Saturday 23 October 2010

"Small and incestuous"

This post was originally written on 20th January, 2010.

In her blog post "Critique, Cruelty", Anindita Sengupta comments on the situation of Indian English poetry:
[T]he world of Indian English poetry is so small and incestuous. Nobody wants to disagree with each other on what constitutes good poetry, or even poetry for that matter. The small and incestuous problem exists everywhere to some extent.
This made me wonder about the world of Hong Kong English poetry. The poetry scene in HK is also small. It is surely smaller than that in India and the sheer difference in numbers between the poetry submissions we receive from Indian writers and Hong Kong writers is one telling indication. Indeed, one can list the names of published Hong Kong poets (both locally-born and expatriates) without much difficulty, if one follows this sort of thing. I won’t say that the Hong Kong poetry scene is ‘incestuous’, but I will say that a kind of metaphorical familial relationship exists, which is good for forging a sense of community but may also inhabit open and constructive criticism. From my experience, not many HK poets are willing to engage in critical discussion of other poets’ work, even if they are capable of doing so. The circle is simply too small to allow for open dialogue: it is easier and safer to say nice things, while swallowing your judgments. (This situation contrasts greatly with that in Singapore, where some writers seem only too eager to dismantle the work of others — whether deserved or not.) Criticism is not encouraged in HK, I feel. One’s relative young age and lack of publishing experience may add to one’s desire to remain perfectly congenial. But is this healthy?

I mentioned this post in an interview with Lantern Review.
Initial Responses “"Small and incestuous"” →

Stuart Christie [link]
January 20, 2010
Incestuous? Sounds racy and slightly titillating–maybe I should be more involved in the local poetry scene than I am! S.

January 20, 2010
I’m not too sure about the adult poetry scene but in grooming budding poets, the local government did make some effort, though I would say not enough. Actually, the Education Bureau in Hong Kong did promote some kind of poetry writing atmosphere among primary and secondary school kids by inviting schools to join competitions but the atmosphere is one of competitive, instead of collaborative, not to mention critical commentary of one another’s work. In view of this, they have set up some kind of Budding Poet Society and it’s too early to talk about its effectiveness in promoting poetry appreciation. I guess in Hong Kong, it’s kind of hypocritical to ask kids being critical of each other’s work when the adults are not doing it themselves.

January 20, 2010
Well-said, Olivia. I have not forgotten the list of female writers I promised! I will finalise it as soon as possible.

alan [link]
January 20, 2010
As someone who participated in the world of Hong Kong English poetry for around nine years i would have to agree with Tammy that it is most definitely a small scene. But poetry scenes everywhere are small. Indeed, some are smaller than others.

It’s also relatively fluid. People come and go into and out of Hong Kong in keeping with its character as a meeting point. Some stay for a number of years, others for only a few months.

During the 9 years i was there there were times when the number of participants (and the vibrancy) swelled into triple figures, at other times the numbers shrank to a core of crusty stalwarts. It felt like i was reading the same five poems to the same five people. Thankfully those times were rare.
The other adjective i’d use to describe “the scene” there is “open”.
The OutLoud readings for example have always operated on a whoever wants to read, reads basis. Even more importantly people are encouraged to take part – even if their work is dreadful. Participation trumps everything else.
The result was a lot of bad poetry was read out at the readings and occasionally some brilliantly inspired ones were read out as well. I’ll always remember the night a young bare footed waif Alden Bevington stepped up to the mike at Steps Gallery and delivered his lyrical gems.
If the readings were not as open we would have missed that moment. I’d happily (well almost happily) sit through an hour of gumf to experience a few minutes of spontaneous poetic joy.
However this openness can lead to an uncritical acceptance of anything dressed up to look and sound, superficially like a poem. But poetry, especially poetry, is hard to fake. You know when you’re in the presence of the real thing.
Like Tammy i’m away at the moment so i can’t comment on what it’s like now. I can only report on what it was like in the recent past.
marc carver
January 20, 2010
I think it is true of every country.

notesofasexiststayathomefather [link]
January 20, 2010
The poetry world in the U.S. is incestuous (for better or worse).
Blair [link]
January 21, 2010
The incestuousness of the HK poetry scene would make India’s look like a polite tea party. Andy’s sleeping with Norman but Norman is sleeping with Vicky. Vicky sees Martin and Ben occasionally for hot nights on her rooftop balcony where they laugh openly at Flora’s poetry. Flora herself criticizes Norman’s poetry, but only when he hasn’t satisfied her sexually. Martin will comb your poems for duff lines only in return for a roll in the hay, male or female. Kate’ll pick your poem to pieces and rewrite it for you, but that’s cause only Ben will sleep with her & he’s a bad lay, whereas Blair is one of those people who’ll praise anyone’s poem just to get them into bed. Jason’s busy doing Mary-Jane this week but most likely he’ll dump her and try it on with Danshi. Adam’s been with Mary-Jane I think and is horribly jealous of anyone who even glances at her, but this makes her flirt with others and criticise his poetry even harder. We all admire Jason who never has a good word to say about anyone’s poem. Danshi is always hitting on Norman and Ben, but neither of them seem to be interested and yet both defy Kate’s advances. Blair thinks Kate’s a bit of alright but he can’t stand her poetry and is worried she’ll want to read it to him post-coitally. Vicky makes scathing remarks about Paul’s poetry but that just seems to turn him on more. Paul will share his wife around with anyone who offers him some good criticism. That’s almost it. You’ve got about three other shy poets whose names are impossible to remember fucking around the scene, mostly with Jason, and you’ve got some good criticism and some bad criticism and a whole lot of genetically deformed miscarriages and abortions. But hey, that’s poetry!

