The BookBrunch Interview: Susannah Herbert, Forward Arts Foundation director

Tim Relf
News - Interviews Friday, 01 March 2019

Poetry is experiencing a renaissance, as live events prosper and people search for truth in this era of anxiety. With younger readers flocking to the form, there are big opportunities for publisher and booksellers, so Forward Arts Foundation director Susannah Herbert tells Tim Relf

Susannah Herbert once stood in a supermarket trying to talk to shoppers about poetry. "It was awful," she recalls. "Truly awful. It simply wasn’t the right way to engage people with it. I quickly learnt you don’t do it when they’re frantically trying to load their trolley and get home for tea."

Much better, she says, to try to engage at moments when people are more receptive – when, for example, they’re on the Tube or killing time in an airport or a doctor’s waiting room.

The one-time Sunday Times literary editor has, since 2012, been director of the Forward Arts Foundation (FAF), a charity working to celebrate excellence in poetry and increase its audience. It does this mainly through its prizes and National Poetry Day (NPD), which will celebrate its 25th anniversary on 3 October.

The theme of this year’s NPD – 'truth' – couldn’t be more relevant, says Herbert, speaking in her Somerset House office in London, sporting a black T-shirt with 'Think of a Poem' emblazoned in bright yellow across it. "People have huge scepticism about what to believe and what in public discourse is true – and this anxiety has fuelled the search for a different way of communicating and speaking, one that’s more human."

Step forward poetry, she says. "What we’re seeing is a reconnection of poetry with its position as the central form of communicating insights, sharing knowledge and allowing different people to enter each others lives.

"Something’s really changed this century. The fact that poetry sales have risen by 50% in the last five years is so striking when the sales of, say, literary fiction have fallen. Publishers who have never published it before are now doing so."

Festivals driving poetry boom...
The real boom, she says, has been in the number of literary events featuring the form. "The big festivals are realising that it isn’t putting people off, it’s drawing them in."

Programmers everywhere, Herbert says, are getting better and more imaginative – pairing poetry with music, bringing poets together, putting them in conversation with others or involving the work as part of a wider event. "Before you know it, there’s a queue right around the block. Large institutions such as The Royal Academy, The Tate and the British Museum have recognised its potential to connect with a younger audience. They know that kids who maybe don’t normally go anywhere near those places actually might if you’re programming somebody they really rate."

The surge of interest among young people is at the heart of the renaissance of the art form, believes Herbert. A recent FAF/ National Literary Trust survey showed it wasn’t merely through reading and writing that 8- to 18-year-olds were engaging with it, it was also by listening, viewing and performing. "If you talk to anyone under 25, you get a very different feeling than you might have done even as recently as the turn of the century.

"If you go online or to a club and hear someone who looks and sounds like you, talking about stuff that you could have ripped from your own diary, it encourages you to use your own voice. That’s the real driving force behind the poetry boom. The realisation that: It’s not just me, I’m not alone."

...and digital too
Then there’s the digital revolution. Whether it’s via Instagram or YouTube, the availability of poetry on phones and screens has been transformative. Herbert has no time for suggestions that social media, creative collaborations and live events "dumb down" the genre. "A poem exists when it’s heard, not just when it’s written," she says. "It’s an oral form by origin, related to song, which existed long before books. It’s a marriage of meaning and music. Poets create it, but the audience needs to be there, otherwise it doesn’t fully exist."

Neither is it, she insists, that it’s simply better suited to an era of short attention spans. "It works because there is more pressure per square inch. You can read a hell of a lot of prose before you get something that really resonates. In a good poem, every pixel is going to be doing something."

That said, she does find its dip-into-able nature a big bonus. "You can get the complete hit of a poem in the briefest of moments, without feeling you’ve got a date with it every night for the next seven months!"

This pulling power has not gone unnoticed by retailers, she suggests. "At a time when other shops on the high street are struggling, many bookshops are in the ascendancy. This is partly because they know if they make themselves into a destination, where visitors can come to an event or occasion, meet other people and have an experience, there are many benefits – and they are doing this largely through poetry.

"Booksellers are alert to the idea that hosting a poet will not just increase their sales of that genre, but get people into your shop generally and can change your relationship with the community."

Judging a collection by its cover
She hopes more publishers will also change the way they approach the genre. "I do find it frustrating when I see some books that are never going to make it out of the shop’s poetry corner at the back. If the people publishing them knew more about the kind of books that people are picking up, poetry would be in a very different place: the front. It’s partly about packaging. You see this with Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s The Lost Words, which is so beautiful you pick it up long before you even know it’s poetry.

"What engages the public in the first instance is often a single poem rather than a whole book with no extra information, just lots of pieces by one poet in an unexplained order. However great the work is, that’s not making it easy for the reader or the bookseller or indeed the poet to connect."

Herbert, who previously worked with the Evening Standard on its Get London Reading campaign, says that one of the aspects of her job that most excites her is flying in the face of conventional wisdom. The supermarket experiment was a case in point. "The only way I can do this job is to accept I’m going to make mistakes, but learn from them. A lot of poetry, after all, is about taking risks. Poets themselves take risks all the time.

"What drives me is getting people – and particularly kids – who don’t read to enjoy it, and to do that we need to find new ways to connect with them. Poetry has the power to change perceptions, renew communities and enable people to find the words they need.

"With the help of Cerys Matthews, we’ve been calling out to the public for 'poems that matter' for a new anthology she’s editing for NPD’s 25th anniversary – Tell Me the Truth About Life. It’s striking how current poets such as Wendy Cope, Warsan Shire and Yrsa Daley-Ward are earning a place in the popular pantheon alongside the likes of Yeats and Larkin. NPD has also just announced new sponsorship deals with wholesalers Gardners and Browns Books for Students, who will ensure that no school, library or bookshop has an excuse for not joining in the celebrations on 3 October."

National Poetry dream
As for Herbert’s next ambition? "It would be my dream to get more support from booksellers and publishers for National Poetry Day in the way that World Book Day does. After all, NPD serves the whole of the UK, and engagement with poetry has a demonstrably positive impact – it’s the fun bit of literacy and language acquisition, it builds confidence around communication.

"In times of emotional or intense feeling, there’s always a desire to find words that rise to the occasion – it’s not enough merely to say 'I’m sorry' or 'I’m glad.' You see it at weddings or funerals, it’s a very human urge, to find the best words to express the emotion, and poets have always helped us do that. There’s a bigger audience than anyone suspects. Government research suggests that more than two million people wrote a poem in 2017. That’s more than participate in cricket!"

Maybe, Herbert jokes, the FAF’s slogan should be: 'Poetry – it’s not what you thought it was.' Or possibly: 'There’s a poem out there for everybody.'

"Everything in your life that’s meaningful and memorable overlaps with poetry."

Forward Arts Foundation 2019 Key Dates

March 12-14
London Book Fair – second year of Poets’ Corner

March 13
London Book Fair – National Poetry Day Summit

Launch of BBC local poet campaign #HomeTruths

May 24
Forward Prizes for Poetry shortlist announced

July 3
Launch of the NPD primary schools competition, CLiPPA (Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award)

September 5
Publication of annual Forward Book of Poetry

September 12
Publication of Tell Me the Truth About Life anthology curated by Cerys Matthews

October 3
25th National Poetry Day

October 30
Forward Prizes for Poetry ceremony at the Southbank Centre, London

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