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.

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

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

Published in Cultural Commentary

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

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

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

Class? What class?

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

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

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

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

Cruz Picture6

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

Cruz Picture21 camden Frans old stomping ground

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

Cruz Picture8

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

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

Class-based oppression within art and literature

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

Cruz Picture15

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assimilation or annihilation

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

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

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

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

Cruz Picture10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cruz Picture25

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

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

No tools, no space, no way

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

Cruz review depression

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

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

Cruz Picture17 As seen in North London

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

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

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

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

Anorexia, rage and rejection

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

Cruz Picture13 Battle jacket

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

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

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

Cruz Picture18 Frans boots with Peter Clarkes permission

Fran's boots, photographed by Peter Clarke

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

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

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

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

Chav!

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

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

As Mary Russo writes in The Female Grotesque:

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

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

Cruz Picture22 Amy

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

Cruz Picture23 Amy graffiti Camden

        .3

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

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

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

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

Cruz Picture14

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

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

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

Cruz Picture11

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

The hierarchies of grief

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

Cruz Picture19

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

Cruz Picture20

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

       .4

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

Water pours in through the skylight

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

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

Cruz Melancholia Durer 1513

Melancholia by Dürer, 1513

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

This most bloody and divisive prime minister: Margaret Thatcher, exploitation and class struggle
Friday, 18 June 2021 08:37

This most bloody and divisive prime minister: Margaret Thatcher, exploitation and class struggle

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock writes about Thatcher and her legacy. Image above: Steev Burgess

Not quite a decade after her death, and already cultural depictions of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher are everywhere in evidence, most recently in the hit Netflix TV series The Crown, where she is played by Gillian Anderson. Anderson's portrayal is by no means flattering; it has, in fact, received a great deal of vitriolic backlash from the right-wing press. Good. Except the problem of representing this most bloody and divisive of prime ministers goes far beyond the degree of sympathy with which she is characterised. It has to do with what happens when we translate political figures from the muck and mess of immediate history into slickly produced packages of self-contained narrative. It has to do with what happens when the pain of living memory becomes popular entertainment.

Where Thatcher is concerned, there is so much pain, persistent pain. One significant discomfort I have with The Crown and with similar docudramas is that it relegates the events of Thatcher's tenure to a finite and clearly delineated past, when the horrors she inaugurated and presided over are not, in any meaningful measure, 'finished'. As an example, we might consider Orgreave and Hillsborough, and the long and difficult struggles for justice endured by those affected.

The violence that took place at Orgreave was not merely the worst example of police brutality ever witnessed in a modern industrial dispute; it was the culmination of a concerted campaign on behalf of Thatcher's government to diminish the strength of the trade unions. In the years before Orgreave the Conservatives had planned to face and to defeat a strike by the NUM, or by another of the mass-membership unions; to that end they had inextricably allied themselves with the police, awarding pay rises for officers, while workers in nationalised industries were forced to live at the sharp-end of redundancy and privatisation. In the wake of the violence, where mounted police charged protesters, attacking them without justifiable provocation, Thatcher's private secretary wrote to a Home Office official that 'The prime minister […] agrees that the chief constable of South Yorkshire should be given every support in his efforts to uphold the law.' A note by her policy advisor, David Pascall, expresses a similarly swift and absolute judgement, describing the miners as a 'mob' and as 'Scargill's shock-troops'.

Police brutality

The legitimation and bolstering of police brutality as policy could be said to lead inexorably to events at Hillsborough. In not holding the South Yorkshire police force to account for Orgreave, in frustrating inquiries into police violence, and in refusing to implement reforms, Thatcher's government saw Peter Wright, the chief constable who had overseen the operation at Orgreave, still in charge some four years later. Wright was responsible for appointing David Duckenfield to police the match at Hillsborough, and for heading the campaign to deny responsibility for the disaster, blaming and slandering the victims. The treatment of football supporters at Hillsborough was given official sanction by the brutal policing of the miners’ strike. It is all connected, and the search for justice and accountability is ongoing. The repercussions ripple out for years, across generations. The complexity, specificity, and interrelatedness of this pain is not easily accommodated within the docudrama format, which relies heavily on resolution within neatly determined narrative arcs.

An even greater level of unease exists for me around the issue of focus. The Crown and similar shows are top-down dramas: we see the subjective effect of the decisions Thatcher made upon herself and her immediate circle. We do not see the wider consequences of those decisions for the thousands of people who suffered them, or we see those consequences only in the broadest possible brush strokes, and not with the nuance and granular particularity of real experience. This creates a vague nostalgic haze around events such as the miners' strike or the invasion of the Falkland Islands. These are cultural milestones, they feel known, but they are little understood; they have become the depoliticised stuff of zeitgeist, emptied of content and of true human cost.

The screen transmits personality, it cannot credibly render the difficult and shadowy reasoning of ideology, which is where Thatcher's murderous toxicity truly lived. How can an actor hope to convey this through gesture and tone, within the limits of an accessible light-entertainment script?

They can't, and so viewers are either hoodwinked into a sympathetic identification with the Thatcher 'character', or they may come to relish Anderson's performance as a kind of cartoon Ice Queen, an exaggerated parody of awfulness. At a cultural moment where the line between politics and entertainment is already dangerously blurred, and where political careers rise and fall on the strength of 'personality', this should give us pause. Yes, politicians are people too, but it isn't who they are as human beings that is relevant to us, it is what they do. Learning to read politicians as characters, and political careers as stories of individual exceptionalism, of private triumph or failure, is a disturbing trend with grave implications for our future as voters and citizens.

The Ballymurphy Massacre

This has been much on my mind of late. The recent conclusion of the long-awaited inquest into the Ballymurphy Massacre has had me thinking about hidden continuities of state violence. Mrs Justice Keegan delivered a savage indictment of both the British army's actions and the subsequent state-sanctioned efforts to depict the deceased as IRA members. The attack in 1971, is one in a long line of historical injustices that are only now, after decades, beginning to be addressed, including those that took place during Thatcher's tenure.

In particular, I have been thinking about the atrocities carried out by the notorious Glenanne gang, to which is attributed some 120 murders. The Glenanne gang were an informal alliance of ultra-loyalist groups, run with the collusion of the British government. It comprised roughly 40 men, including members of the British police (the RUC), British soldiers, and paramilitary groups such as the UDR and the UVF. When the inquest into the Ballymurphy Massacre reported, the papers made their usual noises about how the findings could pave the way for prosecutions of armed forces veterans for historical abuses in the North of Ireland. Government and armed forces spokespersons were quick to shout down any such suggestions, highlighting once again the statute of limitations that covers both members of the occupying British forces and paramilitary groups. The argument being presented is that such a statute of limitations is fair to 'all sides'. It is not. There is an enormous difference between those actions carried out by local paramilitaries, and by those of an occupying nation state. And with regards to collusion with loyalist groups, the British government clearly has much to lose should the extent of that collusion become known.

What these reflections reveal, I think, is that history is still being made; that it is in a continuous process of painful negotiation and discovery. For that reason there would seem to be a greater duty of care attendant upon the treatment of recent history in art and culture. This kind of careful and pressured attention is something lacking in the mainstream media's recent depictions of Thatcher. Depictions in which her flawed humanity becomes the only necessary apology for the violent racism, classism, and homophobia of her politics, or in which she becomes a sort of grotesque scapegoat: the embodiment of the worst excesses of neoconservative ideology. Thatcher didn't happen out of air; the ideas she instituted did not disappear in a puff of smoke as soon as she was out of office. Look at Tony Blair and Keir Starmer. Her legacy is a living one, as viscerally present as it is vile. Look at the North of Ireland, and the blatant disregard for Irish life that Tory Brexit has exposed. Look at the victims of police brutality and their families, still waiting for justice after all these years.

The poems I want to present  address themes around Thatcher, exploitation and class struggle.  Unpacking a language for talking about the trauma of Thatcher and Thatcherism will take time and effort, but these poems, with their meticulous attention to sound and to the texture of particular, lived experience are a vivid and important beginning, a necessary counter-narrative.

The day she died

By Kevin Patrick McCann

There were fireworks,
Dancing in the street,
Ding-dong the witch is
Dead blasting out of stereos
But I stayed in our house,
Curtains closed
Remembering
That day they went back,
All brass bands and banners,
Lives in flinders,
Faces clenched like fists
Remembering
How she closed down the mines
And him sat in that chair
For weeks at a stretch
His thousand yard stare
At the end.
So no, I didn’t join in.
Just sat here alone.
Remembering.


they want all of our teeth to be theirs

By Martin Hayes

they want from us total commitment
they want from us our blood and our hunger
they want our flesh
inked with the company’s logo on our chest
they want our knuckles to our brains
and all the nerve-ends in between
switched off
they want our sinews and our muscles
sewn together with steal thread
so that we can only move
when they pull their levers
they want all of our teeth to be theirs
so that we can only chew when they chew
ache when they ache
they want us to show them where we keep our guts
so that they can sneak in under the radar
and pull them apart
angry thread by angry thread
until nothing is held
or stitched together anymore
they want us like robots
sat at our workstations every day
not wanting or able to think
of anything other than what their virus
has burrowed into us
and malfunctioned us to think
and what do we want?
we want to be able to walk through the park on a Saturday afternoon
without feeling anxious
we want to be able to lay out on the grass
drinking ice cold beer
while looking up into the sky
without worrying about office politics
we want to swim in the ocean once a year
and know how we are going to pay for it
we want a mouth full of teeth
that we know we can afford to get fixed
or capped
if ever they should go rotten
we want to be able to enjoy the laughter and song
that comes from having food in the fridge the electricity bill nearly paid
a car taxed and full of diesel
a medicine cabinet full of floss sticks and Sudocrem
paracetamol and hand cream
Bonjela hair bands
Diazepam and Ansol

we want to be able to live in our block
without the threat of being redistributed
hanging like thick drool dripping from a councilor’s panting mouth
because an entrepreneur took him for a £500 dinner
and promised him a place for his kid in the prep school
that will take our council flat’s place
alongside the £65-a-month gym business units
and 1.5 million-pound lofts
we want to feel
be able to say to ourselves
that we are human
and not have to give everything of that away
just so we are allowed to work
just so we are allowed
to exist


Milk Snatcher

By Julia Bell

Father thinks she’s great. He tells us so at tea.
He enjoys the nightly news where rabbles
of dirty miners have it handed to them.
These Marxists with their utopias, need to get real.
She is bringing back stability, certainty,
to a hairy country, old and badly clothed,
with naïve teeth and a childish sense of
pageantry. She is telling us
who we are again. And even those
most disinclined to listen to a woman,
love her matronly, no nonsense ways,
and the righteousness of her hair.
I do not like her, and I do not understand
why she is so popular round here.
Jesus said we should love the poor,
not tut at them on the news.
I will live long enough to know that
I am witnessing the slow death of South Wales.
The sick, sliding slag heaps becoming
deep valleys of generational despair.
I have started blushing every time I get upset
and at the tea table I wear a NUM badge sent to me
by the miners, my cheeks on fire. I wrote to them after the news.
Father thinks it’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen.

