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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Emmanuel
Thursday, 24 December 2020 09:31

Emmanuel

Published in Poetry

Emmanuel

by Fran Lock

sometimes the sky fights me. sometimes the day
is a dogful of loss. sometimes the day is a desert,
a prolonged and hopeless music. how the heart
has timid discipline enough to make you retch,
and i should gather in my wan rejoicing, stone
by stick, by feather by stone. sometimes i walk,
and sometimes run – caffeine's acrid circuit in
the blood – by shuttered shops, and faces numb
with bargain. i pipe a syrup grace through buds,
a song to steer my pleading mood: o come, o
come. and souls descend and stride at will. this
i'm told, so pull myself together. sometimes
the day is more than i can stand; devise my
thriving failure, a silvery charm against fame.
in the arcade, how an old woman's mouth is
twisted in its figuring, how a young boy cups
the flickering gift of a stranger's light to his
chin, how the blackened wick of an addict's
tongue taps against her teeth as she hustles
and blags with a tawny daring. how pain
applies, and god is here in any given gleam.
a child's dilated eye delights in chocolate
money. the sally ann, faces chalky with
reproach, and each hoarse sin suspect within
an inch of a life. carols flattened to a german
oompah prosit! if i could disappear, braid all
of my mistakes to pattern, turn this penitent
attention to the work of love. but here is a thick
and extinguishing sky, devours its heavens
whole. sometimes the day is fixed to
the murderous hints of hardmen. consoled
and then oppressed in turn again, reeling
from that old trouble, that old coarse damage
turned our poets to grotesques. to inhabit
a cavernous virtue and rattle around alone
the unquiet attics of the mind, the mind
an abruptly blackened eye, the mind
a soiled mattress, bolt of calico, raised
hand bitten to seventeen stitches in fingerless
gloves. and a song, fatigued and luminous.
who mourns in lonely exile here, until –
until. crack the ugly glandular damp
of winter right apart, and all the skeleton
hyperboles of power. sometimes the day
is a gallows against gravity, to hang and not
to die, and buskers crooning yokel passions
making mock. until, until. to rise up
like a boxing hare, and the lyric steels
itself for meaning once again.

See what life is like: an interview with Dorothy Spencer
Thursday, 26 November 2020 10:45

See what life is like: an interview with Dorothy Spencer

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock interviews Dorothy Spencer, an editor at Lumpen journal, writer, poet and mental health worker. Her first collection, See What Life is Like was published by Lumpen this year. Her writing explores everyday tragedies; addiction, love, loneliness, and the absurd banality of late consumer capitalism. 

Hi Dorothy, and thanks so much for agreeing to talk me about your debut chapbook, See What Life Is Like, described as a collection of poems 'considering such everyday tragedies as addiction, loneliness, love, and bottled water.' This is the first in a series of chapbooks to be published by Lumpen, who are doing such necessary work to provide writers in poverty with vital publishing opportunities. Before speaking about the collection in more detail, I wonder if you could start by talking a little bit about the social mission of Lumpen Journal and the Class Work Project?

The Class work project is an amalgamation of the work all of us have been doing for the last year or so and marks our formation as a registered co-operative. There are two main strands to our work; publishing and education. I have always been much more involved with our publishing activity. I met D. Hunter after reading his book Chav solidarity (which I encourage everyone to get) and Hannah back in the summer of 2019 to chat about starting a magazine of some sort that would publish the work of poor and working-class writers. This partly came out of the response to D’s book which chronicles growing up in the underclass, a story seldom told, and thanks to that book a lot of people wanted to share their own similar experiences of living in the margins. So firstly, Lumpen started as a place to hold all of those stories. We’ve now been publishing for over a year and I suppose our focus is still pretty much the same, providing publishing opportunities for people who won’t get them, and printing stuff that we think is important and that you are unlikely to read about elsewhere.

I love how the title of your collection functions as both an invitation and a confrontation. I don't know if you'd agree, but I think there is an implied audience for much contemporary lyric poetry, and it operates on this massively blinkered assumption of affluence. When working-class poets – especially working-class women – bring their daily experiences into literary space, we tend to generate a certain level of incredulity or discomfort. Your collection is so attentive to the minutiae of working-class life, I wanted to ask if you felt you'd experienced any level of resistance to your work from established literary “scenes” and publishing cohorts?

Yes I am fond of the title actually – it came from a poem I was writing about my Dad watching the news which I didn’t end up including in the collection.

I would definitely agree about the implied audience for most poetry – when you think of the cost of most poetry books, the platforms and the language and assumed knowledge of a lot of it it’s not surprising I suppose. I have been thinking a lot recently about the poetry of rap – particularly road rap 2020 – artists like Potter Payper who are writing amazing lyrics about growing up in poverty and all that comes with that, and the way that work is consumed. Poetry of the vernacular has always been really attached to music – often as a way of distribution so as a continuity of that it’s really interesting. He’s rapping about being hungry, about his mum being in Holloway, about being a kid in Feltham, and it’s obviously not just what he’s writing about that makes it good, his lyrics are clever, sharp, emotional, funny, all the things you would want from a good poem. And you’ve got a lot of kids listening to this right now; on the way to school, on the streets, in prison cells and in cars. His tracks are top-ten and he doesn’t even have a record label.

To me that’s poetry working in its truest and most basic way. As opposed to an alienated product of abstraction – I don’t wanna be bitchy about other people’s work – but I just think art, any type of art, should be living. Like if I was making paintings, I wouldn’t want them to hang on a brilliant white wall in the non-atmosphere of a Tate gallery, I’d rather have a mural in a place where people live. To me the poetry scene seems like a sort of gallery. But I am talking about it from a place of little experience. I can’t say I’ve had resistance from publishing cohorts or literary scenes because I literally just haven’t engaged with them and wouldn’t know how to really. I tried to sign up for an advanced poetry workshop thing with the Poetry School once and they just said my work wasn’t the right fit for what they were doing. I’ve sent work to various poetry magazines and just not heard anything, that’s about as far as it’s gone.  I guess I have a lot of preconceived ideas about those places from the way they feel to interact with. I think if you don’t possess some social capital, or the ability to acquire some, by doing a literary degree for example, then those places are difficult to enter and often not very comfortable or familiar when you get there.

We spoke briefly by email about the struggle for working-class writers and artists to be seen as writers and artists first and foremost. Do you think that mainstream publishing seems to favour or to fetishise particular kinds of working-class testimony, often at the expense of foregrounding what is skilful or interesting in the text itself?

‘Working-class’ has become something of a line in a bio – something you put on the front cover of your book. While I think people should be proud of their class – I find it uncomfortable and disingenuous the way it has become a kind of marketing strategy. If you’re trading in your life experience only, then you run out of material. And then that material becomes like a form of capital, mined and sold and then gone and that’s your LIFE!! It’s not healthy to wear an identity like a suit, and you are rarely the one making the quids out of it. When mainstream publishers print working-class books there’s some process of alienation that that work goes through, and to be honest whether you are w/c or not the mainstream publishing industry is pretty alienating full-stop. But because I don’t think we have a big reading audience who is working class most w/c poetry goes through this packaging process to make it attractive to more middle – upper class audiences because they are the ones with the money to buy the books. To me it’s just as important who is reading the work – I have had a lot of kind words from people who ‘don’t like poetry’ but who relate to some of their themes in my work, and that’s the most satisfying feedback for me. You wanna talk to people don’t you, have a conversation, not merely an audience. As far as I see it anyway, and I think a lot of working-class people can smell the alienation of stuff that’s been through the Penguin wringer.

Connected to the previous question, to what extent do you think “identity politics” is implicated in shaping the reception of and appetite for poetry by working-class writers? Do you find yourself having to resist certain kinds of classification or coerced performance of the you-must-write-about-this, you-must-sound-like-this variety?

Yes I think mainstream publishers sign writers with a very fixed idea of who that writer is and what they’re going to write. If they sign you because you are filling their ‘publish more working-class stuff’ strategy for that year then they won’t like it if you try and give them a load of nature writing. A lot of organisations have become very self-conscious about identity politics and wanting to be ‘woke’. This is not because being ‘woke’ is a good thing but because wokeness sells these days. We should never be fooled into thinking that mainstream publishers or any other profit-making enterprise would do anything that doesn’t suit their ultimate agenda, which is making money. If they take on more niche titles as an exercise in honing a better brand identity that too is because a better brand identity makes them money.

I have so little faith in this lot basically and think we should be doing more ourselves, but ultimately if you want people to read your work you let the bastards have it because they own the machines. I have noticed more poetry from people from working class, BAME and other minority backgrounds getting published by the big guys but I feel like a lot of the motivation for this comes from fear or business prerogatives rather than from an actual interest and love of diverse work and experiences. I wish we could get to a place where great poets also just happen to be black/poor/female/disabled rather than having to be defined by it and expected to write and talk about it all the time.