January 21, 2010
Poetry *IS* incestuous… readers and writers of poetry in a language feed off each other across continents.

January 21, 2010
More discussion:
Bob [link]: Some good points…but constructive criticism isn’t meant to embarrass someone….that is why it doesn’t take place much on public forms like facebook etc….instead you see mostly encouragement…Constructive criticism takes place better in writing workshops.

Victoria [link]: Bob, you took the words right out of my mind! I agree, hk poetry scene is one of the politest I’ve come across, and certainly that is in part due to its small size. Let’s not confuse courtesy and respect for people as humans (as much as writers) with incestuousness. In my time as a writer in hk the supportive environment has really encouraged my development as a writer. Permit me to say also, as Bob rightly points out, there is no lack of constructive and critical response- it’s simply that this tends to occur on a more private level. Perhaps I am being much more ‘english’ in championing a less public platform for critique, but I do think it is possible to maintain a rigorous poetic AND a nurturing public atmosphere. I simply choose a more intimate stage for the exercise of my critical responses, as I know many others in hk do also! What do you think?
t [Link]: I also receive feedback on my poetry on a private level — from friends. I do wonder if it is at all possible to have more critical and public discussion on writers’ works. Or perhaps the scene is simply too small to support such critical writing. Obviously, there has to be a certain number of quality writers before it becomes possible.

My idea of ‘open and constructive criticism’ assumes that the work has quality that merits such attention.

j [link]
January 21, 2010
Yes, the poetry scene in HK is incestuous, but so is the poetry scene in every country. Indeed, every scene everywhere is incestuous. I am sure people in every job say things like “It is a small industry.” People tend to break themselves off into self-selecting groups; it is human nature.

Whether the scene is less critical than others is a different matter. I can say from my admittedly limited experience of the English writing scene in HK that it tends to be more open than closed; more supportive than critical. Sometimes, I think that writers could benefit from a little more honest feedback– I am not sure drowning someone in honey is much better than throwing vinegar in their eyes.

notesofasexiststayathomefather [link]
January 21, 2010
I went to a writing conference in 2008. Writer ‘X’ was talking to writer ‘Y’, both ‘X’ and ‘Y’ published, good friends with each other, smoking and drinking and having a great time. They are nice people, and good company, writer ‘Y’ was a judge in 2008 and selected my essay from the Finalists as an honorable mention. I like both people.

In 2009 Writer ‘X’ was judge of the prestigious context and awarded the prize to writer ‘Y’ ($1,000). That’s incestuous. I’m not throwing stones (I’m throwing pebbles), but is this the way it should be? Supposedly it was a ‘double blind’ contest. But it looks odd, and it is true that judges/editors-who-are-writers consciously or subconsciously give favors to those who can be reciprocal. That’s why many reviews become the “You Publish Me and I Publish You” Review. Blind reading would allow the ‘best’ to be selected purely on aesthetics.

January 21, 2010
More from the web:
Jean: I wish I had the time to better explain the world of poetry in Brooklyn, but I should say that one of the reasons that I have chosen to live here for the past 8 or 9 years because I am so excited about the writing scene here. It’s vast and full of surprises. You never know when you’ll see a Pulitzer Prize winner or simply another writing student as myself.

Iris: Yes; the poetry world at large is relatively small and incestuous, esp in the US where most of it resides in academia!

January 22, 2010
interesting response from nicolas liu on the above. ->

January 22, 2010
Ecila…is that Alice? Hi

January 22, 2010
More from Bob:
I assume that there is a huge pool of good writers to potentially draw from. But the key is getting participants to pay attention to the site’s purpose, ie. providing constructive criticism and not just good wishes and vague praise. One doesn’t want to be flooded with ‘I love your poetry!’ comments. They are not helpful.

