Fran Lock

Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.

Culture Matters Presents: Poets without Portfolios
Friday, 28 January 2022 10:40

Culture Matters Presents: Poets without Portfolios

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters is pleased to invite you to the fifth date in our online reading series, with special guests Al Hutchins, Patrick Davidson Roberts, Peadar O'Donoghue, and Richard Arkwright.

The idea behind this reading series is very simple: on a monthly basis Culture Matters hosts two poets from a fellow indie press alongside two poets from Culture Matters. The aim is to build solidarity between small presses and emerging artists. We feel there is far too much emphasis on competition within contemporary poetry, and we want to push back against this trend. Poetry is big enough for all of us, and we are stronger together.

This month, because it's the New Year and we wanted to start with something a little different, we're extending our welcome to poets who are currently without a forever-home for their work with hope of bringing their wonderful writing to wider attention.

Please do join us in welcoming Al Hutchins, Patrick Davidson Roberts, Peadar O'Donoghue, and Richard Arkwright on Saturday 29th December at 7:00 PM GMT:

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Christmas Poetry Round Up
Sunday, 26 December 2021 11:24

Christmas Poetry Round Up

Published in Poetry

This quarter's round-up comes with seasonal solidarity and very best wishes to all our readers. It also comes rather belatedly. I have to admit that I have struggled to choose the books I would include in this selection. Not through lack of choice, but because 2021 afforded such an embarrassment of poetic riches, in the UK and beyond. This year both Culture Matters and Smokestack Books published finely wrought works steeped in the local lives of working-class people.

Chris Searle's meditative and empathetic collection, Over Eagle Pond (Culture Matters) is one such example, and Anna Robinson's Whatsname Street (Smokestack books) with its lively interrogation of communal history is another. Joelle Taylor's bravura exploration of visibility and voice, C+nto and Othered Poems (The Westborne Press) carved a place for butch and working-class lesbian women on the T.S Eliot Prize shortlist. This feels like a deserved and significant victory, as does the inclusion of Daniel Sluman's work of hybrid memoir and sparing lyric, Single Window (Nine Arches Press), which details with unflinching witness and tender intimacy the reality of disabled lives.

This year also saw two wry, intelligent explorations of blue-collar masculinity from Jake Hawkey and Ryan Quinn Flanagan. Hawkey's debut Breeze Block (Lumpen) is particularly focussed on the often complicated relationships we forge with lovers, friends, family, and with our wider communities. Quinn Flanagan's A Tripwire for the Soul (Marathon Books) is also a collection much concerned with dailiness, and with our misfiring attempts to communicate. I read both books in concert with each other, and found their directness, their deadpan and self-deprecating humour deeply refreshing.

Alan Morrison's Anxious Corporals (Smokestack Books) is also a work of notable scholarship, mental energy, and lyric reach, exploring, elegising and performing a lost working-class autodidactism. These books deserve more sustained attention than I can afford them here, and many I will return to. But for now, I wanted to signal just how much exciting working-class poetry is happening, and that I did not choose my favourites lightly. These are:


Rocksong by Golnoosh Nour (Verve Poetry Press, 2021):

“I look at my brother through our screens” writes Nour in 'Through a Screen Darkly': “he watches me watch him feed his cat half his steak;/ she is conspicuously Persian, with an air of arrogance and/ trauma, just like my brother, and perhaps like me.” I think this is my favourite poem in Rocksong, the hotly anticipated debut collection from Golnoosh Nour, published by Verve Poetry Press in October this year. It is my favourite piece because it perfectly encapsulates Nour's key thematic concerns: specifically, the fraught interplay between arrogance and trauma, and the ways in which identity is mediated, distorted, and fractured by all the traumas and technologies of un-belonging.

To put it another way, Rocksong is a supremely decadent book, where “decadence” is not the feckless hedonism of over-privileged fuckwits, but the evidence of and resistance to the coercive demands of capitalism, heteronormativity, and poetry's implied white audience. It is a book much occupied with excess; excess as both a language tactic and a mode of being. Nour's speakers are variously raging, sarcastic, and unrepentantly perverse. Together the poems create a bravura performance of singular originality and wit; they swagger and they coax, they threaten and cajole, they – to quote Genet, which feels apt – “use menace, use prayer”. In this way, Nour brings a baroque sensibility to the shallowness and cruelty of our contemporary moment. Grotesque and tender by turns, Nour makes no accommodation to the Poetry Gods of Tedious Ironic Distance, but erects instead a dangerous and resplendent imaginary, a Tehran of the mind, her own “wicked capital,/ saturated with gold oil, dripping with black glory” ('The Wicked Capital').

Nour's poems negotiate a queer exile: which is not the same as absence from a beloved native land. It is the kind of spatial dysphoria that takes place when no “home” accepts you; the specific pain of being other to everyone, and the work of carving a kingdom for yourself from the insubstantial stuff of words, hashtags, references, and other assorted cultural ephemera. Rocksong takes this work seriously, most seriously of all its responsibility to joy, to sensual and aesthetic pleasure. In its steely refusal of victimhood, this is a defiant and daring collection, an anthem for our dark days.


The System Compendium by Zak Ferguson (Sweat Drenched Press, 2021):

The System Compendium is a book astonishing in its extent, its scope, and its intensity. An ambitious and beguiling mixed media manifesto, it shifts between genre, typography, point of view, image, and text in ways often disorienting but always purposeful. “THIS IS NOT A BOOK” begins Ferguson, underlined and in all caps, “THIS IS A STATEMENT”. And indeed it is: the work strains at the limits of form; of what a book can and ideally “should” be according to the straight-jacketing dictates of typical/ neurotypical literature.

Described as an “autistic manifesto”, the books seems to embody the non-trivial effort demanded of neurodivergent persons to navigate a society and a culture set up specifically to exclude them. It is not merely a book in which neurodivergence manifests in symptomatic or performative traces, but in which autism itself exerts a compelling power over the rethorics and aesthetics of literature; where it becomes a transformative tool with the power to renegotiate terms of textual and political encounter. To put it another way, The System Compendium challenges our orderly, linear habits of reading. It demands more from us than passive content imbibing, and it shakes our belief in a default “ideal reader”, specifically ourselves . As we grapple with and navigate the text, Ferguson turns the tables. We are the ones wrong-footed and unsteady, our attention pivoting wildly between sensory and ideological overwhelm as we attempt to assimilate this strange new territory.

If this sounds rather dry and worthy, don't let it put you off. Ferguson can sustain this remarkable endeavour because his writing is also bloody good. This, from the opening section gives you a flavour of unnerving hard-edged humour on offer: “Do you feel the pressure from my scarred fingertips?/ Thick with a new growth of protective skin. KEYBOARD... you're on my mind! (Baby you're always on my mind!)/ Constantly I need you to be extrapolated and built upon. In your functions and processes. You need the attention as much as me, like an abused animal. Beaten, pressed. Hardened, yet still prone to needing that one thing you are accustomed to or risk another night without that of which you and your basis have been evolved around./ Keyboards of the world – do you like your pleasurable abuse?” To read this is to think of Clarice Lispector’s ‘Água Viva’, reimagined, so that when Lispector writes that she is “a typewriter making the dry echo in the dark, humid dawn. I haven’t been human for a long time. They wanted me to be an object. I am an object. An object dirty with blood. An object that creates other objects and the machine creates us all. It makes demands. Mechanisms make endless demands on my life. But I don’t totally obey: if I have to be an object, let me be an object that screams” Ferguson is similarly entangled with his machine: through punning play and pop-cultural allusion, the text posits an intimate, tactile relationship between writer and apparatus, as the keyboard becomes further and further enmeshed in the speaker's writing and thinking processes, at once interlocutor, victim, other self. Throughout the book Ferguson explores typography and technology as methods for mediating and constituting different subject positions, particularly those considered “mad” or in some way outside the sanctioned grammars and syntaxes of polite society and good middle-class prosody.

This is a rich and complex book. It is also visually stunning, an art object of rare fascination. As Ferguson holds the notion of “the system” in its varied guises up to the light the reader finds their comforting commonplaces about language, society, technological process, and the potential of the human mind called into question.


Be Feared by Jane Burn (Nine Arches Press, 2021):

For those like me who have long enjoyed Jane Burn's work, her latest collection, Be Feared traverses familiar territory: myths, monsters and magical transformations abound; there is an attentive and clear-sighted regard for the natural world, along with an abiding concern for language, and its potential as prayer, as hex, or as charm. What distinguishes Be Feared from Burn's previous collections is perhaps the subtle and sustained merging of this Otherworld with its mundane and struggling shadow side: Burn's speakers are a polyvocal brood of selves, imperfectly held by the Real. The magic within is always looking for an out, barely contained either by daily life or the structural strictures of the poem. In consequence, her work is a masterful shape-shifting engagement with form, moving from sonnet to villanelle to the plaintive recitative chant. These poems feel restless, but the the effect is far from being haphazard. What impresses about this collection is the sense of search and purpose at work; form embodies the transformational magic that is the thematic heart of Burn's writing. These are poems as process, poems as a gradual becoming, a painful, beautiful moving-towards. Be Feared evinces an enviable control over language; throughout the collection language in fact functions as the medium of control, of tempering emotion and experience into the white hot steel of a cutting blade.

These are also poems whose use of language is strikingly original. I have written before about the ethics of scavenging, splicing, reusing and repurposing in the poetry of working-class women, and Burn makes the most adept and inventive use of these techniques. Here, nothing is wasted: an adjective might be a noun, a local dialect word might comfortably rub shoulders with an arcane ecclesiastical reference; pop-culture might intersect with fairytale. This follows a determination to use every available poetic resource –  a literary counterpart to the tools with which we negotiate life – but in Burn's hands it is more than this, she is so much more than an omnivorous enthusiast: Burn's use of language is joyful yet disciplined, and deployed with absolute precision. Every word is available, but not just any word will do. The magic resides in the choreography, which in this collection feels absolutely at the peak of its powers.

While the collection deals with fear, the poems present the various ways in which language may express, contain, banish or subvert that fear. It is a gathering of strength, a ferocious song of survival.


Underneath by Martin Hayes (Smokestack Books 2021):

It would be extremely difficult for Hayes – or indeed any writer – to top the political engagement, the intellectual and imaginative reach of Ox (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2021 ), with its sustained interaction with fable; its complex reckoning with the animal industrial complex and all the apparatus of mechanised suffering. To be sure, Underneath is a very different book. Although Hayes' characteristic concern with the multiple assaults and oppressions of our “gig economy” is still a driving and viscerally present force, his latest collection eschews allegory in favour of vividly rendered vignettes and shorter poems of empathetic portraiture. This strategy is simple but extremely effective: by focussing on the particularities of experience that beset individual workers, Hayes slowly builds our sense of them – and of ourselves – as a class cohort. The poems becomes small units of resistance, a place to extend the sustained attention and care seldom afforded workers as citizens or subjects. With patience, with humour, and with a sharp eye for eccentric detail, Hayes sets about rendering the occluded lives of workers visible.

Underneath, then, is necessarily a large book, and it is a testament to Hayes energy and charisma as a poet that the work does not feel over-extended or heavy. As is typical of Hayes' work, the language is deceptively direct while in no way plain or simplistic. Rather, Hayes judiciously deploys arresting images and pungent phrases: “all the supervisors in the world” as  moray eels with “jaws unpeeled and teeth sticking out” is one that will stay with me for a long while yet. Hayes is not a poet to drown the urgency of his message by loading every line with ore, instead the reader is struck by sudden flashes of gold.

And what is Hayes' message? It strikes me that Underneath is a compassionate call for global class solidarity; to see ourselves as part of a collective struggle in which the the individual – their unique culture, context, talents and sufferings – absolutely matter. What is Underneath is both the inscrutable and merciless functioning of the capitalist machine, but it is also the humanity of the workers Hayes brings to life with such clarity. The book is an act of rescue, from anonymity, from a system that wants desperately to see us as a homogenised mass of faceless economic units.  Underneath reminds us of what poetry is for, and for that I am grateful.

The Cursory Remix by Michał Kamil Piotrowski (Contraband Books, 2021):

As somebody who recently completed work on a collaborative translation project, I found this book, which is playfully sensitised to the ethics and aesthetics of translation both simulating and useful. Described as being “co-written” by Google Translate, The Cursory Remix translates passages from The Cursory Epic by Stephen Mooney into a language other than English, then back again, through the medium of Google's ubiquitous translation tool. In the process, context is stripped, nuance shaved, meaning skewed. Piotrowski's text becomes a meditation on the linguistic expressions of cultural hegemony: the hidden operations of power ceaselessly smuggled inside even the most benign-seeming of language encounters.

What is striking about the book, and about Piotrowski's process is that Google produces not merely “incorrect” translations, but subtle and suggestive shifts of meaning that complicate, extend and undercut the original. We find ourselves sifting and weighing the remix: what exactly is the associative affinity between a “friend” and a “sacrifice”? What is the exact difference between a “quest” and a “task”? Such questions are pressing, particularly within the context of capitalism, where we frequently find ourselves at the mercy of language manipulation: through small print, pseudo-speak, political and corporate propaganda. This is made achingly clear in the section entitled '[from the Cursory Epic 3.5 – The Cursory Spell Book:]' where government pronouncements about single mothers and benefit claimants are mangled just enough to expose their absurd and sinister nature.

But to my mind the most fascinating places in the book are the silences and gaps it proliferates: the moments when language technologies fail, producing a speculative space of possibility and vulnerable openness. As the book is “interactive”, following the form of a Choose Your Own Adventure story, the reader has no choice but to inhabit these silences, to work through and reckon with these myriad failures of communication. This is a collection retunes our attention to the fact that we are not merely language using subjects, but intimately and irrevocably subject to language.


William Blake at the Bridge Hotel: Ten Newcastle Poets, edited by Paul Summers (Culture Matters, 2021):

Although some of the voices collected in this anthology were previously known to me, others were a wonderful surprise. The work of Catherine Graham and Kathleen Kenny in particular has been one of my happiest discoveries this year. These poets exemplify the best of the work in this timely book, introduced and edited by Paul Summers and illustrated with haunting photographs by Dan Douglas. Graham and Kenny impress in both the quality of their attentive local witness, and their imaginative and empathetic reach across communities and throughout history.

This anthology feels important for a variety of reasons, not least because it challenges the implied position of London as England's literary and political centre. It offers proof, if any were needed, that the North East has its own rich and ever-evolving set of poetic traditions, intimately connected both to embodied experience and to class identity. An intimate and tactile sense of place is woven through the fabric of these poems, a sense of life as it is lived and language as it is spoken. This is a marvellous antidote to the cult of ironic distance that prevails throughout much of contemporary poetry, and where the expressive effects and unique eccentricities of accent and grammar are flattened or fetishised in the name of “good” prosody.

This collection treasures the particularity and the diversity of local lives to produce an anthology of poems that are materially and socially situated, historically and politically engaged, but most of all viscerally and inspiringly alive. Douglas' images lend the work an air of psycho-geographic haunting, where native place is not a backdrop, but a collaborator, shaping literary production and  sense of self. This anthology offers an artistic reckoning with the North East, with its political legacies and long continuities of struggle. It also provides a rare space of preservation and joy.

What is History, Discuss?
Sunday, 26 December 2021 10:36

What is History, Discuss?

Published in Poetry

What is History, Discuss?

“History is and was and so is that patch/ of pavement” begins 'What is History, Discuss?', the poem that opens Whatsname Street (Smokestack Books, 2021) by Anna Robinson. The collection provides an account of a Lambeth housing estate across the generations. It is a work that combines oral history, patient archival research, and deep sustained attention to the fleeting stuff of memory. In this poem, which I am sharing with you today, Robinson performs a gathering together of the fragmented and ephemeral “bits/ and bobs” from which we make a life. It is a history of remnants (“the loose change in my pocket”) and absences (“the fact that there is never any/ loose change in my pocket”). It is a working-class history.

By focussing on “that patch” of pavement, Robinson situates the reader within the poem. We see in real time what the speaker sees, the world, our world, mundane and material. This is the challenge implicit in Robinson's poem: we could occupy that patch of pavement; we could – and we do – occupy history. For working-class people this is a profound thought. History, as it has typically been taught and transmitted through neoliberal culture, positions poor and working people as a motiveless mass at the mercy of and subject to social and economic forces we can neither resist or comprehend. Robinson offers the poem as a place of retuned attention to the small and ordinary details of daily life. In doing so, the poem asks how we define history, and raises powerful questions about what – and who – is worthy of preservation.

The rich live on through their monuments, architectural and cultural. Buildings, statues, and street names all serve to capture the continuity of their lived experience, inscribing their memory onto public space; canonical art and literature archive and enshrine their histories and perspectives. They accumulate things, a legacy of silverware and fine china; leather-bound books and family portraits. These possessions come to constitute history: they're what museums are full of, just as literature is thick with their narratives, their ideas, their ideologies. How the rich lived and thought become naturalised as The Past.

Poor and working-class people have few enduring possessions, they have fewer opportunities to access art or literature and intervene in culture; they are excluded from the long posterity those things engender. How are their experiences to be stored or celebrated? This is where Robinson's poem is at its most radical; by evoking the perishable and the intangible (“a Brussels sprout”, “a bumble bee”, “a brown-tail moth”), the poem locates history elsewhere: vividly embodied, kept alive through word of mouth, through the sharing of our stories. The poem, like the Lambeth housing estate itself, is a layered, communal space. Unlike the mansions of the rich, history is not entombed there, it is created and negotiated. It is a continuing conversation.

'What is History, Discuss?' invites us to consider that what distinguishes working-class history from canonical history is its deep collective sensibility. Robinson's poetry does not create a monumental space, but a relational one. Perhaps there is no “History” as such, but a collection of vivid histories, plural, spun from the long threads of intergenerational memory.

Robinson's poem so struck me because history, and our place within it, has been much on my mind over the last few months. Participating in discussions at a number of working-class studies events, it has become clear to me that we are still grappling with what are frequently touted as these “unprecedented times”. I dislike that phrase intensely. Although our contemporary moment is chaotic and scary, it is hardly without precedent. It is, in fact, part of an endlessly repeating pattern. Our current crisis, reaching as it does across multiple axes of oppression – social, economic, ecological – does so in an acute causal relationship to capitalism. Where we are now is the logical conclusion to where we've been; it is the end result of prioritising money over the health of poor and working people, over our shared environment, our rights and our safety.

This is far from new: when a third of Europe's population was lost to the bubonic plague – itself spread through burgeoning channels of trade and military conquest – Europe's largest and wealthiest companies responded by concentrating their assets, allowing them to gain a greater share of the market and a deeper influence within governments. This historical situation has strong parallels to the mess we're in today: while struggling smaller businesses and individual persons in poverty must rely on the vanishingly scant support offered to them by the state and (more and more frequently) the charities that have all but replaced state assistance, large companies – mainly those involved in home delivery and contactless payment – are profiting greatly from the new trading conditions. It is the most vulnerable amongst us who suffer, whether in the Middle Ages or the twenty-first century.

Defusing challenges to the cultural status quo

What has also become clear to me is that there are few spaces within mainstream neoliberal discourse that openly discuss or acknowledge the recursive nature of working-class exploitation and suffering. Worse, there are precious few spaces that acknowledge the working classes at all. This is another of neoliberal culture's two-faced manoeuvres: the working class have no part in history, and yet we are routinely consigned to it. To be poor and working-class within neoliberal culture is to occupy the position of the absent subject. We are frequently told that the class system no longer exists, or our “credentials” as working-class people are continually questioned because we do not present as “typically” working-class according to tropes that others have invented about us.

Middle-class cultural elites filter class out of their world-view in ways that remove the experience of class-based oppression from black and minority ethnic people, while refusing to acknowledge the role racism plays in the perception and treatment of white working-class others. Through a representational model of cultural inclusion these same elites select their working-class ambassadors to comfortably confirm existing tropes: the older white male from the industrial north, for example. These tropes, as they appear in poetry, are often characterised by a nostalgia, a looking back that defuses potential threat (social or aesthetic), softens the language of experience, and makes safe what might otherwise be challenging to the cultural status quo.

Martin Hayes' poem 'where are the working class now' from his most recent collection Underneath (Smokestack Books, 2021), takes this blinkered representation of class to task. As with Robinson's poem it opens with a challenge: “imagine if all of the workers in this city were white”. The first twelve stanzas are a list of working-class trades practised by non-white persons, from “the Uber driving Somalian cabbie” to the “Ghanaian road sweeper”. These short stanzas have an incantatory quality; they serve not only to demonstrate the ethnic diversity of working-class experience, but to emphasise just how fundamental these workers are to the operation of the city, any city, and to society at large. Each short stanza ends on the single word: “white”, performing an almost uncomfortable act of erasure that reflects the way in which the classed experiences of these workers is erased from history and within culture, even at the moment it is enacted.

The repeated refrain “imagine if” is both an invitation and a provocation. It extends to Hayes’ worker-subjects the space and consideration seldom afforded them as citizens. It also forces the reader into a confrontation with their own unconscious assumptions. It requires an enlarging of our world-view, our solidarity, our empathetic reach. In the final six stanzas, Hayes repeats the lines “who would/ then/ be able to split us/ apart/ see?” The lines themselves are split apart into short, jagged syllabic units, serving to create a tremendous amount of emphatic force. Each word is given its own weight, articulated like a fist thumped into a palm. The language is blunt, but it needs to be: this is important. It is also simple. If it feels complex or difficult, then that is a measure of just how successfully we have been divided. Hayes' use of both “imagine” and “see” is the necessary balance between close attention to material conditions, and the vision and the courage to picture them otherwise.