One of the things I find so compelling about your collection is the space it makes for anger. So many of the poems explore that uneasy ground between hilarity and rage, which I think is incredibly under-investigated in poetry. Reading your collection made me think about how few spaces there are for that kind of visceral and immediate anger in contemporary poetry. Do you think poets are obliged to do a certain amount of managing, repackaging and cleaning up of their rage in order to find publishing opportunities?

The balancing point between rage and hilarity is a space I find myself in often. For me humour is a counterweight against the instability of the world. There is a poem in my collection about my dad which I wrote a very long time ago about him laughing and then the laughter mutating into tears and him just crying in a really raw way. When I stop being able to handle the world that is how I feel. The society we find ourselves in now is beyond ridiculous, so contradictory, so irrational, so cruel and yet also banal and tacky. Any interaction with the machine, in terms of like contact with the police or state or trying to get help or even just like being on the phone to Indesit to get a washing machine fixed is so fraught with this irrationality and bureaucracy and meaninglessness, which for me has come to encapsulate the character of this moment of capitalism.

It is something I find totally tragic and it is also often hilarious. Using laughter as a coping mechanism is something I think a lot of working-class people do. It’s a trait that some people are uncomfortable with, like making jokes about my Dad’s alcoholism, or depression, or smoking crack or whatever. I can laugh at those things because I’ve had an interaction with them and up close they have a lot of hilarity in them, but as abstractions maybe not. As a culture we are not very comfortable with strong emotion, anger, sadness, love even; bourgeois culture is and always has been about being measured and ‘rational’ and the legacy of that continues in publishing houses.

Staying with the idea of anger, I was thinking about form, and how little accommodation poetry's formal structures seem to make for anger. As working-class people we're often told that we're thick, or that we're “not doing it properly” when our poems break structural rules, but the etiquette of “good” middle-class prosody doesn't really contain the kinds of feelings or experiences we want to share. As a poet, but also as an editor who cares deeply about craft, could you talk a little bit about your own approach to form, both as a writer and a reader?

While not totally an afterthought, form isn’t a primary concern for me when I’m writing. A formal structure acts as a kind of container, and that can be useful and a place to experiment but it’s not something I have done much yet with my writing. I practise some restraint but generally my work is pretty chaotic and off the page. I write about things I feel very emotional about, as writing is foremost a way for me to sort and understand the world and things that are happening to me.  As a reader I’m very hedonistic, I just rip through books till I find stuff that gets me and I don’t spend a lot of time considering the tricks; I don’t wanna know how they get the rabbit out the hat, I just wanna sit back and believe in magic!

Slight change of tack: See What Life Is Like is illustrated by Dylan Hall. It's really exciting and heartening to see this kind of collaboration in a poetry collection. Could you describe something about how the collection came together, and the process of working with an illustrator?

I always liked Dylan’s work and it seemed to create a similar mood or atmosphere to that of my poems. Equally he was into my writing, so we just met up in the pub and a handful times and talked about some of the images brought up by the poems and then he went away and came up with different stuff. We went back and forward a bit and there were a lot more illustrations than were included in the book; it was kind of a delicate thing but I’m happy we did it. I think for a reader having illustrations can be really helpful particularly for people who find reams of text off-putting.

There aren't many illustrated collections out there; do you think that has anything to do with the politics of collaboration? For example, is there a mystique around the lyric 'I' and the idea of the poet as an inspired genius working in solitude? And does collaboration remind us that art too is social, and that that art too is work?

I think we tend to feel very possessive of our work, and that is tied up with ideas about the individual and ownership which have become central nexus points in the ideology of our society. The idea of private property is rarely questioned. The idea that our work is our own is also rarely questioned, yet a poem is very often constructed though collaboration in some way, whether that collaboration is with a tree or a person you had a conversation with or an event you watched on the tv. While we continue to live in the current way individual ownership of work remains important because we have to make money from the things we produce.

In a utopia poems would belong to everyone and there would be much more collaboration in the creation of all art. If you look at the peasant tradition in Britain when we were still living on common land in a more communal fashion you find lots of versions of the same verses, nearly always without authors. Because people adapted poetry to suit their life and tastes, and it wasn’t a commodity form. I’m not saying that people should relinquish all attachment to their work, I’m not that much of a batshit leftist, but I think it would be healthy for us to get more comfortable with making and owning things together – whether that’s a mural, a vegetable patch, a house or a poem.

 I've often felt that poetry's mode of production makes it ideal for those of us who are mired in unconducive conditions and unlovable labour. It is portable, cheap, and it doesn't require specialist tools or training. And yet poetry seems to have been largely colonised by middle-class elites, and it is now seen as an essentially bourgeois pastime. Is this something you've experienced within your own writing life? And what strategies have you encountered for resisting this kind of colonisation?

 Yes although there are a lot of reasons I choose the form of poetry, I think fifty percent of it is that I haven’t had time, resources, or the confidence perhaps to put more into my writing. A lot of poems are stories that I could have written books on. There’s something uncommittal about poetry that makes it feel more accessible. So as you say it’s strange and unfortunate that it has become exclusive. In terms of the ‘colonisation’ of poetry, it’s something that I am looking into as a historical process. How it is that a very strong working-class poetic tradition in UK came to be quite forgotten, so that today it has very little presence in w/c life. It’s not a form people go to, for comfort or expression – which is a shame for a lot of reasons, although there are other arenas like rap as I mentioned earlier to which I think a lineage can be drawn.

I always felt pretty embarassed about writing poetry and wouldn’t tell anyone I grew up with about it without being self-deprecating. There’s something about it that seems self-indulgent and at odds with w/c culture. The solitary, serious nature of it. The way poetry and poets are represented – serious, far away, bourgeois. Shakespeare and Seamus Heaney (much as I love him) over and over again. Honestly I think Benjamin Zephaniah’s tireless tours of London schools probably did more for urban poetry than anything else. I’d really like to see more funny, light-hearted poets like him (although he’s also very able to tackle serious stuff when he needs to) able to challenge some of those ideas and bring about a healthier poetry culture.

Finally, I'd love to know what's next: both for Lumpen and for yourself as a writer. I sometimes feel that as working-class people we're not allowed to be ambitious, or that the material circumstances of our lives don't allow us to make plans, so I'm always keen to talk about future takeover bids, insidious left-wing agendas, and how we can help each other to make that happen.

I feel like we are building a really good energy with the stuff we are doing with Lumpen. We are just about to publish another chapbook with fellow London-born poet Jake Hawkey and have another couple of poets we are talking to about publishing a collection. So focusing on that and building a community around it is something I’m thinking about at the moment.

I’m having trouble with the computer being the only portal into the world. Before COVID I was doing work with people with mental health diagnoses, and that was really great work. I’m hoping to be able to get outside and work with people again soon. Have some vague ideas about studying, but coming up with the cash is a problem. I will keep writing like I always have, have a bag full of finished work which I would like to do something with but for now I should probably concentrate on getting people to read the first one!

See what life is like is available here.

Other / White Other
Monday, 16 November 2020 09:41

Other / White Other

Published in Life Writing

Other/ White Other

by Fran Lock

There is silence in the workshop when the young woman asks me am I sure I'm white. Silence, not embarrassed, but expectant. I do not know what to say. I do not know what to say because I don't know why she asked. On the surface, the question is too preposterous to parse: of course I'm sure, and of course I'm white. I am obviously white. I am almost flamboyantly white. On a purely physical level, I am the palest thing in the room.

That isn't what she meant. Or, it is and it isn't. How to say? There's the white you are and the white you become. That is, my skin is supposed to be a shorthand, a shortcut, my passport to a shared language of whiteness, where the signifier “white” and the white identity it generates is affirmed and prescribed, where belonging is made and renewed, over and over, through various kinds of “white” performance. I had failed in my performance. If only for a moment, I had missed my cue. I did not correctly speak my symbols. I did not correctly speak my skin. I did not confirm the colour written on my face. She was brought up short, that woman, by something I said or the way that I wrote. In that hot, bright room, under the spotlight of critical scrutiny, the unspoken assumptions that constitute my privilege were being stripped away.

Are you sure you're white?  As opposed to what? By which you mean what? Law-abiding? Educated? Cultured? Moral? By which you mean this shared fund of formal tropes, these icons and these canons, these references, this prosody. If I have betrayed my face, then my text is open insurrection. You turn on me. If you weren't so educated, if you weren't so cultured, and if you weren't so moral, what then? The elite space can't scream “White Nigger!” and you never would, would you? The work of your whiteness is covert, unconscious even, semi-conscious; invisible, refined, and sly. But you do say “chav”, don't you? Not to my face, but you say it. And you do say “pikey”.
Not British or Irish, but both and neither. To look at I am so white that I disappear daily within your dense crush of Anglophile assumptions. Yet I live within those categories as an alien “other”: strange, estranged inside of whiteness, because you don't mean me when you say “white”. For you, “pikey” is a way of removing me from the hallowed precincts of whiteness, a form of lexical cleansing.

