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.

Poetry for the State We're In
Sunday, 20 March 2022 08:44

Poetry for the State We're In

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock writes about the current economic and political crises, and introduces poetry that constructs a 'socialist imaginary', a space for hope and protest, against the distractions of nostalgia and the numbing exhaustion of working-class existence. Image above: Unloveable labour by Steev Burgess

There are times it is hard to imagine an adequate response – poetic or otherwise – to the state we are in. According to a recent report by the housing charity Crisis, over 66,000 more people will be homeless by 2024, with 8,000 more sleeping rough, and 9,000 forced into unsuitable temporary accommodation. These figures are driven by benefit freezes, towering food and energy bills, and the winding down of both Covid eviction bans and the widely praised “Everyone In” initiative that housed homeless persons in hotels throughout the pandemic. But these things aren't causes in themselves. Rather, they are the inevitable result of Tory economic policy, of a failure to regulate the energy market, the baffling decision to close gas storage, their absolute disinterest in insulating homes or investing in renewable energy. They are the result of a disastrous Brexit deal that has created disruption, delay and scarcity, hitting the poorest amongst us first and hardest.

Many people I speak to these days – friends, family, students – feel as though they're barely hanging on. The reasons are obvious: according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation the recent hike in energy prices will squeeze low-income households to their limit; some of our most vulnerable citizens could be forced to spend over 54% of their income on bills. Inflation is now at its highest level in three decades, and wages are stagnating. For the lowest-income families, who are already spending predominantly on essentials, there is nowhere to cut back, no savings they can make. Keep tightening your belt, these people are told. Until it cuts you clean in two.

Meanwhile, new Universal Credit rules have significantly reduced the amount of time those claiming benefits are given to find work: from three months to just four weeks, forcing people into poorly paid jobs, however unsuitable, under the threat of financial sanctions. The new rules mean sanctions could be imposed four weeks after people make their initial claim, i.e., before they even receive their first benefit payment. This hideous scheme is dubbed Way to Work, and it is designed to fill the estimated 1.2 million job vacancies largely created by government incompetence over both Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Partygate

Johnson launched Way to Work in the wake of “partygate”; it is the emergency manoeuvre of a Prime Minister and indeed a party desperately attempting to regain control of the political agenda. It has zero to do with helping people to secure work or with leading a sustainable economic recovery. Welfare experts have stated that the use of sanctions could have dire implications for low-income families struggling with the cost-of-living crisis, and the government's own National Audit Office had already found in 2016 that there is no evidence at all that benefit sanctions work to fulfil their stated aim. In fact they are as likely to deter people from claiming benefits without getting a job as they are to force them into employment. To put it another way: sanctions are punitive and persecutory in nature. They work both to demonise and punish those already suffering.

What are we to do with this? A walk through any major city these days is a walk through the wastelands of a neoliberal apocalypse: estates, neighbourhoods, and the communities that once thrived there are left to languish in a state of “managed decline”, where “managed decline” is Tory-speak for wilful neglect. The roots of this neglect are deep and old. Their origin is Thatcher's poisonous Right to Buy scheme, where home ownership was only made possible for comparatively affluent council tenants off the backs of their poorer neighbours: rents for council tenants rose dramatically throughout the life of the scheme, while the rate of construction slowed to a crawl. Successive Tory governments have evinced a similar lack of commitment to the provision of social housing: only 1,650 council homes were built between 2020-21, and maintenance of existing properties has been woeful.

'You feel expendable', a student of mine said recently, 'you feel forgotten.' This is a heartbreaking thing to hear, and in a sense he's right, poor and working-class people bear the brunt of austerity measures in a variety of ways: firstly as scapegoats in a narrative of personal responsibility that presents the feckless, scrounging and profligate poor as a drain on national resources, and where individual acts of economic prudence are supposed to balance out or compensate for decades of systemic waste and failure. Secondly, in that the needs of poor people are the first to be reclassified as optional extras during times of austerity. So mental health services are cut, and free childcare is cut, and local authority spending on property maintenance is cut. But I don't know about 'forgotten', which implies that poor people are the collateral damage to government incompetence and greed. I don't think they are. I think it's worse than that. I think the poor are targeted victims of government greed. I think the basis for this is ideological.