The poem ends with the question: do we see “why/ they did that?”, evoking the age-old divide and conquer tactics of moneyed power elites. There is rage in these lines, but there is also hope and defiance: disunity is not inherent or natural. If it was, they wouldn't have to work so hard to create it. Change begins with a simple act of recognition, an expression of class solidarity. When we acknowledge the class-based oppression of non-white persons our sense of history also expands; our history is intimately and vividly local, but it is also wide, networked, and global; multiple and intersecting.

Struggle and the UCS work-in

'Struggle' by Jim Aitken, the final poem I want to share with you today, echoes the hope and defiance of Hayes' piece. The poem was originally written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the U.C.S. (Upper Clyde Shipbuilders) work-in. On July 31st 1971, over 8000 shipyard workers took possession of the four biggest shipyards on the Upper Clyde, to stage not a strike, but a work-in, organising and working together to run the yards themselves. Heath's Conservative government planned to close the shipyards, making 6,000 of the 8,500 shipyard workers employed by U.C.S. instantly redundant, and causing untold misery for their families and communities. So workers fought back, supported by marches, concerts, public collections and other fundraising activities. A support fund of nearly £250,000 was raised, and reports of workers' meetings were broadcast around the world. The work in continued into February and March of 1972, when the government reversed its decision not to support UCS.

This was a pivotal moment in the story of working-class resistance, so it is hardly surprising that it remains spectacularly unattended by mainstream historical discourse, or absorbed into a broader narrative of repression, fragmentation and failure within the labour movement. And yet our history survives. Reading Aitken's poem I was reminded that as a child, before I ever knew what the U.C.S. was, I could give you the chorus of the Matt McGinn song, 'Yes, yes, U.C.S.': “Yes, Yes, U.C.S./ Tell them on the radio, tell them on the press/ Want my job and I want no less/ No more dole day doldrums.” It is often through such subaltern cultural forms: the chant, the folksong, the poem, that our history persists and is handed on.

What is immediately striking about Aitken's poem is its focus not on explaining or detailing the U.C.S. work-in but in attending to the subjective and collective experience of the work-in for those within the labour movement. This is important because it challenges the implied audience for poetry. It tells us something of the social life of the poem, how it is to be circulated and shared, and by whom it is to be received. 'Struggle' has been published in the anthology A Rose Loupt Oot, in celebration and commemoration of the work-in; by the Scottish Socialist Party, and in Community Education newsletters. In addition to which it has been read at various events. It has a lively, politically engaged public life. It is not merely a place of preservation, but a site of potential reactivation, affirming and invigorating shared political commitments.

The poem proceeds slowly, in self-contained three-lined stanzas, each one encapsulating a difficult thought, as the speaker weighs their reasons for participating in the work-in. The “struggle” is not only a class struggle, fought in the shipyards, it is a mental and emotional struggle, a raising of consciousness that must begin within the self. I believe it is this negotiation between inner and external struggle that makes Aitken's poem so interesting and important. The fourth stanza of 'Struggle' marks a shift, a pivotal realisation that it is not whether the action is won or lost, but how it changes those within it, and inspires those who come after that matters. This is a brave and difficult thought. Social and political change are often slow. Our sense of ourselves as part of history must account for this fact, must reckon with the idea that we will not be the ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts, but that we are links in a long chain. We do what we do not to secure a place in some dusty posterity for ourselves, but to make the living present better for future others.

In the fifth stanza Aitken uses simple but finely wrought organic imagery: “They awaken and grow/ like desert seeds/ receiving rain” which frames the experience of political solidarity as necessary, natural, and nourishing. What I find so affecting about this piece as a whole and this stanza in particular is its lack of clamour or aggression: “struggle” is understood first and foremost as an innate desire to live and to grow, and it happens in slow-time, across generations. It is as immediate and visceral as a strike or a work-in, but it is also the building up of movements over years, the seeding of ideas, the changing of minds. Again, the poem frames the actions and history of working-class people as part of a living and interconnected whole.

All of these poems complicate and extend our idea of what history might be, of what our history is. These poems show us that it is not a smooth progressive arc, but that it is entangled, recursive and complicated. It is also created by people within social contexts, not merely something we are subject to or excluded from. We are capable of making history as well as experiencing it. We are not only witnesses; we shape and tell our own stories. Although poor and working-class people have not typically been trusted to be the authors and archivists of our experiences, we carry within our communities and within ourselves an incredibly rich fund of memories and embodied knowledge. These memories and this knowledge surface within our poetry, which offers us an important place of infiltration into the historical record. Poetry also extends a space to others, offers a lens through which to apprehend the myriad networked connections between poor and exploited people globally.

A wise friend of mine recently told me that “history tells us the facts, poetry tells us how it feels”. If we are to understand our own history, we need testimony as much as we need evidence, and poetry combines these facets more than any other art form. In the last decade or so, working-class histories have increasingly become the objects of study, but through poetry and song they also have the potential to be the means of resistance, to strike a light for others.


What is History, Discuss?

by Anna Robinson

History is and was and so is that patch
of pavement where one tiny leaf shape
is never wet no matter how much rain.
It’s in the shards of clay pipes on the banks
of the Thames and the salt-glaze fragments.
It’s in the loose change in my pocket
and the fact that there is never any
loose change in my pocket. It’s in the bits
and bobs, the fairy on the rock cake,
at the foot of our stairs. It’s t’ick
as a coddle and mild as milk.
There’s a king and queen and offspring
and they’re effing and blinding or not –
‘cause that’s common! It’s in the darkness,
the rose moon, a clear deep navy sky
and a box of Price’s candles to light
the longest street market in London
where we ply, plight and sing a bit.
It’s in the pain of home and the urge
to command that pain with real true facts.
It is what it is, although that’s contentious.
It’s a bumble bee, a Brussels sprout,
and sometimes, even, a brown-tail moth.

Reprinted with kind permission of Smokestack Books


where are the working class now

by Martin Hayes

where are the working class now
by Martin Hayes
imagine if all of the workers in this city were white
imagine that
the Uber driving Somalian cabbie
the Filipino nanny
the Columbian cleaner
the Brazilian courier
imagine that
the Nigerian traffic warden
the Afghan phone repair stall owner
the Indian corner shop owner
the Thai manicurist
if all of the workers in this city were white
the Lebanese kebab seller
the Syrian car washer
the Ghanaian road sweeper
imagine if all of the workers in this city were white
who would
be able to split us
why they did that
made believe
that words
said often enough
could separate us
if the colour of our blood
and the stench of our sweat
was more important
than the colour of our skin
who would
be able to split us
they did that?

Reproduced with kind permission of Smokestack Books



by Jim Aitken

Not to certainly means
worsening conditions
inevitable defeat.
To engage in action
even if you lose
means dignity at least.
It also means
just could mean
that you actually win.
But it’s more than that
for in the process
people change.
They awaken and grow
like desert seeds
receiving rain.
And give to others
a sense of vision
and possible dreams.


Anna Robinson's publications include Songs from the flats (Hearing Eye, 2006), The Finders of London (Enitharmon, 2010) – shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre Prize – Into the Woods (Enitharmon, 2014) and Night Library (Stonewood, 2015). She teaches at the University of East London.

Martin Hayes has lived in the Edgware Road area of London all of his life. He played schoolboy football for Arsenal and Orient, and cricket for Middlesex Colts. Asked to leave school when he was 15, he has worked as a leaflet distributor, accounts clerk, courier, telephonist, recruitment manager and a control room supervisor. His books include Letting Loose the Hounds (2001), When We Were Almost Like Men (2015), The Things Our Hands Once Stood For (2018), Where We Get Magic From (2021), Ox (2021), and most recently Underneath (2021)

Jim Aitken is a poet, dramatist and essayist. He also tutors in Scottish Cultural Studies in Edinburgh and works with the Council's Outlook programme for people with mental health issues. He has several literary and cultural essays on the Culture Matters website. In 2020 he edited A Kist of Thistles: radical poetry from Scotland and in 2021 edited a companion prose version called Ghosts of the Early Morning Shift. Both books are published and available here.

The Cry of the Poor
Monday, 20 September 2021 09:37

The Cry of the Poor

Published in Books

The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty, is selected and edited by Fran Lock, and features poetry, short stories, life-writing, essays and art by over one hundred contributors from around the world.

This ambitious anthology asks urgent and compelling questions about what poverty is, who it affects, and what it feels like. In doing so it carves a little space for many voices and experiences not often heard within mainstream contemporary literature.

The Cry of the Poor approaches poverty from many different angles, exploring the fraught intersections of poverty with family, labour, gender, disability, race, ethnic and cultural heritage. Throughout each of the five sections of the book, poverty is presented in its various manifestations, be they material, emotional, political or spiritual. The reader is offered provocative and unsettling glimpses of poor and working-class life, but there are also moments of tenderness and joy, ribaldry and resistance, as in Zach Murphy's finely honed vision of escape, 'Rose Knows', or Jane Burn's ultimately triumphant hymn to jumble sale scavenging in 'Jumble Sale Rider of the 80’s Cheap Clothes Apocalypse'.

The work is rich and varied because the cry of the poor is rich and varied, never merely abject, begging or downtrodden. There are stories of hope and inspiration here. There are moments of quiet reflection and rigorous thought. There are flashes of humour and of anger. There is mourning, pain, protest, and love—a chorus of voices expressing and demanding the kind of love that could power the transformation of society.

The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty, selected and edited by Fran Lock, ISBN 978-1-912710-41-6. For addresses in the UK and Republic of Ireland, £12 inc. p. and p.....

For the rest of the world, £12 plus £5 p. and p......

The Cry of the Poor
Monday, 20 September 2021 09:33

The Cry of the Poor

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters is proud to announce the publication and launch of The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty, selected and edited by Fran Lock.

Featuring poetry, short stories, life-writing, essays and art by over one hundred contributors from around the world, this ambitious anthology asks urgent and compelling questions about what poverty is, who it affects, and what it feels like. In doing so it carves a little space for many voices and experiences not often heard within mainstream contemporary literature; for the “unseen, the in between” ('My People', Tracey Pearson, p.22).

The Cry of the Poor approaches poverty from many different angles, exploring the fraught intersections of poverty with family, labour, gender, disability, race, ethnic and cultural heritage. It is divided into five sections: 'Who We Are: Writing about daily life'; 'What we do: Writing about work, working, and not working'; 'A Place for Us: Writing about home, homelessness, exile and belonging'; 'With a raised fist: Writing in rage, protest, and defiance'; and 'In solidarity and in sorrow: Writing about loss and despair, hope and faith'. 

Throughout each section, poverty is presented in its various manifestations, be they material, emotional, political or spiritual, so that James O' Brien's grimly topical 'The Suicide Sanctions: “A parish bier burdened with the ghosts of capital,/ Eking out a funeral pace to the food bank” (p.162) shares space with Sarah Wedderburn's melancholic and subtle 'Sleeping Pilgrim': “Paths are my grace,/ their end a cathedral of stars” (p.199).

The Cry of the Poor offers the reader provocative and unsettling glimpses of poor and working-class life, as in Neimo Askar's beautiful 'Dua for Black boys': “this world holds/ an awaiting cemetery for Black bodies” (p.26) and in the vivid and arresting extract from Karl Parkinson's The Blocks: “Neighbours on top uv ya, each side uv ya, underneath ya. Weird single men wit beards n stinkin hallways, dirty curtains not washed in ten years, windows always gettin broken. Small grey concrete pram-sheds wit wooden doors dat held bikes n prams in dem, sum turned inte pigeon lofts n dog sheds n smoke dens n sex dungeons” ('Georgie', p.179).

But there are also moments of tenderness and joy, ribaldry and resistance, as in Zach Murphy's finely honed vision of escape, 'Rose Knows': “From this view, the falling leaves look like fluttering butterflies. Rose knows that when she comes down she’ll be in a lot of trouble. So she squints up at the sun and gives the balloon some more power.” (p.198), or Jane Burn's ultimately triumphant hymn to jumble sale scavenging in 'Jumble Sale Rider of the 80’s Cheap Clothes Apocalypse': “Poverty made you thrill at the mining/ of a table top’s rummaged vein eyes out/ for Taccini Tammy Girl Sweater Shop Squashed pixie boots/ Something a bit Bananarama Something mohair/ batwing stonewashed Something nice” (p.19).

The work is rich and varied because the cry of the poor is rich and varied, never merely abject, begging or downtrodden. There are stories of hope and inspiration here. There are moments of quiet reflection and rigorous thought. There are flashes of humour and of anger. There is mourning, pain, protest, and love—a chorus of voices expressing and demanding the kind of love that could power the transformation of society.

Poverty is not a tragic accident or a force of nature. It is caused by a lack of love, the love, care and compassion we should feel for one another as suffering mortal beings, which is the foundation of both true communism and basic human decency. Heed The Cry of the Poor, for it is the cry of all of us.

The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty, selected and edited by Fran Lock, ISBN 978-1-912710-41-6.

For addresses in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, £12 inc. p. and p.....

For the rest of the world, £12 plus £5 p. and p....
Sisterhood, Socialism, and Struggle: Poetry and the Work of Solidarity
Tuesday, 14 September 2021 09:49

Sisterhood, Socialism, and Struggle: Poetry and the Work of Solidarity

Published in Poetry

As I sit down to write this column the 40th anniversary of the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp is fast approaching, with hundreds of women planning to retrace the 130 mile march from Cardiff to Greenham in order to honour the legacy of those who founded the camp, and who spearheaded one of the biggest – certainly one of the most culturally conspicuous – women-led protests in the UK since the campaign for women's suffrage. A number of discussions surrounding the march have framed it as an act of solidarity with both our radical activist foresisters, and with women living under conditions of armed occupation, conflict, and the threat of war globally. The anniversary provides an opportunity to reaffirm the aims and objectives of the original camp, the ultimate goal of which was not only the removal of missile silos from Greenham Common, but a radical dismantling of the military-industrial complex worldwide.

While this last ambition remains unrealised, the legacy of the Greenham Peace Camp has continued to serve as an inspiration to future generations of activists and artists, offering a powerful model for non-violent direct action, and for collective creativity. From the earliest months of the camp, the women at Greenham Common produced their own newsletters, booklets and broadsides, incorporating and merging an array of forms from analysis to anecdote; to sketches, songs, drawings and poetry. These publications served a variety of purposes both inward and outward-facing: to circulate information, to generate discussion into demands and tactics, and to persuade and inspire new participants. These various projects also provided the women with an opportunity for creative expression often lacking within other contexts. They situated and prioritised the women as a cohort of thinkers, artists and makers, fostering a sense of shared identity.

Poetry was integral to this creative outpouring. One of the most iconic and arresting images to emerge from the camp is 'Dancing on Silos' by Rassia Page. The photograph features a ring of women in silhouette, holding hands and swaying on top of the missile silos while two police cars idle ominously in the foreground, and a cordon of barbed wire stretches off beyond the edges of the image. Page's poster appeared in City Limits magazine with the poem 'Life Against Death' by Dinah Livingstone superimposed onto the picture. Livingstone's poem juxtaposes the prosaic details of camp life: 'soggy sandwiches, brandy, ox tail soup' against the enormity of the threat of nuclear war: 'seeds of destruction whose sorrowful journey/  is speedy doomsday'. Faced with the might of the military industrial complex, the women in the poem appear immensely vulnerable, and yet it is the 'uneasy personnel' in 'sinister looking vehicles' who are 'protecting themselves from the women'. Livingstone's poem shares an intimate and detailed experience of camp life; it also provides an eloquent rationale for the actions of the protestors. It contextualises Page's photograph, offering a visceral and immediate insight into what it was like to be at the camp and exactly what was at stake for the women in protesting. It communicates both the shared vulnerability and the collective political power of the protestors in a way that straightforward reportage may have struggled to articulate.

Women and war

Throughout history women and girls have suffered – and continue to suffer – disproportionately at the hands of the military-industrial complex. The experience of women during and after war is particularly grim: existing inequalities are magnified as social institutions break down, rendering them ever more vulnerable to numerous forms of exploitation. Among the most traumatic of these is sexual exploitation and gender-based violence, which have profound and long-lasting psychosocial consequences. Other gendered effects include the recruitment of girls as child soldiers, girls and women becoming internally and externally displaced refugees, and the collapse of public health services rendering reproductive health care inadequate or unavailable.

Because of the central role of women in maintaining the fabric of family and community through times of war, they become tactical targets of some significance during armed conflict. Owing to their unequal status within the majority of patriarchal societies women and girls of all ages share a uniquely sharp experience of displacement, loss of home and property, the involuntary disappearance of relatives, poverty, rape, sexual and other forms of slavery, and sexual abuse. All of this while their responsibilities toward family and community remain formidable. Armed occupation and economic sanctions hit women hardest, while their gendered suffering is symbolically deployed as the justification for both these strategies.

With the Taliban now firmly in control of Afghanistan, the immediate future for women and girls in the country appears monumentally bleak. This bleakness is not unfamiliar. Following the overthrow of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1992 by the western-backed Mujahideen, the situation for women and girls in the region deteriorated rapidly: treated as second-class citizens by successive regimes, women continue to be the foremost victims of western aggression.

It has always been with us, across the globe and throughout recorded history, in Western Europe past and present, as well as the Middle East. Talk on social media turns on the need for feminist solidarity with the women of Afghanistan, but what does that look like? And how do we meaningfully and practically manifest this solidarity through cultural activity? In broad-left discourse, the notion of solidarity is everywhere invoked, but what do we actually mean when we use that word? And how might we achieve a measure of it through poetry?

These are big questions, without one single easy answer, although every so often I am fortunate enough to glimpse a possible route through the fog. For example, I have recently completed a project, working with Hari Rajaledchumy, for Poetry Translation Centre, to translate into English a collection of poems by the Sri Lankan Tamil poet Anar. Anar was born in 1974 in East Sri Lanka, and her early childhood was marked by intense outbreaks of ethnic violence that would later push the country into civil war. During this period education was not considered a priority for women and girls in general, and for the daughters of orthodox Muslim households in particular. Anar’s own education was interrupted when her home town of Sainthamaruthu was caught up in the chaos of the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s withdrawal from the region.

Her family’s attempts to obtain the necessary paperwork for Anar to sit her O Level exams were consistently thwarted by military-imposed curfews and civic disarray. As a result, her schooling stopped, and she became confined to her home from the age of sixteen. Throughout these difficult and precarious years Anar’s one outlet was the radio, on which she would listen to poetry being recited. It stirred something in her, and eventually she began to work in secret on poems of her own, submitting her work under pseudonyms, gathering inspiration and encouragement from an emerging cohort of writers.

I don’t intend to share Anar’s biography in its entirety here, but it does feel important to talk a little about her life and work in the context of ‘sisterhood’, because it offers proof, if any were needed, that the oppression of women and girls is a global continuum. How many girls like Anar are now living in Afghanistan? Or in Palestine? How many girls throughout the world and throughout history? It is enough to make your head spin.

I also wanted to share something of Anar’s story because it speaks very specifically to poetry: what it can do for us, and what we can do – through poetry – for each other. It speaks to the idea of solidarity, and how this might be forged and encountered on the space of the page and within the breath of the poem. To talk about this, I'm going to invoke one of feminism's most radical and compassionate foresisters, the black lesbian activist and poet, Audre Lorde.

A communion of compassionate subjects

Lorde insisted throughout her life as a writer, thinker, and political activist upon sustained attention to the granular particularities of women’s experience, and upon the recognition of “the fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic”. It is a demand for otherness and diversity of voice within activist cohorts and within art and poetry as a precursor to radical change, and it stands in defiance to the homogenising inclination of mainstream white feminism, which used a white, western subject-position unreflectively as a model for all human experience.

Crucially, this does not mean that Lorde foresaw feminism’s collapse into a morass of oppositional interests, but rather that she dared to envisage feminism as a network of varied experiences and positions, coalescing around the common goal of liberation for all women. Lorde’s writing about her own struggle with illness is telling in this regard:

The women who sustained me [...] were Black and white, old and young, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual, and we all shared a war against the tyrannies of silence. They gave me strength and concern without which I could not have survived intact. Within those weeks of acute fear came the knowledge – within the war we are all waging with the forces of death, subtle and otherwise, conscious or not – I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.

Lorde’s suffering becomes an occasion for discovery, a kind of self-revelation within a community of female fellow sufferers, a communion of compassionate subjects. To speak and act out of our experience of suffering, acknowledging that this is something we share – this is the measure of true solidarity.

From casualty to warrior

Which is all well and good, but how do we transform this feeling from a vague rhetorical gesture into meaningful practical action? How do we move – in Lorde’s words – from casualty to warrior? This is a timely and pressing question. Speaking to a Palestinian friend over social media we got into a conversation about how “solidarity” had become the left-wing equivalent to the Christian right’s familiar “thoughts and prayers”, ie aimed in the general direction of any person or group experiencing hardship, as a substitute for actually having to do anything. Solidarity as a noun, my friend said, is no use to anyone. For solidarity to be meaningful, to be worthy of the name, it has to be a verb.

And for poetry this raises a difficulty. In recent history, at least in the west, poets have not had a great deal of political or economic power. We cannot impose sanctions or meaningfully withdraw our labour. Our work is largely solitary, our wider “communities” disparate and scattered. If we went on strike nobody would notice or care. Our ability to affectively mobilise and protest is limited. Our field of cultural activity is so specialised, subjective and personal, that we often fail to form recognisable labour cohorts. This is not to say that poets are not politically engaged and active as individuals, but that collectively the pressure we are able to exert is minimal.