These thoughts spin through my head as I think of how to answer her. To insist I share their skin is to support the value system that produced the question. But what else should I call myself? Do I not benefit from being pale? Is my whiteness not my subterfuge? My protection? My disguise? My brown and black friends joke that I'm their “sleeper”, that I'm doing deep-cover; I'm their penetration agent inside of academia. But I'm not. I'm a coward, and there are times I've used my whiteness like a shield. Subjectively, “pretending to be one of them” feels edgy and subversive. It isn't. It's a disavowal of the explicitly “other”. I can “pick my battles”. I can opt-out until I'm found out, until I open my mouth, say the wrong thing in the wrong way, until I give myself away. This isn't winning. This isn't turning the tables. This isn't power. This is a naughty child resorting to cheap tricks because she cannot overthrow the adult order. Her tricks benefit only herself, and not even herself in the long-run.

Class and racial hatred

In the workshop they are staring. And I want to say: well, it depends on what you mean by “white”. And I want to say something, anything else less feeble. I want to howl with frustration. I want to punch her. I want to smash furniture. There's a template for this question, and I see myself in a thousand shitty political cartoons, where the Irish are apes, alkies and psychos: simian “Biddies” with red faces and beefy arms; swarthy Fenian schemers, cunning tinkers, feckless drunks, machete men, bomb-plotters. Are you sure you're white? In Irish identity are class and racial hatred muddied and met. To live with this is to be pushed to the point of murderous fury. Furious, but aware that they want your anger, they want it because it confirms them in their low opinion of you. They want your rage, so they can use it as an argument for your continued subjugation, your need to be “civilised”, “occupied”, “taken in hand”. You are feral, in limb and tongue. You are “men that God made mad”.  Ireland, what have you done with this, but rolled your shit downhill? Travellers are the Irish it is permissible for even the other Irish to hate. Scapegoats.

White is not a colour as such, which is why whiteness must define itself in relation to a sea of subaltern “others”; must strenuously perform itself against those others: through the overt violence of the military industrial complex, and the subtle, hidden violence of discourse. This performance is as blunt as petrol through a letterbox, as maddeningly nuanced as the law. Whiteness is continually quantified and measured. This process is so continuous that white people have ceased to notice it at all. What's that sound? It's the ambient hum of presumed whiteness, the polite calquing of the implied white audience.

Am I sure? And I think about the myth of “white fragility”. It isn't merely that white people are seen as being more fragile, but that whiteness itself is a cipher for multiple forms of vulnerability, for a kind of desirable sickness. Whiteness forms on the surface of power like the skin on hot milk. Or, to put it another way, white fragility is money-men in gimp masks turned on by being whipped: it's a submissive pose, affording us the luxury of surrender without conceding any real advantage. Whiteness is a swooning tyrant in a gilded sickroom. It's an autocratic invalid. It's Baby Jane Hudson throwing a tantrum.

And I'm what? Too stroppy? Too robust? Too loud? Certainly I'm not too “healthy”. But my “sickness” is of the wrong order, as likely to lash out as to be self-destructive. How many of these people have ever been arrested? How many of these people have ever been in a fight? How many have ever punched walls or shop-lifted or stole? How many have gone hungry? How many of them have ever been truly angry, flailing and raving and ridiculous with rage? I remember after Thatcher died, and some smug shit on social media talking about how she didn't hate anyone, and that celebrating someone's – anyone's – death was grotesque and inhuman. That's us, then: grotesque and inhuman. To live without hate is either a luxury or a discipline. A luxury for those with power, and a discipline for those without. She had not been where our communities had been. Or, if she had, she was trying to forget, was acting her amnesia, using her new-found “enlightenment” as a stick to beat us with. She performed her passive sickly-sweet whiteness, beaming it through the screen at us, for likes and likes and likes. Facebook, as the new panopticon of moral correctness, magnified and refracted her whiteness, 'til it glared like the heat at the heart of the sun.

The dead are not poor

They prefer you dead, those people. By which I mean, the dead are not awkward or angry or taking up space. And I was thinking about all those “sensitive” white middle-class students, iPodding Winehouse or Joy Division, making 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, where whiteness alone is the badge of their belonging: their exceptional, sensitive whiteness. The dead are not problematic and hostile and drunk. The dead have no anger management issues. The dead are not a mess of psychosis, addiction and debilitating physical illness. The dead have soulful thoughts expressed in perfect and imperishable grammar. The dead do not hate you. The dead are not poor. The dead may have been all of those things, but now they are dead, they are safe, safer, safest, ready to be packaged, repackaged, re-written, written-over, claimed, reclaimed: discourse. There's a white middle-class discourse for every working-class subculture you care to name. Mediation, intervention, the spinning of a myth. The white middle-classes create the archive, the archive becomes the crypt.

Am I sure? My head hurts. Because their whiteness will not conceive or recognise another kind of whiteness. How they say “white working classes” in tones of hushed disgust. As if there are no white working classes, or the image is too monstrous to be admitted. “Beyond the pale”. Do you know what The Pale was? It was a strip of land that stretched from Dundalk in Louth to Dalkey in Dublin. During the Late Middle Ages it was in direct control of the English government. A pale is a stake or a fence or a boundary. “Beyond the pale” is beyond the rule of law, beyond ordinary standards of morality or decency. There be dragons, motherfucker, there be Catholics, perverts and savages. The white skin is a border too, its purpose to repel and to contain. And I have transgressed, trespassed beyond the edges of my “colour” into otherness. So am I sure I'm white?

I am not their white, but neither am I the white of their worst nightmares: a council estate “benefit queen”, fertile and feral in equal measure; some uncouth lump in leggings, without rounded vowels or self-control. Child bride in fake tan, and a wedding dress so heavy that it shreds my juvenile hips as I walk. I'm not the stuff of daytime television, their ugly copy-paste poverty porn, but they expect that “underneath”, I am. That I should be. Someone asked me once if my family were like the family in Shameless? Or was my family more like the families in Big Fat Gypsy Weddings? Someone asked me once why I didn't make more of my “background” to help me secure Arts Council funding. A middle-class publisher rejected my manuscript and questioned my authenticity because – and I quote – “working-class people do not speak that way”.

Yes, I'm white. I am so glaringly white I am practically translucent. There is an irradiated, exorbitant quality to my whiteness: weird and unhealthy in ways that make a mockery of their fair skin. Me and my funny ethnic words. Me and my oddly kiltered meter. Me and my poverty. Me and my lore. Me and my long continuities of violence. Yes, I am sure. And I benefit from the mute assumption that I will sound and think like you. You are not sure. And you need to be sure. And the depth of your anxiety is frightening.

An interview with Julia Bell
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 09:47

An interview with Julia Bell

Published in Cultural Commentary

Fran Lock interviews Julia Bell

Background

Julia Bell is a writer and Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, where she is the Course Director of the MA in Creative Writing. Her recent creative work includes poetry, lyric essays and short stories published in the Paris Review, Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, Mal Journal, Comma Press, and recorded for the BBC. She is the author of three novels with Macmillan in the UK (Simon & Schuster in the US) and is co-editor of the bestselling Creative Writing Coursebook (Macmillan) updated and re-issued in 2019.

She is interested in the intersection between the personal and the political, and believes that writing well takes courage, patience, attention and commitment. Radical Attention is Julia's latest book and is available from Peninsula Press here

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FL: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk to me about your new book, Radical Attention. This essay is already garnering praise for its chilling and clear-sighted account of our collective internet addiction, and how this addiction is manipulated. The book makes an eloquent case for a sustained and tender regard in which to hold the world and each other, which stands counter to the instrumental indifference of our transactional economy. I wonder if you could start off by talking a little bit about the idea of 'radical attention', particularly in relation to Shoshana Zuboff's notion of 'radical indifference' as it applies to social media monopolies like Facebook and Twitter?

JB: It’s become quite clear to me that the interests of late-stage capitalism have diverged quite sharply and catastrophically from the interests of most humans and the planet. One of the most evident examples of this can be seen in the way that the social media monopolies have built their empires on the attention and the behavioural data of its users. Human attention and behaviour is now the product being sold. To begin with, I think, we used their platforms in good faith, as a vehicle for socialising. But over the years these platforms have also begun to socialise us. They trap us in echo chambers of the information the companies perceive is most likely to appeal to us, and adverts which have been microtargeted by companies who pay to have access to that information. We don’t choose what we see. The algorithms are built in such a way as to feed you more of what you want, so it doesn’t matter if it’s a picture of your cat or a suicide note – as long as you’re engaging it will keep feeding you more of the same.

