I first got up and poeted at an open mic night nearly four years ago – April or May 2013, I can’t remember the exact date. A bit over a year later I self-published my collection Subduction Zone through Lulu.com. Shortly afterwards I received mutters of disapproval – essentially I hadn’t waited long enough, paid my dues and so on. I pretty much ignored them at the time – after all, the book was well-received, and the mutterings were few, though some were from people I respect greatly as poets, and later I did think on what was said. I also went to a writing workshop run by [redacted because I like them] who said they would be dubious about publishing someone who’d previously self-published. Hmmm, interesting – and worth unpicking.
First of all, why self-publish? For me, it was really an issue of speed and pragmatism. I’d started doing gigs and I needed something to sell. Others had done the same – and encouraged me to do likewise. This fitted well with by background as an academic – publish, publish, publish, and do so quickly. I’m also working through the traditional route of building up a CV of magazine publications, then a pamphlet and eventually a collection and so on, but this is a slow process. I understand the importance of peer-review (I’m still a part-time academic, and have plenty of papers plus a few books out there), and enjoy writing, sifting, thoughtfully chewing my pen, editing, selecting, submitting and – sometimes – having work accepted. After all, it means my peers consider my writing to be of standard. However, I also see no problem producing something myself – I’m involved in the local zine-scene and enjoy the DIY ethic. This in no way means I think what I’ve produced is sub-par, it’s just a less traditional route. Similarly, I understand the importance of formal CV building, especially as I have no creative writing qualifications and am building this aspect from scratch – which brings me onto the subject of age.
I started writing and performing at 44, and have largely shifted from science/academia to poetry and visual art; my writing is not a hobby. This in turn means it is unrealistic for me to spend 10+ years before producing a collection. I know the formal route takes time, but self-publishing doesn’t. It also highlights what I see as a social discrepancy, albeit from a viewpoint of (hopefully enlightened) self-interest. With people being expected to change career/direction and retrain rather than having lifelong job security, it follows that many of us will come to poetry (or some other endeavour) later in life. This in turn means that relatively rapid progression might be needed in order to get somewhere before retirement. Yes, we have to take time to hone our craft, but still… if ‘life begins at forty’, why do so many writing programmes cut off at 25 or 30? Is it simply allocation of scarce funding? Why are Young Writers’ programmes portrayed (rightly) as developmental springboards to writing and performance careers, while those for older writers seem to (not rightly) assume hobbyist status, tacitly or otherwise? It might once have been so, but not any more. Personally I will go and see (and potentially book) anyone if they look interesting – I really don’t care what age they are. I’ve seen amazingly talented teenagers perform, and I’ve been requested and booked by people half my age. I’ve been told we need to book young performers to get younger audiences (the future?) but I don’t see why – anyone can go to see anyone – it’s up to punters to be open-minded, no? I could argue that it’s harder, not easier, to get started later in life therefore writing programmes (or any similarly developmental activity) should take this into account, but I don’t agree there should be ageism in any direction. Verve, life-experience etc etc are just things that make us interestingly diverse, not variables requiring value-judgement. No Cult of Youth, but no Cult of Elderhood either.
So, I have a self-published book, and may produce another one, as well as more zines. I have poems in magazines and anthologies, and have recently had a pamphlet proposal accepted. I will continue along this route too. I see these as parallel activities, not mutually exclusive ones. I will continue to perform, develop, improve – and work hard at it. So will others, whatever their age. While we’re still extant, it is our time and we’re all the future. Oh, and the not-publishing-those-who’ve-self-published still makes no sense to me…