Or is it? I find myself returning to the work of Anar, to our translation project, and to the story of Anar’s girlhood, listening to poetry on the radio, the volume turned down low to avoid detection. Poetry was not inconsequential for Anar, and the act of writing poetry was not for her an absorbing hobby, but a life-sustaining necessity that grew out of the particular pressured context of a country in tumult. There might have been grave consequences for her daring to write, but she wrote nonetheless, and in turn inspired others. None of this would not have been possible had she not apprehended first, through the airwaves, that community of compassionate subjects to which she could aspire and belong. I also find myself thinking that translation at its best can enact a form of reflective solidarity: furthering the reach of voices and experiences that might otherwise have been excluded from national poetic canons. This matters because it allows us to understand ourselves as women as part of a global struggle. It allows us to see each other and ourselves in all our difference and collective strength.

Preservation, relation, radial witnessing

Poetry, and literature more broadly, may also work through archival research to construct counter-narratives, undermining the willed collective amnesia that attends both the history and rights of our most vulnerable and exploited citizens. The University of Glasgow’s interdisciplinary centre for the study of historical slavery is a fine example of such a project, but we might also consider the work of Jenny Mitchell, whose previously unpublished poem 'Shades of Jamaica', I am sharing today. Mitchell's work combines patient historicity with intense lyric writing to create a work of preservation, relation and radical imaginative empathy. Her 2019 collection 'Her Lost Language' (Indigo Dreams Publishing) traces the impact of British transatlantic enslavement on black lives and family dynamics. As Helen Hayes MP has noted of Mitchell's work, her poems “articulate the deep and long lasting impact of the horrific and shameful history of slavery on individual families, communities and relationships, and especially women.”

Mitchell and Clare Shaw, whose poem, 'Information for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Rape', I am also sharing today, are united by a belief in the power and potential of language not only to express the self and make sense of the world, but perhaps also to liberate and heal. In 'Information for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Rape' Shaw expands the definition of 'information', embroidering the unadorned rhetoric of the institutional guide, with arresting lyric images; using metaphor and rich figurative language to broach an experience that often feels resistant to articulate disclosure: 'There are many reasons/ survivors do not tell.' writes Shaw, ' Most whale song cannot be heard/ by the human ear, yet it travels for/ ten thousand miles, which is more than/  the world, and it sounds like dreaming.' Shaw's poetry is underpinned by her work as a mental health educator, and across both contexts her faith in language – and poetry in particular – as a transformative tool for individuals, communities and societies is paramount. Hearing 'Information for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Rape' for the first time I was reminded of the Adrienne Rich quote that “Every poem breaks a silence that had to be overcome.” I am also reminded of a quote from Anar that Hari Rajaledchumy shared in the introduction to our translation project: “My poetry is about that fire known as language, which a woman carries under water.”

Poetry can offer support and form alliances. It can also be a tool in and of itself. Anthologies in particular create a diverse and intersectional poetic commons. Solidarity, frequently, is less about the noise we make than the space we afford for the stories of others to be heard.

The poems I am presenting today stage an important act of witnessing, offering an opportunity to connect and to be inspired through the empathetic reach and lyric energy of three very different poets who nevertheless share and articulate an experience of oppression as women. In sisterhood and solidarity,

Shades of Jamaica

by Jenny Mitchell

1. negro: dark, sable, dusky

sun licks me in the master’s field like fire whipped down by their god       my hands are blood from chopping cane till day turns rock          we women in a row              all starved to work 

the overseer shouts you slaves are devil made         i the blackest prey beneath him in the dark he has the nerve to kiss my mouth          his skin is shaped like death              black he calls again hush said to my child left in the shade with other pickney to grow wild            she calls him sir when she is his still       my body smiles to see her cheeny face    she’ll serve the master under his red roof like flame                    i pray he learns her books                                cave headed girls who scribe their english words are close to free           i pray she sees me wave bent in the crop

2. mulatto: mixed breed; young mule

House maid like it doesn’t hurt cleaning all of master’s rooms.
Ornate he calls a cuckoo clock, red sofas and a walking stick.
I have to clean ornate with care or feel the stick across my back.
This English man is dirty skinned though money laden.
He has me on my knees to polish marble stairs into a looking glass.
I see my mother’s face, too fini-fini though she smiles.
When polishing the banisters, I whisper how he names my legs
good thighs, strong calves. Red meat chopped for his larder
can’t breed a child as pale as him. He named her at my breast.
Raised to a dandy girl, serving gift for his new wife.

3. quadroon: a quarter negro; offspring of a mulatto and a white

Preparing mistress for her bed, she cries
Your hands do not look clean when they’re scrubbed raw.
I show my palms, begin to brush her hair.
She slaps me hard. I know the reason why.
My shining locks outrank limp curls.
I dare not call the master to be saved.
He always says how beautiful I am.
She takes it out on me when we’re alone,
prays for God to save my half-breed soul.
I want to scream a quarter black, no more.


Information for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Rape

by Clare Shaw

Though sexual abuse takes many forms,
salmon will find their way home, I have seen them
leaping up falls, there was nothing calm
about them, the current and cold
could not stop them, they were sky-born
and silver. There are many reasons

survivors do not tell.
Most whale song cannot be heard
by the human ear, yet it travels for
ten thousand miles, which is more than
the world, and it sounds like dreaming,
like wolf and bird.

Flashbacks are recollections from the past
and in Tromso, the sun will not rise from
November to January.
You may feel you are going crazy
but the worst is over,
and though you are very afraid

when their oxygen tank blew apart
a quarter of a million miles from earth
the crew of Apollo 13 made it back
unharmed. Remember to breathe.
The Shaman travels beyond the ordinary
and an animal walks beside you,

you are power
and though you couldn’t remove yourself
from the situation you were in,
there are 7.422 billion people in the world
and rising, you are not alone.
The sun will not set in Tromso

between May and June
but it’s the winter that people love
when the ice glows blue
and the night is a colour of its own.
Sometimes lights will dance in the sky
and though it’s minus thirty

it will be enough to warm you,
to sustain you, enough
to convince you to stay.

Taken from the forthcoming collection Towards a General Theory of Love (Bloodaxe, 2022)


Killing a Woman

by Anar

Here is a battlefield,
a convenient clinic, a silo
of superabundant supply,
a permanent prison.
Here is a woman's body,
a sacrificial slab.

The heart’s ache, the pulse
of life, belongs to us both, but

for women it will not take root.

Before my eyes
my murder is happening.

Translated by Hari Rajaledchumy and Fran Lock from the forthcoming collection Leaving (Poetry Translation Centre, 2021)

Jenny Mitchell's debut collection, Her Lost Language, was joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Prize 2019. Her second collection, Map of a Plantation, was published this year. She recently won the Folklore Prize and the Ware Poetry Prize.

Clare Shaw is a co-director of the Kendal Poetry Festival. She has three poetry collections with Bloodaxe - Straight Ahead, Head On and Flood: her forthcoming collection was awarded a Northern Writers' Award and will be published by Bloodaxe in 2022.

Anar (Izzat Rehana Mohammed Azeem) is a distinguished voice in the Sri Lankan Tamil poetry scene with 5 critically acclaimed collections to her name. She has been contributing her poems and articles to literary magazines and national media since the early 90s. Her books have won several awards, most notably the Government of Sri Lanka's National Literature Award, the Tamil Literary Garden’s (Canada) Poetry Award, Aaathmanam Award (Chennai), SPARROW Award (Mumbai), and the Vijay TV Excellence in the Field of Literature (Sigaram Thotta Pengal) Award.

Hari Rajaledchumy is an artist/writer currently based in London, UK. Some of her recent writings have appeared in Manalveedu (India) and Aaakkaddi (France). She previously worked as a translator on Kim Longinotto’s 2013 documentary film ‘Salma’, based on the life and works of Indian Tamil poet Salma. In 2021, she co-curated the inaugural edition of QCSL study programme aimed at strengthening queer cultural production within Sri Lanka.

Anxious Corporals: Fran Lock interviews Alan Morrison
Monday, 30 August 2021 10:25

Anxious Corporals: Fran Lock interviews Alan Morrison

Published in Cultural Commentary

Fran Lock interviews Alan Morrison about Anxious Corporals, a polemical and poetic history of post-war working-class culture, which can be ordered here

Fran Lock: Hi Alan, thanks for taking the time to talk to me about Anxious Corporals. The term ‘anxious corporals’ was first coined by Arthur Koestler to describe working-class servicemen with a need to ‘satisfy some/ Vitamin deficiency of the mind’, not for the purposes of self-advancement, but to fill some kind of existential void or to make sense of the fragile and threatening world around them. I wonder if you could start by talking a little bit about this feeling of anxiety, which is communicated in the language and restless lyric flow of the poem. Do you have any thoughts about why, at a contemporary moment that is surely ever more precarious and insecure, there doesn’t seem to be a corresponding drive or thirst for knowledge?

Alan Morrison: Anxiety is underneath everything I do, particularly creatively, it’s the conductor of my thoughts and words and ideas; also an obsessiveness, which very much comes through in the obsessional pull of this poem, of the phrasings punctuated only with commas, giving a breathless almost panicky quality.

Creativity and self-expression are essentially anxious acts. Arguably life itself is a state of anxiety, of anticipation, apprehension, excitement, dread, I take quite a Kierkegaardian angle (which can also be exhausting). But on a more personal level, I’m a lifelong sufferer of anxiety so I suppose this comes through in what I write, and what I write about.

My tendency to compose in an almost stream-of-consciousness outpouring of lines and phrasings with only commas is something that’s crept into my poetry in the last couple of years. It’s not really a conscious thing, it just feels natural to me now, and more liberating, to write in this way, for some reason I’ve come to hate full stops, even to the point that I end stanzas and poems with ellipses (i.e. dot dot dots) – full stops look too final, and it feels absurd to me that any thought or thoughts, often profound, especially as expressed in a poem, for example, ever have a definitive end as signified in a full stop: thoughts and feelings and sensations are continuous or recurring, they are tortuous, they loop, they collect and disperse and collect again, like starlings, hence for me it feels completely inappropriate to end a verse or a poem with a full stop.

Within verses and poems I find commas less intrusive, and occasionally I use semi-colons as stitches between different trains of thought; but commas seem to me the most poetically accommodating of punctuation marks, helping the poem keep a constant cadence and flow, each line, phrasing seeping into the next, like thoughts, like feelings…

On the other part of your question, I think the irony today is that with ever greater resources for communication and information the novelties in those areas have diminished rather than expanded, the sense of curiosity blunted, it’s as if a kind of generational ennui has set in, you see perhaps the ultimate triumph of commodity-based consumer capitalism in the sight of families and friends sat at cafes scrolling through their phones rather than conversing properly, the ultimate individualisation, almost a form of mass-solipsism - but which ultimately is just another form of conformity. 

It’s impossible to generalise of course. No doubt there are sections of society, certain types of people who do still thirst knowledge, but a lot of the time the knowledge sought might not be the most enlightening. But ultimately what such vast archives of easily accessed knowledge such as on the internet seem to have achieved is an increasing craving for instant gratification, an impatience, a poor concentration, an attitude that seems to expect everything to be immediately explainable at the touch of a button. But most things aren’t instantly explainable, many things require very active application, long studied reading and processing.

FL: Related to the last question, it occurred to me that we have unprecedented access to all kinds of knowledge today, and that in theory at least, education – both formal and informal – is more readily available to us than ever before. Despite this, Anxious Corporals is excoriating about the demise of critical thinking among working-class cohorts, and I think one really significant aspect of this book is its understanding of this demise as something that is also done to us, deliberately, politically, over time.

I was particularly struck by your critique of relativist or postmodern discourse, which tries to ‘prove/ Everything is relative, ultimately subjective, intrinsically/ Ironic, endlessly reductive’.  I’m reminded of the ways in which these ideas were used cynically within the space of the university to re-establish the status quo, following decades of radical ferment during the sixties and seventies. Throughout this period there was a great deal of on-campus activism, but also a profusion and merging of solidarities inside and outside of the academy, with a huge rise in worker-student alliances.

Postmodernism was deployed in this context to convince students that nothing is true. If activism begins with the basic assumption that some ideas and actions are right, and that others wrong, then undermining this conviction removes the motivation to protest. Being heavily jargonistic, postmodernism also undermines the ability of those inside the academy to speak clearly and coherently to those outside, reinforcing a sense of elitism and hierarchy. Finally, there is the attack on kinship through an absolute insistence on identity-driven subjectivism. Nauseating, and I think one of the things Anxious Corporals is really acute on is articulating how this toxic creed spills out of the academy and is deployed by neoliberal culture more broadly.

Could you say something about how this kind of neoliberal postmodern malaise has affected the way in which working-class cohorts understand ‘knowledge’, how we access knowledge, and how postmodernism has whittled down and shaped the value placed on intellectual curiosity, education, and ‘facts’?

AM: Yes, absolutely, when we think of the internet and its vast repository of information readily available for pretty much anyone to access today (bar maybe those families at the lowest economic scale who perhaps can’t afford phones or computers), a greater democratisation of knowledge if you like, then the past arguments that whole sections of society are unable to access these areas and are thus significantly handicapped in attempts at self-education (though there have always been libraries!) would seem less credible, ostensibly.

I say ostensibly, since of course one has to some extent to know or have some clue as to where to look for certain types of knowledge; okay, so Wikipedia is very prominent and easily accessible on pretty much any subject today, but there still might be barriers of literacy, and domestic demands on time and concentration in those families that are materially impoverished; as I learnt myself as a teenager struggling to learn anything much at school, poverty is not very conducive to learning.

However, in spite of growing up in relative poverty, which had been the result of lots of bad luck on my parents’ part, I had other advantages that many of my working-class and disadvantaged schoolmates didn’t have: my parents were both essentially middle class, they’d not been educated at public schools, but my father had been to a good quality grammar school, while my mother, though from a more working-class background originally, had been partly educated at a convent school, and then had had elocution lessons when she was a young aspiring actress (though she didn’t in the end pursue that career, instead deciding to settle and have a family; she had at one point been a teacher at a fairly prestigious primary school but thereafter had worked as a dental nurse, dinner lady, auxiliary nurse).

So my brother and I grew up in an atmosphere of educational and cultural aspiration, encouraged by fairly well-educated parents, and in my father’s case, well-read. The atmosphere of our upbringing was bookish. But materially we were pretty impoverished for the entire period of our secondary education, during which my father through no fault of his own suffered periods of unemployment. After leaving the Royal Marines in 1967 (AC is part-dedicated to him since he was a Corporal, and an anxious one at that!),he had gone into the civil service and worked in London in different government departments, but after our move from Worthing to Cornwall he had found it extremely difficult to get back into the civil service and eventually ended up working as a security guard for the rest of his working life; he was what sociologists would call a ‘skidder’, someone who has skidded down the occupational ladder. My mother worked as an auxiliary nurse in an old peoples’ home. Both of them were on very low wages and worked punishing shifts.

I suppose I’d describe my family background as lapsed middle class, one of faded gentility, the perennial shabby-genteel; financially and materially we were very much on the working-class level, if not actually below that at various periods (sufficiently poor that I have memories of often going to bed hungry).

So it wouldn’t be entirely accurate for me to claim to speak on behalf of the working classes since mine was a mixed-class background: I think this is a category that even sociology has yet to fully get to grips with. It meant that our kind of poverty was particularly severe in terms of social isolation, since we were not part of any broader and similarly disadvantaged community and lived in a small hamlet which only added to our sense of remoteness from everything. But suffice it to say that I agree that much of this cultural deprivation is ‘done to’ people and of course we see this mass effort of ignorance-promoting misinformation deployed daily through the right-wing red top press, which also completely corrupts our democratic process through its mass hypnotism of vast sections of the population towards voting Tory or the nearest equivalent. Tabloid editors would argue it’s patronising to say so, but what could be more patronising than the presumption that the working classes want to read the anti-intellectual, culturally philistine and politically reactionary tripe that they spoon-feed them?

When I wrote AC I was very angry, perhaps not completely fairly but I felt I’d lost a lot of sympathy with certain sections of the working classes for voting for Brexit in the Referendum. Back in the Eighties many had fallen for the false promises of Thatcherism, which resulted in the spiritual crippling of our culture and society and lasting scars that have still yet to heal; so when so many seemed to fall for the xenophobic populism of Farage, Johnson and Vote Leave, I just felt so frustrated, betrayed and, well, just angry, angry at what I saw as seeming mass ignorance. And then the final nail in the coffin was the ‘red wall’ in the Midlands and North turning blue in December 2019 – how could such huge swathes of the working classes vote for someone so transparently dishonest, unprincipled, unscrupulous and out of touch as Boris Johnson…? How on earth could they perceive an upper-class narcissist like Johnson as representing their interests…?

Of course the red top press has much to do with this, targeting the working classes as it does, but does there come a point when the Left has to stop and ask, to what extent can we blame the tabloids for proletarian attitudes and voting choices? Is there an element on the Left of our sometimes infantilising the working classes by perceiving them as constant victims of circumstances, and assuming to abdicate all responsibility on their behalf, treating them like overly impressionable children who are easily ‘taken in’? (I say working classes as opposed to working class since they’re/we’re not a homogenous mass of course). The Sun and the hard-right Daily Express might well be daily appealing for their attention in every newsagent, but there is also the Daily Mirror, also a tabloid, but a Labour-supporting one, which has a similar ‘celebrity gossip’-pulling power as its right-wing competitors; and the Morning Star, though not available everywhere, is ostensibly presented in an accessible tabloid format. These are just things I’m throwing in the air, they’re open for debate, I’m ultimately still in a quandary about it all.

The study in working-class Toryism, Angels of Marble, which I excerpt extensively in AC, provides us with many depressing and uncomfortable answers to the conundrum of blue-collar Conservatism, and it really is vital information which still applies today and is something so fundamental to British society that it has to be understood and combated by the Left into the future if we’re ever to break the right-wing hegemony of our political system (though personally I think the only real solution to neutralising the Tory monopoly in the long term is proportional representation – something which might come in time through petition, protest and perhaps an electoral referendum, and maybe one day will be rooted out just as rotten boroughs were in the 19th century).

FL: I also wonder to what extent you think that capitalism – and Thatcherism in particular – has succeeded in devaluing education in and of itself, if it is not connected to some kind of quantifiable economic ‘success’?

There’s a kind of grotesque instrumentalisation of intellectual effort at play within capitalism, which goes hand-in-hand with a carefully cultivated suspicion of – and hostility towards – ‘knowledgeable people’ from those organs and institutions supposed to represent working-class interests and ideals. This is beautifully and bleakly communicated by both yourself and Richard Hoggart, who you quote from extensively throughout Anxious Corporals, in section XII. In this section you also talk about the general distortion of working-class values by capitalism and through culture. Hoggart published The Uses of Literacy in 1957, but this process is horribly ongoing.

Could you speak about this process of distortion and some of its most recent manifestations? Is it a trend that you also see reflected in contemporary poetry?

AM: Oh absolutely, the primary preoccupation of capitalism and all capitalist governments is economic productivity and this is why there is such lack of interest in and low tolerance of Tory ministers towards the Arts and Humanities in academia, as these areas are not perceived to be particularly productive economically nor geared towards capitalist/Tory notions of societal progress which they see as almost solely invested in the sciences and technologies – this betrays the philistine materialism of much Tory and capitalist thought (if it can be called thought at all).

This is why we’re now seeing governmental disengagement with the Arts and Humanities, not only in terms of funding in the universities but also in wider culture. Moreover, the Tories tend to also see the Arts and Humanities as an intellectual threat to capitalist dogma and hegemony, particularly subjects such as Sociology and Cultural Studies. To use the old adage, capitalism ‘knows the price of everything but the value of nothing’.

There is definitely a cultural hostility towards ‘knowledge’, to some extent there’s always been a philistine seam to the British mentality, but our society became very actively anti-intellectual since the Thatcherite revolution, neoliberalism is the ultimate bourgeoisification of culture in terms of promoting mediocrity and banality (e.g. celebrity culture), imagination is distrusted, everything is trivialised to the lowest common denominator, individualism encouraged but individuality mystified and even stigmatised.

I think this anti-intellectualism and, indeed, anti-idealism, has permeated contemporary poetry for some decades now in the postmodernist mainstream, there’s long been a culture of stylistic policing which increasingly homogenises the medium, and so one has to look elsewhere, to the fringes, the small presses, to find the most interesting and authentic poetry being published. For a long time, certainly through the Nineties and Noughties, political poetry was generally frowned upon and belittled by the literary establishment and shunned by mainstream imprints (notable exceptions were presses such as Smokestack, Five Leaves, Flambard and a few others).

It took the financial crash and the onslaught of Tory austerity, then Brexit, then Trump, to jump-start the poetry mainstream into more active political consciousness, but even then it’s been on catch up. As I’ve written before, in a polemical monograph ‘Reoccupying Auden Country’, published at The International Times in 2011 ( and then reproduced in The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity, postmodernism is peculiarly ill-equipped to tackle socio-political topics.

But there has been a slow continuing politicisation of poetry over the past few years, something like a depth-charge, which is has infiltrated the mainstream to some extent, though nowhere as markedly and authentically as through such auspices as Culture Matters, Smokestack Books, the Morning Star, the Communist Review, poetry journals such as Red Poets and The Penniless Press, and other such politically engaged outlets, that have been doing this since long before the mainstream picked up the scent. Nonetheless, at the upper echelons of the poetry scene, the trend is still, stubbornly and increasingly towards social irrelevance, individualism, poetic solipsism, and attitudinal narcissism – selfie-poetry.