In such a context I wonder how much control we actually have over what we actually look at and think about. If you spend three or four hours a day on your smartphone what are you actually doing with your time, and by extension your life? Was that leisure time or did it make you anxious, outraged, afraid? I suppose I’m taking an autoethnographic approach to consider how these changes have affected me and my friends, but also the social and political environment around me. To me Radical Attention was my attempt to step outside the Attention Industrial Complex to see what is actually going on. I want to encourage others to do the same.  

FL: One of the things that occurred to me while reading was that the term 'machine' stands equally for the technologies we use and the systems that drive and deploy them. When you write about dazedly losing yourself, “zombified by the machine”, I find myself interpreting this in a couple of ways. Firstly the machine is the literal device, the screen that mediates our experience of the world and captures our attention. Secondly, it is also capitalism itself, the corporations and institutions that vie for this attention in order to keep us engaged, enraged, consuming and competing. As a person who experiences a great deal of unease about the enmeshment of social media and late-stage capitalism, I wonder if you see them as in any way separable? Or is exploitation itself part of the hardware?

JB: Steve Jobs said that technology should be a ‘bicycle for the mind’ and as an early adopter in the 90s I was thrilled by the potential of technology and the web – the possibilities of making publishing easier and cheaper for example, or breaking the monopolies of the music companies that kept such tight control over the copyright of artists while creaming off huge profits, etc. I’m not sorry that we have much easier ways of disseminating knowledge, music, film, writing, art – for people to have access to the means of production. It has improved diversity. It means so many more people can have a voice. And I think there is huge potential in tech to be put to use solving some of the pressing issues around the climate and so on. Smartphones are amazing inventions in many ways.

So, I’m not anti-technology at all, but I am anti the current enmeshment of tech companies with an increasingly dark version of libertarian capitalism. The way the companies have grown into these disruptive, monopolistic behemoths with little or no regulation and who are now making eye-watering amounts of profit – especially the social media monopolies which pretend to be a reflection of society, when actually they are increasingly a means of socialising it into various new forms. Also, this has happened in a place where we have no jurisdiction, and yet this technology has an increasingly huge effect on the quality of my life. I remember thinking in the 90s when I first started using the net – What will all this be for? It seems the people with the capacity and the imaginations have made something very big and revolutionary out if it, but it has become way too centralised and ordinary people have become increasingly locked out of the conversation. There are us – the users – and then a very small elite who are the coders, and we have to live in the world they have built.

FL: I ask because the passages in Radical Attention about Silicon Valley cynicism really struck a chord with me. Nir Eyal writing that noxious book on how to manipulate others through technology, then later publishing a self-help manual for those wishing to take back control of their hijacked attention felt particularly chilling. I recalled that at the start of the year I was at an arts and performance event in London where one of the participants had designed what was essentially a baffle for Alexa: a kind of cyberpunk face-mask that anonymised and distorted speech. I made myself wildly unpopular by suggesting that a simpler solution would be not to buy Alexa in the first place. I've always felt like capitalism's shtick is to break our legs then sell us crutches, so I was mentally cheering to see this feeling so incisively evidenced and articulated in your essay. In particular, you describe the growth of “mindfulness” and self-soothing industries originating from Silicon Valley as the flip side of endemic distraction.  I wonder if you could speak a little bit about that, and share any thoughts you might have on the sudden explosion in popularity of online and app-based pseudo-therapies?

JB: I agree about Alexa – mine is unplugged in the shed after it started talking to us in the middle of the night. It was a gift I might add, which very quickly became a sort of faded novelty. But another example of the way in which tech becomes ubiquitous and then starts to spy on us. I think in time goods and internet services will need some kind of mark of quality, enforceable by law, which promises to protect your privacy. 

The pseudo-therapies issue also interests me – it’s worth noting that the the QAnon conspiracy spread through wellness communities. People feel very uneasy at the moment for quite obvious reasons and they want definitive answers for their unease. There is a lot of snake oil being peddled on the internet and again, I don’t think the companies are interested in whether your therapy works or not, as long as you're prepared to pay for advertising.

FL: I'm highly conscious that when I write critically about social media and digital technology that those platforms are often the sites of first reception for that very criticism, and that there's always a danger in coming across as hypocritical or judgemental. I think one of the most refreshing things about Radical Attention is its deep acknowledgement of your own implicatedness, a reckoning with which would seem to be the absolute prerequisite for any kind of meaningful resistance. Was this reckoning difficult for you?

JB: Yes, and it still is. I feel like, without a major publisher or what is left of UK mainstream media behind me, being able to disseminate this book on social media and be part of the conversation is important. I think social media is another arena where we are asked to perform versions of ourselves for profit. Late capitalism atomises us into individual units of consumption, parsed still further by all the data they have on us. So everyone is scrambling for the latest ‘hot take;’ there is a sense of a frenzy, sometimes, of people shilling their ideas. I am of course one of them. I will share this interview on Twitter and FB. What else can I do?

The flip side of this is then controlling my own social media use, and so on. Just being aware of using it, rather than letting it use me. I think one of the key issues is around feeling. If I’m especially tired or vulnerable it’s very easy slip into things like ‘hatescrolling’ or ‘doomscrolling’ where my feelings are suddenly amplified by seeing so many stories about the same thing. It’s always worth thinking – how does this make me feel? If half an hour on Twitter leaves you exhausted and despairing rather than informed, it’s surely worth asking what the hell it’s good for. Whenever I take extended breaks from social media it’s interesting how much less anxious I feel.

FL: Related to my previous question, do you feel that we are so saturated, even at the level of language, by the logics and rhetoric of capitalism, that some form of complicity is inevitable? And if that's the case, how do we meaningfully manifest any kind of resistance? For example, is going off-grid a useful strategy? Are the technologies we use and the ways we use them even susceptible to subversion?

JB: Of course I could go without it altogether, but it’s increasingly difficult to do that. People who don’t connect in this way do miss out ,I think. It’s important for resistance too. There are some interesting versions of subversion – the K-Pop Tik-Tok fans who bought tickets to the Trump rally and never showed for example, or certain flashmobs. BLM emerged from the internet: the video of George Floyd spread at speed through the networks, sparking a huge moment of resistance. The problem is really that resistance often only works at scale, when everyone joins in. The pressure on the government to change over free meals in the holidays is an interesting example of internet pressure paying off. What happens online becomes news and forces change in real life. So the desire to cancel certain speakers – I hesitate to call it ‘culture’ – comes from this impulse I think to see results of online political pressure played out in real life.

FL: Sorry, that was quite a lot in one go, but these thoughts have been very much on my mind since lockdown. In Radical Attention you write about lockdown as moment of illumination, one that demonstrated how interconnected we really are, and how much we need one another. I wonder to what extent you feel that it also exposed the paradox at the heart of our social media compulsions: that the very technology we use to escape our isolation is, in many subtle ways, damaging our  ability to relate to one another in anything other than transactional or oppositional terms?

JB: The problem with ‘the machine’ (and you rightly point out I use the term interchangeably at times for the system as well as the smartphone and the software which runs on it) is that it runs on binaries – zeroes and ones – whereas humans are fractional. Humans live in grey areas which are not black and white.

Social media forces us to create and then perform versions of ourselves for profit, so we are always on display. ‘I’m like a cartoon of myself’ Paris Hilton says somewhat tragically in a new documentary, which seems at the same time to be asking us to psychoanalyse her because she can’t do it for herself. Hers is an interesting example of a life stunted by its own performance. A cure for this endless exhausting narcissism surely has to be a kind of radical attention for something other than the black mirror of the smartphone screen.

FL: This question of relation is a recurrent theme across the book, and it seems to me to be at the heart of what radical attention is and does. You take great care throughout the text to highlight the physical impacts and consequences of the virtual realm. In places you describe a kind of slow persistent atrophy in the realm of the real: the slump, hunch and stare of bodies bent over phones; a skewing in our systems of perception so violent that it prevents us from recognising our Facebook 'friends' and online adversaries as fully human. One of the book's most significant challenges appears to be to this notion of 'transhumanism' as somehow utopian or liberating. You suggest that the opposite is true, that an unwillingness to acknowledge or attend to the bodies of others is a function of privilege. You state that “real bodies are problematic”. I wonder if you could elaborate on that, and the importance of remembering and attending to their complexities?

JB: Belief in transhumanism is a dodge, like planning colonies on Mars. It’s a bit like running away from the scene of the crime, rather than putting energy into the here and now. Developments in medical tech might well produce some kind of extraordinary cyborg, but this isn’t going to solve the issues that are in our face right now, which are biological, and by extension ecological. They are physical, embodied issues. The planet is trashed and dying. So are we. The question is, what are we going to do about it? I also think the pandemic reveals the limitations of the technology. It can never replace the physical presence of another person. And COVID has also put us in a situation where we are going to have to live with a great deal of uncertainty. For the privileged, this is a new and unwelcome reality, but for a lot of people it’s a familiar kind of instability.