I've been reflecting on this a lot lately, talking with an online class about Charles Eisenstein's book The Ascent of Humanity (North Atlantic Books, 2013), and revisiting some of its gloomier chapters. Specifically, the section in 'Money and Property' where Eisenstein talks about the separation that is built into the social and physical fabric of neoliberal society. Eisenstein states that those of us now living will never experience community because community is 'incompatible' with the highly specialised work and estranged faceless dependence of modern capitalism. 'The groundwork of life' he writes, is 'anonymity and convenience.' But poor and working-class people do build strong, mutually supportive communities. Or we do up until the point those communities are dispersed, our neighbourhoods gentrified, our districts socially cleansed.

Doubtless, there is an economic basis for neglect and “managed decline”, but there's a political and ideological basis too: scatter and disrupt the association of poor communities and it becomes harder for those same persons to recognise themselves as a class cohort. On a practical level, how do you come together and organise when there's nowhere for you to meet? Equally as important, how do you develop affinities for an area and the people who live in it if your own existence within that space is precarious and temporary? How do you apprehend your struggles as part of something bigger if your closest neighbour is not – for example – another working-class person, but someone who gives you a filthy look as you enter the tower block you happen to share through the specially designated poor door? They occupy the same building to you, in the same area of town, but their life never touches or acknowledges yours. It never has to. Gentrification displaces persons. It forces the marginalised out of even the margins.

A space for solidarity

I've written before about how poetry might offer a space for a network of solidarities to form, might function as a wide imaginative community that allows us to recognise ourselves as a class cohort and to extend our solidarity to others whose experiences are different to but intimately linked with our own. I still firmly believe that poetry, at its best, can offer us a space of sustained attention and mutual care seldom afforded us as citizens or as subjects. Yet how can poetry speak to a cultural moment that feels so violently opposed to poor and working-class life it is prepared to consign vast numbers of people to hunger, homelessness and untold misery? How does poetry address the political reality of living under a government so grotesquely corrupt that they lie, obfuscate, and indulge in the worst kind of spineless self-protection, securing their careers at any cost while people starve? The poems I want to share today were solicited and chosen with this question in mind. They represent various strategies or approaches for writing this reality: with admirable directness, with verve and energy, with knotty and resistive language; with humour and with hope.

Borisocracy

David McKinstry's 'Borisocracy' tackles a premiership so uniquely awful that the poet coins a new name for this grotesque political reality. The repeated refrain 'Welcome to Borisocracy' works to perform the false bonhomie and smiling hypocrisy of a country in which so few are truly welcome. It becomes particularly chilling in the context of the third stanza, where McKinstry evokes the Home Secretary, a woman with 'ice in her veins' who has made it abundantly – and for some, fatally – clear, just how unwelcome many people are within Tory Britain, whether those people are fleeing persecution in another land or born on British soil. The refrain could also be read as a form of rhetorical shrug, the kind of helpless 'that's life' statement we often make in the face of Tory awfulness. Within this context the final 'Farewell to Borisocracy' is especially heartening, imagining a turning of the tide and a gathering of courage in the midst of despair.

In the opening stanza McKinstry makes use of numerous half and internal rhymes, for example 'mythical', 'mists', 'cricket'; 'morning', 'worn', 'laundered' and 'Tory', both to create chains of association across lines and to achieve a rapid and deceptively musical cadence that belies the poem's darker content. Just as Johnson attempts to paint a rose-tinted and superficial portrait of a 'mythical' English past and to present himself – as somehow emblematic or representative of this past – as essentially kindly and benign, so the poem adopts and satirises his use of easy cliché and glib language to expose their devious underpinnings. My favourite moment in this stanza is McKinstry's use of 'laundered' and 'spun': a vivid physical description that nevertheless holds the metaphorical connotations of those words, so that the English national story, symbolised in an image of white-washed linen, becomes invested with numerous kinds of political and financial deceit.

