New Boots: Report Card

(W.N. Herbert has posted an account of how we got where we are (and where we aren’t) on his gairnet provides blog. For those for whom life is just too many clicks, here’s the text of Bill’s article.)

For the past 84 days I’ve been co-editing with Andy Jackson a post-election blog called ‘New Boots and Pantisocracies’, publishing each day a new poem by a different poet exploring the different political landscape we seem to have entered. Perhaps it’s time now to review where we’ve got to.

By way of proper introduction, the blog’s name is a portmanteau term combining the title of Ian Dury’s marvellous debut 1977 album with the name given in the 1790s by the young Romantic poets, Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey to their utopian scheme to set up what we would think of as a socialist society in America, a project reimagined by Paul Muldoon in his 1990 poem, Madoc: A Mystery. The intro to ‘New Boots’ is as follows:

‘The 2015 General Election has made manifest the great sea-change that has been occurring in UK politics over the last fifteen to twenty years. Previous certainties, like Labour’s Scottish hegemony, are no more. Older patterns, like Conservative dominance of England, have reasserted themselves. The idea of the UK as a single country has been replaced by a plurality of identities, some long known to the ‘other’ countries and regions, others formulating themselves as we reflect on the election results. For that reason, we thought it might be an interesting experiment to chart the responses of those unacknowledged legislators, the poets, over the first 100 days of the new dispensation.’

The idea for the blog sprang from an online exchange between myself and my publisher Andy Ching. The phrase just arose, and the way it bounced Dury’s ripe knowingness off Southey and Coleridge’s early idealism suddenly seemed to make sense of our current bewilderment. It was, we realised, one of those rare spontaneous puns you look again at and think, ‘What can I do with that?’

But here it was evident that it would be more of a case of what other poets could do with it. Key to that was a simpatico co-editor who would have lots of their own ideas, and lots of energy if not necessarily time (who is allowed to have time?), so, having worked with him on Whaleback City, and seen what he did with Double Bill and other anthologies for Red Squirrel, Andy Jackson was the obvious choice. Many other writers have taken the project to heart not just as contributors and distributors – sharers and retweeters – but also volunteering suggestions and help: Harry Giles and Rachael Boast have been particularly generous in this regard.

We all liked the idea of it being founded in a snap of verbal energy as much as a moment of political righteousness, and the results have borne that out, amounting to a poetic more than a polemic. There’s plenty of anger and bewilderment, but these are lines of poetry rather than unwavering expressions of a party line, and their energy comes from a collision of the verbal with the visceral, a recharging of language even as it is being emptied by our political masters and their envious opposites.

We anticipated the initial stages might be caught up in a necessary hangover of shock, anxiety, and disappointment, then were delighted by how that developed into a nuanced vision of the various social reconfigurations going on across not just these islands, but across Europe and beyond. From the start we wanted a wide range of writing, by which we meant the throwaway as well as the weighty, the traditional as well as the radical, the deadly serious as well as the absurd and satirical. By the time of the first Tory budget, we knew that, unlike George Osborne, we had something to share that was genuinely imaginative.

A real concern was the usual rush of many white males to respond, countered by a slower but increasingly steady stream of material from women poets and poets of colour of both genders. Some people do just respond more spontaneously, while others prefer to consider things at length, but it is sobering to note that tends to follow predictable lines. (The strong early response from Scottish writers might also have been because we have been considering things since before the Referendum.)

Here the decision to run for 100 days gradually bore fruit, as has the editorial habit of approaching people as and when throughout, rather than keeping to an inflexible ‘must have’ checklist. In fact, quite a few of the usual ‘must haves’ didn’t seem to be on any of our scribbled and frequently updated lists. No doubt some of them were unfortunate omissions, but it did seem like part of the ‘new’ rubric had to be about hearing new voices.

Open submissions have not, for once in the poetry world, been flooding in, despite our decision to give a fifth of the project over to them, but thankfully the work we’ve received has fulfilled that remit of delivering surprising and exciting new angles.

We’re pretty much signed up now for that 100 days, so the remaining issues are threefold: what do we do when we hit 100? Do we stop if promised poems keep coming in and the standard remains high? And what do we do with all this here poetry stuff afterwards, i.e. what about print publication?

The plan is, once we’ve reached 100 posts, to take New Boots into the live arena, organising readings of contributors as we’ve done with previous projects. Watch this virtual space for details. The other part of the plan is, we can now reveal, to continue past the 100 days as long as the political and poetical will is there on the part of contributors and until everyone interested in writing something has done so. We’ll decide nearer the time whether a daily posting is feasible under those circumstances.

The final part of the plan is still under debate: when we have everything we think amounts to a pantisocracy of poets (a slightly more optimistic collective noun than the usual ‘paranoia’), we’ll then start looking at the outcome and the practicalities of the task. If we don’t think we have a worthwhile book then it will remain as an archived blog. But if we are convinced that a high enough proportion of work is something more than ephemeral, in fact that it is both feisty and geisty in relation to der Zeit, then a new phase of editing and dialogue with contributors and publishers will begin.

Do please browse the site, and tell us what you think.

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