I would say the last ten years have been about the mental zombification of a populace – the internet got mean, sinister. Donald Trump and Brexit didn’t come from nowhere, the social spaces were overwhelmed with bad actors. Military grade psy-ops, along with the amplification of outrageous actors like Hopkins and Farage. It’s worth asking who paid for those Leave adverts and what was going on behind the scenes as journalists like Carole Cadwallader are doing. Who does Brexit actually benefit and why did they spend so much money persuading us that a catastrophe was a good deal? I don’t think we’ve any clear answers to these questions and the whole situation was made murky and surreal by the proliferation of misinformation online.

FL: Following on from my previous question, one of the things that really stood out for me was your reading of Simone Weil who wrote that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love”. This struck me so forcibly because so much of my own reading and writing recently has been around ascetic practice, and the sustained, often painful attention to the suffering of others that such practices demand. There is a kind of fudged modern reading of ascetic practice that presupposes a withdrawal from the world and a turning in toward the self, whereas the opposite is true: the anchorite is asked, as Weil asks of us, to “renounce our imaginary position at the centre” and to  fully apprehend the 'other' without distraction, sentiment, or hope of reward. To write about faith, love and the soul in a contemporary essay has often felt like a risky move. What I sense from Radical Attention is that these terms themselves have great radical and resistive potential. I wonder if you have any thoughts on how we might approach and potentially reinvigorate words and concepts that so many view with suspicion, or that have been so effectively colonised by pseudo-spiritual industries and destructive religious hegemonies alike?

JB: We got rid of religion without thinking about the place it took in society as a space for moral and spiritual questions and crucially, care. I’ve always had a problem with organised religion – in my view it’s always been on the wrong side of history in terms of money and sex. The church could be a space which enacts a kind of radical care and stops bothering about what consenting adults do in bed. But the Cof E is too compromised by its allegiance to the state, after all it was founded to allow Henry VIII to marry his next wife. That aside, we do ourselves a disservice as humans if we throw off the spiritual and philosophical questions humans have had for millennia, especially in relation to our aliveness and our place the world. Denying that we are in some ways questioning, spiritual, even moral beings, is at the core of a lot of anxiety. It’s not about having answers – this is quite clearly where madness lies – but acknowledging that we don’t know and that even without answers the questions are still valid, fashionable or not.

I also think we need new (old) language to speak against what seems to be a new kind of moral barbarism. The level of lying in the political sphere makes a mockery of the very idea of public service. What does it really mean to be a good person? What does it mean to show courage or to love someone? Where are our examples of good people? We’re surrounded by man-babies who are busy trashing everything. Healing from the damage they are causing is going to take a huge rethink in terms of what we actually value as a society.

FL: One of the things that surprised me the most about Radical Attention was the image of humanity that emerges: not feckless or desensitized, but vulnerable and deeply wounded. It would seem that our devices simultaneously insulate us from the horrors of the world, and expose us to those horrors. We become trapped within a self-referential feedback loop of our own making, unable to connect to others; we are endangered both by our own obliviousness to our surroundings, and by our infinite accessibility to the forces of neoliberal surveillance. We are phone-jacked, or data-mined, or we selfie our way over cliff edges and into oncoming traffic. The selfie deaths really got to me: that there's a Wiki page for that kind of blew my mind, as if even those deaths are sucked back up into an endlessly scrolling textureless meld of data. I wonder if you think living such disconnected and technologically mediated lives that we have lost or refused our sense of ourselves as mortal beings? How might the kind of radical attention you advocate help us to recapture that sense?

JB: This is the critical message of the book. I think our mortality – which is one of the key conundrums of being human - is cheapened by social media and is one of the issues I wanted to encourage the reader to address. The shadow of death passes over us nightly in the middle of a pandemic. It’s one of those clarifying events that reveals what is important. The difficult thing is getting in touch with our feelings about this and turning that into action. 

FL: I'm aware that this has been a very long and quite dense set of questions, so I have one more, and then that's it. I notice that throughout the essay you draw upon and quote from various works of fiction.  Fiction requires of both writer and reader a bestowing of non-trivial attention. As a writer of fiction yourself, and as someone who teaches creative writing, how has technology shaped the writing practices of this current generation, and do you think there is anything to be learnt from the models of attention espoused by the writers of creative fiction?

JB: Good writers are good observers of the world – they pay attention. They walk around the world on high alert. It’s this practise that I want to teach students. It’s what I tried to do when I wrote this – to give my attention for a concentrated period of time on one question, on what technology was doing to me. And then use these observations as evidence for argument. I’m coming at the subject not as an expert at all but as writer in the world, an observer for whom attention is the most important part of the practice. The world was feeling unreal and weird and I wanted to figure out why.

As for fiction specifically, I think one of the reasons that the structures of social media seem so clear to me is that in writing classes we are always trying to work out how to create affect in the reader. How to place the character in relation to the reader to create the best experience. How will the story carry? What is the best way to provoke surprise? Horror? Fear? Storytellers understand the human need to make patterns from chaos. How far we can push language, structure, truth before the story breaks. These skills are useful it seems, in decoding some of the fake news, and deliberate outrages that have become part of our daily lives.

Poem for the Feast of Saint Francis on the subject of forgiveness, October 4th 2020
Sunday, 04 October 2020 22:02

Poem for the Feast of Saint Francis on the subject of forgiveness, October 4th 2020

Published in Poetry

Poem for the Feast of Saint Francis on the subject of forgiveness, October 4th 2020

by Fran Lock


i cried for the highlands last night. for myself. there is something
writhing inside of me, a snake of mutant spleen. i waited for a storm
to make my terrors holy. concentrated days of dolorous affect, days
of squinting intensity. trump, how i hope that he chokes, and all
those social carnivores, glittering and slain. a mood of diffuse fiasco.
stubborn thing. return to the house, again and again, and dripping
wet. a bone planchette shuttled to 'no'. something, encrypted then
decoded. this volatile memory, my own. latency. of symptoms, data,
and desire. self-indulgence, self-defence. my tender recognitions
flaring up in autumn. home is terrible weather. i cannot fuss these
stanzas into flattery. the line is a slack elastic pouch; a flaccid
primordial belly, like cats. an ill-made thing, and will not
tailor my malaise to grace. i don't know how to hold my anger,
not to hate. starve a fever, someone said. and what are you, but
a fever in me? scrolled into my sticky creases, multiplying hourly.
feed a cold, and make your rippling flesh perform. wolfing, burn
the toast, and bury the bread. my mother counsels me to be
the apple round the razorblade, show 'em softness, give 'em
steel
. mother, i cannot. 'ana' is a virgin queen in a high lace
collar with an iron will, immobile and controlling. she wants
a tight enigma. poem be the tourniquet, the crawlingspace,
the tunnel in the wall. wasted or refined? to be the knife i hold,
my high ideal. flensing, flensed and thriving. so tired
of pretending, cried. a stifled recitation of all my faults and woes –
hazard, jacquard, jeopardy – my island's too, its rig-a-rendal
settlements torn up. predators, a violence as precise as law,
snagged with a pretender's claw. the crippled croft i scrambled
as a child. i did not know, the shin i skinned i scraped against the keel
of famine's ark. why are you crying, though? i answer that i cannot
reconcile: turbines, pipelines, cheviot sheep. bread so dear, life so
cheap.
a liar's mouth, drooping limply from a face. the fertile
valley limestone sacked. my worst nightmares are arid now. trees
torn up, our common pastures fallowed out by force. there's always
force. enticed, induced, tricked and trapped. a trawler, like a rake
through ash, sieving its silt bounty. let them eat slate, flint, sand,
and my attention turns to salt in looking back. offals, quarries, abattoirs.
i dream about the wicker kishes, ripped by wind. inside the kishes
stones for sucking, stones for smashing glass. we lived in a bungalow.
i'd climb from my window, roll down drifts of snow. i was so happy.
sometimes. they will not come again, those days, my dull hair
combed across my face in dialogue with crossing; cold air walking
over my arms like butterflies with green wings shut and slanted.
i'll say again, i cried for the highlands last night. i cried about
you, and the cloudy meat in super-markets, mountains of trash,
cinder-blocks, evictions, slash-and-burn, a silvery inevitable sky
we cannot breathe. chrome and choke. politicians pressing
their footprints into policy, the slicks, the culls, the mass
extinctions, motorways. peine forte of cops or climate. long
strides, and longer shadows, all those hungry thugs for money.
there's a hate in me, amplified, illegible with onslaught, how i thought
i could outrun, outgrow, forgive. so many mouths, liquid with desire,
 and glorified with gimme. these are my furies. a rage that will not
mean resistance – sorry mother – just collapse. the wilful shrinking
deep inside. starve a fever. as if i could refuse the world, and in
refusing fix or heal. i wish my mind were a cooing place, and not
this sickle den. screwdriven era, end of days. i lock the bathroom
door and howl my ghetto aishling to the gods of indoor plumbing,
black mould and metered futility. to despair is a sin, i am told, but
there's a moment in the day like a trapdoor in a stage, and i fall
through. i remember the cold, i don't remember being cold, until you.
and even in this sluggard winter heat i will never be warm. hate,
like an animal sound in the bowel, in the bone, in the brain,
in the bins at night, rooting through the rubbish. the knock and scrape.
the 'o' i keep on mouthing like a stunned ventriloquist's toy. in the night,
in the night the mind is both the nightbus and the nutter and we ride
this room to circles till our hurting circles the earth. merchants of this
circling, i wish i could forgive you, approach a wounded world with
perfect love, the carnivores and racists too, and johnson,
even trump. and every killing cop, and every crooked judge; think
-tank apologists, their counter-signed denials. rape is not a metaphor.
its own sinister unwelt, way of being in the world, a being in by
doing to. its opposite is love. i can't love you. if i could hold this hate
in my hand, could wear it soft like the sea, if a poem could encompass
this. tongue of a militant humanity: silence. in a stilled field kneeling

where the air is still green.