Kevin Patrick McCann has published eight collections of poems for adults, and one for children, Diary of a Shapeshifter (Beul Aithris), a book of ghost stories, It’s Gone Dark, (The Otherside Books), and Teach Yourself Self-Publishing (Hodder) co-written with the playwright Tom Green. He is also the author of Ov (Beul Aithris), a fantasy novel for children.

Martin Hayes has worked in the courier industry for 30 years. His latest collections are Ox, published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press, and Where We Get Magic From, published by Culture Matters

Julia Bell is a writer and Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck where she is the Course Director of the MA Creative Writing. Her work includes poetry, essays and short stories published in the Paris Review, Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, Mal Journal, Comma Press, and recorded for the BBC. Her most recent book-length essay Radical Attention was published by Peninsula Press.

This article will also appear in the next issue of Communist Review.

kentish hymn / keremet
Sunday, 25 April 2021 11:25

kentish hymn / keremet

Published in Poetry

kentish hymn / keremet

by Fran Lock

wuton wuldrian weorada dryhten hálgan hlióðorcwidum... god is native to a numb tongue, heard as cleave or queerdom, we are crossing in fog where the chalk path forks. hips and haws. to the barrow, to the drear bower over the berm, to etching hill, to cherry hill, to tumulus and stūpa. stupor. where the laden ditch gives up its ragstone dead. and the dog has a tumour. and the wind folds form back on itself with a coarse consistent music. and i think of the cláirseach, the curve of a cutting tool, clear and sage. and i misheard this as a levelling harp. where god is an architect, harping his level. and an englishman asks us: what’s in a name? they had hanged up their harps, said the scholar. by which harps were they hanged? by a psaltery’s straightened guts. by kithara, by lyre. all my sultry kith are liars. born to it, our harps are archers’ bows, our arched backs strung for anxious pleasure, elbows out. simensa, a man with a metal detector tells me i believe in magic. i’ve walked my boots to repertoires of ruined sued. do i cast the lots? do i read the tea? or tell him how his hand has heirs; it is a siring palm? seared flesh. he wants a smooth fate sealed with a sterling heat where i touched him. the pentagram, the witch’s mark. oh, i will not live by coffee’s caustic horoscope, the partial eclipse of a proffered coin. we are not these small town childhoods, sum of all our noons. tell him what? i do not believe in magic anymore than i believe in northern ireland. tell him the denial of reality is the refusal of work, motherfucker. if not, what is your magic for? and fuck the police be my werewolf prayer. and pikey the brand, be the bane, be the blessing. wuton wuldrian, but what’s all this we business? god and i are playing hare and tortoise. contessa and chauffeur. i face the icons every morning, the prevailing vacuum of his stare. he mentally undresses me, the dog, unzips the middle-distance with his teeth. i never called myself a christian, as such. they used to say that we were tree-worshippers, stump-fuckers, hedge-humpers, head-shrinkers, devil-antennae. when we receive a sign, we signal back. in the old time we fled the knout and gallows, illiterate and literal. we feared their lechery, their frenzy, khlysty-christ-cum-whipping-boy who drives out sin with sin with spinning. we fled to the tundra, to the thicket, to the steppe. call us magyar or márya, mari, tsarmis, cheremisa. call us people of the volga, vulgar people. and the volga is the jul. our tongue a vulgar jewel. i have covered my hair and are we not harpies? hounds and ministers, to thunder and to spite. once, we were surpassing swoop and lovely. they made our hands a labour of talons, haggard with grasping. the man said black, altogether disgusting. they tore off our wings and dressed us in the sinking of ships. we were sparrows with the faces of women until we were women with the tails of fish. and my bruised thighs fused: a gauntlet sized in silver, a single sexual mitten. are we not sirens? vulgate jackals, a pique of heathen owls? lufian liofwendum lifes agend... fiendish and aloof. a leaf again, an agony. there was the common prayer, the solemn prayer, and we pick out the path on the shit-shingled hills with the border patrol boat moving below. ah, if we were harpies. ah, if we were sirens. the sea is not cruel. cruelty requires a chromosome. little kiss, little why? and how the skinhead on the beach turns an irrigated smile toward dover, is herald of a swilling doom. and i have remembered the mermaid wrong. not a mermaid at all, but a slack-breasted sitter-of-vigils. like me. robust but worn. the way she shoves a pared bronze face toward the sea, as if to ward off danger. how a woman is an amulet: medallion, a figurine, a tooth, a claw. and all the crowned falcons of the upper kingdom will never make me whole again, she says. these blue glass beads have an eye, an intention to power. menat: horus hanging counterpoise. these similars, these stelai. ankh and udjat. pillar, scarab, sa. a child with a stick, a sun with three rays. that's an aspect of ra. that's aten. to illuminate and wound. how the light of the world in a pained vowel stretched between curving horns, is a note you blow. there was something to do with a jackal: you who are in the everlasting air. and the jackal has a double that she carries on her back like a parachute. there's a compass on the hill. a cippus. it marks the limit and the distance and the way. they called us counterfeit egyptians. our grain was our coin. his mulo at my shoulder. i have bread in my pocket for appeasement or reward. he will follow me, always. hang horseshoes for my epuletts. hang horseshoes from my earlobes. hang a horse like a harp. how a woman is an amulet. worn with sweat. your leaking acids eat her. here, there are icons and charms. here, there are hoards and corpora, the hoary taxa of textbooks, tell us something we already knew. gumena gehwilcum goodes willan... good will, god willing, welcome, good welcome. i could crouch here, wear summer to sickness in a high lace collar. i could pluck the finches from the gorse like fat brown berries. sing to me, this chalk chanteuse is a toothsome whore. there'll be bluebirds all right, and a great white vulture. the bluebirds are over. where england is the cabaret's jaundiced maw. what i already knew: invoke your enemies, summon them with stew. and language is the theophoric knot you can't undo. cursed for kicking the cooking pot. cursed for refusing alms. cursed for securing funding, for the straightness of your spine when i walk through the world like a bagging hook. keremet, from out the unbidden and enlarging dark, local spirits of the violent dead: shades, bogeys, henchmen, wideboys. i am foul-mouthed, a mouth folded on foulness, grann brigitte, spitting peppers and obscenities beneath the clootie tree. keremet, half ghost, half household god. i am pressing a gold token to a flat snout for protection. their curse is a binding spell and it goes: where are you from?englan' you're a drug stepped on so many times you are a ladder and a bridge and a dancer's mark. i have oaths. i have hymns, a morbid grace ingrained like dirt. and i see london, i see france, and all my dreams and all my limbs and all the sea were filled with swimming.

 

but if you are happy, what will you write about?
Saturday, 03 April 2021 16:47

but if you are happy, what will you write about?

Published in Poetry

but if you are happy, what will you write about?

by Fran Lock

the surfeit-stink of mornings, doubly sullied
and pungent in my memory. the intercession
of a sword, christ's body, luminous and reeking.
i will write concealment's season, the lauded
thorn, a calcite myth of kings, the swaggering
rapacity of guards at arms. are you men of kent
and slender means? are you kentish men, who
scent the air, and bear your valley strategems
before you? bread is the cant of a common
mouth. betwixt the chapel and the channel is
a long, hard slog. i will write a cold day,
whittled into brilliance; the chalk tongue
staking its slurred alarm to the hills: where
are you going? where are you from? these,
the poison maxims of a barracks-prattle.
prats, prating, of appetite and tyranny; our
serial griefs supplied in bulk. where we
are struck until we spark. i'll write the law-
and-order leaflet in my letterbox, the cold
esteem in a stone heart. a maggot,
precision-drilling the eye of a dead gull
on the tow-path. i will write this levelling
remedy. into fly-tip and trivia: the whey-
faced plaints of bigotry. i will write
the lumpenly done-by, insipid with liturgy,
picking the sin from the treads in their
trainers; who train their wanting
wits at the weekend, who wander lonely
singing how they'll never walk alone,
in the hair shirts of their season tickets.
to be numbered here, among the clucking,
where the suburb erupts into race-hate
and birds. i will write of men reduced
to jobs, their jobs reduced to firms,
manors, corps and crews. men, idle
and violent, in the lisping vernal argot
of the spring, loafers and serfs.
and how, finally, we are not what
the barbed wire wills of us. girl,
like a slip of paper in a psalter, pressed.
and a rare pasqueflower, a rivet
joining the world to the world.
meandering medway, weal to the sea.
your legends and consensus. pasture,
passing over. i will write the canine
haste of run. from here the view
has houses. campaign medals, studding
a luddite corpse.

Dr. Fran Lock has finally escaped out of London to live in Folkestone. We wish her happiness.

today of all days
Wednesday, 17 March 2021 19:55

today of all days

Published in Poetry

today of all days

by Fran Lock

even now there are names we will not stoop to say.
between the famine and the feast. the prostrate part
of silence. what the dog digs up, what the well draws
forth: cromm crúaich. cromwell. conquest. all limbs
and skins through the heat of siege. even now, to turn
our sleep toward the west and a dream of being near.
or free. beloved, there's a rent in the roof of want
where the world gets in. beloved, your dirty nail
is a dark scythe, shelling an egg; your broad arm
is an argonaut's oar, your mouth a disconsolate cellar
of gold. it is grey outside, a thunderhead behind
the new-build houses. my mind, a solemn plough,
succumbs to turning earth. to sift our dead. obols,
idols. alms and bones. a celtic stater, struck or cast.
even now, there are bent heads and empty hands.
brine and fire. your neck, the rhythm in the rope.
a white gull, a cipher for thirst. our fear of the sea
and everything in it. our dread of the plain, a plain
dread. diplomacies and protocols. control, above
all, beloved. to carve our dull adjustments into
stone. the grievous speech of cutting blades. even
now, a name i cannot say. your name. this day of all
days. leaking through this lockjaw. like water. no.
like wine.

Choose to Challenge: International (Working) Women's Day 2021
Sunday, 07 March 2021 19:15

Choose to Challenge: International (Working) Women's Day 2021

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock introduces some poems for International (Working) Women's Day 2021. Images above and in text: Jane Burn

IWWD – or IWD as we're now supposed to call it – has had some pretty ropey “themes” in the past. But this year, I feel more positively inclined: 'Choose to Challenge' evokes the mutual and fiercely responsible feminism of Audre Lorde when she writes in 'The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism': “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

Capitalism wants us to believe that feminism is all about personal empowerment, but that's an insidious neo-liberal lie, one that prioritises the pleasures and the privileges of individual women over the systemic oppression of their less powerful sisters. This version of feminism is fundamentally shallow and representational, preferring to focus on individual “success” stories rather than articulating a meaningful challenge to the structural dynamics of inequality.

