Should the poet laureate answer questions?
I don't know what I think about Andrew Motion as a poet (too soon to call, we classicists would say). But I do admire the way, as poet laureate, he has put himself, and poetry, "about" - in radio interviews, lectures, question and answer sessions, you name it.
Let's hope his successor does the same.
I'm not so optimistic. A few years ago I asked one of the current front runners for the post to come and talk in Cambridge at a fairly big university occasion, for a fee of £400-500. (I'm not going to say which one, so don't even ask -- though if someone is groundlessly traduced, I guess I will be driven to make denials).
The first problem is that the poet didn't do talks, only readings (but would answer individual questions at book signings afterwards). OK, say I, how about a reading followed by a question and answer session from the audience with a "discussant chair"?
No, was the response (and I still have the email), "I don't take open/chaired questions after the reading, no".
So what next?
Well, I say, this might be a problem our end. "We are happy to move away from lecture format but cant really do without chaired questions . . . the occasion (however informal) needs to bear some relationship to the 'ideal type' of the lecture!" But I gave some reassurance that it was all "quite fun" (I could see why one might think that entering the lions' den of classicists would not be an entirely attractive proposition).
It didn't work. "As the fee is rather too low (!!) it's probably best to get someone else on this occasion."
I fought back a little. "Sorry it couldn't work out. In terms of british universities I fear that fees do not go higher . . .oh well . . .I guess students in higher ed. simply have to accept that they will never see such as you in person. a pity, eh (!!)"
The reply came. "I do LOADS of universities and schools all the time!!! Schools I do for
v. low fees as they don't have any money!"
Now, actually, I'm not especially annoyed about the fee question. People in arts and education are asked to do things all the time for derisory fees about which they really should protest (as I often do); people also think that Cambridge has pots of money -- so I see where the poet is coming from. I also see that people can be too busy, and -- sure -- I turn gigs down for just that reason. (In the same round of invitations, I had an email from a famous novelist's agent telling me that the novelist was far too busy, was taking on no speaking engagements at all -- and telling me (patronisingly) that "If we are ever to see another novel by <said novelist>, this is essential." Fine, except that the novelist seemed to be taking on heaps of speaking engagements all over the place, and in fact I saw him/her whenever I turned on the television.)
What annoyed me was the "not answering public questions" condition. Is this something that poets often demand? I was even more annoyed by a well-known transatlantic poet who was in California when I was there a few years ago and would "perform" but refuse (as I was told) to have questions from the audience. Certainly that appeared to be the rule -- engaging as her readings were.
Come back Andrew Motion.