The image is Christ Forgiving St. Francis in a Vision, by Federico Barocci

Working-class poetics and heeding the 'cry of the poor'
Sunday, 20 September 2020 07:21

Working-class poetics and heeding the 'cry of the poor'

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock writes about our potential to develop and publish a new kind of poetics, where solidarity and community can be fostered in moments of lyrical, dialectical tenderness. Above image by Imtiaz Dharker, from Witches, Warriors and Workers 

We are living through a strange and difficult time for poetry; for all of art, obviously, but for poetry in particular. Poetry is being asked to hold a great deal: to offer consolation and catharsis, to express some kind of universal human experience; to speak truth to power. Everywhere people are 'turning to' poetry. Everywhere it is harnessed for its connective potentials, mobilised by emerging radical movements, or instrumentalised as inexpensive pseudo-therapy.

At the same time the position of poetry – and indeed of poets – with respect to the wider culture feels increasingly pressured and precarious. Coronavirus has thrown this precarity into sharper relief, but in truth it has been with us since the Tories took power in 2010 – certainly since Michael Gove's disastrous educational reforms of 2013, which routinised and shrunk the teaching of English in schools, and produced a 'conveyor belt' curriculum in which sustained analytical rigour, expressiveness, context, and empathy were marginalised in favour of rote learning, and the relentless memorising of disconnected 'facts.' Ofqual's recent, unprecedented, and bizarrely out of touch decision to make poetry 'optional' at GCSE level is just the latest in a long line of such manoeuvres.

In 2019 senior management at the South Bank Centre's Poetry Library floated the decision to introduce a fee of over £30 a year for all new members. This announcement was met with such a wave of protest that management were forced to retreat, offering members the opportunity to 'consult' on other options for ensuring the future of the library. These options apparently included another form of paid membership, seeking corporate sponsorship, or asking better-off patrons to make donations. Fast forward to 2020 and the South Bank Centre confirms that over two-thirds of its workforce are liable to lose their jobs. At the time of writing, the Poetry Library is closed, and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

All of which speaks volumes about the state and the status of poetry in this country. There is a piece of received wisdom that suggests the Tories' policy towards particular branches of the arts is indicative of inattention or disregard, but this is not so: the signature gambit of power elites has always been to marginalise or underfund cultural activities to such an extent that only those with a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo can afford to participate. Poetry, as an artistic medium, is the perfect mode of production for those who are poor in resources and in time: it does not require specialist tools or training. It is portable and cheap; it can be practised anywhere. In other words, poetry is one of the few cultural forms that the working class and the economically deprived are able to independently access. It energises and moves us; it is a way into discursive space for those who are abjected from, and censored or misrepresented within wider political discourse. It is a site of infiltration and resistance, a scene of solidarity, a space in which connections are made and communities are fostered.

Editing out working-class voices

To penalise or discourage this vital form of working-class creativity is to deal violence to those same, nascent communities. This is cynical, deliberate, and strategic. To reduce the teaching of poetry – or drama, or history, or art, or music for that matter – to a loveless tick-box exercise is to prevent working-class students from fully apprehending the long continuum of their own oppression. It is to limit their access to currents of dissenting thought. More importantly, it is to deny them the language in which such thoughts are often formulated, weighed, and reasoned; the language in which working-class critique and resistance are so vividly broached. It is to deny them something beautiful within themselves: craft and discipline, the pleasure of making. To rob poetry both of context and of joy, is to say to working-class students 'this is not for you', 'this cannot, and did not, come from you'. It is to reabsorb something radical, dangerous, and engaging back into the self-serving myth of bourgeois literary production: a white, male, classically educated poetic canon. It is to edit out working-class voices from future poetic cohorts.

This tactic is inseparable from the funding cuts that ensure inequality of provision and of access. It might well be true that some free resources and opportunities exist for young people, but these opportunities are hedged at best, either because they are solely concentrated in Greater London, or because nobody is there to guide young working-class people towards them. The Tories are trying to engineer us out of art young at a young age. The struggle to live and to define yourself as a poet is, for working-class people, often a demoralising and exhausting experience. We force our way into culture against grim economic disparity, lack of early stage support, and the expectation that we are incapable or unequal to our art. Sadly, this expectation is often fostered in us as children or young adults until it takes root within ourselves.

Never doubt that culture is the medium through which the covert work of ideology flows. It is also the space in which such ideologies can be countered and contested. It therefore serves the right to position art and literature as optional extras, as 'luxuries' or afterthoughts, outside of and irrelevant to the power dynamics of capitalism. If they can convince a generation of working-class students that poetry does not matter, that it has no bearing upon their own lives, they can prevent them from recognising and reclaiming this important source of collective strength. If they can silence us, the current generation, by making every ambition to further ourselves and our reach untenable, by draining us of creative mental energy, then they have won on two fronts. They have cut off that important conversation with our own traditions and aesthetics before it has begun. We must not let that happen.

Working-class poetics

Despite the Tories' best efforts poetry is increasingly popular with disadvantaged young people. When governments close educational avenues to art, the spontaneous and shifting networks of solidarity engendered by new media often provide us with an alternative route. As creators and publishing cohorts we can facilitate and extend this access by making work available for free to those who cannot access it any other way. By disseminating art and poetry widely online, through websites and publishing operations such as Culture Matters, we can help to wrest the balance of power away from traditional publishing cliques. Sharing work amongst ourselves challenges the implied audience for poetry: by removing artistic production from its elite haunts, and from the hierarchy implicit in traditional models of pedagogy, we can talk directly to each other, deciding and refining our own tastes and ideas. If there is no arbiter to mediate between artists and audiences, then the conversations that matter to us survive and proliferate long after their 'moment' in mainstream culture's perpetual 'cool-hunt' has passed.

This matters enormously: working-class poetics is driven by innovation, by a relentless determination to use every available poetic resource – the metaphor, the simile, the epigraph, the aphorism; the pun, the joke, the slang expression, the advertising slogan – to further the reach of our art. In this, our work forms a textual counterpart to the resourcefulness and pressured improvisation required from us in daily life. Material necessity provokes experiment and originality, and these acts of repurposing, jerry-rigging, cobbling and borrowing are the substantial and integral features of our writing.

We learn early how to stretch what we have, how to take the unlovely or the shoddily made and turn it into treasure, nectar, sustenance. This something-from-nothing-ness is the alchemical labour of all true art. It is also the stuff of working-class survival. The conditions of working-class existence exert a peculiar power over the rhetorics and aesthetics of our poetry, but more than this, they can be deployed by poetry as a transformative tool, one that has the potential to renegotiate terms of social and political as well as artistic encounter. Our voices matter, in all their urgency, multiplicity and difference.

The cry of the poor

I have been thinking recently about the imperative for art and poetry to heed and to express 'the cry of the poor'. I have been thinking about listening, to ourselves and to each other. It is only through sustained attention to the granular particularities of working-class experience that socialism – that any radical project of social change – can succeed. Poetry makes space to accommodate that polyvocality; it accounts for our diversity while providing an arena in which our common struggle may be apprehended, talked through and felt.

What is 'the cry of the poor'? I will tell you what it is not. It is not the undifferentiated din of feral abjection. It is that pulsing, plural music under the skin of working-class life. To be poor is to live at the mercy of language, but it is also to be fed by several streams: conflicted registers, switching codes, many modes of speaking and saying, in celebration and vigour as well as exhaustion and despair. It is for  your ways of seeing and saying to be sharpened to a cutting edge. We, who are never 'at home' in language or in culture, who can never look to culture to see glowing rose-tinted reflections of ourselves, feel within its precincts, a deep discomfort. The 'cry of the poor' speaks of and through this discomfort. It offers both a challenge and a rallying cry. Making space for this cry is not just about bearing witness to suffering, it's understanding that the cry is also testimony; that if enough of us are speaking, the cry becomes collective rebel yell.