This is a theme that McKinstry develops within the second stanza, which offers a clear-eyed assessment of Tory tactics. Specifically, their weaponising of nostalgia as a distraction and an anaesthetic. The poem presents nostalgia as a vague 'fog' peppered with unspecified glorious deeds, given a gloss of respectable authority by Johnson's Classical education. Nostalgia functions as a denial of the past in order to cope with an unendurable present. It numbs us, and it's meant to. It saps us of the will to move forward and to organise. McKinstry captures this sense of paralysis and the contempt our government holds us in within the lines 'Whilst the plebs look/ on with vacant faces'.

But we are not so vacant, as McKinstry's portrait of corrupt power shows. While setting out the grimness of contemporary Britain, the poem also has a sharp eye for humour. The image of Johnson and Rees-Mogg vying with each other in a game of nostalgic one-upmanship is funny, and the poem indulges in gameplay and puns, as in the fourth stanza with 'Etonian Brexit Mess'. I think the poem's refusal to take these leaders quite seriously is in itself a serious and important form of resistance.

The Clash's EP, 'Cost of Living'

Humour is also a central component of 'The Clash's Cost of Living EP' by Peadar O'Donoghue, although it is humour of a far bleaker order. By referencing the 1970s punk record O’Donoghue summons then instantly undermines an image of youthful fire and political rebellion with one of grim subsistence living; of struggling just to get by. This is something else deliberately engineered into neoliberal poverty: the anxiety and the exhaustion. While McKinstry's poor are kept from political consciousness by a drip-feed diet of toxic nostalgia, O'Donoghue's are kept from revolution through abject fatigue.

The poem is saturated with stress, which O'Donoghue builds skilfully through the use of repeated and interrogative questions: 'Are you cold/ want the heating on?', 'Do you really need that light?' What is both fascinating and horrible is that midway through the second stanza the speaker internalises his interlocutor's questioning and there is a shift from 'do you' to 'do we'. The speaker seems, as many poor and working-class people often do, to have absorbed by dint of repetition the relentless querying and criticism of themselves.

By the short third and fourth stanza the questions have bred more questions, opening the poem up into a fevered stream of consciousness. There is a moment of unsettling humour here, where the solution to being unable to turn on a light becomes developing 'night vision'. The speaker asks, as if musingly, how much would a pound of carrots cost these days? It's as if even ludicrous fantasies must be weighed against the limits of an ever-shrinking budget.

The image of discount supermarkets as 'sacrificial alters, all/ to the blood letting of our impecunious demise' is both surreal and unsettling. The use of 'impecunious' imparts a slightly whimsical tone that sits uneasily alongside 'sacrificial', and the phrase 'impecunious demise' has an almost Dickensian flavour. There's a false jollity there, a sense of effortfully maintained normality in the face of horrors. To be 'sacrificial' someone must be sacrificing us. And this is where the poem introduces the idea of a perpetrator, before pivoting again in the fifth stanza back to musing humour. This combination of bleak humour and barely suppressed fury is a constant current in the lives of poor and working-class people. Being powerless, we make jokes out of our struggles in order to get through the day, all the while alive to the grinding unfairness that keeps us struggling.

In the final stanza the poem finds an outlet for its undersong of rage in an expression of violent intent: by reinvesting a worn slogan with renewed urgency; mock-positing the eating of the rich as a serious solution to the problem of a hunger they themselves created. 'we fatten them all the time' states the speaker, reminding us that the wealth of the few has always and always will exist at the expense of the many; that in order to survive we are forced into a mode of existence that props up and perpetuates the system that exploits us.

I do a job I hate

This sense of being caught in the perpetual motion machine of neoliberal capitalism is something profoundly captured in Wendy Young's poem 'I do a job I hate' where we accompany the speaker and her snow-balling thoughts on a bus ride to a job she desperately longs to escape. The poem is a spiralling stream of consciousness, gaining in momentum and intensity as it progresses. It provides a vital insight into the position of many working-class and poor creatives: square pegs hammered into the round holes of McJobs and shift-work, forced by economic necessity to suppress or expend their creative energies on mere survival.