More women joining the armed forces is not, for example, a triumph for women. Women and girls suffer disproportionately during and after war: existing inequalities are magnified as social institutions break down, rendering them more vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation. Women and girls are better served by a radical dismantling of the military-industrial complex. More women in top banking jobs is not a triumph for women and girls. Women and girls suffer disproportionately under capitalism: we are daily harnessed as sources of domestic, sexual, and reproductive labour. The roles typically held by women are persistently miscategorised as “unskilled”; they offer us scant pay and little job security. When we do occupy top positions we are still paid less than our male colleagues.

Poverty and unemployment are intimately tied to the likelihood of our sexual exploitation and our victimisation at the hands of both partners inside the home and predators outside of it. For women, the trappings of wealth, and the signifiers of race and class, such as accent and grammar, are intimately linked in capitalist culture to perceptions of femininity, sexual availability and moral worth. We live, inside of capitalism, an irreconcilable double-bind. Our status as women is the very argument for our exploitation, but our identities as women – as women that capitalism sees as worthy of recognition and protection – are often erased by the work we perform. Do your shitty, exhausting, demeaning job, but do it with a smile, in flawless make-up and a body-shaping dress. Stay young and healthy, and positive at all times. Be a smiling facilitator to other people's needs.

Within neoliberal feminism, feminist goals are best achieved by each individual woman striving and competing to reach a position of power within capitalism. This is bullshit. Capitalism is inherently sexist and racist. It naturalises women's unpaid labour and deploys both sexism and racism as tools to divide and oppress workers, discouraging efforts to unionise, or to advocate for better pay. Why should an accommodation within that system be seen as a success?

Palming off unlovable paid labour

'Choose to challenge' might just serve as a recognition of these realities. We can choose to challenge not only individual instances of sexist aggression, but the ambient social conditions that give rise to them, and the political systems that produce those conditions. We can remember that while individual middle-class white women may be “empowered” by their top jobs, their success depends on palming off unlovable unpaid labour onto poorly-paid women lower down the socio-economic spectrum. We can remember that the ability to choose, the ability to challenge is in itself a function of privilege.

There are still women who do not have the ability to advocate for themselves, they are not safe and they are not secure, and the conditions of their oppression make it impossible for their voices to be heard. There are also women who cannot help but challenge: whose very bodies are considered an offence to capitalist culture and its relentless demands to reproduce certain narrowly prescriptive values and embodied forms. Where these women's black bodies, queer bodies, disabled bodies, fat bodies and poor bodies come into collision with capitalism, they are rendered dangerously vulnerable.

'Choose to challenge' is also about making space for each other; it is about celebrating each other in the face of a capitalist cultural narrative that turns us into competitors for attention and space. Yes, we are all different, but we are not special interest groups. We can extend our solidarity, a war-pact against all that besets us.

JB image

Ode to Self

By Golnoosh Nour

We survived and survival breeds desire for more self. – Audre Lorde

I am that
the fatigued knight wading through the morning light
like Moses gaping the Nile

I am that
the black rose in winter, dead
butterflies dripping from my bruised petals.

I am it
The ‘it factor’, the cool factor minus, the cold factor plus, the hot
mess, the browned flesh, the queer crushed
by Authority, forever refusing to agree with anything
other than my own elegant violence, my
autumnal tendencies that I catch in the river of my mirror – the only truth teller

for I am that,
the breathing painting in the attic
the ‘darling’ collector
the cold sore in summer
the sore throat in spring
the allergy screeching at the skin.

I am it
the blue silk with a scarlet kernel,
wrapped in my gold cape, embroidered by thorns, I pounce
over the fence into the abyss to caress
my horns, and to plant myself in fertile soil, roots hard in the ground;
shaking off tornados from my trembling naked branches, I grow tall,
old, short, skyward, enamoured,
pure.

Dr Golnoosh Nour is a poet and writer, whose acclaimed debut collection of short stories The Ministry of Guidance was recently published by Muswell Press, and whose forthcoming collection of poetry, the mighty Rocksong, will be published by the 87 Press next year. Golnoosh has been widely published and platformed both in the UK and internationally, including on the BBC and Granta. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Bedfordshire and designs and hosts a monthly radio show called Queer Lit on Soho Radio Culture. For more info, visit her website: https://golnooshwriter.weebly.com/

 On fire

By Sarah Wedderburn

I am a house,
face painted
geisha white,
mouth a strip
of polished black.
How still I pose,
dark eyes steady.

I am a house &
do not stir
as wisps of
dove grey chiffon
gather at my throat
to charge a tiny orange circlet
round my head.

I am a house
with smouldering eyes
& when the feathers
rising on my coronet
preen into an orange spiral
rushing up the air,
I do not blink.

I am a house.
Observe as lightly
from my eyes
I free a flock of
orange birds
that dart & hover everywhere.
I feed them all—

I am a house.
How quick the flaming
feathers of my birds
flare up & fan into
the great plumed
orange headdress
of an Aztec queen.

Rushing gold
rolls over me.
The blue above writhes
with nests of orange snakes.
I am a house
& meet the roar of sirens,
calm.

My gown collapses
in a firefly storm.
Am I stately
in my gauzy
slip,
my corset
boned & black?

I stand and smoke,
mascara
running down my face,
my secrets buried
in a foot of ash.
I am a house, strong enough
for love & hate.

Sarah Wedderburn’s publishing credits include Magma, MsLexia, Oxford Poetry, PAIN, PN Review, Poems in Which and The New European. She studied English at Oxford, holds a Poetry School MA and works as an arts writer. In 2020 her work was included in Culture Matters’ Witches, Warriors, Workers, and in Yvonne Reddick's Poetry, Grief and Healing.

JB image 2

When beggars choose

By Clare Saponia

There were no more dolls for me
after that. Just the three I’d doodled
on in indelible ink to spice up their
foolproof lives, since Santa failed
to bear frills. You know the kind:
the most basic theme-free sort
of Sindy that no kid ever asks for
with karmic Barbie at large. I gave
them bras and brains and specs
as big as potted mince. They got
lippie and piercings, freckles and
fringes they never knew existed
in their microbastic cosmos –

though they never grew back. Just
got shorter and shittier in the dull
Sunday lull, where not even the
hair wax helped. There was no
Paul or Ken either to come, my
folks fearful of what I’d draft
on a shaved, sexless crotch, the
far-too-deft cosmetic surgeries
I’d undertake, callous as they get:
Hannibal Lecter meets organ
collector, I think they might have said.
So, I kept them for the dog, played
find and fetch (not that she fetched) –

and just pastels for me from then on.

Clare Saponia is a Berlin-based writer, poet, artist and linguist. She has written two published poetry collections:The Oranges of Revolution and Copyrighting War and other Business Sins, and is working on her fourth. Clare’s poetry has featured in various anthologies, including Witches, Warriors, Workers, Emergency Verse – Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State, and soon The Brown Envelope Book.

I was a woman today

By Jane Burn

and I was not afraid of weather/not of glittered hoar
scalding bloom from early cowslips/not of brisking air/
I shucked pillows from their catchpenny shams/tawdry-bright/
pegged them baggy with vaults of biting wind/rise your bellies/
bloat with painted flowers/fly, my chintz-beloved ghosts

and I was not afraid of dust/walked upon a Galilee
of lint like a saviour of filth /not of the stove’s ash/
I ridded it with flags of soapy cloth/here are the kitchen
miracles/the hob roars with valiant soup/welcome
to my church of scraped potatoes/spoon and eat

and I was not afraid of swans/lucky against my tired docility/
they filled their throats with elevated light/an epiphany of air/
I heard the peal of monumental wings/watched their passing over
of my tethered home/saw them earn the clemency of blue sky/
O send thy softly breasts to bright rivers/amen, amen

and I was not afraid of time/not of the dials divided eye/
saw myself through years of perished skin/through slackening/
I grew a child/despair of clothes around my drooping womb/the years
blot my face with wearied moths/grope around my smile/
take my pity of hands and salve their crackled plight

and I was not afraid of what I write/though paper shrieks
beneath my raging pen/though I must empty my head of flames/
a long story of blood/my own uneasy/slipshod tell of truth/
I offer all my burdens to a book/and scribble rivers/
I love you/here are the umpteen many words I have for pain

Jane Burn is a multi-award winning poet who lives an eco-friendly lifestyle in a wooden cottage in Northumberland. Her poems are all about her adoration of language and how it connects her to the many passions and parts of her life. She is working class, a wife, a mother, bisexual, a poet, an artist and maker. She has written lots of poetry books and is also a late-diagnosed autistic which has helped everything finally make sense. Her poems are published in many magazines and anthologies. She co-edited the Culture Matters Witches, Warriors, Workers women's poetry anthology with her bosom friend Fran Lock. She is currently doing an MA in Writing Poetry at Newcastle University. Her next collection, Be Feared, is due out in November from Nine Arches Press.

the world is so big

By Fran Lock

a whiskey light where you might melt to know me. it is never coming.
a city night, all dangerous and fragrant. it is never coming. culottes in
spring are never coming: pale calf consumed by their shy mulberry
swish. the january sales will not be coming. the gelatin resentments
of a friend in tennis shoes, who's tearing up and hates you. first-bliss,
the nice perhaps of a hand. no, no, no. they are not coming. the sacred
wood. it is not coming. the clerk who holds my mourner's gaze, replete
with passing. she is not coming. the great and glistening tropes of old
dead men will not be coming, underlined or otherwise. my vivid adult
self, as she frequents the red and white striped awnings. now she will
not come. there will be no mornings. i will not dress my doting gloom
in coffee: poet, savant of hysterical sympathy. i will sing neither my
plights nor my fauverie desires. at nineteen, i am sotto in a sauntering
kingdom. my berlin-bowie cheekbones are turned up to eleven. i am
quiet gone. the world is so big. i'm a bug on the windscreen of its wide
horizon. it is dying's slick art that drips from me. how a footballer's
wife drips diamonds. how a brown dog's mouth drips wet grass. i will
not get lost, in the catacombs of loose amusement, wandering. bleating
in a fitted sheet, where shame is the interval and the circuit. it won't
bother me. women, shining in the strict garments of their monday
hustle. glamour as a lump of shit shimmering with flies, as a prophet
of your choice in a beard of bees. i won't have to care. windows
that open onto nothing, my eyes. not a latte or a beach or the boozy
ridiculm of living. the world is big, but the dead are without edges.
the absolute obscenity of emptiness. to be cupped by nothing. air.