I am writing at a time when radical presses are urgently alive to this cry. Culture Matters has published a series of anthologies reflecting a diverse array of working-class voices. These anthologies seek to account not merely for individual struggles, but to map the points of commonality and divergence in our varied experiences under the multiple oppressions of late-stage capitalism. Anthologies uncover our hidden affinities, fostering class consciousness and expanding our potential networks of solidarity.

Working with Jane Burn on the anthology of contemporary working women's poetry, Witches, Warriors, Workers, provided a precious and very practical mechanism for nurturing a sense of community. The vision that emerged from this work was one of collective struggle and mutual achievement; the indisputable fact that that none of us ever rise alone.  The anthology provides a space in which to enact the sorority and class consciousness it dares to imagine.

This is a mighty thing. To acknowledge and to relate to each other as creators feels powerful and timely. Heeding the 'cry of the poor', is also to understand that we are not merely subject to the cruelties and caprices of power, but that we can meaningfully and collectively carve out space to challenge them. Poetry is ours, by right and by necessity, and we must do all we can to keep that knowledge alive.

To that end, the two poems I would like to introduce are by working-class women who, in different ways, bear witness to the complexities and sorrows of working-class life, but whose deftness and vibrancy of language inform a work of militant cherishing. The care and control these poems evince is a care and control that is seldom afforded the poets as citizens and subjects. The poems that contain this care function, then, as small units of resistance. Against alienation, exhaustion and fear they erect a moment of lyrical, dialectical tenderness.

I am Road, I am Mother, I am a Better Person Now, I am Failed

By Jane Burn

So I have this ache (suddenly) to run. Don’t go thinking I’m fit, that I flow
like a river. I just got sick, sick of the sight of myself, sick of the unpleasant
feeling of flesh. I have dreamed this cumbrance away for after all, I am only
a frame of weeping bits. I have spent too much of this elongated time
on my back (imagining sky), wishing my grody molecules would buzz
into the air, away like flies, like a bluebottle cloud. When was the last time
I properly slept? I get rid of portions of the dark – scald my corneas
on some book, blink on grit. Fail to feel the words go in. Forget
what I have read. Masturbate. Not because I’m thinking sex. Because
I have to find something buried in myself, like trying to remember
when I was last alive, like trying to get to the beat in a dead bird’s breast.
I just want to find some sign of now, some flicker of life. The rest of the time
I turn like a bundle of sticks, go numb, think or don’t think, turn the cogs
on morsels of the previous day, or let the coils of my brain be void.
My eyes swell like storm drains, my ears keep primed. When I hear the dawn,
I cry for the squandering of another night. I want to clamber out of this skin.
It weighs me like wet wool, a flaccid coat. Thirteen weeks of fear
have kept me to the confines of this home and I have crept like a fat automaton,
fridge to stool, rug to window, hall to bathroom, cupboard to bed, have pacified
my family with mountains of bread. I have filled my mouth and eaten my way
into pain. I want my bones. I want myself to carve her bright way back.
So I say to my son let’s run. I don’t say let’s run away from ourselves.
I think I broke for good. All I can think of is how many shitty things I did
or said. I didn’t know is no excuse and now I do, I see that my tongue
has been a knife, a cudgel, an evil fish. Every day I spew for fear and wait
for a hand on my shoulder, remember too much the shove in the guts,
fist on my cheek, a rip in my cunt. I kneel beneath an accusation of sky,
say please help me, help me please for I have almost had enough
of this kind of life. Smile, smile, smile, smile, smile. Smile and think
of the phone number that the clinic gave for such vile emergencies and I
(will not) have not phoned it because they did not remember how I said
I hate talking on the phone, would rather scratch my arm-skin off. I’m sorry.
I’m trying to make amends. So me and my son, we run. I found a road
where hardly anyone goes – past the church ’cause nobody has any time
these days for God – besides, all their doors are locked, so suffer your sin
in silence. Them that need some wine and wafer genuflection, I guess
just go without. Past the Shrine of the Two Marys – oh, how I have
worshipped their crumbling prayer, their sad relics, their pietà of mist,
their concrete knees. At least this Lockdown, somebody got round
to painting them fresh again, hung baskets of flowers on each side,
like pendulums keeping time. I stagger past and wish for selfish things –
MaryMothers, make me thin, MaryMothers, I’m not that person anymore.
MaryMothers, put out the pains in my head. In front, my tall son.
Me behind, running upon the long cast of his shadow, like he’s
getting away and always forever I’m failing to catch him up.

Packing Two Gold Necklaces

By Hibaq Osman

When there is talk of warriors
rarely do they mention the keepers of secrets
or how whole cities have been moved
under the cloak of night
what tiresome work it is
to carry lineage

      which is to hold
your great grandmother and great grandchild
in one hand
and a tasbeeh in the other
you say insha Allah, God will free us
and prepare for the unknown
often, water
           often, death

When there is talk of warriors
the bustle of kitchens is omitted,
but recipes are strategically altered
in new weather
on new lands

isn’t a sword just a knife
that has been repurposed?
Which is to say you have made do

behind the curtains of sons
and into the long memories of your daughters
whose minds are a maze of language
that cannot translate
your name

Nobody will speak of what you left behind
to carry us forward,
least of all yourself
instead:
Allahu aclam /
                        God knows best

Jane Burn’s poems have appeared in many magazines. Her poems have regularly placed in poetry competitions both national and international. Her pamphlets include Fat Around the Middle (Talking Pen, 2015) and Tongues of Fire (BLER Press, 2016), and her collections are nothing more to it than bubbles (Indigo Dreams, 2016), This Game of Strangers (Wyrd Harvest Press, 2017 co-written with Bob Beagrie), One of These Dead Places (Culture Matters,2018), Fleet (Wyrd Harvest Press) and Remnants, co-written with Bob Beagrie (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2019), Yan, Tan, Tether (Indigo Dreams Press, 2020). In 2018 three of her poems were nominated for the Forward and Pushcart Prize, and Jane is a joint winner of the 2020 Bread and Roses Poetry Award, sponsored by Unite.

Hibaq Osman is a Somali writer born and based in London. Her work largely centers women, identity and the healing process with a focus on the often hidden, nuanced aspects of our experiences. Her debut poetry collection, A Silence You Can Carry, was published with Out-Spoken Press in 2015. In 2017 she released her online poetry chapbook the heart is a smashed bulb.

Witches, Warriors and Workers: an Anthology of Contemporary Working Women’s Poetry is available here. 

The Children of the Nation: an Anthology of Working People's Poetry from Contemporary Ireland is available here.

Onward / Ymlaen!: an Anthology of Radical Poetry from Contemporary Wales is available here.

Almarks: an Anthology of Radical Poetry from Shetland is available here.

A Kist of Thistles: an Anthology of Radical Poetry from Contemporary Scotland is available here.

The Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2020 is available to pre-order from This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

This article is being jointly published by Communist Review.

'Between Misery and the Sun': I Don't Want to Go to the Taj Mahal, by Charlie Hill
Tuesday, 01 September 2020 08:19

'Between Misery and the Sun': I Don't Want to Go to the Taj Mahal, by Charlie Hill

Published in Life Writing

Fran Lock reviews Charlie Hill's new memoir

Charlie Hill's memoir, I Don't Want to Go to the Taj Mahal, is told in a series of linked poetic vignettes. 'Vignettes' is definitely the right word too: each memory comes to the reader as a distinct and self-contained portrait, distilled with great clarity and precision. This is not the discursive 'anecdotal' memoir so beloved of celebrities. Hill writes with a pleasing economy of expression, and the deft arrangement of judiciously selected details. The book refuses to impose an explicit narrative trajectory onto events, but allows for the organic accumulation of small though significant moments, creating a sense of life as it is lived, without the heavy-handed interventions of authorial hindsight. In fact, Hill eschews a number of well-worn autobiographical manoeuvres, skilfully avoiding the pitfalls of sentimentality, painfully obvious foreshadowing, and – my personal bête noire  – nostalgia-by-numbers.