FL: Following on from that last thought, I wonder to what extent you see poetry as a potential site of resistance to this distortion of working-class values by capitalism; a kind of redoubt against mass or – to quote Hoggart  ‘synthetic culture and intellectually-vetted entertainments’?

AM: Yes I think poetry can be a form of creative resistance, of polemical response through poetic self-expression to political events, but at the same time it can also end up being co-opted by the capitalist powers and upper echelons, and there are excerpts I include in AC from Ken Worpole’s exceptional polemic Dockers and Detectives that specifically touches on this phenomenon. Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy, too, is an extensive polemic about the dumbing down of mass culture which he documented way back in the late 50s, which was still well within the post war social democratic consensus. I’ve yet to read any of Hoggart’s later writings but I can only imagine his sense of complete despair at how things sped up in these respects through the Eighties and beyond.

But to return to poetry: in a sense, being arguably the least economically productive or enriching artistic medium, it has nothing to lose in being as political, as oppositional as it can be (and yet so much of it is so conservative!); it’s a medium belittled by the capitalist establishment, if not openly despised for its impecuniousness, and thus deeply distrusted. Poetry can be weaponised, more spiritually than politically I think, in the sense that it is something materially transcendent, since it has such little material incentive, and this gives it an unpredictable power all its own. Most of this power is in metaphor – metaphor is both weapon and camouflage. 

FL: My own take has always been that poetry requires of us – both as readers and writers – such deep, sustained attention to the operations of language, that it offers a kind of antidote to the passive content-imbibing we’re encouraged to participate in by other forms of literature and media. This leads me with a numbing inevitability to Insta-poetry, and the commercially successful pap that’s pumped out in its name.

One of the things I love about Anxious Corporals is that it is the absolute opposite of Insta-poetry. It’s knotty and complex, rich, allusive, rigorous and dense; it demands and rewards the reader’s non-trivial attention. It doesn’t offer these neat little parcels of peaceable catharsis. It’s troubling and difficult on the level of ethics and ideas. I suppose what I want to know is to what extent you see the cynical and sinister operations of capitalism through the rise of Insta-entrepreneur figures like Rupi Kaur and ‘Atticus’? Do you feel that the commercial ascendancy of such figures under the banner of ‘poetry’ is capitalism’s attempt to colonise or absorb the one form of literature it hasn’t yet successfully assimilated?

AM: I’ve no problem with accessibility and even simplicity in poetry, when it is appropriate for the subject or the tone or purpose of the poem, but I think people have the right to expect from apparently simple poems that, like Blake’s Songs of Innocence, there are other levels which the closer reader can discover under the ostensibly accessible surface.

Complete simplicity in and of itself in poetry –and any medium– inescapably morphs into the commonplace, quotidian, banal, into truism or platitude; there needs to be something else to it, engagement with language, symbol, metaphor, aphorism, something that lifts it beyond the trite or trivial. Ultimately I’m much more exercised by dumbing down or casualisation of literature.

But yes, capitalism absolutely tries to absorb or colonise any artforms that otherwise might pose some sort of threat such as becoming widespread or popular outside of its control. You see this increasingly in bank and building society adverts using spoken word artists, often from BAME backgrounds, in order to give the impression these corporate organisations somehow stand for inclusivity and are there to serve ordinary people, as opposed to profiting out of them.

FL: Connected to this last idea, I wanted to ask you about the notion of ‘accessibility’, both in terms of literature in general and poetry in particular. One of the beautiful things about the Pelican imprint – which is evoked throughout Anxious Corporals as both an emblem of working-class intellectual curiosity and a visual metaphor for the loss of this vital drive – was that it placed the tools of education within the working man’s material reach. These books were readily available in places working people were likely to frequent; they were easily identifiable, they were portable, and they were cheap. In other words ‘accessible’ in the truest sense.

One quietly disturbing trend in contemporary culture has been this shift in emphasis from ‘accessibility’ as equality of opportunity in terms of affordability and distribution, to being ‘accessible’ in terms of content, style or form. This has allowed any work that is challenging or nuanced or risk-taking to be positioned as ‘difficult’ or wilfully ‘alienating’, and this stance meets demands for richness, rigour and innovation with accusations of elitism. Is this something you feel aware of, maybe even write against? Could you tell me if it is something you have experienced in terms of the critical reception of your own writing? And to what extent do you see publishers like Smokestack as inheritors of Pelican’s mission?

AM: Yes, as AC pays to tribute to, Pelicans were originally sold in outlets such as Woolworths, purposely to target working-class readerships – this was a huge part of the Pelican ‘brief’, it was at the core of its publishing mission: to make knowledge, and mostly that hitherto perceived as ‘highbrow’ knowledge, readily available to the masses, cheaply priced, and accessibly communicated, but in no way that meant dumbing down, Pelican books were usually very well-written, often by leading thinkers and intellectuals of the time, but they were presented in an accessible and affordable format so as to attract the ordinary person on the street and give them access to hitherto cordoned-off rooms of information. Pelicans gave opportunities for true self-education on a wide variety of subjects. I agree with you that the perception of what ‘accessibility’ seems to mean today is in terms of over-simplifying. Crucially Pelicans still required intellectual effort from the readers, but glossaries elucidated all jargon.

Yes I suspect that much of my poetry is perceived as a bit ‘difficult’ at times, and on precisely this subject there was one review of AC which was generally positive but in which the reviewer took me to task for not making the poem a bit more accessible, mostly in terms of its presentation, density and, presumably, the absence of any glossary or notes. So perhaps with AC I didn’t quite hit the ‘accessibility’ mark of the very Pelican mission it’s partly paying tribute to.

If so, this was not a conscious thing, but basically down to space restriction, page count limit, and having already practically cut the poem by around 50% believe it or not – it was originally of truly epic proportions, now it’s a mere epic poem

And yes, absolutely, presses like Smokestack, and Culture Matters, and a handful of others, are indeed the poetry-equivalent to Pelican in many respects, and of the Left Book Club, while in the wider polemical field there are presses like Zed Books, Verso, Pluto, Lawrence & Wishart et al, and, indeed, a newly resurgent Pelican and Left Book Club. And online we have Prole, Proletarian Poetry, Poets’ Republic, Culture Matters, and of course my own The Recusant and its imprint Caparison, and Militant Thistles.

FL: Something else I’d like to ask about is the lack of funding this project received. I mention this because a bugbear of mine over the last few years has been to witness a number of poetic projects that were researched and written with assistance from ACE or like organisations. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but I always end up reading the declaration that ‘This book could not have been written without the generous support of blah-de-blah’ and thinking ‘Really?’ Because I think very often working-class writers are performing that work totally unacknowledged and unsupported because it doesn’t even occur to us to ask for help, or because we wouldn’t know who to ask or how to apply. And there’s a sense in which this is totally unfair, but there’s also a sense in which it produces rare, exciting and autonomous thought.

It proves that we can be the archaeologists, archivists and explorers of our own history and collective experience, without any mediation between ourselves as writers and the knowledge we seek, and the community of readers we are striving to reach. And in that sense, I think Anxious Corporals is not only a didactic work, it is also a hopeful example of what we can learn and what we can create under our own steam. Can you tell me something about your process for writing and researching this book, and share any thoughts you have about the differences between funded research projects and the kinds of self-directed autodidactic research you were engaged in with this book?

AM: I know exactly what you’re getting at here. You’re right, this particular work wasn’t funded in any way, it was a long-standing labour of love researched, written and painstakingly redrafted (over 100 times!) throughout the last three or more years. Having said that, I have received funding for some of my previous poetry books, two Arts Council G4A Awards in consecutive years for Blaze a Vanishing and The Tall Skies (Waterloo, 2013) and an online-only epic polemical poem Odour of Devon Violet (2014-) which has been an ongoing work-in-progress.

I’ve also over the years received grants from other bodies such as the Royal Literary Fund and the Society of Authors, not to work on particular books but as general subsistence support, and I did also acknowledge the Oppenheim-John Downes Memorial Trust for its financial support while I finished Gum Arabic (Cyberwit, India/US, 2020). But certainly for my earlier collections I was fairly unaware of any opportunities for support and it took many years of completely unfunded writing before I came to find out about some of these, mostly through tips from other poets and writers more adept at finding and applying for such things. But it’s not really a creative instinct, I think, to seek out support and funding for your work, even if it becomes a financial necessity (such as ‘time to write’ grants) – poets are perhaps particularly ill-suited to anything so rational and practical as filling out funding applications (though you might be surprised just how adept at this some are!).

It’s also difficult not to be sceptical about the poetry prize culture, since for so long it appears to have been monopolised by a relatively small grouping of perceived ‘top’ presses, which stretches credibility, the best work can’t always be being published by the same six or so imprints (out of tens of dozens), surely…? But there are pecking orders. Certain expectations. Self-fulfilling prophecies. Less than transparent protocols. There’s also the Oxbridge dimension which has never gone away and which has if anything become much more prevalent in the past decade (in every area of culture).

These prizes not only bestow prestige on recipients but also in some cases considerable financial reward, so it can be a double bitter pill for those struggling working-class and marginalised poets who feel they keep missing out on them. (And when I say ‘marginalised’ this also covers those with disabilities, whether physical or mental health issues, which significantly impact on their access to opportunities; ‘underrepresented’ is the term applied today, and I myself have been described before as an ‘underrepresented poet’). Then there’s the domino effect whereby scooping one prize seems to act as a passport to scooping more, often in fairly quick succession. One of the things I’ve observed over the years is that the best networkers, the pushiest, tend to get the best opportunities; it’s all as much to do with first come, first serve as it is with merit. Many of the most gifted poets I’ve known have often been the least pushy and thus the ones who have languished the longest in obscurity with few breaks or openings – perhaps that’s because they’re more focused on their craft than on its marketing.

Walter Gallichan (writing as Geoffrey Mortimer) in his brilliantly witty The Blight of Respectability, which I excerpt extensively in AC, coined some excellent adages on precisely this theme, one which touched on the ‘shy genius’ being shunned by the establishments while the ‘author of mediocre ability’, the ‘adept of claptrap’, gets all the opportunities and plaudits, just as in, as I also mention at this point in AC, the characters of Edwin Reardon (impoverished authentic writer) and Jasper Milvain (networking hack-writer) in George Gissing’s New Grub Street, a novel Gallichan would have no doubt been aware of and probably would have read. So little has changed since their time of writing in the 1890s!

AC was created out of self-directed research, it’s one of the ways I come to poetry, as a response to wide reading on certain subjects, the sources are books I largely sought out or discovered by chance, one of them was on my father’s bookshelves, he being a keen amateur genealogist with a strong interest in social history, and particularly that of the lower middle classes – I might point out here, too, that AC is not only or entirely focused on the historic working classes, it also takes in the lower middle classes, particularly clerks, much of the information sourced from David Lockwood’s rather dry but informative and compendious The Black Coated Worker. As mentioned before, I’d describe my own background as mixed class: materially and financially working-class (even at times underclass) but educationally and attitudinally middle-class, if that makes any sense.

FL: One of my favourite passages from Anxious Corporals contains these elegiac lines for the Pelican imprint:

Turn at ever more frequent intervals to silent trickles
Of the written page, and in those captivating lakes
Of meaning-making, of careful thought and crafted phrase,
Empathetic pools of escape, come to expand their mental plains

There is so much of note in these lines, which read in the first instance like both an elegy for and a celebration of print media itself, for a particular tactile experience of reading. There is also the real sense of the Pelican imprint’s value being in its empathetic reach, its capacity to expand horizons and connect working people in a kind of felt mutuality. This is exactly opposite to the cynically exploited ‘brand’ value of Pelican as a fetishised commodity, a hollow simple, emptied out of meaning, deployed in the service of a weaponised nostalgia.

What I really relish about this final section of the text is how the old Pelicans, surviving in ‘charity shop surplus’ become sources of solidarity and sustenance for the ‘amputees of new/ Imperialism’, for a new vanguard of ‘anxious corporals’.  There is deep sadness towards the end of the book for a loss of Pelican, and for the aims and aspirations of an intellectually curious working-class, but I also have a sense of hope: Pelican – like the working classes ourselves – persists, endures by other means. This is also something that is communicated in your muscular and resistive use of language. Would you mind finishing by talking about this germ of hope, and where – if it is coming from anywhere – you see it as coming from?

AM: Where there’s humanity, compassion, and spirit, there’s always hope, in the spirit of poetry, of creativity, of giving, of unconditional love – in this spirit of compassionate opposition, whether it manifests politically in socialism or communism, in liberation theology at the fusion point of Marxism and Christianity, in Christianity as the religion of the poor and oppressed as it was originally, and all other likeminded religions, where there’s imagination and compassion there’s always hope for something better to come, and if we are to save humanity and, indeed, the world on which we depend, then we need to become more compassionate, empathetic, communitarian and, of course, more nurturing of the planet which supports us.

Capitalism, materialism, consumerism all stand in the way of this, and so they must be swept aside, in time they will have to be, simply, if humanity is to survive into any future worth having, whether through human means or those outside of our control.  

FL: Thanks so much for talking to me, Alan! I hope that wasn’t too painful.

AM: Not at all, it was a pleasure answering such incisive questions.


Summer Poetry Round-Up
Friday, 09 July 2021 16:27

Summer Poetry Round-Up

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock reviews some recent poetry collections

Ox, by Martin Hayes (Knives Forks And Spoons Press)

It has been written elsewhere that Ox marks something of a departure for Martin Hayes, who is perhaps best known as an outspoken poetic witness to the multiple indignities and oppressions of our cruel and increasingly unsustainable “gig economy”.

Ox has been described as an “extended metaphor” or “allegory” for the dehumanising treatment of workers under late-stage capitalism. This is true, up to a point, but when speaking about a book that has a blistering indictment of our economic system at its heart, the word “allegory” makes me a little squeamish. Certainly Ox is an allusive book, referencing prior texts, drawing on strands of myth, and working in and through the tradition of the fable. Certainly Ox is a figure for the suffering social subject within neoliberal culture. But the grim, arbitrary, and brutalising experiences that beset Ox are not allegorical. They are specific and real. They are happening now, to animals and to humans, and we lose sight of this at our peril.

It is also worth noting that this recourse to poetic conceit is, in itself, another form of tradition: in creating Ox Hayes manifests the difficulties inherent in writing about our material conditions under any aggressively surveilled system. As Fred Voss has already noted, writers who live and work within totalitarian regimes “have had to create allegories to escape detection by control-freak authorities.”  Hayes’ strategy, then, is not merely a free literary “choice” but a necessary negotiation around the strictures, limits, and ugly punitive logic that govern Ox's world and his own. His innovation is driven by the social and economic forces that are his target, and this pressured  invention has produced a bravura lyric performance of real wit, depth and intensity.

A particularly striking example of this is 'Ox Witnesses Yet Another Birthing' (82), a short poem worth quoting in its entirety:

here it comes the new born
with nothing in front of it
and everything behind it broken
who can predict what this fresh sun will investigate
its brightness is not for us but ours to devour
hot blood has already knitted the words of its poem
warming up not only its mother but other planets also
there is a depth to this deeper than known soil
it sits somewhere in darkness wearing darkness
we are resigned unknowing how it all works
no blueprints survive
we must go blind into the waters every time

The use of 'birthing' as opposed to 'birth' in this poem is significant: emphasising the agonising mechanics of the process (of giving birth) rather than the hallowed specialness of the end result (the baby) Hayes signals the way in which the natural reproductive cycles of both animals and humans are exploited and distorted under capitalism. Aside from the title, Hayes deliberately avoids using species-specific language, inviting a reading across both literal and figurative (human and non-human) axis; such a reading reveals subtle shifts and shades of meaning. Is the 'nothing in front' of the new-born the literal concrete wall of a leaky barn? Or is it the blank and circumscribed future of the labouring poor? Is the 'everything' that is broken behind the new-born a reference to the dilapidation of their immediate surroundings, the pre-fuckedness of the environment and society into which they are born? Or is it the physically exhausted body of its birth mother, hollowed out by hard use as a source of reproductive labour?

Without ever once using the word, the poem nevertheless merges both forms of “labour” in ways reminiscent of Ariana Reines' The Cow (Fence Books, 2006). As Reines’ text reminds us, both women and animals are similarly objectified under capitalism through the metaphor of “meat”, which allows both to be perceived as something “edible”, and ripe for different kinds of consumption. Reines' book connects the animal industrial complex to the treatment of women, exploited as mere bodies for their reproductive capacities, or for their flesh. For real-life cows and oxen, tied to the demands of both the meat and dairy industries, birth and death are hideously intertwined: male calves are born simply to be slaughtered for veal, cows are artificially inseminated and kept in a constant state of pregnancy. Often they are separated from their calves, their milk siphoned off for human consumption.

Animals are people and people are animals

This world of pain is explicit and constant throughout Hayes' collection. But Hayes also excels at the subtle and troubling lyric moment: 'there is a depth to this deeper than known soil / it sits somewhere in darkness wearing darkness', hints at a dimly perceived and not necessarily benevolent mystery behind the immediate real. Birth and death still have the power to stir and disturb. Ox cannot comprehend, but deeply feels the immensity of the 'birthing'. A sense of futile miracle hangs over the scene: I found it one of the most haunting passages in the book.

There are other “difficult” moments in Ox. As a lifelong vegan of the old school, I found some passages harder to read than others. What is both horrible and compelling about, for example, the visceral description of unblocking the “chute” in a meat-processing plant that opens 'Ox at the Gates of Heaven' (74) is not the graphic extract itself, but the way Hayes links the bland affect of the slaughterhouse worker to the genocidal consequences of human fascism globally. Each itemised part of the process of death is linked to a human tyrant, so we have 'the silver hooks of a Torquemada', 'the white ceramic guttering of a Pol Pot's throat', the 'lullabies of Marine Le Pen' in a long historical chain of oppression, dismemberment and terror.

We cannot, Hayes seems to say, separate the way we treat animals from the way we treat people. More importantly, in order to treat either animals or people with such shocking and casual violence, you first have to morally anaesthetise those who will carry out such acts. The most surprising thing about this piece, and the about the collection as a whole, is the empathy Hayes extends to the slaughterhouse workers of this world. An ambivalent empathy, perhaps, but still an important acknowledgement of our mutual exploitation.

As I read the collection I was reminded of Joan Dunayer, writing in Animal Equality: Language and Liberation (2001). Dunayer talks about the process of dehumanisation, and the inherent speciesism necessary for this process to work: to reduce the human to the level of an animal, we must first account the animal as nothing. The brutalising treatment of animals, then, is not merely cruel, but a necessary precursor to fascism, and to all kinds of human atrocity. As a culture we become accustomed to cruel acts by perpetrating them first against animals. Specisism also creates the language in which it is possible to dehumanise the “other” amongst us: the black man is a monkey, the Jew is a cockroach, the “gypsy” is a rat, etc. The figure of Ox is perhaps so unsettling because he serves as a hybrid between the animal and the human, because he demonstrates that the distance between animal and man, self and other, is not as great as some would like.

There is so much more to say to about this book: the poignancy of 'Little Ox'(85), which cuts the reader with the mediocrity of even our ambitions: 'Little Ox wanted more and more / of what he was being told / he wanted', a state of stunted imagination only possible when neoliberal elites have colonised even our imaginative space, and have naturalised their own shitty desires as the model for all aspiration. I could also talk about the eventual death and dismemberment of Ox, and the way the book takes us through his deconstruction into units of saleable product, while also showing us with an unflinching eye the impact this death has on those who cause and those who experience it.

I should also talk about the illustrations by Gustavius Payne, the softened lines of which often work provokingly against their disturbing content, or, in other places, such as 'Ox and Cow Under Moonlight' (77) or 'Little Ox' (85), catch you off guard with their tenderness and vulnerability. These pictures are an essential component of the book's relationship to fable and its implied moral lesson, accessible to children. But they also transmit their own meaning, extending and complicating the way we read Hayes’ words, not merely repeating or emphasising them.

This book is an intelligent and passionate work, the product of long experience and rigorous thought. It reveals Hayes as a exciting poet who still has more to reveal to us. If we're smart we will heed him, and follow where he leads.


Afterlife As Trash, by Rushika Wick (Verve Poetry Press)

I must begin this review with a confession: I did not want to like Afterlife As Trash. My friends had been throwing so many superlatives at it that by the time it arrived on my desk I was quite prepared to find it overwritten / annoying / unworthy of the hype. But it isn't, not at all. As the extensive endorsements promise, it is 'pyrotechnic' and 'exhilarating' in its use of language. Wick conjures phrases that arrest and intrigue; her images, selected and choreographed with great care, are possessed of a beguiling strangeness and humour.

In the first three poems alone we find the speaker, rising above ordinary concerns, described as a 'swallow filled with helium' ('Diaries Of An Artist In Hiding', 11), sex 'like a multi-pack of Salt 'n' Shake, / each packet with its own blue sachet / containing exactly 0.6g of salt' ('ULTRAMARINE PINK PV15', 13), and sunflowers as 'velvet toys' (Deus Ex Machina', 14). Indeed, I could go through the collection happily stabbing out favourite lines and lauding their brilliance, but this would be to do Wick a disservice. This collection is far more than a trinket tray, it is probative and thoughtful too. It is also, I suspect, more political than it has been given credit for.

