Last week on Friday 21st June, the now twelve members of the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics scheme left London Review Bookshop with mud and dolphin-safe glitter on their hands. They’d been anointed by Bhanu Kapil at a shrine with a Hanuman figurine, a shrine created live as Kapil poured out the mud and glitter components onto a silver platter, having asked the critics involved in the scheme to stand. This ritual was part of a sold-out celebration of the Ledbury initiative, and of the many worlds and people it affects and brings into community, some of whom were in attendance. With a panel on race and poetry criticism featuring Kayo Chingonyi, Ilya Kaminsky, and New York Times Book Critic Parul Sehgal – chaired by Sandeep Parmar, with performances by Chingonyi and Bhanu Kapil (whose birthday was celebrated with delectable carrot cake and a round of song) – the night was, like the outcomes of the scheme itself, both intimate and expansive.
The brainchild of esteemed poets and critics Sarah Howe and Sandeep Parmar, in its second year, Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics is continuing to revolutionise the UK poetry scene, and beyond—Kaminsky, Howe and Parmar are also creating a US-based sister scheme to launch November 2019. As Parmar said at the event, the debate in this country about certain poetry not being acknowledged by gatekeepers involves “a division between ‘identity politics and social engagement’ and ‘quality’, which has been falsely created by critics”. Countering such manufactured frameworks for race and reviewing are the findings of the State of Poetry and Poetry Criticism in the UK and Ireland 2011-2018 report, released the same day and distributed at the event, commissioned by the Centre for New and International Writing at the University of Liverpool and compiled by Dave Coates. Its results are available at this link, a reminder of the constant need for vigilance in ensuring parity in poetry criticism, the troubling nature of historical inequity in this sector, as well as proof of the remarkable work schemes like Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics and The Complete Works have made in the UK scene in a short amount of time.
From the discussion, it was clear similar issues exist across the pond. “I was really moved and inspired by the change that has happened [in the UK] in two years… It would be nice to have that in the US as well”, said Kaminsky. Though as Sehgal noted, American poets like Kaveh Akbar and Danez Smith are widely beloved, articles like the online New Yorker piece on Tommy Pico are still few are far between, and asked “Where are the essays about these poets that go beyond presentation?” This lack of incisive critical engagement is, of course, why the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics scheme is so urgently needed—there has been a failure to meaningfully critique some of the most exciting work in poetry with the skills and insights it warrants, and in venues with substantial readerships and cache, but also a failure of certain critics in “mainstream” publications to engage with such work in the first place. Sehgal emphasised the need to protect writers’ legacies by giving them the critical attention that they deserve, part of which is a willingness to gain inspiration from a wide variety of sources.
A critic who is hesitant to engage with forms that are new to them or outside their usual cultural scope is in contrast to, for instance, the inquisitiveness of students Kayo Chingonyi teaches whom he pointed out are discovering poetry through Tumblr, and poets like Chingonyi who last night affirmed the value of “reading someone’s choice of form as a political act”. Against the expression of political will being interpreted through narrow-minded frameworks, Parmar, answering an audience question about whether a focus on identity siloes writers, countered with the aims of Ledbury Critics to be a thorough examination of identity as existing in complex and “highly kinetic” forms.
In our fluid forms of resistance and kineticism as artists and critics, the coalescing of communal sentiments at an event such as last night’s was deeply felt, deeply warranted, a joining of forces against the palpable presence of racism, and a call to action. As an astute audience member observed, the LRB itself, despite hosting yesterday’s event, is known for commissioning exclusively white critics, all of whom review white poets. I for one left with two questions etched into the psyche that Bhanu Kapil, invoking the spirit of Sara Ahmed’s Living A Feminist Life during her performance, asked the crowd: What do you reproduce? What do you inherit?