Redressing the Balance

In my last post I mentioned the VIDA count, and that I was trying to find experienced women reviewers who want to review for TLS. Suddenly twitter went crazy and I gained a couple of hundred new followers (@judi_sutherland) who, it seemed, were desperate to review for one of our most prestigious literary journals. I set up a facebook group for us to share ideas. Then I asked the Assistant Editor of the TLS, Michael Caines, if we could speak on the phone.

Here’s a precis of our conversation, held on 22nd April:

TLS generally draws on the academic community for reviewers in its different subject areas (brief perusal of the site reveals them to be: Arts & Commentary; Biography; Classics and Modern Languages; Fiction; History; Literature and Poetry; Philosophy and Religion; Politics and Social Studies; Science) and each area has its own editor. The male bias in reviewers tends to reflect the male bias in university departments; in Literature, there are proportionally more female academics and therefore the bias runs the other way. I asked if reflecting the bias was enough – should TLS not be helping to redress the balance and therefore maybe even assisting the careers of female academics? Maybe…

Do reviewers have to be academics? MC says no, not in every field. For fiction, in fact, a large number of reviewers are not academics. (Presumably others in the trade can be credible: novelists, editors, publishers, freelance writers, for example.). He said that in other fields it was hard to imagine how anyone other than an academic could review, and gave the example of books on religion. (I can understand they don’t want random opinions, but I suspect a bishop might meet their credibility criteria!)

In some ways, MC said, an ex academic could be the ideal candidate. And, it goes without saying that TLS want people who can get copy in on time, be clear and logical, and preferably “engaging”. Reading between the lines it may be that some of TLS’s academic reviews are a touch dry and dusty and don’t come across well to a lay readership.

Yes, TLS would like to see your CVs. Obviously to include qualifications, jobs, a list of previous publications, and some idea of your speciality, e.g. 20th Century Latin American magical realism, George Eliot, nuclear magnetic resonance… whatever. The TLS tends to have a large pool of reviewers which it can call on for specialist reviews.

The TLS will not accept unsolicited reviews. It likes to receive books directly from publishers and to send them out to reviewers itself as commissions. This ensures that there is a broadly complementary range of work available for particular issues, and also that the reviewer is not the best friend of the author in question, who is mentioned gratefully in the book’s acknowledgements.

So I think here’s what we can do:

  1. Make sure that publishers actually send more books by women authors off to TLS in the first place. If you’ve got a book coming out, ask your publisher to send it.
  2. Read TLS reviews in your general area to get a feel for the style.
  3. Get your CVs organised to send to TLS.
  4. Append a couple of reviews you’ve done in the most prestigious journals / newspapers you can muster. Even if they were reviews of books by men!
  5. Add a good covering letter emphasising that you are part of this VIDA count response.
  6. Ask your friends to join us and do the same.

Now. More than a month later and I’ve hardly had any CVs come in. So maybe the TLS is right, and women just don’t put themselves forward as reviewers. Dear readers, it’s down to you.

Viva La Vida – An Experiment with Sexism

Every year, VIDA – an association for women in the literary arts, publishes the VIDA count; a series of rather telling histograms that depict the split of male to female writers, and reviewers, featured by a number of literary magazines in the USA and elsewhere. Here in the UK, the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement are among those getting a listing, and the results are… interesting. Rather than re-write the commentary, here’s Soraya Chemaly from the Guardian describing the whole thing:

Surprise: men still greatly outnumber women in US and UK arts publications

Here, for example are the TLS’s figures, and over the five years VIDA has been running, there’s not much of a trend toward gender parity in either the number of women authors reviewed or the women reviewers published…

Times Literary Supplement

Yesterday, the assistant editor of the TLS,  – his name… is Michael Caines… (that’s the third time I’ve used that joke on line in the last 24 hours. I’ll stop now) engaged with, if that is the right word, the poet and editor of Sabotage Reviews, Claire Trevien, on twitter (@michaelscaines). Caines, as a defence against their poor numbers, quoted his colleague at TLS, Toby Lichtig, who says that: ‘change, when it comes to the question of the wider culture, is inevitably slow’. Inevitably? Only if the editors don’t care and are completely passive. Magazines have the choice, and indeed the duty, to reflect the society on which they comment. The TLS doesn’t seem to think it has to actually DO anything to correct its conscious or unconscious failure to take women in literature seriously.

