Fishing for Fascists: A Letter to Dave Coates

Dear Dave

You don’t know me as far as I’m aware, although it’s possible you’ve read my poetry review blog. I was going to post this in your comments section, but it’s become quite long* so I’ve decided to make an ‘open-letter’ of it here on my own site, I hope that’s not inappropriate, it feels like the ‘literary’ thing to do anyway.

(*No, I’m being specious, I wanted plenty of people to read it because I think it’s important, and I was worried that it would get hidden away and lost in your comments.)

I’m a genuine admirer of your reviews and essays, which are often both entertaining and instructive, and your website is an important resource. Also, your championing of under-represented groups in contemporary poetry (and impatience with hegemonic elites) was inspiring to me when I made the decision to review more actively.

However, your essay on Toby Martinez de las Rivas concerns me, and this is why:

1)    In reading Black Sun, Terror, Martinez de las Rivas’s writing in PN Review and his interviews online (along with Jack Belloli’s wonderful Black Sun review) the individual I find is a religious conservative with a startlingly powerful vision of the authority of God, a highly sensitized relationship with nature (and the linguistic skill to evoke that relationship for the reader) along with an unfashionable belief in objective truth and the determination to look for that truth at all costs. I also find a political Conservative who would increase rather than decrease central power as an organizing principle, who plays with the mediaeval concept of Body Politic and very possibly even has time for the notion of the Divine Right of Kings (this last is a little speculative but it seems to follow from what he has written). I find a poet utterly at odds with a great deal of the poetry written in Britain today and who associates this with a metropolitan ‘centre’ of which he is quite disdainful on that basis; but also one who lives in the arid south of Spain and finds himself longing for, and therefore making symbolic use of, the green fields and Anglo-Christian architecture – and the snow – of England (this is not in itself a yearning for a mythical bygone world: England is objectively greener than Spain, and Spain’s architecture is clearly more…Spanish). He is a poet looking for meaning where he feels there ultimately is none (truth with no meaning), one who misses his ex-wife, who would like his children to grow up in the England of his childhood (again, the conservative) but feels social media technology (and the tide of, as he sees it, left-wing influence in the cultural sphere) is taking that England away. The overall impression I am left with is of an eccentrically intellectual man on his knees looking up into a dream-sky of birds and a blinding (prophetic?) eclipse – black layered over white (and I see no suggestion of race intended here, more the suggestion of opposition and – mental – conflict as opposed to the harmony of a ying yang approach to duality). All of this is enough to make you loathe and detest his poetry (and possibly my reading of it) – it actually makes it all the more fascinating for me, partly because I find much of it so hard to relate to – but it emphatically does not make him a fascist.

2)    The term ‘fascist’ does not serve you well in this context for a number of reasons: a) although it feels like you are calling a spade a spade, it is actually a blanket word which you pull from Mussolini’s text to cover everything Martinez de las Rivas writes and says, obscuring both the intricacies of his poetic experimentation and the theoretical/critical challenges and problems his work presents; b) it’s an emotive word, used to elicit a quick, strong reaction one way or another rather than a considered response; c) it mistakes Martinez de las Rivas’s use of some of the tropes of fascism and totalitarianism in general (and Fabers’ – i.e. the Nazi-like red, white and black of the Black Sun cover) for the thing itself – in fact I almost get the impression that you have fallen into a trap that was set for you…can poet and publisher really not have seen this coming? I wonder how many people have bought and will buy his book on the back of your essay.

3)    That Martinez de las Rivas’s poetry is so utterly different from anything else on the Forward shortlist surely makes his presence a welcome sign of the Prize’s diversity.

4) When you say “we all know who lives in cities” you are making a speculative leap (okay, I speculated above too, and should probably also be condemned for it) of the type that overlays what Martinez de las Rivas actually says with your own agenda. You are suggesting his dislike of metropolitan poets and cliques can be extended to assume a dislike of the multicultural nature of cities like London; this is evidence of a penchant for racial purity, and his symbolic use of light and dark can easily be added. But all of this can be read in a different way as I indicated in (1): those looking for fascists will find one, perhaps; but those looking for a poet engaged in an honest and personal dissection of his own sense of place and faith in a baffling world are more likely to find such a man.

5) None of this is to say that Martinez de las Rivas is not a fascist. He may be. I don’t know him and if his next collection turns out to be a genuine attempt to further fascist thought amongst the poetry-reading classes I will openly and loudly eat my entire argument and apologize to you personally. But I would still say that, at this point, there is not evidence to support your allegation.

6)    Your timing is also problematic. Posting your essay before the Forward Prize is revealed sends a clear message to the judges that should Martinez de las Rivas win, there will be trouble – from you and from others on Twitter who take an interest. To have an influencing voice appears to have been your motive in posting, and you more or less say as much in your essay (“I write this in haste because Martinez de las Rivas is a tendentious and damaging thinker, his presence on the shortlist is diametrically opposed to the Foundation’s principles, and I fear what he might do with the international platform a victory would provide”). This is not fair on anyone involved. I have seen your comments and opinions on prize shortlists before, but I have not been aware of your actively trying to influence the outcome of a competition. This seems like a very dangerous line to be crossing for a reviewer who has the industry’s ear. The right time to post would have been after the (diverse and capable) judging panel had made their decision, and we were able to see for ourselves which poet had won the money and platform. Your choice of timing smacks of ‘silencing’ those with opposing views. This is itself a feature of tyranny, as you know.

