As over a hundred members of the UK’s literary underground celebrated their finest in a heaving London basement, the extent of the gap between a key part of the literary landscape that is not just vibrant, colourful and engaged but immensely talented and the public portrayal of literature in Britain today was both evident and increasingly hard to justify.
The Saboteur Awards, hosted by Sabotage Reviews and compered jointly by its founder Claire Trévien and co-editors James Webster and Richard Watson, celebrate “the ephemeral” in literature. What that means in practice is spoken word, and poetry, novellas, mixed media collections, and anthologies that are both self-published and produced on a shoestring by small presses who each, like species of Alpine plants thriving in a solitary rugged nook, perfectly exploit a tiny niche. Yet this is not a tiny, isolated fringe engaged in lovable amateurism, nor one confined to the Shoreditch surroundings of the night’s venue. Among the winners were Overheard, an anthology of oral storytelling from Salt, and Estuary, an art and poetry book whose editor had flown in from Luxembourg for the event. And the winners had been decided from shortlists on which votes had been cast in their thousands. The UK literary underground has a reach that is both geographically and numerically wide, and reaches its tentacles up into the underbelly of the mainstream.
As always, passion was at the heart of the evening, and a crowd that witnessed bravura performances from winners that ranged from Tim Wells, long-time champion of switched on working class rhyme, to surrealist hipster darling Luke Kennard and lyrical firebrand Vanessa Kisuule will wake up with one hell of a collective sore throat. But, heedless of Oscar Wilde’s warnings of the dangers of passion, the clearest thing of all is just how substantial, rich, and nuanced is the talent that produces it. And how, contrary to comment-fuelled gossip, this is a scene that will seek out and welcome not “its own” whatever that might be but genuine talent. It is a scene as happy to award a publisher as mainstream as Salt with Best Fiction Anthology, and to recognise an event as high profile as Poetry Parnassus, which finished runner-up in Best One-Off Poetry Event, as it is to award Best Regular Spoken Word Show to the dearly loved Bang Said The Gun.
Standouts amongst the talent went to the three top poetry awards. Charlotte Newman’s Selected Poems, published as part of a beautifully-branded series in pocket-sized format by Annexe Books, won Best Poetry Collection for its richly-referenced and lyrical social realism. In Bloodwork, her elevation of the forgotten to the sublime (in a manner reminiscent of Goddard’s Hail Mary, a film she plays with in a bravura opening poem redolent with sadness and French cinema) runs seamlessly from Bible to Fairytale whilst never letting her playfulness run away from her message:
“this Sodom’s lot’s a Deuteronomy of infra-
Red. That said the wife
Shall prick her finger on a spinning wheel and meet
The beat behind the bloodlust”
The blend of social realism and lyricality reached its peak in Martin Figura’s The Vineyard Boys, a beautifully told tale of teenage aimlessness in the mould of Shane meadows at his finest, from Whistle, winner Best Show. But the dazzling highlight of the night was Best Spoken Word Performer Vanessa Kisuule’s Even Now, a brutal poem about the cowardice of hiding in crowds. What makes Kisuule, whom I have found myself calling the most exciting writer in the UK twice already this year and now a third time, so special is that her impassioned personable delivery draws you effortlessly into places you would never otherwise go. Like a Beatrice she leads you through a post-apocalyptic landscape of the postcolonial and socially broken, gently but knowledgeable pointing out each tiny at of devastation on the way, and never shying away, as in this poem, from turning the harshest critical light of all on herself.
Relevant is a word that is often used disparagingly of the underground. As is engaging. But here was a night filled with both in a way that was neither self-absorbed nor shallow, but driven by the twin desire for genuine change and artistic excellence. And that elevates much of the work on show to the level of genuine importance. The winner of Best One-Off Event, pipping Poetry Parnassus, was a wonderful example of this. Shake the Dust is a project that united the literary community in bringing poetry to Britain’s youth. Yes, out of an awareness of its social importance. Yes, in a way that engaged and conscientised participants. But more than that, in a way that not only polished unique hidden voices until they sang, and then set them singing together as illustrated in the beautiful collaboration we witnessed between Slambassador champion Charlotte Higgins and Barbican Young Poet Kareem Parkins-Brown. And Best Poetry Anthology went to English PEN backed project Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot, a project that united poets behind a very different political project, and whose acceptance speech had the audience reciting a poem written for the anthology by Ali Smith and translated into Russian.
The venue, The Book Club in Leonard Street, also hosted a book fair for the night, and here again the diversity, quality, and devotion to both quality and the needs of the audience were in evidence everywhere. There were longstanding publishers who have gained critical acclaim, such as champions of experimental poetry Penned in the Margins, who won Best Innovative Publisher. And there were newcomers who have found and brilliantly pursued their niche, such as Burning Eye Books, who have started publishing the UK’s finest performance poets and 79 rat press who bring the conceptual and confessional aesthetic of the art world to poetry. From the pocket books of Annexe to the exquisite blend of 50s look and Teenies content of Carmina Masoliver these are presses whose ambition is not one of scale but of delivering the very best of what they want to an audience they value deeply.
This may sound like an apology piece – the literary underground isn’t what its critics say, it’s better than that. In a way, that’s inevitable. But I hope it also contains an apology for those apologetics, because every single piece of talent on show at the Saboteur Awards had no case to make for its inclusion there, or in the larger public consciousness, other than its own excellence. I can only hope it isn’t another year, or that it doesn’t take another event like Kate Tempest winning the Ted Hughes Prize, before the media are talking again about the glorious, diverse, rich and inspiring world of spoken word, self-publishing and small presses.