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Authorised Voices Only

May 21, 2010

‘Voice’ is a word that gets bandied about more than any other, especially when talking about poetry. To be a successful poet, you need a voice. That doesn’t necessarily mean your voice, as long as it is a voice; a specific marker of identity that distinguishes what you write from the clamour of what everyone else is writing.

Easier said than done. To establish a poetic voice (even if you’re planning on using a multitude of them) takes a strength of character that the aspiring poet has to develop through experience and self-scrutiny. Writers — especially young writers — always seem to be ‘finding their voices’, as though a unique mode of expression is tucked away at the back of the wardrobe under an old winter coat. To me, the defence ‘I’m still finding my voice’ is tantamount to saying ‘I want to improve, but can’t be arsed figuring out how.’

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Because I too have a problem with voice. Not so much that I can’t find mine, more that I’m not really sure what it sounds like. In the olden days, voice was established through cultural superiority (generally the superiority of the educated, straight white man over everybody else). Thankfully, the 20th century fought back, and in the past 80 years or so, the most prominent voices have been correctives. Strong poetic identities have been forged out of otherness, difference and the reactionary. Younger contemporary poets cut a swathe through the politics of identity. Politics of gender, race, faith, sexuality, nationality and…well, politics. Nothing is safe from the poets these days. And this is, of course, a good thing for those who have made their ‘voices’ heard. But what of the future? What have my generation got to say? What have we got to talk about? Youth’s growing awareness of myriad social, economic, political and cultural issues means that we’re faced with an existential terror of choice: which battles will we choose? And with so many to choose from, how do we make ourselves heard?

Maybe we won’t. Maybe the 21st century isn’t providing stable enough ground to build on. When I can’t even decide how to identify myself it’s going to be a hell of a challenge to know how I’ll identify with the rest of the world. But like I said, it’s easier said than done, and if it’s going to be a hell of a challenge, it’ll be a hell of a ride as well.

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