Diversity in poetry on the rise – but 'resistance to inclusivity' remains

UK report finds magazines and newspapers now featuring twice as many poets and critics of colour as in 2009

The poetry world has made progress on diversity, a new report finds, but “resistance or indifference to inclusivity remains”.

Analysis of British and Irish publications found an overall improvement in the proportion of poets and critics of colour appearing in their pages. Between 2009 and 2016, the newspapers and poetry magazines published review articles by non-white critics 190 times – 4% of the total for those years. Between 2017 and 2019, non-white critics were published 201 times – 9.6% of the total.

But the new report, The State of Poetry and Poetry Criticism in the UK and Ireland 2009-2019, points out that 12.9% of the population identified as non-white in the 2011 census.

And it highlighted the fact that over the 10-year period, the London Review of Books did not publish a single review of a non-white poetry book, or the writing of a single non-white poetry critic. A total of 105 poetry articles by 39 poetry critics were published by the LRB over this period.

“All 39 were white. Those 105 articles reviewed 127 different books and all were by white poets,” says the report. “No other magazine in the UK has published more articles without a single non-white critic. It is the only magazine in our data set to have never published a review of a non-white poet.”

The Ledbury analysis points out that since 2009, eight non-white poets have won the UK’s major poetry awards, the TS Eliot and the Forward prize, including Derek Walcott, Claudia Rankine and Ocean Vuong. “The LRB has reviewed none of these,” it says.

The report also highlights the Times Literary Supplement’s “uneven” record on race. While the TLS has published the fourth highest number of articles by non-white critics since 2009 (33), this only accounts for 3.5% of its 10-year poetry output. It says that the TLS and LRB also published fewer poems by non-white poets than any other magazine in the UK or Ireland, with the TLS publishing 10 and the LRB seven (both 1.3% of their totals).

“Resistance or indifference to inclusivity remains in certain reviewing platforms,” says the report. “At some newspapers and magazines, white writers and editors at all levels replicate and reinforce the racial power structures that keep UK and Irish poetry and its critical culture white, either by choice or by failing to interrogate their commissioning and editorial practices.”

Sandeep Parmar, co-founder of Ledbury Poetry Critics, which mentors a new generation of critics of colour, said she was working to address the issues. “We have had positive conversations with the editors at both the LRB and the TLS about commissioning non-white poetry critics,” she said. “These editors have met with the Ledbury Critics and are broadly supportive of both the programme and its wider aims. So we hope to see measurable change there and elsewhere in the near future.”

Alice Spawls, a senior editor at the LRB, acknowledged the statistics highlight “a serious problem, which we are taking steps to address”.

“We’re already working with Ledbury’s Emerging Critics Programme on initiatives to improve the inclusivity and diversity of our commissioning and publishing practices,” she said. “We are committed to ensuring that our poetry coverage over the next year – and the next decade – reflects real improvement in this area.”

The research was carried out by Dr Dave Coates and released by the Ledbury Poetry Critics Programme in association with Ledbury poetry festival and the University of Liverpool’s Centre for New and International Writing. It looks at 26 magazines and newspapers, and 6,804 articles. As well as the critics commissioned by magazines and papers, the report analysed the books the critics looked at, finding that of 10,677 books reviewed, 701 (6.57%) were written by poets of colour. The proportion remains between 6-8% from 2009 to 2016, and takes a “huge leap” to 13% in 2017, and nearly 16% in 2019. The Guardian is one of the publications that has shown an improvement. Between 2009 and 2017, seven of the Guardian’s 458 review articles were written by non-white reviewers (1.5%), while between 2018 and 2019, this rose to 15%.

The report highlights the Poetry Review for “leading the way” in its publication of reviews by non-white critics – 63 since 2009. Since Emily Berry became full-time editor in spring 2017, it has published 44 articles by BAME critics, 39% of its output over that time, says the report, compared with 19 (6%) over the previous eight years.

“Although we have seen tremendous change since 2017, critical culture must continue to expand to accurately reflect an increasingly inclusive poetry culture,” says the report. “Implementing lasting, longer-term change structural change is complex and requires a shared belief in equality among commissioning editors, critics and indeed readers of poetry and reviews.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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