Charcoal Lover

By Julia Bell

If not you, then who? Is what you said,
when I asked you why you loved me,
as if I were a foregone conclusion.
Then who?

I thought about this for a long time,
and all your possible suitors.
What do I have that they do not?
How did I win this accidental competition?

And then when we were getting ready for bed, I realised,
that it is not my strange good looks, or my air of experience,
but my charcoal toothpaste that won you over.
Something that the gummy locals and their brilliant teeth
have known about for centuries.
A new way to repackage you to me,
not as an immigrant then, but a source of native wisdom.

When we brush our teeth with soot, we look insane, homeless.
Like the shopkeepers with their mouths stained from khat or betel juice,
or yellowed from all the tobacco.
We look like urchins, ready to run off into deserted, dusty houses,
like lovers; like what we are: burned residue of the stars.

Julia Bell is a Writer and Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She has published three novels with Macmillan in the UK (Simon & Schuster in the US) and new book Radical Attention is now with Peninsula Press.

Jb image 3


Jejunum

By Pauline Sewards

Amy’s life – a closed orbit from Boston to Boston.
Born in Massachusetts, died in Lincolnshire.
The surgeon fixed her with his knife,
she suffered from ulcers and gastric pain

Born in Massachusetts, died in Lincolnshire.
Jejune means hollow; the intestine empty at death,
she suffered from ulcers and gastric pain,
after the operation her guts became infected.

Jejune means hollow; the intestine empty at death.
Was surgery her choice? Was she given options?
After the operation her guts became infected.
Common causes of ulcer: hunger, ethanol, stress.

Was surgery her choice? Was she given options?
The surgeon fixed her with his knife.
Common causes of ulcer: hunger, ethanol and stress
Amy’s life – a closed orbit from Boston to Boston.

Pauline Sewards is a Bristol-based poet and founder of the regular event in Easton called 'Satellite of Love'. Her first collection This is the Band was published by Burning Eye in 2018. Her latest collection, Spirograph was published by Burning Eye earlier this year.

On Priti Patel, Practical Solidarity, Poetry and Preservation
Saturday, 20 February 2021 15:20

On Priti Patel, Practical Solidarity, Poetry and Preservation

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock attacks the Government's policies towards asylum-seekers, Travellers, and Black Lives Matter protesters, and shows how poetry can be a site of solidarity, community, and challenge. Image above: Pigeon Proletariat, by Steev Burgess

I no longer hate Priti Patel. Wait, I'll unpack that statement: hate has an edge and an energy to it; you can do something with it, it's a fire you feed. I dread Priti Patel. I dread her like the weather, like a cyclone or a storm. I dread her like an earthquake, like a flood, as something inevitable and utterly exhausting; something that can neither be evaded or withstood. Each time Priti Patel appears on my screen, every time she opens her mouth a little more poison seeps into the world, and a little more light is leached out of it.

For instance, when she bragged last September about removing asylum seekers while targetting the legal teams who offered them support: 'Today we removed people who came here via small boats,' she tweeted:

They had previously claimed asylum elsewhere and had no legal right to be in the UK. Removals continue to be frustrated by activist lawyers, but I will not let up until this route is unviable.

As refugee charities were swift to point out in a letter to the Home Secretary:

Government rhetoric falsely suggests that asylum seekers’ travel routes can invalidate their claims for protection, and denounces lawyers for doing what the law requires of them.

Indeed. There are two things worth hammering home here: seeking asylum is not illegal. Anyone seeking protection is entitled to stay in the UK while awaiting a decision on their asylum claim. It makes no difference how they entered the country. The right to claim asylum is enshrined in international law. The second thing we should hold onto is that in the aftermath of Patel's inflammatory tweet solicitors at Duncan Lewis, a London law firm offering legal support for asylum seekers, were attacked by a knife-wielding racist.

During her tenure as Home Secretary Patel has been responsible for closing some of the last remaining safe and legal routes for asylum seekers into the country, and has refused to open new ones. She has also brought back banned refugee child detention by stealth. Last year the Government's own watchdog conducted unannounced inspections at a number of detention centres, where they found children locked up. In August last year the Home Office wrote to councils, incentivising them to carry out rushed age assessments on refugee children, offering money for legal challenges to individual age assessments. We have already seen the consequences of such actions, with children being sent to adult detention centres at catastrophic risk to their mental and physical well-being.  Again, the Government's own watchdog found conditions in these detention centres unsafe, and 'unfit' for human habitation.

the immigrant mother raises her sons for industry maxo vanko

The immigrant mother raises her sons for industry, by Maxo Vanko

COVID-19 is a boon for the likes of Patel: the virus acts as an invisible and invading enemy. It plays into English cultural narratives of stalwart isolationism; an island redoubt against hostile outsiders. The threat of contagion allows the Government to reposition human beings as disease vectors; to herd, detain, control, and deport them in the name of public health. The Tories are adept at recruiting the language and iconography of wartime Britain in order to present Coronavirus as a purely national crisis, one that can be withstood by means of exemplary British virtues such as fortitude, endurance, stoicism and sacrifice. By continually yoking those qualities to a nebulous notion of small-island nationhood the Government ensures that those persons not comfortably accommodated within their narrow conception of Britishness are excluded from the precincts of human consideration, are alien and suspect by default.

It's this attitude that led the Home Secretary, in August last year, to so much as fleetingly consider the idiotic, inhumane, and unworkable suggestion that asylum seekers be sent en masse to one of the South Atlantic islands. It is this attitude that led Patel to appoint a former Royal Marine to the role of 'clandestine Channel threat commander' and to call upon the Royal Navy to 'tackle' the growing number of small boats crossing into the UK. It is this attitude that has led, inexorably, to an increased military involvement in the detention and 'processing' of asylum seekers; that has led to the ongoing horror that is Napier Barracks in Folkestone.

napierbarracks2

Napier Barracks

The former barracks is the UK's first modern-day refugee camp. It differs from other detention centres because newly arrived asylum seekers are being sent there in large numbers before any determination on their status has been made. Conditions are abject, and during a global pandemic the health implications are dire. Meals are served communally, and, according to a recent Guardian article, up to twenty-eight people 'share a single sleeping area and two bathrooms, making social distancing impossible.'

A little more poison, a little less light. Patel and her twisted tribe cynically exploit the virus and the fear-of-the-other that it brings to justify their hard-line immigration and asylum policies, while ensuring the very persons and communities they blame for the pandemic are those left most vulnerable and at risk. Raising the Immigration Health Surcharge from £400 to £624, while simultaneously restricting access to most hospital services for migrants without visas or those whose claims for asylum have been denied, has created, in effect, a healthcare underclass. The Government's own equality impact assessment warned that the NHS charging programme could lead to discrimination against BAME people. But the risk was deemed 'acceptable'.

Other Lives Don’t Matter

There are those whose lives are deemed worthy of preservation and care by the current Tory Government. And there are those whose lives are not. Refugee lives do not matter. The majority of BAME lives do not matter. The lives of Travellers do not matter.

We know this because the Home Office consultation on criminalising trespass and increasing police powers against unauthorised encampments comes hard on the heels of a report exposing the enormous unmet need for pitches on public Traveller sites in England. According to the report, released by the leading national charity Friends, Families and Travellers, over 1696 households are currently on waiting lists for pitches on public sites. There are a meagre 59 permanent pitches and 42 transit pitches or halting sites available nationwide. The new laws mean that families living on unauthorised encampments could face fines, prison sentences, and removal from their homes, simply for having nowhere else to go.

The number of caravans deemed to constitute an unauthorised encampment has been reduced in number from six to two. Two. Police will direct these caravans from any site on which they have no permission to stay, even when there are no alternative stopping places. The right of British Ethnic Nomads to live in a caravan home is recognised by the European Court of Human Rights and protected in the UK courts under the Human Rights Act 1998. Yet the Tories do not care. Patel does not care. Her now infamous comments during an online meeting with Jewish leaders last September, branding Traveller families as inherently 'criminal and violent', are now well documented.

During the Tory clampdown in the early 1990s two thirds of traditional, informal halting sites for Travellers were sealed off. In 1994 the Criminal Justice Act repealed the duty of local authorities to provide official sites for Travellers. An obvious solution to unauthorised encampments would seem to be to return this statutory duty to provide sites. If nothing else it would seem to be the cheaper solution, demanding less enforcement and provoking fewer legal challenges. It would seem to make damage to public land less likely too: much of this happens due to deliberate obstacles being placed in the way of access points, and to a lack of public amenities at these unauthorised sites. Most importantly, it would protect one of our most vulnerable social groups, and allow Travellers and their families to access vital public services. But Patel doesn't care about that. Traveller people are yet another convenient Tory scapegoat. As the threat of eviction undermines the ability of Traveller communities to comply with Coronavirus regulations, many are asking themselves how long before the pandemic is utilised as an irresistible argument for forced assimilation, and the dispersal of communities?

Gypsy Kids

Traveller children. Image courtesy of Knickerbocker TV

Existing sites, whether privately run or managed by local authorities, are likely to be located close to motorways, major roads, refuse tips, industrial estates or sewage works: undesirable locations all, and damaging in unique ways to the health of the Travellers who live there. Ethnic Nomads in Britain die on average between seven and twenty years earlier than the rest of the population, and their health outcomes are significantly worse. A 2016 report sponsored by the National Inclusion Health Board noted that 66% of Gypsy, Roma Travellers had bad, very bad, or poor health; poor air quality, proximity to industrial sites, asthma and repeated chest infections in children and older people were noted in nearly half of all interviews. Health access has always been complicated and fraught for people living in Traveller communities. This has led to a lack of early diagnosis, resulting in poorly managed chronic conditions. COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory disease. This renders Travellers especially vulnerable.

A little less light, a little more poison. This evening Patel described the Black Lives Matter protests as 'dreadful'. Interrupted, and asked to clarify she claims that of course she's not against people's right to protest, just this specific protest, and the way in which it was conducted. This is a typical Tory manoeuvre: agree to fundamental human rights in principle, while stripping them away from us in practice. And of course the Home Secretary is bent out of shape about the toppling of statues: memorial emplacement isn't just about honouring the memory and legacy of individuals, it's about inscribing continuities of power onto public space. It is also about normalising those continuities of power, so that racism becomes an invisible and ambient feature of our cities, part of their cartography. We live with its traces every day, it's so pervasive and embedded we don't question it, we don't even notice. That's true power. It is your stamp on the architecture of the everyday: buildings, statues, street names. The Black Lives Matter protests in the UK rendered those power structures legible, and the black lives impacted by those power structures visible. The Tories, very obviously, don't want that.