What is sad, striking and ultimately resistive about the poem is how absolutely irrepressible the speaker's denied creativity is: it bubbles up in her quick-witted lateral leaps of logic; in her spoofing of patronising aphorisms, her riffing on well-worn phrases, her incorporation of song lyrics and cultural references. All of which is evidence of a mind alert, awake, and full of play.  Two strong examples of such pressured play come in the second stanza: 'toe the (bread) line/ follow the (bread) line/ don’t eat the bread/ save some for/ rainy days may come – they have/  on a drizzling Harrow Road mounting the 36/ (wheels on the bus go round and round)/ to a job I hate' and in the final stanza: 'hurry up Harry we’re going on the merry go round ‘roll up, roll up yer sleeves, roll up yer genes, grit yer teeth, Northern’s gonna rock yer'.

Throughout the poem, stanza structure and line length are breaking down and overspilling, performing a mounting anxiety and tension, but also the impossibility of containing or repressing working-class creativity. Such creativity is stifled not merely through the drudgery of poorly paid employment, but by a culture that recasts systemic inequality as personal failure. To begin with the speaker complies with this version of reality, attempting to conform to the normalising aspirations of the self-help industry, but ends by breaking out of its prison of stale phrases and prescriptive living in a hilarious and vivid way: 'be transcendental/ say ‘I can’ until I’m blue in the face/ Smurf of the turf flagging in the rat race'.

By the end of the piece Young's speaker is at her most rhapsodic: the poem breaks out of its left-lineated form altogether to become prose; it is punctuated only by commas, giving it a breathless quality, and the lines pull together a chaotic mix of references and allusions. The final 'take a ride on the eternal abyss of existence' is a sudden chilling stop. It suggests that the reality of such soul-deadening exploitation is as inescapable for working-class people as their creativity is irrepressible within that same system. In Young's poem an immovable object (capitalism) meets an unstoppable force (working-class creativity) and the two are held in a tension that the poem refuses to resolve or to release.

Full-Grown

This tension permeates our lives and art. It is a significant feature of the fourth piece I want to share. 'Full-Grown' by Al Hutchins is an oblique and unsettling poem, eloquent of dereliction and amorphous ruin. It begins 'Sometimes after a full-grown night/ Mangled out of sight or reach' but does not clarify what or who is 'mangled', what or who is 'out of reach'. The night? The speaker? Some third quantity? All of the above? The poem does not immediately resolve this question, rather, it collects small, prosaic details, arranging them into something more ominous than the sum of their parts: 'The witnesses of buses and wet cut grass and spent outcomes, thrown away fried chicken born to live and die and fry in fridge and bin'. On a sonic level the sibilance of 'witnesses', 'buses' 'grass' and 'spent' creates the suggestion of hostile hissing, like the spitting of hot fat or of a feral animal. Placing 'spent outcomes' within a list of concrete descriptions likens human destiny to dog-ends, litter, or discarded chicken bones, something thrown away, used up and hopeless.

What strikes me most, however is the use of 'live' to describe fried chicken. It signals an inevitability to the fate of being consumed, and – yet more troubling – a consciousness of being fried, consumed, and then discarded. This is a key strategy throughout the poem, where Hutchins merges the human speaker with the grimness and decay of their inanimate surroundings. The poem's 'roadside laughter', for example, might equally describe in figurative terms of the sound of traffic, but it also holds associations of human mockery for the vulnerable position of the speaker.

Hutchins’s use of the phrase 'these heaved stacked questions' also feels significant. Labour, effort, and precariousness are inscribed into these lines. Yet for all of that, no questions have been explicitly voiced within the text. Instead, unexpressed questioning saturates the poem. The open-ended lines, minimal punctuation and unusual syntax create spaces of discomfort and anxious expectancy where the reader is forced to work to interpret a landscape both threatening and abject. The reader is forced to experience, in other words, something of the confusion and misery experienced by the speaker. That these questions 'do not adjust or needle or play about with form' signals the impossibility of resolution or change; these lines suggest an inability to parley this discomfort into a trite moral message or a creative resource.