In 'Diaries of An Artist In Hiding', which opens the collection, the speaker conducts a 'social experiment' that sees her imaginatively incarnated as – among other things – 'the president', 'Matisse' on his sick bed, a 'love letter from Camille to Rodin', and 'a badger'. Each improbable transformation is a pleasure to read, full of the relish and the texture of language: 'flowering fingers, fractures, / scatters of light' etc. (12). It is a joy to meet with a poet so confident and accomplished in the practise of loading every rift of their subject with ore. But more than this, each leap has an aura of fugivity and flit about it; of small but necessary escapes and feints. The speaker is 'in hiding' after all; the 'experiment' takes place in 'the car / on the way to work'. These experimental selves inform a greater work of concealment and evasion, necessary to preserve whatever constitutes the artist / self from the car, and from work, and from the machine that sets cars on the road to work in the first place. 'Really', the speaker muses in the second stanza, 'the experiment is myself', and later, 'the experiment is boundless'. None of her disguises seem more essential or more “true” than any of the others. Instead, Wick seems to use them to interrogate the very notion of identity – to ask questions about how it is constituted, and more subversively, how it might be countered.

In 'Deus Ex Machina', the subject 'wonders how to make her money stretch / beyond rent and a bag of happy-face waffles', compressed like the poem's sunflowers 'in the hard corridor / between the road and tower block.' Within this space, Wick's gorgeous lyric lines function as units of resistance against the cramped precarity in which their subject is caught. The 'machine' in question is identified as an instrument of punishment or torture; it 'whirs without end' moving 'walls and ceiling' closer together like some kind of enormous trash compactor.  Inside this tiny space, Wick's subject 'writes on scraps of paper as night crumples the sky', or she sleeps, having taught herself 'how to wake up just in time, / gasping'. By literalising the vague semantic gesture of 'the machine', Wick solidifies the dangerous and often fatal consequences of late-stage capitalism upon the bodies and minds subjected to its horrible logics. 'God' in the context of the poem is the just-in-time awakening the subject performs, but it is also the subject herself: a creator nevertheless condemned to exist inside the endless circuit of whirring and crushing. Here the act of writing, or the work of the imagination, is not an “escape” as such, but an act of preservation.

In 'The Party' Wick contrasts a timeless scene of exhausted and endangered solidarity with one of contemporary neoliberal privilege, so that 'To stand together, united against the dragging through fields, the hangings, the spitting on children the taking of women like property' sits uneasily beside 'It was the kind of conversation where people living in comfortable homes full of art and fruit bowls confess that the time is such that they would be able to kill their political leader, should the opportunity arise, for the greater good.' (15).

The effect is disconcerting on a number of levels. The italicised section in a which a crowd gathers 'in the burning sun, in belief' is written in the active present tense, so that the speaker is part of the moment she describes. It feels immediate and urgent. The contemporary section is written in the third person, past tense, and encodes the very kind of ironic distance that could be said to characterise its subjects. From a position of relative safety they indulge in extreme political declarations. This 'creates some solidarity at the party but also deep discomfort'.

Here the use of 'solidarity' is defanged and depoliticised: the guests at the party cannot mobilise to form any kind of meaningful dissenting collective; their gestures (that of killing their political leader) are individual, grandiose, and hollow. Wick's use of commas to break up the “confession” create qualifying or rationalising pauses within the statement itself, a syntactic signal towards a deep lack of political commitment. Because the phrase 'The Party' merges political and social worlds, the reader is invited to consider the limits and intersections of both, and the way in which the latter often usurps or comes to stand as a substitute for the former.

Witches on a field trip

In the final stanza we are told that 'Others said that finally they had been allowed the time (because of reaching a certain stability or point in their careers) to become fully practising witches and what a joy this was.' There is a wonderful piece of Wicksian strangeness here, with the “witches” organising a field-trip to Mexico to 'scrape gilt off Madonnas at night.' But behind the enjoyable oddity of this image seems to lurk a searing criticism of those who, owing to the privilege and stability of their own positions, are able to ape, participate in, and appropriate the resistive tactics of  marginalised and persecuted “others”.

None of which captures the formal daring of this collection, or just how deft and supple these poems feel on the page. It is worth mentioning here that this kind of lively innovation is something that has come to characterise Verve Poetry Press, which has been steadily building a diverse stable of poetic voices, representing a wide variety of positions and approaches, publishing work by Geraldine Clarkson, Sean Wai Keung, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, and Charlotte Lunn (collections by Golnoosh Noor and Emily Rose Galvin are eagerly anticipated).

Indeed, Verve feels like the natural home for Wick, whose engagement with the blank space of the page is mercurial, curious, and unafraid to take risks. In poems such as 'The Pill' (40), 'My Identical Twin' (48) and 'Vocal Tics' (51) Wick proves herself an adept at manipulating the kinetics of the text to achieve a number of poetic effects. These poems evince an understanding of text as substance, structure, and stuff: the shape and placement of words on the page are used to complicate or extend meaning. In 'The Pill', the left edge of the text extends outwards in a convex parabola; the right edge recedes and impresses raggedly: the poem performs the pill dissolving, or the dynamic arc of the “high”, or the retinal lens across which intoxicated images rapidly jump and flicker. On the opposite page (41), Wick lists italicised 'side effects', which include 'taking control of stress that is structural in cause'. The interaction between these two sets of text might best be seen as the relationship between our subjective bodily experience, and the external (and structural, and systemic) forces that govern that experience.

Wick's work, then, is playful but with purpose. What impresses about this collection is that it wears its obvious intelligence so lightly. The connected soliloquies from 'The Dog' (19) and 'The Flea' (20) are both witty and charming, while still pushing language and logic to strange new places. My personal favourite piece is 'THE THOUGHTS OF VALERIE SOLANAS (in the minute before shooting Warhol and the minute after)' (30). This is a deeply convincing character poem without becoming a burlesque on Solanas' signature style. Both Wick's poem and Solanas' own writing are spaces in which thinking occurs; important thoughts strained through coruscating language, full of profanity, clotted alliteration, surprising metaphor, and brute fury. Wick gives us 'the oppression of pressed paper', 'being fucked roughly / like islands in storms' and lines of heartbreak and insight such as: 'I think of what makes you a success, / and me a sideshow, an extra' and the gunshot as: 'a hysterectomy / of sorts, the language of violence / has its own vowel sounds'. Solanas under Wick's care is ranting, frustrated, but brilliant. Wick writes with both energy and empathy.

The collection is linked by a series of short italicised vignettes, which treat of ephemeral and fleeting moments. These moments work well, they introduce space into what is a rich and generous debut. They also demonstrate that Wick is not a one trick unicorn: behind the fireworks there is a poet of brevity and silence. I sense Wick may need that silence sometimes, to gather her strength for whatever comes next.

Apricot Sun cover 


Apricot Sun, by Trisha Heaney (Culture Matters)

Trisha Heaney's impressive debut brings to fruition the mentoring package offered by the Bread and Roses Poetry Award, founded and facilitated by Culture Matters, and kindly sponsored by Unite. The package supports unpublished poets with their first collection, pairing them with an experienced editor and mentor. In the case of Apricot Sun, Heaney received mentorship from Jim Aitken, and this feels like a natural fit: both Heaney and Aitken have backgrounds in education and community outreach work, work that informs and infuses their writing. Both poets excel at the evocation of place –  geographical, social, and historical – an evocation achieved through strategies both painterly and dramatic, so that the teasing appeal to the eye contained within 'mushrooms bulbing in bunches; pears fattening / like bottoms' ('Bukra Insh'allah', 53) or the wistful lyric 'Traffic lines smudge / apricot sun tones to magenta. / Soon the city's poor / will be drawn here to sleep / in the feathering of doves / paracletes of Picasso.' ('Sketch', 81), are balanced by a virtuoso conjuration of voice: 'Decantit, tene-dementit, / in a botched experiment / we pour ontae thi fields / o South Nitshill' ('In the Scheme of Things', 17).

Heaney deploys dialect and demotic throughout the collection to superb effect. Nowhere more so than in 'Ghazal, In Sudan' (21), where the Arabic verse form holds a powerful expression of loss in Scots dialect. What impresses about this poem is that Heaney does not, as so many poets do, adopt the mere shell of form; there's no awkward shoehorning of ideas and images into a container they were never designed to fit. Rather, voice and form work together to produce a layered and complex interaction between strong vocal identity and inherited poetic tradition. The different sets cultural expectations associated with the speaker's voice and the Arabic form create a fruitful friction in the text, provoking questions about what it means to mourn, and the ways in which loss is contained and transmitted through accent and grammar on one hand, and poetic structure and tradition on the other: 'Ma soul at hame in tacht alignment wae Islam / ma hert forfeit, ablo zodiac signs, in Sudan.' Heaney's love of Sudan, where she worked for a number of years training teachers to teach English, is also palpable: 'Wae ilka letter woven we're entwined, in Sudan.'

Apricot Sun reflects a broad and serious concern with voice throughout: with who is given permission and space to speak, and who is listened to. The epigraph that opens 'In the Scheme of Things', the first poem in the collection, is taken from A Social History of Glasgow Council Housing 1919-59 by Sean Damer, and tells us that the testimonies of council tenants have been 'a strategic lacuna in the history of Glasgow.' 'Strategic' is the operative word in this sentence: silence doesn't happen to people, it is done to them. Heaney keenly understands that silence, as a consequence and structural component of poverty and neglect, is a form of violence. In places this understanding is politically explicit, such as in 'Dropped' (29), 'Ria Formosa' (76), or 'As You Lie Sleeping' (33) where workers brilliantly 'shrug the shiver off / the morning / [...] carrying the world.'

In others this idea is the dark and troubling undersong beneath everyday interaction. In 'Street Theatre' (22) Heaney places a beaten and bedraggled woman at the centre of a Shakespearean sonnet. Through repeated references to stage-craft –  'alley stage', 'she might have been an actress in distress / miscast ingenue', 'set a cardboard mess', 'She stammers lines' etc. – Heaney emphasises the complicity of both the onlookers within the poem, and the poem's readers, accustomed as we are to female degradation as a staple of popular entertainment, and to the odd conjunction of aesthetic pleasure and human suffering within art and literature. The closing couplet: 'The audience directs the final act: / conduct her safely home or see her whacked?' serves to sensitise the reader ('the audience') to their responsibilities toward the suffering “other” whose safety and survival are often dependent upon the choices we make; the extent to which we are willing to acknowledge our shared humanity.

On one level this poem is an exhortation against indifference and disdain. But it is also about allowing this abjected “other” the space to speak and to be heard, even if her speech can only approximate the 'lines of threatened violence' that have been repeated 'grunted' at and into her. By using a form enshrined within canon literature, the subject is afforded both legitimacy and care. The menace of the final couplet contains also the threat of forcible eviction from the elite space of literature and the precincts of human attention.

Radical solidarity

Heaney's signature gift is this attention, and whether it is directed at her own family, or at her playground peers in South Nitshill; with exploited and exhausted workers, with prisoners, or with the victims of global misogyny, her poetic gaze illuminates whoever she holds within it. By focussing with particularity and tenderness on the lived experiences of diverse individual subjects, Heaney reveals not their differences but their (and our) deep interconnectedness. This notion of radical solidarity feels authentic and inhabited within Heaney's work because her own experiences inform and intertwine with her writing about others. There is a great sense of vulnerability and risk within these poems, which form a rich seam of lyric memoir. This poetic vulnerability and exposure is not merely the “price of admission” for collecting the experiences and testimonies of others, but a metonym for the vulnerability that besets all women, but especially poor and working-class women inside neoliberal culture.

Vulnerability is one of Heaney's most persuasive themes: workers are vulnerable in literal and bodily ways, as in 'Sweat Shop Sojourn' (27), where blades 'chop down' and a machine operator may go 'in fear of losing fingers or / a red right hand'. Wives are physically vulnerable to husbands, as in 'Christmas Spread' (70), where a man brutalised by work (or lack or work) and drink, metes out violence to the woman in his life. Women are vulnerable everywhere: to men with power, to those without any real power and angry about it; to the endless arbitrary cruelty of the law, as in both 'Dirty Linen' (47) and 'Vale of Tears' (63), where intimate violence is compounded at institutional and structural levels, further victimising those the law purports to help.

An experience of poverty leaves you emotionally vulnerable too; this may be our greatest risk and biggest strength. It is certainly a strength within Heaney's writing, where empathy and compassion combine with real technical gift to create a compelling and inspiring debut.


Crucifox, by Geraldine Clarkson (Verve Poetry Press)

It feels unjust to describe Crucifox as “slight”, although at a mere 37 pages, it is certainly brief. It is not, however, an inconsequential collection, and each individual poem is possessed of Clarkson's trademark riddling intricacy and zinging lyric flair. Where else could we expect to encounter lines of such audacity and flourish as 'glimquist and sunkissed on a burgandy chaise lounge / she turns phrase after phrase on the lathe of her tongue' ('lemonjim hour: brittle england', 24)? Or 'consonants mimicking kisses', 'myrrh mired-in-my-memory, passing gold' ('Labials of a Half-Remembered Lover', 30)? Signals of excess, indulgence, and abundance are shot through this collection like lamé thread. Although Clarkson's poetry is always linguistically rich, Crucifox feels pleasurably super-saturated. This is Clarkson with the dials turned up to 11.

The collection seems to mark a point of departure or change for Clarkson, and the opening poem, 'Janus' (7) feels like an apologia or manifesto of sorts for the unrepentant lavishness that is to follow. The speaker in 'Janus', having endured: 'a hateful hagiography of dragging winters / with incipient springs, word-ugly / and black-fasted, on the poorer side / of my life' assures us that 'now the worm was feeding / at the lintel, ready to rear up.' The use of 'hagiography' and 'fasted' are significant here: containment, enclosure, and worldly withdrawal– especially as these apply to religious life – were the signal preoccupations of Clarkson's previous collection, Monica's Overcoat of Flesh (Nine Arches Press, 2020). Although Monica's Overcoat of Flesh featured moments of flat-out fugivity and freedom, the poems and their speakers felt continually caught in a compromise between restraint and flight: raw lexical energy imperfectly held within the strictures of form. It gave the poems a restless, edgy quality, while in Crucifox that energy is a allowed to surge forth with strange new vigour.

Throughout the collection there are numerous instances of escape, revolt, or turn. Not merely within the lives and psyches of Clarkson's individual poetic subjects, but within the order of commonplace logic itself. In 'THE BOOK OF BLUE' (31), a monk 'glad from Nocturns', succumbs to the urge to illuminate a 'slippery and impure' (“blue” in the sense of “profane”) manuscript, 'extemporising nipples, buttocks, quim' at the stroke of a quill. While 'Apple Snow' (12) and 'FILTH' (17) are marked by moments of overrun and ruction in the fabric of daily life.

Pert mounds of blancmange

In 'Apple Snow' the speaker is gifted a 'big-chinned baby', left on the doorstep by her neighbour, my Grandet. After 'much shuffling of official forms' the speaker is informed that 'the girl' who grows prodigiously and quickly, 'will live with me, hereafter'. An illogical sequence of events the counter-spell to which is an equally illogical (poetic) solution. The situation rights itself in the following not, not in resisting the surreal surrender of sense, but in committing to it:

'she occupies herself in compiling an index of domestic magic, and will answer to the ancient English name Wigga. In return for board and lodgings she will source a daily breakfast of fruit, variously foraged and prepared: whiskey-poached pears, plum fritters; devilled figs, pert mounds of blancmange topped with apple snow'.

In 'FILTH' the chaos consumes an unwary emissary of the outside (rational) world. The 'mult' in 'Bella Langley's' closed-up home multiplies while the 'deranged house' urges the man inside and swallows him. No sign for ten days until 'the sirens, the lights.  / A blue suit stained.' There is ambivalence here, and threat, reactivating and filling with ominous portent the dead cliché of “behind closed doors.” As Clarkson writes, the collection traffics in 'female desire and feral impulses behind polite exteriors […] the silent and marginalised aspects of women, their masking and unveiling...'

Crucifox, then, is a place of power, but not necessarily a benevolent power. Within its pages flowers and cats speak, and booksellers offer vials of glowing emerald liquid, as in 'Compliments of the Patron' (25). Indeed, enchantments are continually proffered throughout Crucifox, but to enter the space the poems extend with safety one must be canny, fleet, and well-armed with sympathetic magic of one's own, with the 'informal cunning' of Fox in 'FOX NEWS: CREATRIX' (20) perhaps? Clarkson presents this poem as a series of crossword clues. The answers appearing on the opposite page in 'CROSSFOX: CROSSBOX' (21), are all variations on, or sound or sense components of, the word 'crucifox'. Because there is no such word, the ability to 'solve' the puzzle is a tantalising promise without hope of fulfilment. Meaning is illusive or labyrinthine. Here Clarkson is telling us something about language and its dangerous, mercurial potency; its ability to both bind and release us, to liberate or frustrate; to create or destroy.

In 'St Osburga's Surprise' (26), a nun is vouchsafed a vision of the future, and wonders 'Was this destruction or resurrection? Conventrated / re-created'. The same might be asked of Crucifox, and the answer is probably “both”. In the three felicities (36), which closes the collection, Clarkson ends with her subjects 'wreathed impossibly in sudden / lucky smiles, now self-assured and utterly reliable'. Does this poem signal that the charm is at an end? Are we released back into the 'reliable' world which has resumed its usual contours around us? Or is there an implied wink within that line? 'Crucifox is more a state of mind than a particular creature or person', writes Clarkson; having stepped once in Crucifox that state of mind stays with you.


C+nto & Othered poems, by Joelle Taylor (Westbourne Press)

Although in June it seems early to start talking about The Most Important Single-Author Poetry Collection of the Year, and despite having already reviewed C+nto in depth, I still want to cheer this book here as a strong contender for that title.

C+nto is the culmination of both patient and difficult (in every sense) research, and years of working and reworking the white-hot stuff of the poem through the pressure of performance. Discussions of Taylor's work often describe her as a compelling “spoken word” or “performance poet”, and while this is undoubtedly true, such descriptions tend to elide Taylor's vigour and innovation within the body of the printed text. I do not use the word “body” idly.

A protean and charismatic reader of her own work, Joelle Taylor's poetry is embodied to a high degree; the intimate tactility of performance is a vital element of relish and risk within her work. The body is also Taylor's most vivid subject, specifically the bodies of those whose histories, political destinies, safety and survival are tied to their physical identity: women, and butch lesbian women in particular are variously fetishized, debased, erased, and destroyed by the social and economic systems that govern them. Taylor's texts seem to store the scars of this accumulated bodily experience; standing for the living bodies whose integrity is violated by various kinds of violence.

In Taylor's 2017 collection Songs My Enemy Taught Me, she uses a mixture of oral testimony, found text, and personal experience to bear witness to the trauma of her own sexual abuse, but also to confront the chronic and ongoing sexual exploitation of women world-wide. A similar dynamics of archivism, excavation, and witnessing takes place within C+nto, which is a work of memoir, of fearsome imaginative and creative reach, and of deep historicity. Taylor undertakes this work with love, dexterity, and wit.

You're visible in all the wrong ways

C+nto begins by providing a definition for the title, and its Latin root in the verb 'Cuntare', to narrate, or to recount. Taylor also provides a glossary of words from wildly different lexes: from the coterie argot of LGBT+ occulture, through scientific, legal, and cinematic terminology, to Taylor's own invented slang. Juxtaposing this concern with the origins and precise meanings of words, Taylor frame the poems in highly visual ways, deploying the trappings of cinematography or stage direction to create their 'scenes'. In the preface to the poems Taylor describes the central conceit of the collection in the following way:

Glass display cases appear across the UK outside the old bars, cruising grounds, and squats that once held the LGBT+ community in parenthesis. […]  Each case holds a different scene (13)

These cases are a metaphor for the moments in which LGBT+ history is experienced and communicated. Erased, repressed, redacted, it becomes impossible to identify oneself within any coherent system of “belonging”. The glass offers brittle and ultimately doomed protection for the exposed subject while simultaneously trapping her. This is the contradiction at the heart of being a butch lesbian: you are missing within official history; you are excised from cultural representation even within LGBT+ cohorts, and yet you are visible in all the wrong ways: an obtruding target for ridicule and violence, a medical curiosity, and a sideshow spectacle. Your visibility is politicised and policed. You are dangerously visible, rarely seen.

 Against this willed lack of perception, Taylor creates C+nto with a lyric and militant tenderness. The language with which Taylor holds her subjects performs an elegiac cherishing. In Dudizile, who: '...speaks difficult / rivers knowing too / many bois are lost / in them those rip / tides of sudden belief / the undercurrent of/ language she speaks...' (87) Taylor's poem catches the cadence of thought and tongue particular to her subject. The richness and originality of Taylor's lyric phrase-making gives these figures substance and voice. C+nto understands that the most we can offer the dead is our unstinting vigilance, our attentive and loving witness.

C+nto is also an elegy for place. Not some twee nostalgia for a vanished / imagined past, but a work of grieving, a lament. The Maryville scenes are amongst the most ambitious and exciting within in the collection, offering up an incandescent melancholic 'psalm'; both an evocation and an invocation, a spell:

o, Maryville / let us walk alone at night / & let the night not follow us / let us drink too much / & awaken in each other's mouth / o Maryville / let us be ugly / let us unwash / let us language... (55)

C+nto seeks to create the very spaces that it mourns: however hedged, however temporary. The gold cover glows like a beacon of hope, a hope undermined, at least complicated, by the redacted 'u' of the title. The offence contained within the word 'c+nt' becomes metonymic for the “offensive” and unwanted presence of Taylor's lyric subjects.