For secure and sedentary communities history is written large across public space. Buildings capture the continuity of collective experience; they stage a shared cultural heritage. But for those without settlement, whose lives are transitory and provisional and leave no corresponding trace on the physical landscape, history, memory and suffering are excluded from the mapping of that heritage. Traveller histories, lost to dispersal and coerced assimilation. Refugee histories, fenced in behind barbed wire, billeted in grim buildings at the edge of public attention. Working-class histories priced out of presence. The same applies to queer histories, homeless histories, and BAME histories.

Coronavirus throws these reflections into sharper relief. Isolated from each other, we lose our sense of ourselves and our communities as visible and connected. As our worlds shrink, so our sense of solidarity and effective agency suffer. In the wake of COVID-19 comes austerity, and beyond austerity, gentrification. The global pandemic both exposes and exacerbates inequality, magnifying the already glaring disparities between those with enough and those barely scraping by. And 'when all this is over' where will we even go to grieve, to create, and to organise, when our communities are concreted over, our sites broken up, our squats torn down, our social housing sold off, our bars and dancehalls gentrified, our vital services pushed further to the margins, our districts socially cleansed. Where communities are decimated by Coronavirus, developers will move in. It is opportunistic, but it is also deliberate: a willed amnesia, an act of violence. BAME communities are disproportionally affected by Coronavirus. Working-class communities are disproportionately affected. How can those communities come together to resist and sustain when there is nowhere left for real communities to form? When we are isolated and scattered and kept apart, from each other, and from others.

Solidarity through poetry

In the face of this, the page can offer us a vital site of practical solidarity. What poetry can, and must be for us, is a place of counter-preservation. It is also a place where the choppy, difficult textures of our lives are registered in community with others. I have said it before, but it bears repeating: poetry at its best is not merely memorial but relational. It demands and bestows that deep sustained attention seldom afforded to us as citizens or subjects. It is the one territory still open to many of us.

The poems I want to share today confront the inequality that besets us head on. They lead us through cities and towns made hostile to our existence, and they wrestle with a language that is heavily implicated in our containment and erasure. These poems are about language, the way we're spoken to and talked about, and what happens to us, what capitalism does to us at the level of language: the jargon, cliché and tabloid slang we're obliged to think in and through; the way we come to think and talk about ourselves as a result. Here is the strike-through or the scoring out. Here is rupture and compression of syntax and of grammar: textual bodies crushed and maimed, as the living bodies of working people are also crushed and maimed, reduced to a punchline, to muttered and incoherent 'prole-whispers'.

In these pieces poetry wants both to signal and resist its incorporation inside of the system, inside of capitalism. The rhythms of working-class life are viscerally present in the text: against the relentless routinized scheduling of unloveable labour there is ever conceivable kind of disruption or incursion. This affects what is written, what is thought. The default for working-class life is not silence and space, and this translates onto the page in a variety of 'difficult' or innovative ways.

Fran Lock unlovablelabour 2

Unloveable labour, by Steev Burgess

We might say these are challenging poems. But 'challenging' is the entire point. These are not scenes of vague catharsis, but work sites: in a world not made for working-class people, not made for the marginal or the vulnerable, poetry provides a place to appropriate and repurpose language, to make it our own, to dismantle and subvert it. It is this reclaiming of language and renaming of experience that makes poetry a political act, an integral part and precursor to the real-world radical actions that are bound to follow.

Parliament House or Dung Heap                                               

By Cole Denyer

Like Today’s Story of the Shirt
a plateful of sundry wretches
in such a way that they could
only have endured it, but ask
on about villages?
                                                      Middlesex and Epping forest
                                        happy people like pilchards in bottom
                                               cask under cook the dome of sky,
                                              nothing is wasted nothing is spoilt
                                            bar frizz salver piss in a pot look on
                                                       or hang off spit and ill-blood
                                                       even if you have no property
                                                             by the nightshirt liniment
                                                                   yr enjoying the anon?
No actual mention of sausages, however.
Squabbling on a livelihood
I don't much care for beautiful
buildings run over with flowers,
Bastion builds flashing on and off
as ward-mote leads to Garden BridgeTM
bibbing in sun before looting scaffold goes up.
Dear Adrian Glasspool,
Last resident we cannot maintain ‘26 acres of land for one person’.
blood hooked
stack commuter sprawl in w/ broken            
statist one by one for flogging on out
down the metropolitan line
mortarboard tradition staggers
to a croupier fireside chewing
nothing much but embers
of prole-whispers

                                                              ROMEO Y JULIETA

                                                    Gives us bad chests solidarity

comrades signing off for lack
of cap touch to the very cleanest
of beautiful souls earldom starves the fiend
in modest deliberation;
a charred linnet buff burning for burnings sake
tend sideways for attrition of One Market
denominator pierrot on
true-hearted News Corp drawbridge it               simply is 
what shape our bananas have got to be,
and all that kind of thing or
a high-leviathan foisted arbitrage
like my gaffer's yonder;
I whiffle and pleat expert experts forming permalinks
In my head of Continentalist stanchions
to and fro in worry one handbook to another, belayed

On Argot

By Dom Hale

It is good to be inferior and appalling.
The countryside stinks of ancient money.
Petrol sings in the night. O reiver, what are you searching for
With that silver toothpick in your hand?
I look over my shoulder and the city sort of breaks.
The reader is usually an informant. Bewildering Pacific
Plagues attrition’s skies, the updraughts, a drunk broadening
In the infinite musical regression of these times.
Thus one of you must up the ante or become a pillarist.
Risky, true, and not in aid of an idiom cribbed for
Tepid summits or committees and the scenery’s group hug.
A nauseating civil servant, a devout tech worker,
Those bureaucratic cults hassling whatever ground
You suppose you might have left to trudge on. Embarrassing.

I’m retraining as a poet. As for the elect, the leaders
In their field, they only make the whole endeavour sound
Kind of like a Universal Credit meeting. So fucking strenuous.
The vilification of the lazy who, just think, might have
Something pivotal yet to communicate with them. Yes,
To be half-cut and full of spite is a delirium
We may afford ourselves, at least for the slipshod moment
When everything is recorded and means more, determinedly.
Are you decent yet? Further oracular warnings from SAGE.
The only wage is a dying wage. And I almost considered
Myself a balladeer. Imagine that. Eternal earache.

Well, thanks anyway for having us. At last
The opportunities are equal. Now what?
They were always aware this situ was icecap unbearable.
Still it seems a trust fund beneficiary actually counts as a person.
Budding aeronautics of the prolific jobless. Bruised
Coccyx and a will-o’-the-wisp glinting at the crossroads.
And music squats in me this weekend. Sum up:
Big deal. Crashing torrents. Signing in at once
I present my scarlet guitar to the administrative staff
With nothing else to declare, beleaguered on arrival,
Bustling inanely, fumbling about mortality. The point
Is to pick up the crayon and fill out the form. Don’t
Talk to me about constructive criticism.
Convert the life in fucking tatters. I’ve never been less torn.

Notes

Cole Denyer (1994) is an artist and writer based in the gut of class treachery and watching over his shoulder for every budding cop.

Dom Hale wrote Firewall (Distance No Object) and Scammer (the87press). Before the pandemic he helped to organise the Edinburgh reading series JUST NOT, and is currently co-editing the magazine LUDD GANG at poetshardshipfunduk.com. Civilian Lyrics is out from Veer in 2021.

Callout: The Cry of the Poor
Monday, 01 February 2021 20:50

Callout: The Cry of the Poor

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock issues a callout for a new poetry anthology, The Cry of the Poor

As some of you will know, Culture Matters is a co-operative of writers, artists and activists, involved in our various ways with developing a 'broad left' cultural struggle for a better society. We’ve been going for over five years, maintaining a lively website, publishing criticism, commentary, fiction, poetry, and life-writing. We run Bread and Roses Arts Awards for poetry, songwriting and spoken word, and support the labour movement through workshops and campaigns around cultural issues.

We also publish various books and pamphlets, including a series of anthologies of radical writing including From the Plough to the Stars: An Anthology Of Working People's Prose From Contemporary Ireland; A Kist of Thistles, An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Scotland; Onward/Ymlaen! An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales; Climate Matters: Poems And Prose About The Climate Crisis And Capitalism; and Witches, Warriors, Workers: An Anthology Of Contemporary Working Women's Poetry.

Through our publishing operations, we are proud to offer a platform to a genuinely diverse array of writers and artists from all walks of life, with a particular emphasis on working-class creatives who are often marginalised within mainstream contemporary publishing. We aim to provide publishing opportunities to new and established voices alike, and to create a space of conversation that is inclusive and egalitarian. We could not achieve this without the generosity of our contributors in sharing their wonderful work with us. So, if you are a past contributor to our website and anthologies: thank you! And if you are new to Culture Matters: welcome!

Culture Matters is now planning to put together a new anthology with the provisional title of ‘The Cry of the Poor’, and we are asking if both previous and first-time contributors would be willing to send us their poems, artwork, images, and life-writing (short fiction, memoir, blog or essay) on this theme. We are looking for writing that engages with any aspect of poverty in ways both political and personal. We particularly welcome work that explores the relationship between poverty and labour, and the intersection of poverty with race, class, gender, and sexuality. We are looking for work that bears witness, work that campaigns and analyses, work that evokes solidarity, and work that fights back.

If you would like to be involved please send us up to three poems, pieces of prose, or images, by 31 May 2021.  We aim to publish and launch the anthology in late summer, and organise launches for the book where contributors will have the opportunity to share their work with a live audience.

Along with your submission please send a short author biog of no more than 60 words, and let us know if the piece you are submitting has been published elsewhere so that we can give proper credit. We’re also pleased to say that eligible poems will also automatically be entered for the Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2021, sponsored by Unite.

Please send submissions to:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

These books have held me: outstanding poetry from 2020
Sunday, 10 January 2021 20:48

These books have held me: outstanding poetry from 2020

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock writes about some outstanding poetry books published in 2020

It became apparent to me around the second week of December that I couldn't write this round-up in the usual way. By which I mean I could not – for a variety of reasons – simply recapitulate the tedious prescriptive dictates of another end-of-the-year review. I don't know what the value would be in that. Most of us didn't live through 2020, we sustained it as a series of shocks: dull crushing blows to the back of the head, leaving us stunned, concussed, disoriented. It has been awful in ways both political and personal, and by early December it felt ridiculous to me to trot out a trite list of the 'best' poetry collections, my 'top five', my 'essential' reading for the close of the year.

2020 has been extraordinary. Extraordinary in the worst ways possible. Any poetry collection published during 2020 was subject to extraordinary demands: without the benefit of live launches or readings, the public life of the book, its spirited sense of civics, has suffered and shrunk. And writers have suffered too. In one sense our suffering is material and easy to quantify: the loss of vital revenue from festival book-sales and organised events, damage dealt to second or third jobs; time lost from the necessary work of promoting our books to the frantic scrabble for paid employment.