The Economy

‘The Economy’ by Pauline Sewards is the final poem I want to share. This poem also wrestles with the capacities and limits of language. Specifically, it bears stark witness to the fatal consequences of yoking human communication and care to the economic objectives of government within the context of addition treatment.

Sewards piece unblinkingly exposes the human cost of an economically driven shift of emphasis from ‘harm reduction’ to the unrealistic absolutes of ‘recovery’ or ‘abstinence’ within addiction treatment services. She registers this damage through the institutional apparatus that records and manages it: chronic and escalating need becomes multiplying ‘caseloads’, and death is plotted and recorded onto ‘the death graph’. In presenting human suffering as remote and mediated through impersonal bureaucracy, Sewards shows us how such suffering is systematised and the human edged out of official rhetoric, a process of willed amnesia that leaves the misery of human beings unattended to: ‘a scandal/ hardly mentioned on the news.’

Against the increasingly instrumental underpinnings of this system, the poem places a compassionate human listener. ‘For years I sat in rooms/ where people told me…’ begins the speaker in the first stanza, situating the reader as witness in their turn to the speaker’s accounting. The phrase is repeated in the eighth stanza; the receptive listener is constant, but what she hears subtly shifts over time. In this way Sewards charts changes to the program in which she works and the effects of these changes upon people. In the first stanza she is told ‘the narrative/ they thought I wanted to hear/ so that they could get treatment’, and by the eighth people tell her that ‘prison/ saved their life’. It is a sad and chilling indictment.

The poem’s title, and the repetition of ‘recovery’ throughout the piece conceptually link the nebulous much-touted notion of “economic recovery” to the rehabilitation of persons. The poem demonstrates the way in which mental health outcomes are now tied to the notion of economic productivity and a idealised “return to society” as obedient consumer subjects. By these metrics any therapeutic intervention is bound to fail. These goals are unrealistic: they do not account for either the recursive nature of trauma or the myriad emotional and material factors that drive addiction. How can anyone so much as begin to heal without stability or a place of safety? Or, as Sewards writes: ‘Recovery means many things./ Means nothing unless you stay alive.’

Persons struggling with addiction often already inhabit an endurable reality. Addiction is ‘a solution made into a problem/ by criminalisation.’ The ‘edict of abstinence’ kills people because it leaves them without recourse in a world in which they are already marginalised. Further, it places undue pressure on individuals without seeking to address the causes of addiction on a societal or systemic level. This pressure erodes and warps the spirit of those on either side of the treatment encounter as well as the relationship between them.

Rage is the undersong of Sewards’ poem, often signalled through subtle sonic linkages between lines and stanzas, for example the short sharp vowel sounds joining ‘stigma’, ‘pretty shit’, ‘prison’, ‘shifted’, ‘edict’ and ‘abstinence’. However, piece remains restrained throughout and does not rely on flourishes to achieve its effects, refusing to cannibalise the suffering of others into lyric spectacle.

A socialist imaginary

These five poems demonstrate the capacity of poetry to formulate a socialist imaginary against the distractions of nostalgia and the numbing exhaustion of working-class existence; they can create a space for both hope and protest. Equally as important, they can wrestle with the limits of language, tell us about what language cannot solve. If the state were a body, then poetry can show us where it hurts. It is a diagnostic tool, yet it is also a step towards a cure.

It is often difficult to sustain a belief in art in the midst of despair. We write our poems and we ask ourselves 'so what?' But I think this is because no one poem and no single type of poetry can adequately address the state we are in alone. Poems need and create communities, where many different voices and strategies can exist together. We need realism, humour, rhythm, difficulty. We need a poetics every bit as diverse and exuberant as working-class life itself.  These poems are ways in, acts of reaching out and across. They can connect, move, provoke and inspire. They can incite action. They can be the moment that reading ends and action begins. Not every poem for every person. But as part of whole, stronger together.