Chemaly, in her Guardian article, says this:

…editors do not, for the most part, sit at their desks waiting for random submissions to come across the transom. They have free reign in terms of whom they solicit and it is exceedingly rare, and highly unlikely, that they rely on slush pile submissions to populate their pages. The issue of whom editors – also primarily men, feel more comfortable either soliciting work from or responding to is central to this persistent gender imbalance in storytelling. Even thoughtful men at literary magazines are not immune from implicit biases and in-group dynamics (the in-group being male) that studies uniformly show are involved in hiring, promotion, mentoring and retention.

However, last night on twitter, Caines appeared to have a more open attitude:

if you can write about English literature, contact me. I can’t commission – but I WILL consider – all. (Bigots may tell you otherwise.)

I replied that I had offered to review for TLS before and had no reply. Caines said:

Sorry, I didn’t see that. Not sarcastically, you mean? That would be good…’

So I contacted a woman writer who has a book coming out shortly, and asked if I could write a review for the TLS. (If she already had a reviewer lined up I wouldn’t want to confuse Mr Caines.) I’ve been told that people have sent unsolicited reviews to the slush pile before and got nowhere.  And it’s possible my review might not be good enough – although I am sure the writer I am reviewing will be.

I’m going to do it. I’m going to send Michael Caines a review. He could ignore me. But what if a whole lot of women who review books all sent him a review of a woman writer? What if they all sent them together? He couldn’t ignore all of us, could he?

Are you in?

Settling In


We’ve been living up here in the north for seven months now and are getting the feel of the place. The house has had new windows, new boiler, new bathroom, and the wonderful logburner illustrated above. I’ve got a full time job again which is busy but fun. I have to be careful that the poems don’t fizzle out due to lack of attention.

Last year I undertook the discipline of joining the marvellous Jo Bell‘s on line poetry community, Fifty Two. Write a poem a week, she exhorted us. Start now. Keep going. More than five hundred poets took up the challenge and joined in. I did it! – each week through 2014 I posted a poem on the related Facebook page and waited for comments. I watched dozens of other poets post their work and tried to leave helpful feedback. There were some amazing poems. There were some people who posted ten or more poems from each prompt. I generally managed one. When we started out, I was living on my own in Oxfordshire with no job, two cats, and a house to sell. By the time we finished I was living in Durham in a new house with my (old) husband and a full time job. Only the cats hadn’t changed.

Did I write anything good? Well, one early poem was published by the wonderful Nine Arches Press in their journal Under The Radar, which was most pleasing. Some of the others need a lot more work. So far this year I haven’t written any new poems, I’ve just submitted some of my 52 to possible new homes in the world.

Being part of 52 taught me that you don’t have to wait for some unreliable muse in order to write a poem that other people appreciate; that improbable subject matter such as songs, body parts and goats can provide something approximating inspiration; that the commonest good advice for a poet is “lose the last two lines”.

There was another benefit to taking part that the wise Ms Bell knew all along; we created a community. So when I started looking around my new abode for poets and poetry evenings, I had a ready made network of north-easterners to tap into. But more of them in a later post.

Thank you, Jo.


Cross Posted from The Stare’s Nest

The Stare’s Nest has been in operation for two months now and every day we have delivered at least one poem that fits our general theme: political and social engagement, reflections on what really matters, something hopeful from time to time to refocus us away from the dreadful news that fills our screens day after day. At the outset we said “Tell us how it is. Tell us how it could be” and poets have sent us their versions of the examined life, to prove to ourselves and others that poetry is relevant, that it engages with the real world and its concerns. We’ve had poems about Gaza and Northern Ireland, Greece, America, and Chile; poems about family, friends, neighbours and strangers, about war, trees, toilets, and shopping. All human life is here.

