beaty

An extract from Bad New Government, by Emily Berry (left, top) and Embarrassed, by Hollie McNish (right)
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