*

You are quite right to be vigilant when it comes to inequality, privilege and tyranny, and you are probably right to look for the beginnings of totalitarianism in the cultural margins – where poetry still lies for all its popularity (certainly the less obvious and more challenging poetry) because, as Ellen Hinsey says in The Illegal Age, “The Inconceivable first emerges along the periphery”, but if we create a climate where artists are afraid to express alternative and difficult viewpoints because doing so will lead to loud and angry denunciations – to  their smothering with blanket-language – if we close down poetry as a place where the unsayable (any unsayable) can be at least investigated, then tyranny is one step closer. imho.

I hope this open-letter does not lead to us being ‘Reviewer Enemies’, although I don’t suppose it’s the best way for me to introduce myself. Perhaps we could both be accused of whitemanspreading over the issue, but I wrote to you, partly at least, because I think open dialogue between interested and engaged people is a sign of a healthy poetry culture. I hope you agree.

My admiration for you as a reviewer remains, but I think you made an error in ‘calling-out’ Toby Martinez de las Rivas, especially when you did.

Best wishes

Chris

The second Jack Belloli blog post referred to in the comments below is here.

6 thoughts on “Fishing for Fascists: A Letter to Dave Coates”

  1. Thanks for writing this. I must say, I find it remarkable that a critic can apparently wield so much power that when he accuses a poet of encouraging genocide and mass deportations, he gets a lot of wise head-nodding and virtually no pushback – whereas when other critics recently wrote thoughtful (but also slightly inflammatory) critiques of work by Hollie McNish and Kaveh Akbar, they were greeted with nuclear meltdowns and online abuse.

    Mind you, Dave Coates also accused a poet on the TS Eliot Prize shortlist of violence against women, without any evidence, so he has a history of this. I’m really curious about why he seems to get away with these character assassinations and even to be encouraged in them.

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      1. Please tell me exactly what element of Coates’s essay (or mine for that matter) is anything other than a ‘calm dialogue’?! He literally opens his piece with an expression of respect and praise for the judges and their professionalism, as well as his gratitude to the Forward Foundation for materially supporting him: the idea that he might cause ‘trouble’ seems ludicrous…

        I’m touched that you’ve praised my writing, and like it enough to have followed my blog – but please could I ask you to reread the piece I posted this afternoon, and consider carefully whether the arguments that you made in your blogpost might themselves participate in the post-liberal discourse that I set out to critique…

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      2. Hi Jack, I was just starting off re-reading your piece actually, which is excellent and very informative for anyone, like me, who is exploring what is out there in terms of poetry criticism. Your links are really helpful and what you say, though not easy reading (nothing to do with your clarity but *what* you say takes some thinking about), makes complete sense. I have some reading to do clearly because your approach to the world and therefore poetry is not one I have particularly thought about in those terms before. And I think you’re right my arguments probably are part of the post-liberal discourse, though I’ve never heard it called that before reading your post, if it is defined in the way you define it. We have a lot to agree on before we can begin to agree on poetry, it seems; and I think the same is true of my reaction to Dave Coates’ take on Toby MdlR.

        By ‘calm dialogue’ I was referring more to tweet-level exchanges and I was not referring directly to anyone in particular (perhaps on reflection it sounded like I was aiming it at Dave), but it seems to me that what appears to one person like tweet-level hysteria may seem to another like justifiable frustration with someone who wilfully sees the world in a different, disagreeable, way. I guess your recent post has helped me get that in perspective. It doesn’t help much though because in the end Twitter just becomes people yelling at each other because of differing ideologies and the conversation never moves beyond that point. Wow just heard Danez Smith is the Forward winner – that’s great news (I think we will agree on that). Okay, so it was Dave’s use of the word Fascist that worried me, and his attempt to influence the Forward judges (whether the idea of ‘trouble’ is ludicrous or not, he was clear that his timing was intended to have an influence). If I understand your blogpost, you have reservations about his use of the term Fascist but I guess wouldn’t have a problem with the timing as it would have been justifiably intended to remove TMdlR’s platform, reducing the damage already done by his publication and shortlisting. At the moment I disagree on these points but as I say, you wrote a lot that is new to me so I will happily re-read and reassess.
        What I do struggle with though is why you assign ‘bad faith’ to the poet but not the critic. This needs more filling out for me – there seems little in your essay to justify it. I don’t doubt Dave Coates’ ‘good faith’ in his (and your) terms – but what is ‘bad faith’ as you define it? It is a phrase I have come across a lot but never really understood; what is it the phrase implies TMdlR’s overall agenda is? From my perspective at the moment it sounds like ‘bad faith’ just means ‘different point of view’. The reason I wrote to Dave, and took an interest in your blog initially was that I was getting the impression that an innocent man (can’t immediately think of a better way of putting this) was being sentenced to death for thinking differently to those judging him (silly phrasing, sorry).
        You may take the view that there is little point in engaging with me on this before I have spent a bit more time with the ideas you talk about in your post – but could I in turn ask you to consider the idea that he was not up to anything ‘bad’, and that having writers like TMdlR out there might be a good thing for the simple reason that it begins dialogues (dare I say it) like the one we’re having now, in which people who think they know how the world works can test their ideas against people have different ideas or who are still trying to work it out. Everyone’s a winner, potentially.
        Anyway, I hope you take this in good faith.

        Chris

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