In another sense our suffering is less tangible: when our world retracts so too does our notion of community, our idea of ourselves as belonging to something, of reciprocity and collective critical engagement. For working-class writers in particular, the first casualty in all of this is often our identity as writers, our ability to prioritise ourselves as artists. Our work vies, not merely with the poetries of others for attention, but with the endlessly evolving demands of home and work; of health and money. Existing as we do at the pressured intersection of multiple crises, we must navigate a world in fevered flux with scant support.

Unpredictable. Precarious. In the midst of this chaos, how are we to attend in a meaningful way to our creative vocations? How do we participate, let alone compete, when we are publicist, agent, writer, carer, courier, accountant, cook, therapist, hunter-gatherer and nurse all rolled into one? At the same time, our poetry is being asked to carry a great deal: to provide consolation and solace, to offer insight and inspiration, to be a spur toward empathy and action in these dark and troubled days.

Sustaining, nourishing, inspiring

It is a great deal to ask. And it occurs to me that any poetry collection published in 2020 must make in its turn extraordinary demands of its readers: to stay with a book at this time requires of us an unusual degree of sustained attention. This attention is precious and pressured and cannot be idly or arbitrarily bestowed. A book that holds our anxious awareness captive has become a rare and wondrous thing. My own relationship to reading has changed throughout 2020. The stakes are higher. I am, through necessity, opportunistic, and I have become increasingly impatient: impatient with the lame beautifying tendencies of much mainstream 'lyric' writing, impatient with poems where the pain of the present is absent at the level of language, impatient with poems that are merely reactive; with poems that make vague cathartic gestures toward absolution, resolution or empathy. Impatient with a number of things, if truth be known, so that when a book takes hold of me, when it does something that arrests and sustains me, it is an event worthy of record.

I wanted to make some space for honouring those books, the pact between writer and reader they summon and fulfil. 'Best' doesn't cut it. Lists do not cut it. Quite apart from anything else, I've no desire to set myself up as yet another arbiter of taste or expertise. I'm not, and the choices I make as a reader are not free choices made in an ideal world. I gravitate towards the books I read for a complex set of reasons: some political, some aesthetic, some practical, some social, and some admittedly personal. I always think it's worth acknowledging that, taking account of your own infinitely fallible subject position.

How we feel about a book – any work of art – is as much a measure of what we need from that text as it is of any intrinsic value. Lockdown lays this bare. As readers we are more vulnerable, I think, less able to maintain our intellectual armour. But I believe this is a positive thing, a good starting point. It's honest, and it preserves – I hope – the warmth, affection and gratitude I feel for these books. I wasn't reading in a vacuum, none of us do. I was reading as a human: grieving, harassed, trapped and bewildered. I was struggling, and these collections have variously sustained, nourished and inspired me. They have been both expression and escape from the shit that surrounds me. They have held me, and I am grateful.

*

FL the street of algiers

The Streets of Algiers and Other Poems by Anna Gréki, translated by Souheila Haїmiche and Cristina Viti (Smokestack Books)

Anna Gréki was a member of the Parti Communiste Algérien, and an active figure in anticolonial struggles within Algiers during the fifties and sixties. In her short life she had endured arrest, torture, and exile. She was also a passionate and prolific writer, composing poetry and essays on language, politics and art; at thetime of her death she was working on a novel.

This translation from Smokestack is the first full English translation of her second collection of poems, Temps Forts, and it strikes me as an important book in several ways. The poems are reproduced in the original French, with the translations appearing on the opposite page. This allows for the reader to shape and sound the music of the poems in their original tongue, which is one of the chief tactile pleasures of poetry; it also feels like a keen attention to the ethics of translation; to all that may be obscured, elided or altered in the transposing of poems from one language to another. The result is both rich and respectful. It feels collaborative; a conversation across distances and generations.

Gréki was new to me, and I dare say she may be new to many people. This book releases from relative obscurity, a significant poetic foremother. A revolutionary foremother too, at a moment when we need those more than ever. Women's experience of and in revolutionary struggle is often under-represented within existing poetic canons. Gréki relates her experiences with nuance, tenderness, and a formidable vitality. The poems preserve a striking intimacy, never hostage to their historical and revolutionary context, but emerging from those very sites and situations. In Gréki's poems we see revolution shaping language, as surely as language shapes the revolution. This book provides, then, a timely and necessary intervention into the long and complex history of radical writing by women.

Discovering Gréki during lockdown felt momentous to me. At the time I was also reading translations of Forugh Farrokhzad and Nancy Morejon. This was quite unplanned, and it had certainly never before occurred to me to think of these poets together, or to consider their writing as part of a rich global riposte to everything we're told poetry by women was in the 1960s: a white, confessional scene heavily dominated by figures such as Sexton and Plath, figures whose doom-laden legends still loom large in contemporary poetry. I love both Sexton and Plath, but sometimes their writing feels exhaustingly inward, and I yearn for work that evokes a broader sense of context or community; that responds to and remembers the contingent world. Gwendolyn Brooks has always been my go-to for this kind of confessive yet responsive poetry, but lately I'd felt the need to think beyond the English-speaking world, to try to understand my own poetic heritage, and my position as a woman in the world.

Gréki's work shares with Farrokhzad and Morejon a constellation of concerns, foremost among which would seem to be a grave respect for beauty and for life. Her poems evince an unapologetic sensuality, a care for and of individual human bodies that is enshrined in language, and inseparable from politics. The cherishing that takes place within a Gréki poem feels both militant and serious: she erects hands, hearts, mouths, and “fields of tender flesh” against “the huge matrix of war”. Through her very patient and sustained attention to the vulnerable particularity of human life, Gréki summons a powerful and mutually compassionate collective. In 'July 1962' she writes: “You are part of the humiliated world of the living/ the commons that hold you will take you over”. These words stirred an immediate sense of kinship and affection in me. What I find myself responding to in Gréki is the presence of a dialectical tenderness, an expression of empathy or care that provokes a dissonance between the actual and the possible. Against the abuse of power and the abjection of bodies, Gréki writes with love and motive force. This tenderness works to both anticipate and summon the revolutionary moment, a moment that Gréki the poet yearns for, and that Gréki the revolutionary must struggle towards. It seems facile to say the poems contain 'hope', but they do. Not in the sense of vague good wishes, but something active, lived and made by and in language, by and in the work of revolution.

And yet what has stayed with me about 'The Streets of Algiers' is something else entirely, something I find difficult to put into words. I might call it Gréki's understanding of the way language and landscape are intimately entwined within Algerian national identity: “Survivors sow wheat with death” Gréki writes, “And the black poplar spreads the wound open.” Later she writes how Autumn itself is “moved by” her language, and in 'Rue Mourad-Didouche' her speaker declares that there are “Trees thriving like alphabets”. To live under occupation and colonial conquest is to live doubly oppressed in territory and tongue. Gréki's evocation of this is subtle and acute. It is a poetry familiar and resonant to me, a reader of Irish heritage, immersed from childhood in the politics and poetics of Irish liberation. This felt significant too, a reminder that the struggle against colonial oppression is not historical but ongoing; that the struggle is shared and continuous.

*

FL Monica

Monica's Overcoat of Flesh by Geraldine Clarkson, (Nine Arches Press)

In the brief respite before lockdown recommenced, I took this book away with me, wandering pilgrims' pathways through Northumbria. This felt appropriate: the enclosure of monastic life is a key theme within the collection. This theme speaks to the surreal pseudo-quarantines of lockdown, but also to a culture of increasing confinement more broadly – to the mass incarceration of prisoners, the detainment of refugees, to the criminalisation of Travellers and other ethnic nomads. The poems hum and sing with these tensions, with the friction that exists between the spiritual possibilities afforded by an anchorite existence, and the life-denying enclosures of our contemporary moment. Walking and reading, reading and walking, it seemed to me that the book thinks through a number of contradictory spiritual impulses: to wander and to enclose; to withdraw and to embrace.

Most days we seem caught in a compromise between restraint and flight, and the poems compromise too. Rather, all poetry is this kind of compromise: a musical vivacity honed and shaped, turned on a lathe, fitted to form. And Clarkson is, without a doubt, a deft and inventive formalist. This is a large collection, but its frequent shifts of shape give it a wonderful sense of momentum; lend it a supple and sinuous quality. Raw lexical energy leaps from form to form, momentarily held, but never quite contained. It's a book about containment, but the poems themselves seem to enact a kind of restless fugivity. This too suited my mood.

On gloomy days I'd read Monica's Overcoat of Flesh and think to myself that anything can be a prison: walls, routines, clothes, spiritual practices, relationships, bodies, thoughts. Or words. And the poems feature both the traps language lays, and the traps set for language. Yet, however confined, however suppressed, words are always resurgent: “Who knew when a tooraloo/ would break loose and what it would do” Clarkson writes. And there's joyful escape in this thought, but also potential threat. Reading this collection you know that Clarkson understands intimately that the speech act is always a double-edged sword; that words have enormous intrinsic power and grave potential consequences.

On brighter days I'd allow myself to be carried away by the sheer pyrotechnic riot of Clarkson's language. Her word choices are strange and dazzling, yet they are also precise. This precision comes, I think, through Clarkson's profound engagement with silence and the unspoken. In 'Homily of Francis' in particular she asks us to consider the ethical implications of using words 'only if you have to'. For a poet who so obviously relishes the flavours and sounds of spoken English this feels like a strict and strange injunction. But for Saint Francis and for Clarkson both it would seem that a reverent attention to the unsaid; that an attuned and active listening is the very prerequisite of meaning speech. Clarkson's poems attain their rare grace – and I use that word in more than one sense – and facility with language because they are born of an intense and concentrated listening. Clarkson is a poet who makes space for silence in a way that speaks to the kinship between poetic and spiritual practices. It is this aspect of the collection I found most compelling. Monastic practice is not merely a theme of this work, it is the structural stuff of Clarkson's poetics, a relationship that feels fulsome, complex and fought for.

Because the idea of struggle is embedded within the collection also. Clarkson gives us the difficulties inherent in language. There are moments of mishearing, tiny miscommunications; there's impediment, and obstacle, and overload. It is work in which thinking occurs. It is impossible to take these poems in at a glance; they demand a depth of attention which is, in turn, a kind of spiritual – or meditative, if you prefer – practice. I was captured by Clarkson's collection in delight, but I have stayed with it, and it with me, for its patience and spiritual rigour.

