Laurentiy Beria (pictured) was someone who, to quote nineteen eighties one hit wonder Charlene "seen some things that a woman aint supposed to see." He was the head of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, for the last thirteen years of Josef Stalin's time in the Kremlin. Beria was, as one might expect, much feared. He could make you disappear. And there would be no parliamentary questions or media inquiries about your disappearance because, if anyone inquired as to your whereabouts, he could make them disappear too. And permanently. There were far worse things in Stalinist Russia than being banished to work, Alan Partridge style, for Radio Norwich or Galway Peoples' Resource Centre.
By the time Stalin died in 1953, Beria was the power behind the throne and many expected him to succeed to the leadership. To ensure a transition to a less insane version of Stalinist tyranny, on December 23rd 1953 Beria was put up against an available wall and shot by a firing squad. The charges against him - being in league with Western powers and trying to restore capitalism in the Soviet Union - were entirely false. But no one cared much. Most Soviet Citizens viewed Beria's liquidation as an early Christmas present from Grandfather Frost.
Beria was a member of perhaps the most successful clique in history, the group who climbed to the top of the Soviet state and stayed there till death made them part.
What, you may legitimately ask, does any of this have to do with the Irish poetry world? Fast forward to the Spring of 2013. A poet tells me how a literary magazine has rejected said poet's poems. Said rejected poet describes the editor of the magazine who did the rejecting as, wait for it: "the Laurentiy Beria of the local literary world." Watch that one, the rejected poet told me, they are trying to take over.
There are always a small minority of poets who like to spend time talking about mostly imaginery literary cliques. It is so much easier to blame Poetry Ireland, the Arts Council and whichever poetry world equivalent to Laurentiy Beria takes your fancy, than to look again at your poems and try to make them better; or, if you are an events organiser or magazine editor, to grimace and bear the inevitable funding refusals and apply again next year. And the year after that.
This evening I noticed a post on Facebook by the editor of one small Irish magazine in which I had poems published a couple of years back. He had this to say:
"The Poetry establishment let (the majority) of Irish Poets down. Any chance of some protest about that? Cliques are forming left right and centre and particularly at the top? Any chance of a protest against that?"
I'm not sure what sort of protest he had in mind. Perhaps a march on Merrion Square or a sit down protest in the office of the Literary Editor of The Irish Times?
Anyway, I typed him a little question: what are you talking about? Who are these cliques and what do you imagine they are doing?
Said editor of little poetry magazine replied: "There is rampant croneyism in the arts, particularly poetry."
I asked him again: "Can you just give us one example. At least name us one poet, apart from yourself, whose work you think should be better known, but isn't because she/he isn't part of the clique of which you speak."
The same question was posed six more times, until I felt like Jeremy Paxman on a bad night with Michael Howard. Said little magazine editor then vanished off Facebook, having presumably blocked me because of my impertinence.
So, the 'cliques' that dominate Irish poetry and, according to himself, are in some way excluding said little magazine editor, remain unnamed. This puts Irish poets in a dangerous situation. The Laurentiy Berias of Irish poetry remain on the loose. And we do not know their names. They could come for you at any time. Watch your neighbour. She could be one of them.
Here's a quote from a piece in my book Mentioning The War, which is perhaps relevant here:
“It is easy to mouth empty, left-sounding criticisms of arts ‘bureaucrats’. Such rants are rarely anything like the truth, and taking them at face value will only lead you into the company of some of the worst cranks imaginable. The cranks who loiter on the fringes of the arts are typically even worse than the most ghastly political crank you’ve ever met on the Left. Although, in a few cases, they save us time by actually being the same people.”