Fran Lock continues with the second part of her reflection on working-class resistance and beauty, caring and grieving, struggle and solidarity.
I shaved my hair off yesterday. Our clippers are old and pretty knackered, and the process was hardly as seamless as film and television might have led you to believe, but still, I managed it, in my own typically shambolic way. Newly shorn, I joked with friends and family that my decision was taken in homage to the imaginative sorority of anchorites around whom much of my recent reading and thinking has centred, but in truth it’s not even as complicated as that. At various times in my life I have worn either punk’s aggressively dorsal ‘Mohawk’ or chosen to go full skinhead. It’s simultaneously ‘not that big a deal’ and critically important to me.
I shaved my head for the first time at thirteen. I won’t dwell, but psychologically I wasn’t ‘in a good place’, largely because I wasn’t in a good place in a literal sense either. Since that time both individuals and institutions have insisted on seeing my shaving my head as a sign of instability, a kind of crude barometer of emotional distress. Why else, after all, would a woman or girl choose to do that to herself? This was irksome and outdated even then, but on some level broadly correct: I wasn’t happy.
However, the act was absolutely reasoned and volitional. It was also resistive. It was also joyful. Being passing-pretty in the tedious conventional sense had led to no good place for me, or the other women and girls around me, so my shaving my head was, in the first instance, defensive, my armour against the objectifying gaze of predatory men. More than this, it was a renunciation of the worldview to which that gaze and its crass aesthetic judgements belonged. I didn’t value ‘pretty’, it seemed a shallow metric for self-worth to me. I wanted to publicaly and irreversibly denounce that value system, and everything it wanted or expected me to be. It remains one of the things in my life I am most proud of.
Care for yourself
I bring this up now only because I want to stress and affirm the importance of autonomy and self-care as the necessary precursor to any kind of collective and radical action. When asking what we can do to bring about change, an important step for any woman, but for working-class women, and for working-class queer women in particular, is to begin to unpick the self-strangling, effacement and abnegation of decades.
I’m not talking here about the docile self-coddling of Instagram influencers, I’m talking about Audre Lorde, writing in A Burst of Light that: ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ It’s about survival. It’s about preserving yourself in a world that is hostile to your existence, your identity, and by extension, to your communities. In these circumstances honouring your autonomy is also about remembering that not every woman has that opportunity or freedom.
And that’s a beginning, as grieving and carving out the space in which to grieve is a beginning, but it isn’t enough. It’s hard to imagine what is. Every time I try to write intelligently about a way forward, I find myself recapitulating the old prescriptive dictates of ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’, circling a narrow and instrumentalised vision of art and culture that is every bit as monolithic and blinkered as that of the capitalist patriarchy.
I certainly have very strong feelings about the kind of art I want to engage with and produce at the present time: art that isn’t merely ‘about’ our besetting crises; art that moves beyond coronavirus, climate, or capitalism as subject and into a profound textual reckoning with their rhetorics and aesthetics. I want more than the purely topical. I don’t want poems that hoover up our daily pain as imaginative fodder in reactive or exploitative ways. I want stress and rupture on the level of language. I want damage done to theme and form. I want difficulty and discomfort.
But I also want beauty. I want John Clare and Jane Burn offering pyrotechnic prayers to nature. I want Maxo Vanka’s Pieta, and Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’. I want Szilvia Bognar singing ‘Lily of the Valley’, and Natalia Goncharova’s Liturgy six winged Seraph. I want dancing in my socks to Billie Idol with my brother. I don’t believe art is less worthy or authentic for being beautiful. And beauty, however seemingly superficial, can kindle hope, can offer us an ‘otherwise’, can say ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’, can lend us strength when everything around us feels abject, lost, or ugly. It preserves and strengthens the spirit, and I wouldn’t wish that portal shut for anyone.