When I started up the Stare’s Nest I wasn’t sure if anyone would send us anything at all, but I worked on the principle “build it and they will come”, and so far they have. I’m grateful to some very experienced and well-published poets such as George Szirtes, Philip Gross, Carrie Etter, Jenny Lewis, Ian Duhig and Tamar Yosseloff (aha! the last two of those are coming up soon!), to some of the rising stars of British poetry, to members of Jo Bell’s excellent fiftytwopoetry group (of which I am proud to be a member); to poets I didn’t previously know from the USA; to poets I know personally from Reading, Oxford and London; to poets I’d never met but who found us via word of mouth, and to a few who have had their first ever published poem appear here. I’m also most grateful to our first two poets, Hilda Sheehan and Martin Malone, for the poems that kicked off the site, and to the inimitable Cathy Dreyer, who co-edits with me and who was utterly indispensable when I was in the middle of moving house and had no broadband for ten days.

What I am most proud of right now are the comments made by two poets whom I value immensely. Sarah Wedderburn is a friend from Roddy Lumsden’s classes at The Poetry School. She sent us the amazing “A Word on Killing” which was published on August 30th. The first stanza is so revealing:

I’ll only say this once. Then I’m going back to writing about home,

journeys, everyday events and minor breakages—even they send

fragments far and wide.

When she sent this deeply personal poem she told me:

“I have written this expressly for The Stare’s Nest, recognising that with this website you have provided a context where such a subject might have a place. I’m thrilled that she picked up her pen and wrote something so true because the Stare’s Nest was there for it to find a home.

We’ve also had great support from Fran Lock, whom I don’t know personally but whose poems I really admire. She has sent us an elegy for a good friend, written in her usual beautiful, intricate style, but that still manages to convey a raw emotion. It’s coming up soon. She said:

“I’m tentatively submitting the attached poem to The Stare’s Nest because it is the only place I’ve seen where (if anywhere) I think it might belong… I’m still not sure (from a poetry point of view) if it is ready to see the light of day, but I think if it is, The Stare’s Nest is the place I would like it to be. Your beautiful site has inspired me to set it down properly and find a place for it.”

This is what I wanted to achieve! As well as the funny poems, the angry and the polemical, a safe place for such delicate work that really comes from the heart.

Thank you all! Let’s keep going. Send your honey bees to fill the empty nest of the Stare!

Judi Sutherland

Happy Birthday, Tove Jansson

I love the Moomins. They are philosophers and archetypes. All human life is there, and acceptance for everybody in the little house in Moominvalley, even if you are The Lonely and the Rum. I wanted to run a Moomin poetry tribute blog for Tove Jansson’s centenary, but when I asked the Moomin Marketeers about it they said the “could not allow” people to write about Jansson’s characters on the internet. They have obviously never heard of fanfic. So in defiance of that blanket ban, I am publishing my Moomin poem, about that wandering hippie mystic, Snufkin, the only inhabitant of Moominvalley who does not hibernate but goes off in the winter on adventures of his own.

Snufkin in Winter

The snow cloaks Moominvalley
like a Groke’s wedding veil, already
you’ve had a bellyful of pine needles
but I can’t stomach it, can’t face

a hundred days and nights
of dreaming. So I gift hazelnuts
to the Ancestor Behind the Stove,
roll up my bedding and I’m gone,

through winterwoods to the grey shoreline,
a stowaway in the electric hold
of a tall ship crewed by Hattifatteners,
its prow jostled by ice floes

as we set sail for who knows where.
On the seventh morning, the sun
rises like blood over a seaport city
and I shoulder my pack at the harbour mole,

tread cobbled streets, watch Fillyjonks
in the souks and stews, consider
what the people want with so much
gold. I pitch my tent on a warm beach,

get high with wild-eyed, dusky Mymbles
who embroider secret names
on my sunstruck canvas. I tell them stories
of boreal forests, houses like ships,

Hobgoblins’ hats; of the high magic
that holds with four strong seasons.
Their laughter is shallow bells – I need
the north again. I hitch a ride

with a passing Booble, dodge
the serge-frocked Border Hemulens.
I’m back in the valley before you wake,
sitting on the verandah, where I take

out my mouth-organ, begin to play
All Small Beasts Should Have Bows
On Their Tails
. ‘Hello, Snufkin’, you say,

‘Cloudberry pancakes for breakfast?’