Joy is abundant in C+nto: a hard-won joy that knows itself to be fleeting. Throughout, there is a sense of 'bursting' into existence, but that moment never arrives, is never allowed to coalesce and form enduring destinies. As the rainbow signifiers of “pride” are adopted by neoliberalism as a  hollow consumer brand, these truth feel especially necessary. In 'Eulogy' Taylor presents a litany of names compressed into stark columns, barely contained within the form of the text (113). This is the multitude that C+nto carries. These are the book's grieved-for subjects, and its truest audience. These are the voices that need to be heard, and that we need to hear.


The Brown Envelope Book (Caparison, with Don't Go Breaking Our Arts and Culture Matters, 2021), edited by Alan Morrison and Kate Jay-R.

 A brief disclaimer: because I have work in The Brown Envelope Book I wasn't initially sure if I should write about it or not. It gave me pause, but in the end I have decided that this book is so much bigger and more important than any one contributor. And “should” is a funny word in this context. Are the niceties of writerly “ethics” really more important than maintaining the visibility of a book so rare in its creative energy, and so profound in its political implications? I do not think so.

The Brown Envelope Book collects poetry and prose on contributors' varied (but always harrowing) experiences of unemployment, of the benefits system, and of disability and work capability assessments. The poems were selected and edited by Alan Morrison and Kate Jay-R, and the anthology features an important contextualising Foreword by John McArdle of the Black Triangle Campaign, established in 2011 to advocate for the human rights of sick and disabled people persecuted by the government's work capability assessments scheme.

Thinking about what makes this book so timely and so striking, it occurs to me that we inhabit a cultural moment where literature and the arts are deeply preoccupied with “identity”. Within such a moment it is often the case that the signifiers of identity – working-class identity in particular – are adopted, co-opted, and assimilated by the culture machine, while the social and material contexts under which that identity is forged, and under which our art is made, are wilfully vanished. The Brown Envelope Book feels significant for the way in which it triangulates artistic expression, social experience, and the ideological underpinnings that create and contour that experience. A number of publications deal thematically with “austerity” or “poverty” but by engaging with a specific piece of state apparatus, The Brown Envelope Book renders explicit the malignant functioning and human cost of this Tory government's political agenda against working-class, poor, and vulnerable people.

The title evokes the ominous “Brown Envelope” that brings with it news of sanctions, delays and denials of help, worked out according to some arbitrary and inhuman logic, and relayed in correspondingly inhuman language. When I use the word “inhuman”, I mean that quite literally. Many of the poems in The Brown Envelope Book incorporate fragments of this found text, which feels appropriate, as if, in their awkward construction, their evasive and affectless tone, these phrases have proved indigestible to even the most adroit lyric facility.

Forms must be brought in person

This is captured most starkly and completely in Angi Holden's 'Dear Client' (171), which reproduces the content of a DWP communication in the form of a poem, and in doing so demonstrates the impossibility of artistic recuperation for such a document. The content of the letter confounds the lyric reading expectations of intimacy and catharsis that are encoded within the shape and structure of the poem; the disorientation this produces is chilling.

Elsewhere, the language of these letters is burlesqued and satirised, as in Penny Blackburn's 'Jumping Through Hoops' (98) or Joel Schueler's 'Questions of Validation' (276). I will not say that Blackburn and Schueler exactly “exaggerate” the inherent absurdity of this language, rather they use bleak humour to make both the violence and the Kafkaesque illogic of the letters readily legible. Blackburn does this in subtle shifts and accretions, showing us that absolute nonsense is an ever-present prospect, a question of degrees: 'Each significant piece of information / must be accurately placed / within the correct, identified box / of the specified form — / available Wednesdays, bi-weekly, / when the moon reaches the nadir. // Forms must be brought in person / to our top floor office (no lift) / 3 miles from the nearest road or rail link, / open every 5th Friday (mornings only)...”

Schueler takes a more direct approach, stating nakedly the bigotry and threat contained within these communications sotto (but only just) voce: 'Dear sponger, / No parachute will be necessary. / Move away from the funds / without as much as a day to prepare / for your nothingness.'

Another striking feature of the anthology is the sheer number of times the letters themselves are referred to or described. They initiate or punctuate the poems, breaching and disrupting lyric space; they interrupt, command and coerce. As physical artefacts they have an almost totemic potency. This potency is figured most hauntingly in Rachel Burns' 'We do not know when normal service will resume' (113): 'and the letter unfolded itself like a broken wing / the wrong kind of origami'. The letter 'unfolded itself', it is not inanimate, it has agency and momentum. It is 'the wrong kind' of origami, a malevolent magic, bad juju.

These envelopes are metonymic for and de facto extensions of the brutalising state; they condense the power of that state into one easily recognised symbol (the brown envelope), so that the symbol itself transmits that power and the fear it provokes. The hateful presence of these letters in the lives and homes of vulnerable people serves as a form of remote terror, a kind of distance-bullying. This metaphor is captured beautifully by Fiona Sinclair in 'Fear of Letterboxes' (284): 'Sundays, strikes and snow, she is a school kid / whose bully has been excluded for a few days.' Anyone who has known bullying will understand this feeling: the giddy bitter joy of brief respite; the horrible uncertainty as to when your torment will resume.

Epistolarity itself carries connotations of intimacy; the very act of being addressed, and the spectre of implied response invoked by address render the recipients of letters uniquely vulnerable. When governments and state institutions address their citizen-subjects through letters they mobilize epistolary rhetoric in a variety of ways: to compel the individual and command the public; to coerce cooperation and engineer consent. The dreaded brown envelope is a particular kind of epistolary communication: it speaks not to us, but at us, with an intrusive and imperative address that  demands response but denies our right to meaningful reply. Our subordinate and dependent position is inscribed not only through the language of that address, but through its very presentation. The brown envelope itself silences us.

We're vital, alive and as mad as hell

The Brown Envelope Book creates against this silence a space of reply. In subverting the signifiers of the brown envelope – the cover is designed to mimic the appearance of a DWP communication, the font and typesetting have the look of “official” letters – the anthology attempts to return some of our accumulated fear and distress to sender. By allowing the recipients of those envelopes an opportunity we were never afforded as citizens and subjects, the anthology forms a powerful work of testimony, it gives us back the nuance and complexity of embodied experience, a complexity shaved out of tick-box bureaucracy, and the deliberately limiting anti-language of assessment criteria.

This is invaluable to those whose experience of the world and of themselves has been reduced by such criteria. Reading The Brown Envelope Book I was deeply moved by the depths of creativity, the intellectual rigour, and the artistic dedication of my fellow contributors. This anthology is proof that we make, in our different ways, a valuable contribution to our communities and culture; it is proof that we know how to spin nectar out of shit. The Brown Envelope Book never allows that nectar to provide a tacit justification for the shit either. Rather, it begs the question: what might we create or accomplish if our government allowed us to be seen as human beings? In this way our art is not merely cathartic or therapeutic solace but a manner of critique, a way of holding power to account. This comes across clearly in Clare Saponia's poem, 'The importance of being an artist' (275): 'That voice shrieking: / “You’re a slacker” / IS NOT YOURS! / It’s the rage / of the system / slamming its doors. / It’s the whip / of red tape / that doesn’t want you to feel. / It’s the guilt / in your bones / that work doesn’t heal.'

The anthology also provides a way of mediating these varied experiences to the wider (especially political) world, and of beginning to unpick the damage caused by decades of misrepresentation and barefaced lying about who and what we are. Many of the poems answer and challenge these misrepresentations directly, as when Maria Gornell, in 'In Sickness and In Wealth' (152) writes 'because you can’t be sick / and clever at the same time / send me more brown letters / to reinforce my absolute / uselessness on earth.'

These poems prove that perception a lie. We are vital and alive, and as mad as hell.

Visibility and Voice: C+nto, by Joelle Taylor 
Tuesday, 29 June 2021 07:53

Visibility and Voice: C+nto, by Joelle Taylor 

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock reviews C+nto, by Joelle Taylor 

When I talk about Joelle Taylor as a “wordsmith” I do not choose the epithet idly. Having read with Taylor numerous times, I have been fortunate enough to hear several of the poems in C+nto during the formative phases of their development, and to witness how she uses the stage as a kind of blacksmith's forge, working and reworking the white-hot stuff of the poem through the pressure of performance, before it is finally ready to cool onto the page. I have followed Taylor's trajectory through contemporary UK poetry for years now, and this still strikes me as a remarkable feature of her practice. More remarkable yet is that the poems on the page seem to condense, rather than dissipate, the sheer physical intensity of their performance. Discussions of Taylor's work often describe her as a compelling “spoken word” or “performance poet”; while this is undoubtedly true, such descriptions tend to elide Taylor's vigour and innovation within the body of the printed text. I do not use the word “body” idly either.

I mean by this that as a protean and charismatic reader of her own work, Taylor's poetry is embodied to a high degree. Taylor has a background in theatre, so it is not surprising that she understands intimately the relationship of her words to breath and to gesture, as sound and as substance. The effort required to produce those sounds, to force air from the diaphragm, to take long irregular breaths, to twist the tongue around a particularly sinuous phrase exacts a toll from the poem's speaker. In early ‘choreo-poems’ such as Naming (Oval House Theatre, 1994) and (w)horror stories (Oval House Theater, 1996) Taylor rejects the conventions of narrative and dramatic realism to make meaning from the rhythms and sonic texture of verbal language. These pieces combine spoken, sung and chanted language with pre-verbal and non-verbal sounds, body-language and silence to shape her performance. The tactility of those early performance pieces is still very much an element of relish and risk within Taylor's work: she is an uncanny and joyous manipulator of live language, but behind the sensual pleasure of the words there is an ever-present anxiety that they might exceed or exhaust the body of their performer; that they cannot be accommodated or contained; that they will not be controlled.

The body is also Taylor's most vivid subject. More accurately, the bodies of those whose histories, political destinies, safety and survival are tied to their physical identity: to gender and to sexuality. The bodies of women, and the bodies of lesbian women in particular are variously fetishized, debased, erased, and destroyed by the social and economic systems that govern them; systems in which the bodies of women are both the argument for and the evidence of their subjugation and abuse. Throughout Taylor's large poetic corpus, her texts seem to store the scars of this accumulated bodily experience. I would also suggest that they often stand for the living human bodies whose integrity is violated by various kinds of violence and trauma.

In Taylor's 2017 collection Songs My Enemy Taught Me, Taylor uses a mixture of oral testimony, found text, and personal experience to bear witness to the trauma of her own sexual abuse, but also to confront the chronic and ongoing sexual exploitation and abuse of women world-wide. In ‘Songs of Survival’, roughly midway through the collection, Taylor's lyric text is suddenly intercut by two copies of the Department for Work and Pensions form NCC1 4/17: Support for a child conceived without your consent. On the left-hand side an unmutilated copy of the form, the stark and almost unbearably banal cruelty of which forces a sudden interruption in the reader’s fluid interaction with the text. On the right, portions of the form are obscured or redacted in a simultaneous inversion of and comment upon the institutional erasures of women’s testimony. The copy reads 'Support... rape... through... this... mean... detailed... coercive... and controlling... form' (92-93). The insertion of this profoundly unmusical piece of state apparatus into a work of performance-led poetry functions as a critique upon the narrative demands of witnessing imposed on the victims of rape by governments, societies and systems. It demonstrates the way in which the intimate territory of the body is interrupted, administered and diminished by these same systems.

Visibility and Voice

It feels important to note that Taylor's work is not merely about rendering difficult or occluded bodies visible, but asking questions about that very visibility and its complex interaction with voice. Visibility and Voice could well be seen as the twin tensions that underpin C+unto. Taylor begins by providing a definition for the word, and its Latin root in the verb 'Cuntare', to narrate, tell, or to recount. Taylor also provides a glossary, which includes words belonging to a variety of different lexises: from the coterie argot of LGBT+ occulture, through scientific, legal, and cinematic terminology, to Taylor's own invented slang. Against this concern with the origins and precise meanings of words, there is the highly visual framing of the poems themselves, which deploy the language of cinematography or stage direction to create their 'scenes'. In the preface to the poems Taylor describes the central conceit of the collection in the following way:

Glass display cases appear across the UK outside the old bars, cruising grounds, and squats that once held the LGBT+ community in parenthesis. They come in the shape of snow globes, fish tanks, jars, crystal music boxes, vivariums, bottles, and grand music cabinets. Each case holds a different scene (13)

There is such a complex fragility contained within this image: the glass acts as a barrier between the scene's subjects and the outside world, but also between the subjects within different scenes; this makes poetically and hauntingly manifest the difficulty in apprehending any sense of continuity, history, or community for LGBT+ people in general, and for butch lesbians in particular. On one level, the glass cases serve as a metaphor for the small pockets or revelatory moments in which LGBT+ history is experienced and communicated. This history has been erased, repressed, and not suffered to be inscribed upon civic space; it becomes impossible to identify oneself within any coherent  system of “belonging”. You are present but apart. You live in stilted, looping moments, ultimately exiled.

These cases function as both inadequate shelter and inescapable prison: the glass is a brittle and ultimately doomed protection for the exposed subject. Outside the box, the ever-present threat that contours LGBT+ relationships with the cities beyond. And here Taylor nails the contradiction at the heart of being a butch lesbian: you are missing within both the archives and the architecture of official history; you are excised from cultural representation even within LGBT+ cohorts, and yet you are visible in all the wrong ways: an obtruding target for ridicule and violence, a medical curiosity, and a sideshow spectacle. Your visibility is punitive (punished?), politicised and policed. You are, to put it simply, supremely, dangerously visible, but rarely ever seen. 'There is no part of a butch lesbian that is welcome in this world.' Taylor writes in the preface. A statement with which it is impossible to argue.

But against this willed lack of perception, Taylor creates C+nto with a lyric and militant tenderness. Her subjects feel alive, fully realised and present, and the language with which they are held performs an elegiac cherishing. Dudizile, who: '...speaks difficult/ rivers knowing too/ many bois are lost/ in them those rip/ tides of sudden belief/ the undercurrent of/ language she speaks...' (87) Taylor's poem catches the cadence of thought and tongue particular to her subject; the skittish undersong of a mind revved up and ready to go. Or Jack Catch, 'in her houndstooth suit / oxblood brogues / knitted tie / sharpens the air she walks through...' (77). Or Angel, standing at the centre 'of her own ring', for whom 'bare knuckle fighting is a kind of birth' (92). These are not “characters” but people. The richness and originality of Taylor's lyric phrase-making gives them substance and voice. C+nto is a collection that understands that the most we can offer the dead is our unstinting vigilance, our attentive and loving witness.

C+nto is also an elegy for place. The bars and squats, the clubs and stomping grounds that breifly held Taylor's protagonists in common. This is not nostalgia for a vanished time and place, this is a work of grieving. These sites were not “safe” spaces – not for their patrons, or from the brutalising predations of social cleansing – because nowhere was safe. Rather, let's call this a lament for a sacred space: not merely somewhere to go, but somewhere to be and to become. The scenes where Taylor describes Maryville feel among the most ambitious and exciting  in the collection, offering up indandescent prayers in a melancholic but enervating 'psalm'. This poem is both an evocation and an invocation, it has the power of a spell behind it:

 o, Maryville / let us walk alone at night / & let the night not follow us / let us drink too much / & awaken in each other's mouth / o Maryville / let us be ugly / let us unwash / let us language... (55)

Within the pages of C+nto the book seems to create the spaces that it mourns: a place, however hedged, however partial, however temporary. The gold cover glows like a beacon of hope, a hope that is almost undermined, at least complicated, by the redacted 'u' of the title. The offence contained within the word 'c+nt' becomes metonymic for the “offensive” and unwanted presence of Taylor's subjects, a rejection with which Taylor is herself intimately familiar.

This is not a “happy” book. It is, in places, celebratory and triumphant, but it is celebratory and triumphant in the teeth of a world that still refuses to acknowledge its author as fully human. Joy is abundant in C+nto, 'bursting' as Tayor writes in 'Legend of the First Butch', at the seams, but it is a hard-won joy, and a joy that knows itself to be fleeting. Throughout the collection, this sense of bursting into existence or becoming is everywhere signalled, but the moment never seems to arrive. There's so much energy here, so much purpose and potential, but it's never allowed to coalesce, to form communities of destinies that are recognised and enduring. Taylor refuses to shirk the often fatal consequences of daring to experience this joy, historically and presently. And at a cultural moment when the rainbow signifiers of LGBT+ “pride” have been adopted by neoliberalism as a hollow consumer brand, an easy, purely gestural way of accumulating cultural cache. I often wonder when doing my shopping in Sainsbury's just exactly how the supermarket is supporting me as a bi woman. Will staff come to my rescue next time I'm being harassed or threatened for my shaved head and unmade face. This feels unlikely. Within this context, Taylor's work is especially important.

In 'Black Triangle', Taylor describes the patches lesbians in Germany were forced to wear as a symbol of their antisocial nature, a symbolic scoring out of the c+nt as anything other than a source of sexual and reproductive labour. It is also a poem about the cost of being the wrong kind of visible, of living your life surveilled not just by the state but by anyone who might be watching. There are three sides to a triangle, says one of Taylor's subjects, 'your lover, yourself / & whoever is watching...' (104).

'December' is also a poem about brutalising and fatal homophobic violence, but it feels mournful and exhausted. In the final line there is 'a rainbow flag thrown over a coffin', an image that captures the true risk, weight, and meaning of “pride” (112).

'Eulogy' is also a litany: names compressed into stark columns, compressed and barely contained within the form of the text, and within the sorrow of the speaker (113) This is the multitude that C+nto contains. These are the book's grieved-for subjects, and its truest audience. C+nto is a work of memoir, a work of fearsome imaginative and creative reach; it is also a work of patient and dedicated historicity. As with Songs My Enemy Taught Me, Taylor rigorously researched this collection. That is the true measure of her empathy and discipline as an artist. It is not enough to conjure voices out of air. It is not enough to merely write your own story. To be the witness and the storyteller these histories demand is to be the unblinking archivist to generations of pain. That Taylor does this work with love and with elan; that it reaches us as sonorous and soaring poetry is a testament to the alchemy of her craft.

C+nto, by Joelle Taylor (Westbourne Press, 2021), ISBN 978 I 908906 48 9, 125 pages, £10.99

Solidarity suite for Cynthia Cruz: Review of The Melancholia of Class
Monday, 28 June 2021 15:38

Solidarity suite for Cynthia Cruz: Review of The Melancholia of Class

Published in Cultural Commentary

Fran Lock reviews The Melancholia of Class, by Cynthia Cruz, published by Repeater Books - 'a link in the chain and a light to see by'. Images by Fran Lock unless otherwise credited


It begins, as it must, in shock. We have been asleep, 'asleep in the belief' as Cruz puts it, that our colleagues and our peers regard us as equals. We have entered the academy; we play out the pretence. We are somnambulists, amnesiacs, protected by forgetfulness, by daily acts of effortful dissociation. We are adept at this, so much so that we convince even ourselves, and especially ourselves, and only ourselves. Indeed, our deepest delusion is that anyone else is fooled. It begins, as it must, in the moments we run up against the Real. Cruz' mentor tells her that she doesn't 'dress or talk' like somebody from the working class, and she is stunned, speechlessly bewildered and appalled.

To read The Melancholia of Class is also to be stunned. I experienced this book as a series of concussive blows. This is not hyperbole. We encounter others like ourselves within neoliberal culture so seldom that to meet a shared experience upon the page is to reel from the recognition. In so many ways Cruz and myself have lived parallel lives. No, more accurately, our very different lives have been marked by the same moments of disruption, erasure, and impediment; by the same endlessly iterative series of rude awakenings. We are not regarded as equal. The middle-class culture in which we find ourselves scarcely regards us as human.

Class? What class?

Numerous times over the last ten years I have been told that the “class system” in England is a “thing of the past”, that it has simply “ceased to exist”. Cruz' writing is startlingly sharp on the kinds of Janus-faced manoeuvre that make such pronouncements possible, and on the specific pain, for working-class artists, of occupying the position of the absent subject. She writes:

 I was not aware I was not middle-class until my being working-class was interpolated onto me as a child. Furthermore, because neoliberalism insists there are no social classes, there is, according to its ideology, no working class. By default, the working-class subject miraculously does not exist. This being the case, the working-class subject is a ghost, which is to say alive but not living, a double, a contradiction.

Cruz asks how one is to write about social class, something that 'informs every aspect' of her life, when for many, it does not exist? She writes compellingly of how it feels to persist within culture as a haunting, or as a collective hallucination: spectral, a fever dream.

I have often described my own existence as a working-class woman within popular imagination as a kind of poltergeist or boggart. “Pikeys” are spoken around with superstitious fear, approached, but never met; glimpsed but never seen. We are known only by our effects: the saucer of milk upset, the smashed glass, the crackle of static. Within the elite space of the academy, nobody would deny that poverty exists; everyone is quite prepared to perform distress at the existence of poverty. It is a terrible thing, but it is always happening elsewhere to an idealised victim whom you do not resemble. Worse, for many middle-class artists this poverty becomes a kind of inscription surface, an aestheticised stele, a depthless backdrop. The poor and working-class people who negotiate and inhabit this poverty are always somehow missing. The social forces that create and contour the experience of living in poverty are, as Cruz puts it, 'razored out'. We flicker across this backdrop in vague gestures, 'oblique references', 'tropes emptied of meaning'. The rocking chair rocks by itself: spooky.