Borisocracy

by David McKinstry

Climbing Disraeli's greasy poll
whilst spouting a mythical past,
of morning mists, churchgoing
cricket and warm beer. All a well-
worn story, but ironed, laundered
and spun. By a sham One Nation
Tory:

Welcome to Borisocracy.

In a verbal duel with Rees-
Mogg, of competitive nostalgia
and reminiscence fog, peppered
with imperial battles and Latin
phrases. Whilst the plebs look
on with vacant faces:

Welcome to Borisocracy.

Appointing a Home Secretary,
claiming that taking the knee
is no more than a convention.
With ice in her veins, and self-
advancement her intention:

Welcome to Borisocracy.

Playing high politics
is a game, he couldn’t car eless,
be it Covid or Etonian Brexit mess:

Welcome to Borisocracy.

Peering from number ten
To survey the national horizon,
The Irish are talking unity
The people are slowly rising:

Farewell to Borisocracy.

 

The Clash Cost of Living EP

by Peadar O'Donoghue

Are you cold,
want the heating on?
No, not yet,
wait a bit. Let's put
jumpers on.

Do you really need that light?
Well, only to see. But do we
really need to see? And what
are we looking at anyway?

Maybe we need night vision,
how much is a pound of carrots these days?

Oh, Aldi! Oh, Lidl!
Do you even remember Netto?
Sacrificial altars all, to
the blood-letting of our impecunious demise.

That energy saving light bulb
we invested in uses less power,
but costs more, is that
a Commie plot?
Or a Capitalist trope?

Maybe we really should eat the rich.
After all,
we fatten them all the time.

 

I do a job I hate …

(After Billy Childish)

by Wendy Young

I do a job I hate
when I should create
because deep down inside’s a
love hate divide
a chasm holding my fear
SECURITY

a working class adage
toe the (bread) line
follow the (bread) line
don’t eat the bread
save some for
rainy days may come – they have
on a drizzling Harrow Road mounting the 36
(wheels on the bus go round and round)
to a job I hate
for money enough
when times get tough
they always will be
‘cause I do a job I hate
when I should create.

Guilt is reading self-help books
no such words as should or but
find other words like can or will
be transcendental
say I can until I’m blue in the face
Smurf of the turf flagging in the rat race
I will until the cows come home
and roam back into the field again – There Will Be Cud!

I’ll still do a job I hate – my fate
in this world of go-getting shafters
you mean you didn’t buy? – too late – be young, gifted and affluent?
not if you went to the wrong school
in the wrong time
in the wrong place
where they geared you up
lambast the wrong caste
survive by taking the piss
cast out Benevolents – the Benvolios

hurry up Harry we’re going on the merry go round, roll up, roll up yer sleeves, roll up yer genes, grit yer teeth, Northern’s gonna rock yer, we’re gonna Chase yer, we’ll take Manhattan then we take Berlin, not Irving, just the rummaged bricks of the wall – here we go – it’s all we know - take a ride on the eternal abyss of existence’

 

Full-Grown

by Al Hutchins

Sometimes after a full-grown night,
Mangled out of sight or reach-
The witnesses of buses and wet cut grass and spent outcomes, thrown away fried chicken born to live and die and fry and fridge and bin-
Sometimes when these heaved stacked questions do not adjust or needle or play about with form,
The roadside laughter can be heard,
High above the hem,
As derelict as broken pipes and clay;

First a peal,
Then a shrug of bellow,
Thrown braised and blinking like a chewed Slazenger,
Down into the tall sad side of days.

 

The Economy

by Pauline Sewards

For years I sat in rooms
where people told me the narrative
they thought I wanted to hear

so that they could get treatment
without too many barriers
or too much stigma.

I knew that drugs were often
a solution made into a problem
by criminalisation.

I knew that our services
were often the only revolving door
that was open and welcoming.