What I don’t want is to temper historical injustice or present crisis with aesthetic pleasure. What I don’t want is to be beholden to some power elite’s defanged idea of beauty, beauty as palliative, as distraction, as a papering of cracks. I want art and poetry whose seeing and saying stimulates; whose seeing and saying is sharpened by experience. I want working-class beauty, beauty with the stakes raised, beauty that feels – and is – hard won. I want moments of ecstasy, flashes of brilliance. I want to read, see, hear, and feel changed.
This is something we can do in our daily lives as artists, sure; these are the issues we can choose to live in sensitised daily communion with, but the burden to produce change, to make space for these voices, shouldn’t be placed on the backs of individual creators. Working-class creators are already overburdened, and our art is integral to the machinery of our survival. You inhibit and homogenise art when you start talking about what people can and can’t make; what their responsibilities are, their sanctioned forms and subjects, the correct way to approach them. You diminish art, and you also – more importantly – damage people. Working-class women in particular have seen enough violence and silencing as it is. How then, do we drive change and speak to crisis effectively? How do we move from mere catharsis into meaningful resistance, collective dissent?
Rise with your class
Obviously, I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure I have any, and that can be frankly terrifying. If the responsibility for change lies with the seemingly impenetrable systems that administer us – the publishing cohorts, the academies, the funding bodies, etc. – then we can feel overwhelmed, impotent, powerless to act, but we are not. There is always something we can do. I’ve been thinking about that a lot these last few months. Even before coronavirus, my own life had changed in a variety of ways, good and bad, and I’d been thrown into a period of profound reflection about what comes next for me. In poetry and in the academy I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve come as far as I’ll ever be allowed to go.
This is infinitely frustrating, and there are days I feel like a failure. It helps to understand the dynamics of the system that has put me and keeps me ‘in my place’, but it is nonetheless a struggle to maintain any sense of self-worth of forward motion within a culture that seems explicitly designed to exclude me. I know I’m not the only one who feels like this because a large part of working on Witches, Warriors, Workers with Jane Burn has been about fostering networks of solidarity with women from all walks of life, many with stories to tell about their experiences of exclusion and erasure inside of cultural space. The most important lesson for me from all of those conversations has been: rise with your class, not above it.
Doing for your community raises you. It is succour and soul food in and of itself. It gives you back a sense of agency and control. Truly, this is Lorde’s vision of self-care: an outward-reaching and embracive act of love for your comrades. In practical terms this act of love can look – has looked – like: editorial attention to polyphony and difference; an active seeking out of stories and voices beyond our comfort zones and cohorts. It has been encouraging, including and furthering voices that might not otherwise have been given space. It has been reviewing each other’s work, recommending each other for prizes. It has been taking that work out into the world in unexpected ways: pushing it into elite cultural spaces, and the hearts and hubs of local communities alike.
Struggle for your community
We can do this. Even now, even from our separate anchorite cells, we can connect to the world in ways that bring these voices into focus. We can say ‘hey, this is worthy of attention’ and ‘hey, this demands space.’ This can – and has – looked like specifically foregrounding working-class women’s voices at online festivals, making working-class artistic production the subject of academic essays and conference papers. It has looked like a persistent obtruding onto the notice of publishers, magazine editors, and event organisers. It is not waiting to be invited, not asking to be included, not fretting about looking needy or stupid, but continually stating ‘here I am’ and ‘here we are’ and ‘this deserves to take up space’. It is publicaly questioning ‘why not?’ when they shut the door on you.
Never doubt this process is exhausting. It is a struggle. And here I find my attention returned to the edicts of the anchorites: to suffer without love is a waste of pain, but to understand your struggle as one in common with and on behalf of your community is to give it back purpose and dignity. This is not to make a fetish out of struggle, or working-class resilience, or to lionise it for its own sake, but to remind ourselves that we are not passive, that this pushing forward is work, a political mission.