*

9781912710201

Almarks: An Anthology of Radical Poetry from Shetland, Jim Mainland and Mark Ryan Smith, editors (Culture Matters)

There was an odd synchronicity to the arrival of this book in my life: I had spent a large part of my early childhood in Shetland, but I had seldom written about it. This was for a number of reasons, not least because – in a certain sense – Shetland isn't mine to write, and an outsider's partial reminiscence isn't helpful or necessary to Shetland's radical communities, literary or otherwise. Writing those poems would feel like laying claim to something I hadn't a right to for the sheer self-indulgent hell of it. When Almarks came through my door however, I had been painfully teetering on the edge of a poem about my formative experiences there. Not necessary for Shetland, perhaps, but necessary for me. Dipping into the anthology for the first time helped bring that poem to life, so in the first instance, I am grateful for that.

Obviously, this is not the most significant achievement of Almarks, an anthology I feel should be loudly applauded. Jim Mainland and Mark Ryan Smith deploy the form in a way that feels both purposeful and exploratory. Too often poetry anthologies become a species of catalogue, a herding together of disparate works under one arbitrary heading or another. This is not the case with Almarks: here the form does essential investigative work, probing and debating the notion of 'radical' writing, and attending to the difficulties inherent in that definition. Almarks reads like a voyage of discovery, uncovering the very communities it sets out to represent. The poets in Almarks take a variety of approaches to their craft: they are formally inventive, taking risks with syntax and the white space of the page; they are explicitly political, drawing on both current crisis and historical suffering. They make striking use of dialect, and inject the contemporary lyric with riffing, zinging energy, as in Siún Carden's thrilling 'Return': “The island's spine of power lines swings/ signals to storm-driven birds”. Carden fast became a favourite, her lines at once both playful and precise, recalling the work of Jane Burn, and perhaps also Geraldine Monk in 'Pendle Witch Words'. There's something of the spell or charm about them that is infinitely engaging.

Almark is the Shetland word for a straying sheep: one that breaks through fences into common ground; headstrong and independent. The use of this title is telling: a sense of breaking through or in pervades the collected poems. Each piece is its own wayward intervention into the English language, a language increasingly contested and policed by the rising Right along class and racial lines. The dialect poems in particular enrich and subvert English in exciting and challenging ways. A favourite of mine is Christine De Luca's 'Tievin wir metadata' which brings digital argot and Shetland dialect together in a joyful jostle: “hack inta your ain mind” De Luca writes. The poem is both a clarion call against the excesses of neoliberal surveillance culture, and a celebration of the way language can surprise us, “hack” us, give us new words in which to formulate new thoughts. The anthology itself is also a breakthrough, also a “hack”, a surprise: it takes seldom accounted-for voices, and seldom imagined communities, then demands and creates space for them inside of literature.

There is a vividness and precision to the language of these poems that is impressive by any standard. This liveliness is readily legible when the poets turn their attention to the land, to the environment. There's a care and a reverence for words which enacts the kind of care rarely applied to our natural world. In this sense, the poems are ecologically timely. But more than this, they are also outward-looking, politically engaged. The anthology is rich in local responsibility and global solidarity, a vision of community that extends far beyond the parochial, as in Raman Mundair's 'Let's talk about a job' or Gina Paulo Ritch's 'The desert is only as deadly as the circles we walk'.

I did not expect to relish this anthology as much as I do, but for its rich sense of history, its political commitment, and its vibrant sense of the possibilities and potentials of language, it has kept me returning again and again.

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FL see what life 2

See What Life is Like by Dorothy Spencer (Lumpen)

Some books you find, and some find you. Dorothy Spencer's debut collection came to me in my capacity as associate editor at Culture Matters. It came via Lumpen press and The Class Work Project, a registered co-operative dedicated to providing publishing opportunities for working-class people and people in poverty. Spencer's collection marks the first in a series of chapbooks to be published by Lumpen, and it is an accomplished and engaging debut. Reading those poems for the first time was a genuinely invigorating experience. Invigorating because Lumpen are clearly an important press, providing a vital and necessary space for working-class writers. Invigorating because Spencer herself is such an original and provocative poetic voice.

Of course, Lumpen are not the first press to create such a space, but – with the exception of Peter Raynard's wonderful Proletarian Poetry – what sets them apart is their clear and unapologetic sense of mission; their explicit foregrounding of working-class voices and working-class stories in all their difference and ambiguity. To come to Spencer's poems as a working-class reader – as a working-class woman in particular – is to feel oddly held; to have a sense of yourself – rare within contemporary poetry – as the implied audience for work of unusual energy and gift. I suspect the experience may be somewhat different for a middle-class reader, but I also suspect that this is entirely the point. The title of the collection serves as both an invitation and a confrontation: the peculiar challenge of these poems is their directness, clarity and observational acuity. It is a laying bare, not with sentimentality, but most often with wry humour, as in these lines from 'after laughter': “i remember laughing with you/ about your dad’s teeth falling out/ over dinner/ because he was taking smack again/ he laughed too and showed the waiter/ a brown incisor sat in his palm./ with a plate of lobster in front of him/ he was still alive in all the ways you can be”.

Laughter, is a key component of See What Life is Like. It is referenced or signalled some twenty times in 'after laughter' alone. It serves throughout the collection as a bravura form of resistance, a nervous reaction, a challenge or riposte to the awfulness of life and other people. Laughter both is and isn't language: it is what we do when we don't know what to say or how to say it. When we've exhausted our rhetorical means, or when language has proved inadequate to our emotions. It is a form of defence, a coping mechanism. Many of these poems walk that very fine line between humour and hysteria. This seems to be a central theme for Spencer, and she weaves the sound of laughter through her poems to moving and resonant effect, nowhere more so than in 'fried poached and scrambled', where the speaker watches her father laugh so hard he shakes like one 'fried up in films/ on the electric chair'. The image itself is both irresistibly funny and disturbing. The subtle shades of distinction between these two states is something Spencer is able to fruitfully mine. The father in the poem laughs without restraint until he cries uncontrollably.

Control and restraint also strike me as central themes in this collection: the control demanded of you inside of language and inside of capitalism, with its weirdly proliferating etiquettes of socially acceptable behaviour. As Spencer's speakers fail or refuse to measure up to these arbitrary standards of behaviour, so too do her poems rebel, refusing the straitjacket of 'form', loosely held within structure and syntax. There are no full stops and no capital letters in these poems. The poems will not confine themselves to neat objective parcels. They are not perfectly-put-together literary artefacts with clearly delineated edges; they emerge from life, and they seep back into the world around them, into and out of each other. At times the result can feel strangely ecstatic and dreamy: “for i know on this earth there exists/ a person like you with a sky/ sometimes blue above them/ and who am i to relinquish/ a dream so sudden” and at others it is harsh, relentless and reiterative: “they find all your soft places/ they find all your tender parts/ they get to know them all/ they get you all fuckin/ mapped out/ they mark the spots/ where your skin/ is the thinnest”. The poems always feel intimate and insistent, a whispered voice telling you to look and look again. It gets under your skin.

But I think the most satisfying thing about See What Life is Like is the space it makes for anger: the anger of speakers and subjects alike, with each other and with the world. It is not a polemic rage, not dramatic as such, it is domestic and daily, entwined with the stuff of life. It simmers, an ambient hum at the back of Spencer's language. It is underscored by the spare and scratchy illustrations by Dylan Hall. There is not much accommodation for that within contemporary poetry, so to encounter it here is peculiarly refreshing. I feel heard by Spencer's poetry, and excited to see where her poetry takes her next.

*

FL Spirograph

Spirograph by Pauline Sewards (Burning Eye Books)

New work by Pauline Sewards is always an occasion for joy. Her 2018 debut This Is the Band is a collection both musical and painterly, leading the reader with verve, insight and elan through a diverse range of subjects in a variety of tones or moods. I fell in love with this collection for the rhythm and whimsy of pieces like 'St Whenever', but it has stayed with me – quite literally to hand on my bedside table – for the sombre acuity of poems such as 'Definitions', where the minutiae of words and their subtle gradations and shifts of meaning form the basis for a nuanced critique of politics. What has always impressed me about Sewards' writing – whatever her chosen subject – is the generosity of spirit at its core. Her latest collection, Spirograph, is no exception.

The title poem uses the conceit of the Spirograph Set to explore what Sewards identifies as those moments of 'not quite repetition' in language, life, and loss. The poems are informed by, and often directly reflect on Sewards' experience as a professional carer, working as a drug and alcohol nurse, and among their most profound and compelling themes are those of dependency, change, and recovery.

At a time when the government's refusal to acknowledge writers and artists as workers has had such a profound impact on working-class creatives, and when our systems of care are so disastrously underfunded and overburdened, Sewards' collection feels especially timely. Yet these poems are so much more than 'topical'. Reading this collection, a profound relationship emerges between Sewards' writing and working practices. This is most readily legible in the deep, sustained attention she affords her poetic subjects. There is a willingness to hear and to hold the 'other', to make space for them within the poem. This act of holding would seem to resist the rhetorics and routines that compress and delineate the delivery of contemporary 'care'.

In poems such as 'After Burnout', 'Assessment', and 'Day's Work' the language and machinery of bureaucratic administration seem to infiltrate the very consciousness of Sewards' poetic speakers. Instrumentalising language is everywhere present, but the poems – with their attention to detail, their steady empathetic regard – debate and resist this language. Reading Spirograph, I am continually struck by how few spaces there are within language and literature for precisely this kind of resistance. Sewards seems to be proposing the poem as a place of radical, mutual empathy. I am reminded of the American poet Rob Halpern, and his description of the poem as a place or condition of “vulnerable openness”. That this feels so fresh and so challenging says nothing good about the self-absorption of much contemporary poetry.

Perhaps I am being unfair? I do know that Sewards' poems feel 'vulnerable' in reciprocal and productive ways: the speakers in the 'Work' section of Spirograph are literally and psychologically vulnerable because they administer care at the sharp end of human need; those subject to their care are vulnerable in a different way. The mothers in 'Mother's Day at Roll for the Soul' are also vulnerable, vulnerable in front of each other as socially awkward strangers; the women swimming on Hampstead Heath are similarly exposed, to one another and to the elements. The girls in 'The Town Abuser' are vulnerable in quite another sense again, and often the bodies of Sewards' poetic subjects are frail or failing. Sewards seems to remind us that the act of writing and reading poetry creates in itself a condition of vulnerability, a pact of mutual vulnerability in which writer and reader are held. This is poetry's risk, but also its triumph: that it engenders a receptivity and openness to others which is ultimately restorative. This feels like a message we need to take forward into 2021.

Spirograph: an interview with Pauline Sewards
Monday, 04 January 2021 09:50

Spirograph: an interview with Pauline Sewards

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock interviews Pauline Sewards about Spirograph, her latest collection of poems

FL: Hi Pauline, thanks so much for agreeing to talk to me about your latest collection of poems, Spirograph. The title poem uses the conceit of the Spirograph Set to explore those moments of 'not quite repetition' in language, life, and loss. I wonder if you could start by talking a little bit about the title, especially as it relates to the themes of dependency, change, and recovery that run throughout the collection?