I follow you in. You never do ask
what I’ve been doing, where I’ve been.

The Poets Have Been Silent

Roger McGough, Mersey Poet and National Treasure, has been persuaded by Waitrose to judge poems for their Year of Poetry. The idea seems to be that the winning entries are posted to the competition page and also are displayed in actual Waitrose supermarkets. I have to say I haven’t seen any in store yet (I now live 45 miles from the nearest Waitrose – *shocked face*), and the first round results seem to indicate that one needs to be either a small child or a grandparent to be selected. I don’t know what has happened to Round 2 of the competition but Round 1 results can be seen here. Undeterred, I sent a poem in for Round 2 – and not only have I not heard that I won (!) but the whole competition seems to have folded. So, because you won’t see it in Waitrose, I decided to donate my cheese poem to the Internet.

Not a lot of people know that a couple of years ago I was looking into the idea of becoming a cheesemaker. I went on a proper course and made experimental cheese batches in my own kitchen.  It looked like this:

#001 Chaource style September 2011 003

So, I wrote a poem inspired by a quote from writer and all round smart-arse G.K. Chesterton, who obviously thought he was being funny when he said: The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.  I regard statements like that as a challenge. It’s only when you get to do some cheesemaking that you realise what a poetic subject cheese actually is.

On the Subject of Cheese

The poets have been silent on the subject of cheese;
of milk, gone bad, come good again,
milk, shapeshifted into solid character
by sly bacteria, the maker’s hands
and the wild herbs of the pasture.
Cheese is poetry in edible form;
the subtle alchemy of heat, salt, pressure,
the white and blue moods of ripening mould
and the long, cool patience of the cellar.


Is it a blog? Is it a ‘zine? Is it a Stare?

the Stare's Nest main

Two things happened recently which made me more than a bit cross. One was the results of the European and local elections at the end of May, which gave the noxious UKIP, and its politics of fear, a much larger say in our national life than it deserves; the other was the outgoing Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman having a go at poets for “conniving in their own irrelevance” and not making poetry accessible to the masses. As often happens with the creation of new ideas – and many new poems – I found the two issues colliding in my head, and The Stare’s Nest is the result.

Supposing poets wrote about current affairs – the kind of thing you see on the TV news, or on the internet, or on the front page of the Daily Mail? Supposing poets got angry about disability rights, or the minimum wage, or the demonisation of immigrants, or education or austerity? Because poets call the powerful to account, don’t they?

Supposing poets refused to be cowed by the media’s insistence that we are all going to hell in a handcart, and instead, told stories of the wonderful Romanians who live next door, or the day they made a real connection with somebody from a different race, or language, or generation? Suppose they celebrated random acts of kindness, or imagined a future where we’ve got over some of our gloom-mongering and made the world a better place? Because poets are visionaries, right?

I looked around for an inspiring quotation to act as the name of the blog. I thought of Seamus Heaney’s lines about the Irish “Troubles”:

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

But “Hope and History Rhyme” is already in use where it should be, in Northern Ireland, and  “That Further Shore” is already in use for another literary blog.

I thought about the Mahatma Gandhi’s words that say:

In a gentle way, you can shake the world.

But “Shake the World” is a brand of ethical fashion bracelets…

And then I came to William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Stare’s Nest by my Window”, the full text of which you can find here on the new website.

It’s the last stanza that appears on our header – see above. It really spoke to me, especially the phrase “more substance in our enmities / than in our love”. I don’t think it has to be like that. I’m not sure what Yeats’ metaphor of the Stare – or starling – and its empty nest meant to him in 1922, during the Irish civil war, but for me, I see the empty nest as a big silence in our national life, where poets are not speaking out as clearly as they could be, and every little poem we post as a honey bee that adds something sweet and purposeful to the nest.