The Ancerne Wisse (a 13th century guide for anchorites) tells the would-be ascetic to ‘gather into your heart all those who are ill or wretched’ and to remember that the privations and perturbations of secluded life are undertaken on behalf of the community, that you ‘hold up’, others through your sacrifice. This injunction had made the rounds a few times since lockdown started, and it’s easy to see its particular relevance to coronavirus and the practice of self-isolation, but it’s also a useful mantra for any of us, as activists and artists, as women in the world,Any time we’re kettled, arrested, detained without charge; any time our work is rejected, or ignored, or ridiculed; any time we are denied funding, when we are spoken over or shut out; any time we are threatened and bullied legally or physically, we are persisting, we are manifesting resistance, not just for ourselves, but for all of us.
You close the door, I open a window
And once you grasp this thought, you realise that there is so much you can do, a thousand tiny acts of everyday solidarity. My favourite of these has to do with access. By making work available for free; by disseminating art and poetry widely online, we can tip the balance of power away from the old publishing elites. Obviously, not everybody has access to the internet, and I don’t want to uncritically trumpet technology as the saviour of working-class art and literature, but it does open up possibilities. It changes what’s available to us in terms of form, what we can technically achieve. Colour can be present to a greater degree; the spatial relationships between text and image can diverge in extreme and surprising ways, and most of all, our ability to collaborate with and choreograph a variety of voices expands ten-fold.
Our implied audience changes too, because we are removing artistic production from its usual elite haunts. We are connecting to each other, we are talking to each other, deciding and refining our own tastes and ideas, not relying upon on some middle-class editorial filter to tell us what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. When cultural elites close a door, we can repurpose a window. And isolation might provide the impetus to these projects, but their staying power is potentially limitless.
When we decide we no longer need the permission of cultural gatekeepers to publish or to mediate between ourselves and our audiences, then the conversions about issues that matter to us can be kept alive long after their fads for our tokenistic inclusion have faded. This doesn’t mean we stop trying to breach their protected enclaves, but there is tremendous value in carving out space for ourselves on our own terms. Peter Raynard’s Proletarian Poetry has been offering one such invaluable space for years, and it’s time for more.
These thoughts keep me energised at a time when it’s tempting to sink into the lethargy of depression. Trapped in the house for hours every day, with the literal reminders of my failure to escape the economic and social precarity into which I was born, has been wearing. More wearing is that I have no real outlet for these thoughts and feelings. It isn’t that I’ve not been given the opportunity to celebrate my achievements, but I’ve found that those celebrations tend to minimise or outright invisiblise the unequal effort involved, in favour of some endlessly tiresome version of the self-transcending narrative: that my achievements as a working-class person are the result of exceptional individual talent or skill. And that’s wrong. If I rise at all I do so with the help of or at the expense of other working-class people. The space I occupy I had to compete with others for, and the place I attained has been granted to me through a combination of hard work, insanely good luck, and the almost extravagant kindness of those who went before me, leaning down and giving me a hand up.
This is something else that it is important to acknowledge at every opportunity. When you’re given a platform, talk about where you came from, and how lucky you are; honour those who helped you on the way, and remind your listeners how unfair it is that luck has to come into it at all. Tell the truth, even when they call you militant and shrill, even when you make them palpably uncomfortable. Know where and to whom your gratitude belongs, and know what and who has kept you back.
Without my dear friend and mentor, Roddy Lumsden, I wouldn’t be about to complete my Ph.D. I wouldn’t be publishing poetry at all. Roddy was a tireless champion not just of my work, but of any work he believed in, irrespective of aesthetic disposition, irrespective of where it came from. Roddy wasn’t narrowly political, he just wanted exciting and vibrant work to be heard because it mattered to him, he really cared, and in caring he gouged out cultural space for queer poets, BAME poets, working-class poets and Traveller poets. He furthered our reach and he taught many of us how to respect ourselves as creators, even when the outside world doesn’t want to.
Which is where, I think, I came in, with the importance of grieving, of honouring our dead. Isolation affords us this opportunity, to think about who we are and the kind of work we want to do in the world; to remember that we are not really alone, but part of a long continuity of mutual care, links in the chain.
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.