A house builder doesn’t ask for advice from plumbers, and then leaves satisfied hearing ‘Great paint job!’…’I love your craftsman style house…’….he/she wants useful advice: which compression fittiings to use, which types of inlines should be used etc. Poets need useful suggestions, not unconditional love.
That is what workshops provide. But finding the right workshop is like finding a good doctor….a lot of trial and error is involved.
A more open site that provides the function of a small workshop would be great….Poetry is music. It isn’t just imagery with line breaks. But how does one best achieve the appropriate music for one’s poem? Many poets have great expertise in such matters, and could provide input.
But how do you limit the number of people who mean well by their good intentions and praise, but who would in significant numbers defeat or diminish the site’s effectiveness? I hope you or someone has some answers.

Divya [link]
‘Incestuousness’, as specified, might come with the territory. After all, it is a very interest- specific zone and however we might put it, there’re just not that many in here/ there/ anywhere!:) Perhaps, amounting to some cajoling, words of praise… which is okay, I guess… as long as the culture of critiquing exists within close doors, bilaterally at least…
Thank you for prompting this discussion, Tammy!

January 23, 2010
Tammy, you and your team do a great job at giving critical analysis on Cha contributors’ work here:
January 25, 2010
I spent many years knowing the poetry scene in the second city of Ireland. It is true that poets attract poets and since poets are a dying breed they exchange ideas within a small, trusted group. Of course no one tells the other outright that his or her poetry is bad, but when one’s poems are not getting published and when younger poets start winning awards, then one might begin to feel the pinch. However, even this may not mean the poetry is bad since the poetry may not yet have found its audience. I guess it all comes down to the reasons why the poems are written in the first place. If writing good or bad poetry helps one to survive then it’s presumably a good thing.
jenniferinlondon [link]
January 26, 2010
i sometimes get rather sick of the scene of everyone knowing everyone else. it is fine to be supportive of each other but it needs to be bigger, more diverse and more influential.

Jim Pollard
January 28, 2010
Mike said-
“If writing good or bad poetry helps one to survive then it’s presumably a good thing.”

Does anyone “survive” from writing just poetry anymore? I sure wish I could. However, I do recognize my own severe limitations…the flashes of brilliance are remarkably short so my poetry sketchbooks for the past 12 years are filled with rubbish. But I originally started writing as a way to release my post-divorce frustrations, so yes, writing poetry has certainly helped me to not only cope, but remember why life is worth living.
Jennifer, I may not be that good of a poet, but I’m happy to join the group…at least I can help fill out the diverse part~) As far as influence goes though, I’m afraid the only people that I can affect are my little 1st and 2nd grade Hong Kong primary students~/ Their appreciation of poetry is not so great at the moment. /lol

Xu Xi [link]
February 2, 2010
what writing (or art) world ISN’T incestuous? it was no different in New York City when I hung around the reading scene back in the mid to late 80′s of Brooklyn or Manhattan and then again in the late 90′s in the East V. & a new (but perhaps not improved) Brooklyn and the Bronx; or in Iowa City where every writer in the universe passes by at some point; or in Norwich/East Anglia where every writer flits through on their way to London and back; or on the island of Hydra, Greece where Leonard Cohen regularly made an appearance back in the early 80′s. the critical response happens privately (as in your head when you cringe at an awful reading or read a piece of tripe in the New Yorker or Granta); between editors and authors; between writers; in the academy of writing workshops (not a bad place to learn which crap to leave in the drawer, permanently). but Hong Kong IS fluid, the OUTLOUD scene is open & democratic, and for all the bad poetry you might hear there’s also the great stuff that happens and the good vibes of everyone focused on more or less the same thing. and Asian Cha provides a forum for those of us who don’t think exotica when we write Asia (as happens in perhaps more famous but not necessarily more enlightened forums). doesn’t poetry happen from the ground up (as opposed to from the top of the academy’s head down)? so sometimes it stinks but sometimes the roses are o so sweet, so seductively sweet.

Yamabuki [link]
February 3, 2010
I’m surprised no one has mentioned poetry readings.
You sure get instant feedback as to how good your poetry is there.
Admittedly it also requires good reading ability as well as good poetry to get good response.
Still I find that reading my poems out loud when writing them helps me to get a feel for how the poem is progressing and how well it works.
I am also finding that my poetry blog helps as well.
Posting a poem to the blog forces me to be sure it works relatively well since I want to feel its ready for public consumption.
Some people may worry about posting to a blog. But no one ever got rich on poetry. Indeed I doubt many people make any money on their poetry.
I admit blogging poetry is not for everyone, but you likely will get wider exposure than from print publishing.
Also on blogs you can have comment section set up, like these comments, as a way of getting feedback.
April 2, 2010
Certainly incestuous.

1 comment:

  1. I am not sure drowning someone in honey is much better than throwing vinegar in their eyes.

    Well, you know, it may be possible to talk about the good points, give encouragement, as well as offer constructive criticism; in other words, be balanced.

    It may be useful to note that everyone reads poetry because they have something to say, so all deserve respect - whether or not their poetry is good. The 'message' they are trying to convey should be acknowledged.


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