It’s important to me that it is free, and on line, accessible to everybody. It’s a blog, because there will be regular posts rather than an “edition” that arrives all at once, and it’s a zine because there will be contributions from many voices coming in. Thanks so far are due to Cathy Dreyer, who has promised to co-edit with me, to Dru Marland, for the beautiful cover art, and to Hilda Sheehan and Martin Malone for the two poems that kick off the project. I want to keep it going at least until the general election. Submissions are already coming in.
So go on, if you are a poet, send a poem, please, and whether you are a poet or not, please share the blog details with people who might want to read our work. I don’t want it only to be read by other poets.

Tell us how it is. Tell us how it could be. Come build in the empty house of the Stare.


At the Albion


Over the last few years I’ve been to a number of poetry readings at the Albion Beatnik bookshop in Jericho, Oxford. The proprietor, Dennis Harrison, puts in some very long hours to support poetry in the city. With any luck, he makes a small profit from door money and interval drinks, but really, he does it for the love of literature and his loyal bookish community.

I wanted to read there before I disappear northwards, so I asked three friends to join me, and Dennis agreed to us holding a reading called “The Poetry of Place”. Places are on my mind at the moment, because of our imminent departure north (I say “imminent” but we still haven’t exchange contracts on the house.) So I read about Stoke on Trent, Belfast, Newcastle, Boston, Ukraine, Henley on Thames and Nettlebed; Andrew Smardon read about Oxford, Scotland, Iceland, and being on the motorway; Annette Volfing read about Denmark, England and Africa, and Ben Parker, who had said he didn’t really write about places, gave us a travelogue of wonderful imagined destinations.

Over the last few years I have been in poetry workshops with each of these poets, and it’s a real joy to hear poems that I first saw as drafts, all polished and beautiful at the reading. They sounded wonderful, and it was great to see so many friends in the audience; particularly members of Oxford Stanza II, and my former teacher, Olivia Byard.

Reading at the Albion Beatnik – another item crossed off my bucket list.

Lots of Planets Have a North

Some of the best things happening in poetry at the moment are the on-line, one-off, non-standard anthologies of poems and other artistic work being curated by people with great ideas and imagination. Two such people are Claire Biddles and Emma Jackson, who have taken a line from the Christopher Eccleston incarnation of Dr Who (see the title of this blog post) and used it for:

A beautiful collaborative publication exploring the North of England as it is lived, remembered and dreamed of.

The blog for this project has just started on tumblr, and there is a kickstarter ongoing to fund a book of the same name. I’m delighted to have two of my poems in at the beginning of the blog project, especially because I’m heading back to the north myself very soon. So, one of my poems remembers visiting relatives in Newcastle with my parents, and the other is about having almost got comfortable in the south of England over the course of 25 years, and now being uprooted back to my ancestral homeland.

Please visit my poems on the blog! And thank you, Emma and Claire, for featuring my poems on LOPHAN.


I’m interested in the way poems sit on the page, and what cues a reader can take from the layout and the white space around the words. It’s a big subject, and we looked at it in our class in Newbury last term. I suppose it reaches its apotheosis in the “concrete poem”, where the poem takes the shape of its own subject. I took as examples, Philip Gross’s “Amphora” (the only version I could find on line was mistakenly left-aligned, so for the full effect you would have to download and centre-align it) and Edward Mackay’s “The Size of Wales” (not on line). Not only are they visually interesting, but also excellent poems in themselves.

Encouraging the class to have a try at this form, I decided to join in. Looking at Glass’s “Amphora”, I thought a symmetrical object might be the easiest way to tackle this. And this became a poem about something I’m going to miss when we move house. It’s dedicated to the Nettlebed bellringers.

St Bartholomew’s Bells.


on Sundays
for holy communion

or sunny Saturdays in June
to ring in the bride and groom

and not just Christmas Eve after
drunken carollers lurch for home

or Easter Sunday when solemn Lent
is done and Spring is coming ringing in;

I like to hear them chime on Wednesday
evenings with the windows open in my room

just for the fun of it and for the practice, the Old Golden
& the treble-bob, saying all’s well in the village. What could