The word Recovery
was welded to our job titles more tightly
every time cutbacks were made.

Recovery means many things.
Means nothing unless you stay alive.
Caseloads multiplied.

Deaths multiplied.
Xanax - ten times stronger
Than ordinary blues

who would take a chance
on that escape route
If life wasn’t already pretty shit

For years I sat in rooms
Where people told me prison
saved their life

and they’d buried more friends
than I could ever imagine.
When the mantra of harm reduction

shifted to the edict of abstinence
the death graph started rising, a scandal
hardly mentioned on the news.

https://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/CSJJ7420-Addiction-Report-1909020-WEB-1.pdf

David McKinstry is a schoolteacher and poet who lives and works in Glasgow with his wife Margaret and son Gabriel. He has been widely published in newspapers and magazines and is currently working on his first collection of poems with the working title: Viral Verse. In addition to writing poetry, he has published books and articles on the American Civil Rights Movement.

Peadar “King Badger” O'Donoghue dearly wishes he was an actual badger. He writes, takes photographs, and co-edits at Poetry Bus Press with his wife, Collette.

Wendy Young is a poet/ performer, whose publications include Living with Ghosts (Natterjack Poetry, 2015), Ooetry (William Cornelius Harris Publishing/London Poetry, 2015) and The Dream of Somewhere Else (Survivors Press, 2016). Her poem 'The Time is Ripe and Rotten Ripe for Change' was selected for Handbook for 2021, the anthology of the Bread & Roses Poetry Award 2020 (Culture Matters).

Al Hutchins has been described by Stewart Lee as a “howling faggot-and-pea-fuelled visionary”. Al is a West Midlands-based poet, performing “stuff” since 1997: his rhythm, holler and tune-mongering thing, The Courtesy Group has been lauded by the likes of John Peel, Stuart Maconie and John Cooper Clarke. His poetry and fiction have been published by New River Press, Eccentric City, Tindal Street Press and Culture Matters.

Pauline Sewards is a former health-worker and is currently writing a collection of prose and poetry basedon the known and imagined lives of her forebears who were agricultural labourers. She has two poetry collections published by Hearing Eye and Burning Eye books, most recently Spirograph (2020) and work included in The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty (Culture Matters, 2021).

This article will appear in print as Fran Lock's Soulfood column in the forthcoming issue of Communist Review.

Culture Matters presents: A Fish Rots From The Head
Thursday, 03 March 2022 10:31

Culture Matters presents: A Fish Rots From The Head

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters is pleased to announce a special event in our digital reading series: the online launch of the free flash anthology A Fish Rots From The Head, with selected readings from our contributors.

Featuring artwork and poetry from over 100 contributors from England, Scotland and Wales, the anthology is a creative expression of fury and betrayal in the face of government hypocrisy, corruption and cruelty.

A Fish Rots From The Head challenges, satirizes, despairs, and even dares to laugh at our morally compromised leaders, whose malignant mixture of callousness and ineptitude has made life so hard, in so many ways, for so many people in this country. Through its demonstration of compassion for the suffering of others, and its protest against wrongdoing by those in high office, this collection of poems and artworks provides a very necessary space for solidarity and resistance. Let's hope the removal vans come soon!

Please do join Culture Matters' host Fran Lock in welcoming the contributors from this timely anthology on Sunday the 20th March, 17:00 GMT.

The Facebook link is here and the zoom link is here

Here are 2 posters with the line-up.....

Copy of Instagram Book Promotion Ad Story Made with PosterMyWall 19

Copy of Copy of Instagram Book Promotion Ad Story Made with PosterMyWall 1

 

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:

Picture1

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.

Picture2

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.

Picture3

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.

Picture4

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.

Picture5
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.

Picture6

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

Reproduced with kind permission of Smokestack Books

*

Struggle

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 (http://internationaltimes.it/reoccpying-auden-country/) 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.

Picture28 

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.

 Picture30

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.

 Picture31

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.

 Picture32

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

Page 1 of 5