Cruz Picture6

If you deny the existence of the poor, then poverty becomes empty and up for grabs, another hollow symbol. This is an integral part of the mechanism by which gentrification operates: class is erased in the very instance it is enacted. The middle-class talk endlessly about “regenerating” “deprived areas”. Areas are not “deprived”, people are. The human is edged out of language as a precursor to being edged out of civic space. They arrive in our communities – attracted precisely by the frisson of glamour, the cultural cache, the aura that surrounds poverty – and they begin living life without any responsibility or reference to those their presence has impacted and displaced. They don't ask themselves where we go to. They see florists and boutique bakeries flourish around them and they are well pleased. They walk through people as if we were not there.

Cruz Picture21 camden Frans old stomping ground

Ghosts and ghostliness are significant features in my writing. Cruz identifies the recurrence of the spectral within her own work as signalling the presence or the possibility of death that hovers over working-class existence. Simply put, death and illness 'haunt the lives of the working class', and so they haunt, inform and constitute our art. When I attempt to talk about ghosts I feel as if I have been telling the same story on a loop forever: a photo exists of myself and my London-Irish squat-punk friends, sat on the bridge at Camden Lock. Of the twelve people visible in that photograph, only four of us survive. I am, as far as I know, the only one of those four survivors who might also be said to have “thrived”. I tell this story because our ghosts are also literal, and their existence is everywhere refused. Cruz describes an incident in which work informed by her teenage years living in an abandoned house with other teenagers was mischaracterised by an 'eminent writer' as 'dystopian'. She states that: 'He simply could not comprehend what I had described occurring in the US.' The middle class has been so effectively naturalised as the sole implied audience for art and literature that they feel no qualms about using their own experience of the world as an absolute model for all human experience.

Cruz Picture8

I have written before about how an early manuscript for my second collection was rejected by an independent middle-class publisher because – and I quote – 'working-class people do not speak that way'. I was told that I was 'ventriloquising' and 'inauthentic'. I had explained – I thought, painstakingly – in my cover letter, that the work grew out of an actual correspondence and actual conversations with a person I had loved and whom I had lost. The rejection was arrogant and callous, and a function of almost breathtaking privilege: because my poetic “performance” of class did not comfortably confirm the stereotypes that middle-class culture had itself created about me, I could not “authentically” belong to the working class. Because the working class, as this one white middle-aged, middle-class man imagined them, did not sound or think like myself or my lost friend, then we must be a put-on, a fabrication, a fiction.

Cruz' book is riddled with such moments. As when her mentor measures her against an imagined working-class person and finds her reassuringly dissimilar. As when an 'Ivy League educated professor' tells her simply she is 'wrong' when she points out that the working class do exist; she knows this for a fact because she is working-class. That is real power: when your illusion has more weight than somebody else's reality. Frequently, we are not trusted to be authors of or experts in our own experience. In recent years, my writing has been called “depressing”, “morbid” and “abject”. I have been disparagingly described as a “poète maudit”, accused of “romanticising” “the margins” simply because I write about those who inhabit them with empathy and love. I was asked once where all the “good” or valorous poor people were in my work. That one disturbed me most of all. As if the figures I write about had a moral obligation to be “inspirational” or “heroic” according to the arbitrary standard of a culture they cannot access or participate in. To the middle classes an “inspirational” subject can only ever be one who “transcends” the socio-economic conditions into which they were born. They welcome only work that endorses the belief that this is possible. Further, they refuse to credit any other kinds of “success”, or to understand, as Cruz also points out, that the working class may not want what they want. They refuse, absolutely to recognise their own desires as subjective and contingent. They are the world.

Class-based oppression within art and literature

Time and again while reading The Melancholia of Class, my mind returned obsessively to that initial rejection of my manuscript. Not because the rejection itself is still painful to me, but because it both typifies and exposes a significant aspect of class-based oppression within art and literature, one that I am only beginning at this late stage of my “career” to fully comprehend. What strikes me now is that when encountering my text, the editor in question felt able to discount one of the most fundamental and well-established “rules” for reading poetry: that poetry is, at best, an imperfect sieve for lived experience; that poetic language is not the unfiltered real. How could it be? Poetry is heightened speech, is crafted and refined, whether larded or stripped. I do not write exactly as I think or speak in the supermarket or down the pub, nobody does. I make, as every writer does, aesthetic choices, and these choices are every bit as deliberate and disciplined as those of my middle-class contemporaries. But rather than attempting to understand the aesthetic basis of my work, he insisted upon seeing my various poetic strategies as “proof” of deception or inauthenticity. This reading of my work tells me two things: that he believes poetic invention to be the exclusive property of the middle class, and that a voice characterised by artless “sincerity” is the only kind of working-class voice he could possibly abide. Artless sincerity is not threatening. It confirms him, once again, in the exclusive ownership of intellectual techniques and tools that he understands instinctively as belonging to himself and to his class cohort.

Cruz Picture15

Throughout my erratic trajectory as a writer, words such as “raw” or “edgy” or “fauve” have followed me, heavily disguised as compliments. They function in related but opposite ways to the charge most frequently levelled against my work: that it is – that I am – “too much”. That is “too angry”, “too sentimental”, “too depressing”, “too political”, too “melodramatic”, “excessive” and over-the-top. As I have long understood it, this type of language allows my middle-class critics to admit, without ever having to credit, the rich aesthetic basis for my creative practice. By persistently figuring features as bugs, and choices as accidents of untutored energy, they preserve the myth that rigour and innovation are solely the fruits of middle-class literary production. Reading The Melancholia of Class has helped enormously to clarify my thinking on this process. As Cruz writes:

 by creating terms such as “outsider art”, “primitive art” and “Art-brut,” middle-class art historians are able to label work that does not fit into already established modes, work that tends to be made by artists not already inculcated within the middle-class art and literary worlds, as backward or inferior.

 This is deeply true of poetry. The book is also particularly insightful about capitalist culture's perpetual cool-hunt; its insistence upon frictionless linear “progression”, its surface-skating quest for the “avant-garde”, the ever-new:

Middle-class culture does not engage with the concrete and material conditions on the ground – or, if it does, it incorporates the symbolic terms or language of such conditions in order to capitalise on their edginess. 

 A topical gloss, in other words, masking a shallow politic, “Marxy”, to quote UK poet Verity Spott, not actually Marxist. This coolness manifests in riot porn and social safari; middle-class bands posing against a backdrop of somebody else's post-industrial decay. It manifests as poets haphazardly deploying the signifiers of working-class precarity in a gestural and fleeting manner.

If working-class artists are “too” anything, perhaps we are “too present” in the events and experiences we describe. “Cool” presupposes a distance. “Cool” does not grieve. Distance itself is a function of privilege. For working-class and poor people our only option is to inhabit the world with a strained, hyper-vigilant intensity, because to live inside of capitalism demands of us a continuous negotiation. We are eternally reacting, seldom afforded the space for reflection. Neoliberal culture is endured as an exhausting series of assaults on our time and attention; on our communities and persons. The world is a barrage: encroaching and inundating. It requires, always, a pressured attention language, to the business of simply staying alive. And for us, there can be no exit ramp, no territory of tactical retreat. Except perhaps for the hedged retreats of empty sex; of drugs, alcohol, and ultimately, death.

Assimilation or annihilation

Where, after all, would we go? What would we be escaping into? This question haunts Cruz' book, where the urge to “leave” or to “become” something – anything – else is enacted in a variety of ways: the working-class person might – as Cruz did – move far away from the family and community in which they were raised. If they are fortunate, talented, dedicated, with a modicum of support behind them, they might work, in this new place, towards a variety of educational and creative goals. Or perhaps the working-class person will marry “up” and out of their class, tying their fate to a socially mobile partner. Perhaps they will walk a more reckless route, seek temporary respite within the fatal cocoon of narcotics. They might find themselves swallowed up by the military industrial complex, or by sex work, consumed by any one of a million false promises. As Cruz is at pains to point out, even in the best-case scenario, the working-class person is only and always “escaping” into a world where: 'one does not exist, being ignored and, at the same time, being the subject of daily acts of violence.' To live in such a way is 'difficult, if not impossible'. Cruz presents the bind in which we so often find ourselves in the starkest possible terms: 'assimilation or annihilation'. Choices which aren't really choices at all, for “assimilation” can only ever be imperfect:

Having abandoned her working-class origins, coming up against the threshold of the middle-class world (which will not allow her access), she is neither working-class nor is she middle-class. She is a ghost, existing between worlds, a haunting.

I find myself thinking about this a lot, about my own erratic and ultimately doomed attempts at “escape”. These attempts fail for a variety of reasons, not least because I have no objective criteria for success: I neither value or desire anything that neoliberal society has to offer. Their failure is also an imaginative failure: the void at the centre of my escape fantasies. Trained as I am to understand the world as not being for me, I have no future to project myself into. I can imagine my life only in increments: from month to month, from day to day. In part this is the result of a long socio-economic precarity, but it is also driven by a lack of confidence in a version of the future not actively hostile to my existence.


I read a nauseating article recently, which dwelt upon the “enchantment” and the “mystery” of the circus, the fairground, “gypsy” encampments and of other such “liminal” spaces. Not having access to the elite publication arena in which the article appeared, I found no zone of response, and no place of respite from the waves of cold, rolling fury the piece initiated in me. I could type out an essay to no one. I could send it to the two friends I felt would receive it on its own terms, with understanding and empathy. I could submit it to the one online journal that reliably publishes my prose. I could put it out on social media and cause a brief controversy. But the author speaks with the weight of her agent, her publisher, her academic institution, and her entire social circle behind her. Authority and status are encoded into her every pronouncement, her every digital gesture. I am hopelessly outmatched. We are both “early career academics” and published poets, but I am older, uglier, and less sure of myself; it has taken me longer and cost me more to arrive at a less-good version of the same place. I have worked every bit as hard and every bit as well. I have achieved every bit as much. But she is middle-class.

Cruz Picture10

For the author, the margins are devoid of context, of the class dynamics that created them, and so they become a mirror, or a hollow repository for her awe and sense of spectacle. In the process, she erases the real people who occupy those margins, and who have not the opportunity or the ability to reply. As she erases them, she also imbues them with a silent and fascinating power. That power is the pull of her “enchantment”. Cruz tackles this same emptying out in her thorough and loving treatment of director Barbara Loden. Talking about the ways in which middle-class female writers have received and interpreted Loden's film, Wanda (1970), she describes the process of mystification that occurs when an understanding of class dynamics is removed from a reading of the film:

Loden's social class does not exist because the working class is symbolically dead; because we are told that there are no social classes. Or, rather, class does exist, but only the middle class, which is the only class represented in the media. As a result of this deliberate erasure, Wanda appears enigmatic, incomprehensible. At the same time, due to the erasure of her class Wanda and Loden (because for non-working-class female writers the two are one and the same) becomes a tabula rasa, a blank slate onto which middle-class writers project themselves.

Cruz points out that Loden has articulated her artistic intentions for the film and the motivations of Wanda's titular character numerous times, but Loden's own words were not consulted by the middle-class writers engaged in draining her film of meaning. Rather, middle-class discourse overwrites the very working-class art it is ostensibly attempting to understand or to describe.

The essay on enchantment made me feel obscurely overwritten too, and all I could do was to push back with my own cancelled voice, as if the author could hear, as if she were listening, as if the voices of people like me counted for anything. I told her: beholder, the magic was inside you all along. I told her there was no “enchantment”; this frisson is the feeling of one who beholds from a place of relative safety. I told her that to run away there must be somewhere to run from. I told her that for the solid middle-class citizen, the circus is an escape from the settled, conventional centre, but that the circus is suffered to survive only because it helps this centre to hold, because it acts as a psychic purgative, a place to keep their secrets, their sex and sugar-rush taboos. On a certain level the circus is the deepest possible expression of a moral and cultural status quo. I told her that “circus” is a word for an illusion; that the word works as a denial of its moving parts, that “circus” is a euphemism, a nominative blurring of the real, a form of abdication, like “porn”, like saying “sausage” so you don't have to reckon with reconstituted flesh. I told her that the lion in the circus is not an Aztec sacrifice; that the lion in the circus is August Ames. A sacrifice is special. A circus animal in one among many instrumentalised “others”, is the other whose otherness is the very argument for their instrumentalisation. The circus is a spectacle, and spectacle at its most fundamental is a retreat from empathy. Of course, this is the crux of the attraction: cheap holidays in other people's misery.

I wrote and I wrote, pointlessly, against my own erasure. Lately, I have felt this pointlessness, this sense of numbing futility, more deeply rooted within the heart of my creative practice than at any time since my early twenties. The Melancholia of Class arrived on my desk at a moment when I felt consumed by a like form of melancholia. Worn down by my repeated attempts to evade, surmount or negotiate a stacked system, frustrated by the hedged or partial nature of even my victories, I also felt – feel – lost in a more amorphous way.

Cruz uses Freud's model of melancholic mourning as a way of understanding that particular feeling of diffuse, pervasive and ambivalent loss experienced by the working-class subject who cannot or will not assimilate into neoliberal culture, and yet who stubbornly persists, “alive but not living”. I was initially somewhat resistant, somewhat sceptical, about adopting a psychoanalytic framework for understanding my own relationship to class, but Cruz is both persuasive and clear: because neoliberal culture refuses to acknowledge social class, and because the working class are symbolically dead, the working-class subject has no language in which to articulate that which they have lost, no language in which to name, and to release their attachment to the lost love object. 

Cruz Picture25

Cruz draws on her own formative experiences of having shame of her class background 'interpolated onto her as a child', and the ways in which this shame was internalised, the way it warped her understanding of herself and her community. This feeling is familiar to me. Self-loathing is familiar: this obtrusive and often overwhelming sense that I am defective or “less”; that something is wrong with me. Cruz writes movingly about the mechanics of this experience:

I didn't know that my social alienation was the direct result of my class and that my being marginalized was too. The few friends I had at the time were also bullied. Some dropped out of high school, some ran away from home, moved to San Francisco where they became homeless. Some ended up addicted to drugs, some were forced to sell their bodies in order to survive. Many eventually killed themselves. By the time I left my hometown for college, most of the working-class kids I'd known were dead or had gone missing.

No tools, no space, no way

To read these words produces an uncanny feeling: this is one of many places in The Melancholia of Class where Cruz' experience appears eerily similar to my own. But it is not eerie, merely sad. The intense identification I feel for Cruz in these moments is itself the result of a vast cultural silence surrounding class-based oppression; a fiercely willed inattention to the voices and stories of poor and working-class persons. Myself and Cruz are not, in fact, two exceptional individuals united by some kind of supernatural affinity; I do not doubt that our experiences are shared by hundreds of thousands of other working-class women and girls. But because we were not given the tools to understand ourselves as a class cohort, and because our stories are seldom afforded space within the dominant discourse, we have had no way of apprehending that fact, of finding each other; we have remained isolated. This is one significant reason that Cruz' book is so important: in its appeal to horizontal solidarity, in its empathetic and embracive reach, The Melancholia of Class performs 'an act of communal rite, a calling-into-being'. Through this act, Cruz aims to 'begin to awaken from the death-sleep of amnesia.' This book might awaken others too.

Cruz review depression

Am I awake? Truly awake? Or simply wondering around the corridors and battlements of my own isolation like Lady Macbeth: my eyes are open but their sense is shut, etc. I am not dazed. I am jaggedly alert, unable to relax. I drink a lot of coffee. When I am working, ideas and images pass in intermittent flickers across the fitful continuum of my attention. This is not an inability to concentrate as such; rather “concentration” itself consists of something other than what is typically meant by “concentration”. Cruz touches upon this in the opening chapter of The Melancholia of Class, writing about the ways in which working-class people experience and perceive time under capitalism; the ways in which our time is perceived, valued, and managed by others. The middle class are allowed leisure. That is to say that economic and material security afford them the time and the space to be idle. It is also to say that they are permitted this idleness, that no moral taint attends it as it does for the working class. As Cruz writes, we are expected to conform to an endless cycle of 'work and recovery', and any refusal of this pattern is punished both by moral disapprobation and the withholding of essential resources by the systems that administer us. The DWP and like agencies feel perfectly entitled – indeed morally obligated – to waste our time: we do not require leisure because we are not capable of using it profitably.

We have no abstract thought, no long-term desires; we are not curious or enquiring. We cannot appreciate, and consequently we do not deserve travel, or culture, nature, or art. Our pleasures are supposed to be immediate and crude: the compulsive joyless gratifications of sex, food, and alcohol; the stupor of daytime television. We are taught to be ashamed of our idleness. We are told that to rest is “lazy”. My mother and I have both internalised this shame to a dangerous degree. Sometimes the fog clears and I am able to see this objectively: here are two generations of working-class women, workaholic over-achievers who nonetheless feel themselves to be lazy, derelict and failing. When work is offered that we neither want or particularly need, we take it anyway. The flip-side to shame is guilt, the desperate desire to prove that we do not consider ourselves “above” the work that is offered us, however menial or degrading the labour, however over-qualified and eminently unsuitable we are for the work.

Cruz Picture17 As seen in North London

We do not wish to appear “ungrateful” for the “opportunity”, when so many working-class people are desperate for employment. This anxiety has permeated every level of our lives. At the time of writing, my mother is so busy, so tied to her desk, that she has not been outside for a walk in over a week. I am, frankly, a doormat at home, piling domestic drudgery on top of research, teaching, writing, editorial and publication commitments. I occupy numerous voluntary positions, all of which I love, but which eat into and through my days like acid. I clean frenetically, cook from scratch. In the free time that remains to me I walk or run. I can “rest” only when I am physically exhausted, when my mind is quiet and I can allow myself to believe that I deserve this respite. I put the radio on and hear nothing. I stare at a screen without appetite or interest.

I have written a great deal about the impact these cycles of shame and guilt have on working-class literary production: for middle-class persons the act of reading is most often conceptualised as a leisure activity, as inherently pleasurable and restorative. But it is also an exercise of pleasure through which the reader participates in the acquisition and confirmation of cultural status. It is a prestige-seeking activity, which situates the reader within a cohort of similarly well-read peers. Reading, and being seen to have read the “right” books, contributes to a sense of shared class identity; contributes to a “house style”, a common fund of formal tropes and characteristic concerns. For the middle class, to read is to connect to a community of others like oneself. There is often a significant overlap between the life experiences of readers and the writers whose work they consume. There is a level of identification and comfort between writers who submit their work, and the journal editors who decide what is published. This kind of entitlement is impossible to imagine for even the most joyful and voracious of working-class readers, the most driven and devoted of aspirant writers. Although we may also read for pleasure, we do so in omnivorous and opportunistic ways, clawing back time and attention from myriad material demands and from the unconducive conditions of home and work. When we read, we must read with the ambient hum of alienation and shame at the back of us. We do not recognise affirmative reflections of ourselves in literature, and we feel uncertain of our right to either literature or the time required to access it.

The idea of what constitutes “good” (middle-class) prosody emerges from the mistaken assumption that working-class writers share not only the same material and social capital as our middle-class peers, but that we also share an experience of time. We do not. And compression, interruption, impediment and delay – all the discomforts of working-class existence – combine to exert a peculiar power over the rhetorics and aesthetics of our poetry.

The rhythms of our lived experience are often punctuated and messy. Against the relentless routinised scheduling of work, the endless accounting to government agencies, there is every conceivable kind or disruption or incursion: barking dogs, wailing sirens, the stutter of drills, the screaming of kids; the stereos and televisions of our neighbours, the ticking of a clock that announces we must return to paid employment, take the dinner from the hob, pick the children up from school, or collect prescriptions. This affects how we think, how we read, write, and study: our default is not silence and space. This translates onto the page in numerous ways, and constitutes a central component of our work, its context, its aesthetic basis.

Anorexia, rage and rejection

Am I truly awake? And not just fretting through my days in a state of hyperarousal? I suffered from insomnia for years; insomnia produces its own kind of waking death-sleep. Mine was an experience of mental and bodily exhaustion which served to intensify rather than dissipate the manic energy inside of me, and inside of which I existed. Throughout my life, this insomnia, and the anorexia that accompanies it, have returned to me with varying degrees of ferocity. Cruz is one of the very few writers I have encountered who articulates anorexia as something both disciplined and – in Cruz' terms – 'vigilant'. Uncanniness creeps in again here: Cruz and I share an understanding of anorexia as a form of negation, of principled refusal. To be anorexic, writes Cruz is 'to become indigestible to the capitalist system. The anorexic is rage made manifest. It is a stance, Antigone's No without explanation.' I find myself extraordinarily grateful to Cruz for giving form to these thoughts because I have long struggled to write about my own eating disorder and its complex relationship to my class and ethnic identity.

Cruz Picture13 Battle jacket

At times it has seemed to me a manner of resistance, a refusal of work, domestic, emotional, and sexual, as well as in terms of the labour market: drained of “erotic capital”, “unfit” for most forms of paid employment, and sealed inside my own impenetrable act of bodily defiance, I was truly surplus. I had zero utility. I lived counter to the clock, against the grain of routine. But it is more than this. For the longest time starvation was the language of my self-and-world-disgust. I did not have the words for what I felt. Literate, but not articulate in the ways that mattered to me. And having only broken phrases in what should have been my “mother tongues”, I had tried repeatedly and without success to unmake the pain of English with English: a language I belonged to which did not belong to me. English – that is the middle-class English that administered and bound me – suffered me, it seemed, condescended to me. It held me, but held me off, and down, and at arm's length. I found it hard to shape my mouth around it in the approved ways. It was slippery and mean. When English and the English world entered me, it made me feel sick. I swallowed it like a sword.