One of the reasons I was keen to do this interview with you, was that so many of the poems in Spirograph reflect on or are informed by your experience of work as professional carer – if that isn't an oxymoron. In light of the present government's refusal to acknowledge writers and artists as workers, the collection feels especially timely, not least because it provides an eloquent testament to the mutual indebtedness of your writing and working practices. This is especially evident – it seems to me – in the deep, sustained attention you afford your poetic subjects. Could you tell us something about the relationship between your work as a poet and as a person working in care? Are there skills particular to poetry that feed into – for want of a better word – your professional life?

I also wanted to ask about forms! That is, the paperwork and paraphernalia: the rhetoric, routines and official formulae which delineate and compress the experience of administering care. In poems such as 'After Burnout', 'Assessment' and 'Day's Work' the language and machinery of this administration seems to infiltrate the space of the poem and the consciousness of your speakers and subjects alike. There's a kind of instrumental anonymity at work, which the poems – with their generous attention to detail – debate and resist. Reading Spirograph, I was struck by how few spaces there are within language and literature for precisely that kind of resistance. How conscious were you when putting the collection together of writing against various kinds of reductive or instrumental language, and to what extent you see that as explicitly political?

PS: I like your description of language as ‘delineating and compressing care’. Sometimes the drug and alcohol field (a jargonistic phrase in itself) seems to be always about language. The use of the term service user, client, patient, drug or alcohol user and so on - each carries a different judgement. Harm reduction and recovery focus each carry a different weight. There has been a move away from psychological language to business-speak which can sound quite ugly – ‘outcoming’, ‘moving forward.’  Language always encodes an attitude to the work.

When I wrote about my job I was keen not to represent myself as a hero or saint. I worry everyday that I’m not completely successful in meeting the aims of the organisation and  I worry far more that I might depart from my own values. I wanted to take the reader into the day to day processes of the job, as in the poem ‘Drug Service’. The poem ‘Farweltering’ is also intended to do this and was written about an experience of work which was much more focussed on quality of human interaction. In writing about colleagues and service users there is obviously an obligation to defend confidentiality by merging and altering details. This parallels the nursing code which I’ve internalised over the years which enshrines the keeping of professional boundaries.

The poem ‘Assessment’ was inspired by a colleague from many years ago who wrote up as his assessments as a flowing narrative full of quoted speech and detail about the service user. Today’s pace involves a more tick-box risk-focused process, but the paperwork doesn’t give a sense of the person in the way my colleague’s write-ups did.

The use of language is always very political in these services. The Harm Reduction banner was surprisingly taken up by the Conservative government in the 1980s. This compassionate and liberal approach was a public health response to the HIV crisis. Deep funding cuts lead to the reframing of the work during the last decade or so as Recovery Focused.  In reality both approaches can exist together and be seen as a continuum. Scandalously, drug related deaths rose exponentially from 2012 until plateauing recently (the full effects of the pandemic aren’t known yet). During this time caseloads rose from an average of 30 to over a hundred. By a sleight of hand the workers' job titles are different – they become co-ordinators rather than key workers, so it hard to compare like with like.

You were recently described as “one of the foremost poets on women and work in Britain today”. Obviously, work is very far from being your only poetic subject, but I do get the sense that it is an essential and lively concern in your writing (I know, for example, that in addition to your own creative practice, you recently co-edited Magma 74 on the theme of work). I don't know if you would agree, but I've often felt that, historically, the kinds of work that tend to be performed by women – whether that's clerical work, or work in the service industry, or in different professions of care – are also the kinds of work routinely excluded from a poetic account of labour. Do you feel that women are still under-represented with regards to work-writing, and do you have any thoughts on how publishing cohorts might challenge – or, more hopefully, are starting to challenge –  that lack of inclusivity?

That was a kind description by Kate Fox. So many poets write brilliantly about work. I’d like to mention some writers on nursing - Sally Read who published a few years ago, Romalyn Ante’s ‘Anti-emetic for Homesickness’ and Helen Sheppard, whose extraordinary collection focused on midwifery will be published next year. I definitely agree with you some writing about work may be devalued because it reflects women’s experience. I remember Fiona Moore did an analysis of the number of books published by women on her blog a few years ago which showed a lot of inequality. I get the sense that things have changed quite rapidly but I don’t know how much of this is window dressing. Publishers including Burning Eye Book, Verve, Bad Betty, Outspoken, Culture Matters and others are going some way to address this. Co-editing Magma was an amazing experience, if I had the opportunity again I’d want to elicit more voices from care and service industries, Ben Newbery and I tried hard to do this (but still got a huge proportion of submissions from retired male professors in the US). I think there is a whole anthology to be collated and this might start by encouraging people to write about their experiences and may need to extend beyond print platfoms.

I know this interview has been very work-focussed so far, but of course, the collection is about more than just work, at least in the narrow sense of “employment”. You write movingly about girlhood, about the shaping of a self from formative experiences, not of all of which are necessarily benign. You also attend to the continuity of shared female experience: what it means to be a mother, what it means to grieve, what it means to create. Throughout the collection your poems feel united by a common expression of care, and by a sense of vulnerability. The speakers in the 'Work' section of Spirograph are literally and psychologically vulnerable because they administer care at the sharp end of human need; those subject to their care are vulnerable in a different way. The mothers in 'Mother's Day at Roll for the Soul' are also vulnerable, vulnerable in front of each other as socially awkward strangers; the women swimming on Hampstead Heath are similarly exposed, to one another and to the elements. The girls in 'The Town Abuser' are vulnerable in quite another sense again, and often the bodies of your poetic subjects are frail or failing. Would you mind speaking a little bit about this idea of vulnerability in your work? Do you think perhaps that the act of writing and reading poetry creates in itself a condition of vulnerability?

Paradoxically poetry is the means by which I have become less socially awkward. I am in awe of younger poets, in some cases very young poets who have spoken about trauma and honed their craft very quickly on stages. Two Bristol poets, Malaika Kegode and Aiysha Humphreys, come to mind. For various reasons it took me decades to speak in front of room full of strangers and I found small social gatherings were even more daunting. I’m not sure that has entirely gone away, and I do feel nostalgic for the adrenalin terror of performing. There are a lot of very personal poems in the book - Premonition/Hindsight, which I’ve only read in public once, is probably the most direct confessional one. I like to have a mixture of inward and outward focus.

Staying with the previous thought briefly, I know that the idea of being vulnerable is generally figured in quite negative terms, and certainly there is a perception that to work in care a person has to harden themselves to a certain extent. I love that the poems in Spirograph seem to offer a counter-contention to this idea. There's real receptivity and openness to others and to experience in this collection, and its this openness that is ultimately restorative; that allows the work of care to continue. Is preserving that sense of openness difficult? And is poetry helpful in that preservation?

At work I think preserving a sense of openness and flexibility is essential. There is also a tension between a planned diary and what will actually happen during the day. When working with people who may be chaotic it is seen as important to present consistency and routine. Work has a lot in common with performance and writing as it often requires a persona and relinquishing the need to be liked. Work requires being in a role, a conduit for service delivery, and in the same way that a poem is a conduit to expression. There is often a lack of time to respond to people on a human level. I’m interested in the way colleagues manage these contradictions of the work.

The collection is divided into four sections, beginning with 'Work' and ending in 'Wonder'. In between there is 'Where' and 'Who', providing poetic explorations of place and identity. Could you talk a little bit about the structure of the book? Did it evolve organically or was it consciously shaped over time?

I was quite naive at the beginning of the process. In my first collection I had a sort of overture of poems where the first few pages set out the themes and the following poems were in an intuitively coherent order. This time I had some mentoring from the poet Lucy English. It was her suggestion that I consider having a much more explicit structure. Based on the Spirograph image, my intuitively chosen title for the collection from the early stages, I chose to divide the poems into roughly equal sections. I’m aware that many poems could slip into different sections and I hope readers find and enjoy certain symmetries and images. There are a lot of poems about women including After Burn Out, My Grandmothers, and Pride but there are also poems about cult male artists Jazzman John, and Molly. It is an imperfect Spirograph though and one day I’d like to make something more structured as I’m fascinated by patterns and creativity emerging from rules although that is the opposite to the way I write at the moment.

Staying with form and structure, I wanted to ask about the sense of questioning within the collection; about the poems as places of enquiry and investigation. This sense is generated not only through the use of direct questions – for example, “Who will tribute these women?” in Ivydean – but also the way in which you avoid offering any kind of pat resolution or punchline to the experiences you describe. Was this a conscious poetic strategy on your part, because it feels very natural?

For me poetry is way of diving in to make sense of the world, a rebellion against solution-focused processes, a way of retrieving and celebrating memories and of honouring people. I studied history many years ago and my mother is a self-trained historian who left school at fifteen; the book is dedicated to her and other female ancestors. I want to archive experience of work and beyond in my poetry.  I’m aware this could be seen as whimsical or nostalgic, but want to fight against this reductive view.

Yikes! I get the sense that those were all quite heavy questions, so I wanted to end by asking if you could talk a little about place in your writing, both as a subject and as an influence and inspiration. Bristol feels very present in these poems, and I'd love to know a bit about your relationship to the city and the way it's shaped your writing.

I moved to Bristol thirty years ago and was lucky enough to land in an inner city area, St Werburghs, which has its own identity, resisting gentrification and contains a lot of  countryside. Bristol has a rebellious reputation and it seems surprising that it took so long for that statue to be pulled down. But of course it has taken a very long time for Bristol to face up to its history and question the foundations that have made it a wealthy city.

I was raising my children and studying when I first arrived there so I missed the trip-hop years, more than compensated by going to toddler parties where lovers' rock and reggae were played.  The poem My Bristol is about arriving in the city and sense of things opening up as my role in life changed. I’m pleased to have experienced a city for such a long period of time and seen changes and celebrations that people who live outside may not be quite so well aware of it. For example there was briefly a music festival called Venn Fest in Stokes Croft which featured all sorts of types of music in different and repurposed venues, with an overlapping audiences wandering between the different gigs. I have also spent a lot of time away from Bristol, through work and other reasons. I love discovering new places, especially places that aren’t outwardly glamourous. My heart aches for Bristol as I’ve been away for months now due to the current situation. It is one of the places I feel a creative buzz both just walking and being in cafes, and in the poetry scene there which interacts with the musical tradition and street art of the city and was explosive before this year, but has always been healthy. Being away helps me appreciate the city and see it more objectively and I think the same process will happen with work soon!

Thanks so much for talking to me, I hope that wasn't too painful!

Thank you Fran, for your questions and time, always great to speak to you.

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