Anorexia nearly killed me. I didn't want to die, quite the opposite was true. More than anything, I wanted to speak, but my mouth was a nest for an enemy language. I hated the sound of myself. Not English or Irish. Not anything. When I spoke “proper” what proceeded from my mouth could never amount to more than a bargain basement version of my tormentors' voices. In refusing to eat, I was burning the English out of me. I was making myself empty and clean. I could not name the ugly things that happened to me with their ugly English mainland words. By refusing food I was refusing their world. I wanted nothing from it. It could not sustain or nourish me. I would not let it keep me alive. I was completely obsessed with the Hunger Strike, with ascetics and mystics; acts – political and spiritual – of absolute renunciation. How else does one resist? How else to stage my counter-claim? This body is mine. I do not recognise your prison or the laws that it upholds.

Hunger has such a profound relationship to Irish identity, and to working-class Irish identity in particular. Historically, it is not merely something we have suffered, but something we have fought with in extremis, when there was nothing left to lose, nothing else at our disposal but the self. When we are denied our language – as countless generations of Irish and Traveller people have been denied – either by law, or by the slow workings of cultural attrition, then all we have left is gesture. Gesture is both language and a failure of or substitute for language. It is not merely that I had no words for articulating my pain, but that eloquence itself felt deeply suspect. Language acts have a tremendous capacity to devastate, oppress, and to coerce. To speak English and to “talk proper” is to compound and to bolster the original trauma. How can language hope to provide a solution or a “cure” when discourse itself is implicated in producing the wound?

Cruz Picture18 Frans boots with Peter Clarkes permission

Fran's boots, photographed by Peter Clarke

I had long connected these ideas to my ethnic heritage, but in the fifth chapter of The Melancholia of Class, writing about 'the libidinal working-class body' Cruz brings into focus their relevance to all displaced and traumatised working-class communities. In a long passage about Joy Division's lead singer, Ian Curtis, Cruz explains how 'a body filled with rage and sorrow, that must remain silent in order to survive, is a body reduced to the act of the gesture'. On stage, the silent accumulation of pain is converted into Curtis' signature delivery: compressed, contorted, urgent, flailing. Cruz makes an important and subtle distinction here: Curtis' onstage affects are not a “performance” as such, but a “distillation” of his traumatised working-class identity. It is worth, I think quoting at length from the section in which Cruz describes Curtis' working-class body becoming:

the vessel for his sorrow, for his melancholia. And it is through his body and gestures that Curtis performs this affect. Growing up working-class in a culture that ignores and abhors the working class is to find oneself marginalised both economically and physically. Add to this the daily subtle and not so subtle insults and slights and what you have is a body filled with sorrow and rage. At the same time, the legacy of this poverty (being raised by parents who've grown up in poverty whose parents grew up in poverty) and the violence incurred through the lived experience of this daily poverty, results in trauma […] With no escape from one's life, from its constraints, the body becomes the only vehicle through which to perform the unsayable. The terror and the hopelessness are internalized, repressed, where they gain power.

Cruz uses Freud's notion of the “libido” to explain that the power of Curtis' delivery on stage is derived from his affects – all that pent up rage and pain – being repressed for so long beforehand. On stage we are witnessing the abandonment of the self to its bottled-up libidinal energies. It isn't, as it is with some other bands, a simulation of “sex”, a performance of snarling, unappeased energy. No, Curtis is releasing his own terror and manic intensity without 'the interpretive buffer of cultural translation', without, in other words, the ironising or ameliorating effects of “distance”. This is why to witness Joy Division live was shocking.

Throughout my writing life, one small source of perverse pride has been to have my work described as both “spasmodic” and “grotesque”, words which also attached themselves to Ian Curtis, and to Joy Division's live performances. These visceral descriptors are telling: they identify my writing absolutely with the body that produced it, with the poor, “other”, working-class body that obtrudes into elite literary space. The grotesque bodies of the poor haunt middle-class imagination: dishevelled (Cruz' term) and sloppy, obtrusive and uncouth. We are too big and too loud in every way. Our physical frames are awkward, ill-disciplined and ungovernable. We are too “there”, a physical reminder of the inequalities that govern our existence; of working-class suffering and middle-class privilege. I connect “grotesque” to the middle-class kids at my school calling me “fat”, or “smelly” or “ugly”. I wasn't any of those things, but I was visible, and that was enough. I disrupted their uninterrupted view of a future fully stocked with others like themselves; their seamless illusion that they and their class cohort made up the world. They didn't understand it in those terms of course, and neither did I. I was merely being punished for my “difference”.


When I am anxious, over-tired or angry my carefully cultivated accent suffers slips, exposing me in my paper-thin pretence at “passing”. The speed with which middle-class colleagues, peers and audiences pick up and pounce on these slips is eye-watering. Immediately following the death of my best friend, I was obliged to fulfil a reading commitment in London. Two days before, the shocking news of his loss had reached me in Belfast; I was trying desperately to process this news, but I needed to go straight from the airport to the reading. I had barely slept, and I'd been wearing the same scutty jeans, trainers, and my beloved “Norn” hoody since I received the news. I did not want to be there, but felt constrained to be professional. I knew it was a mistake as soon as I stepped through the door, and an audience member turned in her chair to the friend sitting beside her and hissed chav! in a poisonous sotto voce.

The reading did not go well. The more I tried to keep my voice level and controlled, the more pronounced and wonky my accent became. At the end of the reading, the event organiser, a middle-aged, middle-class man cornered me by the coffee urn, leaned into my face breathing read wine fumes all over me, and told me I was “unintelligible”, that I needed to “enunciate more”, that my voice made me seem “angry”, and began interrogating me about where I was from, as if the way I sound must be continuously explained and atoned for. Accent or vocal identity is inseparable from my status as a working-class woman, and from the expectations that identity engenders. Within elite literary space that sound becomes a way of speaking to and through shifting perceptions of education and class, and subverting or denouncing the political, social and poetic assumptions contained within notions of “accent” or “dialect”. At an event that described itself as “experimental” and that celebrated the decentering of the lyric I, my strong vocal identity complicated and undercut that very decentering, tendering an implied critique of their much lauded “post-identity” poetic moment. They did not like that. And so I was raked over the coals for failing to modulate my class identity, and unsubtly mocked for the way my working-class body presented and took up space.

As Mary Russo writes in The Female Grotesque:

images of the grotesque body are precisely those which are abjected from bodily canons of classical aesthetics. The classical body is transcendental and monumental, closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical and sleek; it is identified with “high” or official culture [...] with the rationalism, individualism, and the normalizing aspirations of the bourgeoisie. The grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, and changing.'

The grotesque is an open wound, a denial of catharsis, a refusal of what Lara Glenum calls 'the aesthetics of the pure. “Catharsis” is from the Greek verb “to purify”. It is a coercive cleaner-upper of pain, which means, for the working-class artist, a cleaner-upper or banisher of class identity. 'What the public wants from the working-class female artist is a Pygmalion transformation', writes Cruz. 'They want to see the poor working-class girl with her crooked accent, her bad skin, and poor taste traded in for a clean, sleek, aspirational version of her true self.' Cruz points to the tragic trajectory of Amy Winehouse as an example of ways in which the working-class subject who does not buy into this trade-off is hated, hounded and punished.

Cruz Picture22 Amy

When Winehouse died her image was everywhere, finally purged of her grotesque, troubling identity, emptied into pure surface, absolute myth. They prefer you dead, those people. They make a fetish out of music's doomed heroes because in their world doom itself is exceptional and exciting, so much so that it confers a kind of status. And being dead, these figures are freed from their difficult contexts, subsumed into a textureless meld with others superficially like themselves. The dead are safe, ready to be packaged, repackaged, re-written, written-over, claimed and reclaimed by discourse: there's a white middle-class discourse for every working-class subculture you care to name. Mediation, intervention. The white middle class create the archive, the archive becomes the crypt. We cannot win. It is only inside of the work that all we are asked to carry and contain briefly spills into life, touches the edges of a complacent middle-class culture, our auditors, our readers. We manifest “too muchness”, excess, not as indulgence, but absolute negation. We supply rather than receive the shock. To work is to wake, to be at our most vulnerable and most conscious, inside of writing, music, inside of our art, if nowhere else.

Cruz Picture23 Amy graffiti Camden


The heat over the last week has been stifling. I have carried The Melancholia of Class from room to room with me, looking for a cold spot, privately stewing. The weather broils me, heat-sealing me inside of my own skin, but the general slow grinding unfairness of things broils me too, and I am tired. I do not aim to collect grievances, but they accumulate nonetheless, and there is nowhere for them to go. I try to explain to my friends why it is that I am so wound-up: being long-listed for yet another poetry prize is like being picked to play the sheep in the school nativity play, you're acknowledged, but not really. You're included, but only to the extent that your obtrusive presence has made inclusion absolutely necessary. If you so much as suggest that class and race might have anything to do with your inability to ascend, then you're “paranoid” and “chippy”, excusing your own lack of talent by playing a “card”.

One of the unique joys of being a “white, other” is that you present an opportunity for white middle-class people to comfortably indulge both their racism and their classism without ever having to admit to the existence of either. They don't “see” your class, either because you do not present to them like a “typical” working-class person according to the tropes they themselves invented, or because they do not believe that the class system really exists. They filter class out of their world-view in ways that remove (as Cruz also notes) the experience of class-based oppression from black and minority ethnic working-class people, while refusing to acknowledge the roll racism plays in the perception and treatment of working-class white others. My friends make sympathetic noises, but in the main, they don't get it. I want to explain that it isn't the endless barrage of rejections or disappoints in themselves, it's the overwhelming sense of stuckness and delay they feed into, of constantly striving but never arriving, of doing the work but wasting my time.

Time again. For us it is always pressured and constraining. After ostensibly accepting two of my poems for publication and soliciting another, I have now been kept waiting for one year and six months by a “respected” (middle-class) literary journal. I notice that in the interim, the editor has been teaching my book as part of their course on “working-class poetics”, so that we are now in the unusual position that they are able to profit from my work and indeed from my class identity, while I, the actual working-class person who produced the work, hover in limbo. Precarity of this kind is not merely inconsiderate, it is, after a certain point, re-traumatising, inscribing over again the lessons learnt while sitting in Job Centre waiting rooms: that my time and energy not valued, that they do not – that I do not – matter. Hierarchy is etched into this interaction. Their treatment of me is only possible because of the power differential that exists between us.

On days like these Cruz' book is both a comfort and a provocation; when she writes of her alienation inside the academy, and of: 'the voices of teachers and classmates, colleagues and students, who make it clear to me, on a regular basis, that I do not belong in the world in which I now find myself', I am stupidly close to tears. I am crying for and in solidarity with Cruz. I am crying for all of us. I am crying, more selfishly, for me. Throughout the book, Cruz' perceptive essays on working-class creatives are interwoven with strands of memoir, a hybrid form that demonstrates just how entwined is our class with our creativity, performing an ethics of fusion and remix. The Melancholia of Class is a genre-blurring, border-stepping text. Intellectually rigorous and probing, but also tenderly embodied within lived experience. Reading the book, I have come to especially relish Cruz' intelligent and attentive writing about music and musicians; she speaks with such loving precision about the working-class bands (especially The Jam) whose music shaped her formative notions of class solidarity. Equally, I have come to feel a familiar queasy gut-punch each time she writes about encountering a middle-class cultural gatekeeper; each time somebody tells her “no”, sets out to dismiss or diminish her. These dismissals and diminishments are also my own. Life is long, and sometimes I feel them rising up around me until I am immobilised, until only my head is visible: like Winnie in fucking Happy Days, buried up to her neck. Assimilate or die. Assimilate and die. In the end, what's the difference? I feel hopeless, and I am angry at myself for this hopelessness. My life is good. I have work, and finally after many, many years in a south London shit-hole, a beautiful place to live. I am loved. And taken individually each slight or barb or block is easy to dismiss as trivial, petty or imagined, or both. But they are real, and they build and build.

Cruz Picture14

On days like these I miss Marty. Marty was my best friend. He understood. He understood too well. He chose annihilation over assimilation. Marty had fought a daily battle with depression, and addiction. We had lived together for such a long time that I had become intimately familiar with this battle; in many ways I had taken it on as my own. Most days he'd struggle, and most days he lost, but he fought with so much heart. There was courage there, often outwardly obscured by the fuck-ups, busts, and general drama that attends any crippling addiction. When he died, my sense of failure was total, a molten mixture of anger, sadness and guilt. Marty and I were so similar in so many ways. Outwardly, we cultivated the same look, an Irish- squat-punk aesthetic we referred to as “croppy-core”: combining the scrapyard audacities of early punk with pro-Irish Republican and kitschy Catholic signifiers. When we could get hold of the materials, we also incorporated elements of “low-Irish” Victoriana: a dirty and much battered silk topper, a badly dyed black tails shirt. I made, or he shoplifted, most of the clothes we wore. We traded outfits. Seen from behind, with our matching mohawks and anorexic frames, we were often mistaken for each other. We were not the same. Our difference was the distance I had travelled in terms of articulacy, literacy, education, but a number of the things that had scarred him marked me too. We joked that we were, in fact, two halves of the same person, divided by some cosmic quick of fate. We joked that if we could smush ourselves back together, we might make a functioning human being.

Marty went missing and then he destroyed himself. Missingness and ambiguous loss run through my work because of Marty. Not merely because he “went” missing, but because missingness adhered to him like a positive quality throughout his life. Cruz writes at length about the melancholia that besets the working-class subject who leaves their community and yet finds no future to escape into. This feels intimately familiar to me, but there is also this other, related pain, what I have called an exile of spatial dysphoria: a feeling of being bound to a place, but of moving within it disregarded or misunderstood, objected from public cartographies; edged out or spoken over whenever the story of your native place is told.

As I have come to understand it, by the time he was old enough to meaningfully grieve the trauma of his childhood, the sites and settlements of that shared experience no longer existed. His past was not meaningfully registered upon public space, was written over by an iconography of grieving from which he felt excluded. His experience of loss was unaccommodated by Ireland’s nationalistic, religious, and sectarian scripts. If grief and the act of remembrance are experienced in and through physical spaces both public and private, then what should it mean for those of us with a vexed relationship to such spaces? Ireland devours her dead, folding them into her own mythology, inscribing their presence onto civic space. Unless they are not the “right kind” of dead, the dead who do not fit the narrow arc of Ireland's nationally determined story. Traveller dead. Queer dead. Brown dead. Junkie dead.

Cruz Picture11

Within settled communities the legacy of sectarian violence is explicit and readily legible, inscribed upon public space through acts of myriad vandalism and memorialisation; the demolition of buildings, the securitisation of streets. For sedentary communities buildings capture the continuity of collective experience, they stage and reemphasise a shared cultural heritage. In the North of Ireland in particular, public artwork interacts with personal histories; mediates and facilitates the uncanny experience of memory between individuals and their wider communities, between these communities and the wider world. Traveller or homeless communities, whose settlements are, by their very nature, transitory, leave no corresponding trace or wound on the physical landscape. If public space is a container for cultural heritage, then those with no stake in that space, their histories, and their memories, remain uninscribed, are excluded from the mapping of that heritage. To grieve is to grieve inwardly, invisibly. It is to find no place of recognition for your pain.

The hierarchies of grief

Towards the end of The Melancholia of Class, Cruz writes movingly about the ways in which gentrification erases both the past and the future for all poor and working-class communities. There are, as Jahan Ramazani notes, distinct 'hierarchies of grievability', kinds of grief, and grieved-for subjects it is not acceptable to speak of or to mourn. Gentrification is both a denial of persons and a refusal of their pain, and so we are blocked, at every turn, on every level, from releasing this pain: how and where are we to mourn our lost, whose lives are characterised by the provisional, the precarious, the marginal and impermanent? How do we grieve poor, queer, vulnerably housed and homeless subjects? And how do we reckon with the trauma of that grief, when trauma, by its very definition, renders problematic the possibility of representation? How is trauma to be told when, through contact with traumatic experience, individuals lose their ability to fully apprehend or integrate the memories of those experiences; when they are unable to give a coherent or consistent account of those experiences to others?

Cruz Picture19

How is grief to be rendered visible when the trauma of that grief is itself entangled in acts, official and unofficial, of forcible removal, denigration and erasure? Ultimately, where do we even go to grieve once our landscapes are concreted over, our sites broken up, our communities dispersed, our squats torn down, our bars closed down, our dancehalls gentrified, our districts socially cleansed? We can exist nowhere, in our native place nor our chosen home. From Ireland to a council flat in London, forced out of the flat when his mother died; squatting in Camden, moved on by security goons in black bomber jackets so that the area could be “renovated”, “renovated around”, subsisting, existing, becoming thinner and thinner, drinking harder, with skills he cannot use rotting in his hands because to work these days you must be documented, accounted for. In the end, only able to answer rejection with rejection, Marty ghosted, was gone.

Cruz Picture20

There was no place for him in this world. For a while we had punk and punk made a place, a way of life that acknowledged and valued the skills we had: our creativity, our savvy habits of scavenging, our skip-diving resourcefulness, our pressured invention, our shoe-string flair. We would wear our second-hand, customised clothes to death: our battle jackets and boots accumulated and stored lived experience, a tactile repository, an archive of our own. Something we could carry, who did not have the security of solid walls around us. Punk was dead, but that was half the point. As Cruz writes 'this insistence on the past drags it into the present, creating a glitch in the system', and this is also form of resistance: to a homogeneous and disposable culture, to what Rachael Blau DuPlessis describes as the 'malignant rapidity' of capitalism. We opened for ourselves and each other a parallel time-line. Punk's aims had never been realised, its demands never met, our lives had never improved for all of its thrashing and screaming. And so we rededicated ourselves. In Camden we made a last anachronistic redoubt, and briefly we were glorious and annoying.


In recent years the “retro look” has been frigging everywhere, a stylistic expression of the weaponised nostalgia mobilized by the Tories during Brexit and the last general election. Retro is not the same as the anachronistic borrowings made by the rockers and mods Cruz writes about, or the punks of my own misspent youth. Retro is neoliberal culture's way of reabsorbing and recolonising the past, of forcing our avenues of exploration and adventure back into an inescapable circuit with a rotten present. Retro narrows the past into a series of easily identifiable, consumer-friendly images; these images are then ripe for mass production. Retro is copy-paste and shop-bought. It removes any element of archaeology or investigation from the process of creating style. It replaces style with a shallow array of disembodied and impersonal “looks”. All surface, taken in at a glance. Retro shears the past of its textures, subtleties, and secrets. It does not use words like “second-hand”. If clothes are not new, they are “vintage”, that is endorsed by and welcomed into the new, with a price tag to match. In the world of retro there are no human beings. We don't have to think about the bodies that previously occupied these clothes; we don't have to acknowledge the working-class invention that created the style. In the world of retro there are no classes. Retro is for those who have the luxury of forgetting the past, their own past and that of the world. Retro is a past without accessing memory. The working-class subject is tied to their past. We drag it behind us like a withered limb.

Water pours in through the skylight

'It seems she was given an ultimatum', Cruz writes of Chan Marshall, whose sparse, blues-inflected music was co-opted over time into bland and heavily mastered pop, 'forsake your past and survive, or remain with your past and be destroyed. Given the option of two deaths – to die in the past or forsake your past, which is to say to forsake yourself, but survive – which death do you choose?' This is not an idle question. For any of us. The weather broke last night. The dog cowered in the corner, water poured in through a skylight I had neglected to close. It seems a marvel to me that I am able to type the sentence “water poured in through a skylight”, the skylight in my house, my house has a skylight, I have a house. It is a kind of miracle. But a hedged one. Jammed up, allowed to go no further, unable to inhabit this house as if I truly belong there, I rock on the bed in a baggy t-shirt, weighed down with depression and survivor's guilt. I am afraid of forgetting, and exhausted by the impossibility of forgetting. If I push the past down inside of me, it resurfaces time and again in symptomatic and performative traces, little “ghostsings” of syntax and structure; words and images, a sound, a smell.

The latter section of The Melancholia of Class is, in many ways, the most difficult to read. Cruz writes about Freud's notion of the death drive through the slow dissolution and ultimate destruction of various working-class creatives, from Jason Molina to Clarice Lispector. Here Cruz writes about 'The Undead', that is the doubled, the split, the hopelessly divided working-class subject, who tries desperately to become someone or something else, yet reaches, as she always must, an irreconcilable impasse. Cruz writes not just with empathy but with understanding about the addictions and debilities of others. I find myself vigorously underlining the following passage: 'when we have nothing, we have nothing to lose, and it makes sense to want to push through the bottom of the bottom, as if on the other side there might exist a clean slate and the chance to begin again.' Cruz is talking about Jason Molina. But she could just as well have been talking about Marty, or any of those boys from the bridge in the Camden.

Cruz Melancholia Durer 1513

Melancholia by Dürer, 1513

None of this is to say that The Melancholia of Class is a hopeless book, even necessarily a melancholy one. What it provides – for myself at least – is a space in which melancholia may be encountered and probed, a place to initiate and access memory. This is perhaps the strangest and most important aspect of Cruz' “manifesto”: that the collective action she proposes is a kind of mass memory work, the “undoing” of the coerced amnesia of neoliberal culture. Melancholia, writes Cruz, will not leave us: 'Our collective melancholia is a humming, it is constant. And it will not go away. And although it will not leave us, we can allow it to guide us.' We can – and must – also guide each other, and to accomplish this task we must first recognise ourselves and what besets us. The Melancholia of Class is a node of affective solidarity. It is a link in the chain and a light to see by.

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