This last matters enormously, and is crucial to an understanding of Hill's work as an important contribution to working-class life writing. Too often literary memoirs fall back on or into generalisations to create and sustain their sense of time and place: what was playing on the radio, what was happening in the news, what people were driving, smoking, wearing. Hill doesn't do this, and it is a relief. The effect is local, intimate, and compelling. There is no attempt, witting or unwitting, to homogenise the complexities of lived experience into a soup of what Peter Davidson has called 'benign pastness'. Hill's vignettes are particular and attentive, adroitly dancing between the subjective and the social. For this reason, the memoir calls our attention to the English class system in all its subtle and maddening gradations. Two passages stand out as especially well-realised in this regard. In the first, Hill is describing the persistent insecurity that surrounded his own and his family's class identity. Writing about his mother, a vicar's daughter, Hill states:

“We were poor,” she said once at a family do, “so poor we couldn’t even afford a television.” And then, “I’ll always remember the vicarage at Taddington. It had this enormous staircase with these great sweeping banisters that we used to slide down. (p.2)

In another memorable section, Hill begins an ultimately doomed career at the local grammar school, where he 'opens a book' on a fight between two of his peers, 'the cock' of his junior school, and a 'kid from Alum Rock'. For those not in the know – as Hill was not – Alum Rock was and is a notoriously deprived inner city suburb of Birmingham:

The fight lasted as long as it took for the kid from Alum Rock (look it up) to walk up to my man and drop the nut on him... (p.5)

There's a self-deprecating humour at play here, Hill making fun of himself and his own socially unaware naivety, but there's also something painful, an anxiety and a confusion about the grim social realities that drive and underpin such scenes. Although the loser is rather genteelly described as Hill's 'man', use of the vernacular 'drop the nut on him' signals at least a desire to identify with the other boy, the material conditions of whose life were shaped by forces literally unknown and unimagined by Hill. Elsewhere in the book, Hill describes his removal from the grammar to the local 'comp' where his father teaches, and where he comes under fire for being 'posh' (p.6). Taking on some of the poshness attributed to him, Hill describes himself as 'frequently involved in fisticuffs', a stoically understated way of talking about an experience few would covet. There is much to say here, about Hill's dexterity in playing with the slips and switches of code required of a child in his situation. Other writers might have eked this section of the memoir out for page after page of hand-wringing analysis, but a good part of Hill's characteristic skill is in leaving these unspoken tensions unspoken, by not applying an adult understanding to a child's intense experiences Rather, Hill uses language to signal the ever-present interplay of class dynamics: showing, not telling, in the best tradition.

It is also striking that Hill doesn't take a position on events, nor does he attempt to coerce or cajole his readers into taking one. He is not preoccupied with presenting an image of himself, either as valorous,  victimised, or villainous. He is not adopting a pose, but presenting a series of experiences for us to make of what we will. Again, this feels invigoratingly fresh. The image of Hill that emerges from the book is likeable, clear-sighted and astute, and – most unusually – without pretence or vanity. Not that Hill doesn't signal his own vanity and pretentiousness, but when he does, he does so with a redeeming self-awareness that reads as genuine and comfortable. Speaking about his early adolescent activism Hill writes 'I was, I suspect, insufferable on the quiet.' (p.7)

Later, describing his literary ambitions he makes the somewhat deflationary statement, 'I finish my novel about books. It has taken me a long time. I try to get it published and am buoyed by the responses of publishers who don’t publish it.' (p.86) What connects Hill's writing about both his politics and his career is his ability to laugh at himself without sneering at the causes or vocations that have mattered most to him. This is not Portrait of the Writer as a World Weary Cynic. No sense of 'knowing better' now haunts Hill's descriptions of idealism, excess or ambition. Rather, we see our humble narrator in a constant state of development or change, alert and open to new possibilities. In an era where neoliberal identity politics holds sway, and writers in particular are under persistent pressure to crystallise and calcify their image or their 'brand', Hill's approach comes across not only as zesty but potentially radical.

The form Hill deploys seems to emphasise this sense of openness and change: a hybrid form, somewhere between poetry and prose, where the lines of each short paragraph are often connected and propelled by their sonic properties, for example: 'shinning up lampposts and schlepping round the council estates of Northfield espousing unilateral nuclear disarmament...' (p.7) or, from later in the book, 'We enjoyed particularly sensual, soft-focus sex but irked each other too and the mid-term prognosis was underwhelming; shortly after I dallied with an ex...' (p.62). Alliteration and half-rhyme abound, and Hill has the poet's knack for linking unusual and sonorous phrases; this provides each scene with momentum and texture, and lifts them from a mere recitation of stuff that happened. There's intricate work going on here, on the level of lexis and the level of sound, and this work leads us from moment to moment, creating a porousness between memories so that they bleed and blur like real life.

And in the midst of the bleed and blur there are the moments that stop you cold, either in their tenderness and beauty or their unblinking witness to misery. Midway through the memoir, there is this description, baldly concrete in its abjection:

A low point. It seemed everyone I knew was poor. The DSS office in Highgate overlooked two abattoirs. It had reinforced glass windows and the staff were suicidal. (p.44)

There's a kind of socialist realism to such descriptions, and this is where Hill's memoir resonates the most for me, when he conjures the peculiarly embattled feeling that saturated left-wing and working-class politics in the eighties and nineties. There was the sense of being on the cusp of change, of living in and through a time of ferment, of something about to happen. This feeling seems composed of equal parts vitality and futility. It produced a kind of hedonism, led by the optimism that just by living you could change things, and the suspicion that nothing you did made any difference at all. It was, is – and I find myself using this word a lot about Hill's memoir – nuanced. Hill seems at home with this ambivalence, and it brings to his writing a real complexity and truthfulness.

Other writers, myself included, would – and have – dwelt at length on the disillusionments and failures that marked Blair's election and tenure, and the collapse of a credible left into excess, apathy and liberalism, but Hill is not judgemental or moralising, and however bleak things get, there is always humour, and on occasions, arresting glimpses of beauty:

Now a baby girl, another never-ending new. Soon there is a photograph that will be forever in my head, of son and daughter leaping into the air above a meadow, waving sticks, suspended between sky and earth (p.89)

Reading the word 'suspension' makes me think of Albert Camus, and a quote that seems very applicable to Hill's writing. 'To correct a natural indifference', writes Camus, 'I was placed half-way between misery and the sun. Misery kept me from believing that all was well under the sun, and the sun taught me that history wasn't everything.' Hill will undercut any notion of the memoir as a vehicle for individual exceptionalism by humorously downplaying his achievements into 'a defeat of many colours' (p.95), but also rejects the typical trajectories of misery memoir with moments of solidarity and love, 'I have a family and I love it with a love that is no part of any of this, a love that lives where all else vanishes or is unreal.' (p.84) Here, I think, is the real triumph of this work: its commitment to the ambiguities and contradictions of lived experience, in a way that is unique to the life it portrays while being deeply resonant with and for its readers.

Reading the book one afternoon, I sprayed coffee down myself while laughing at the following passage:

I was excited at the prospect of contracting Lyme disease, which can prove fatal if not caught. It is identified by a circular red rash, like a target and quite spectacular; unfortunately, I was fine (p.94)

I laughed, a lot. Because not in spite of the fact it really isn't funny. My laughter was a kind of resistance, a belligerence, in the face of a world where contracting Lyme disease might provide a welcome respite from precarity, tedium, and the soul-numbing effects of late-stage capitalism. Hill's book invites and summons that laughter, laughter which is a true expression of solidarity.

The book is available here.

Poetry and class in a time of cholera
Monday, 27 July 2020 11:03

Poetry and class in a time of cholera

Published in Cultural Commentary

Fran Lock writes about poetry and class, in the latest in the series of jointly published Morning Star/Culture Matters articles on the effects of the pandemic on cultural activities

During this Covid crisis, poetry is being asked to do a lot of good: to offer consolation and catharsis, to carry some kind of vague universal experience, to speak truth to power. But whose experiences, and whose truth? These are pressing questions.

Everyone, from practitioners to pundits, has an opinion, the same opinion:  poetry is a 'contemplative' form, productive of comfort and of empathy; what poetry does singularly well is negotiate between subjective feeling and mass social concern. True, but whether contemplation is likely to provide solace or to further empathy rather depends on what you're being asked to contemplate, doesn't it? And we might be equally involved in global events, but we are not all equally affected by them. The virus does not discriminate. Humans do.

This is where our current definitions of poetry fail, at a disparity so great it can never quite be broached; at the edge of an ONS report  that says there are fifty-five deaths for every one-hundred-thousand people in the poorest parts of England compared with twenty-five in the wealthier areas. For BAME communities the situation is even bleaker. Class dictates which of us will feel the effects of coronavirus the deepest, and who will be left to endure its legacy the longest. Under such conditions what should poetry do or be?

Poetry doesn't stand outside of capitalism's brutalising power structures speaking in. It is enmeshed and beholden to those structures; subject to and scarred by them. Artists are also workers: art is work, and the large majority of us do other jobs to support ourselves and our families. When the welfare state is failed by government, it fails us too, when jobs are cut, they're our jobs too.

The idea that art is an adequate salve to these wounds is ludicrous. 'Feeling better' should not replace collective, active and organised social change. This is the limit and the danger of 'consolation': we shouldn't have to find ways to 'cope' with an unacceptable situation; pressure should be applied to those who engineered it.

Catharsis is ripe for exploitation. The deep swell of feeling a poem prompts may seem profound, momentous even, but it is interior, entirely subjective, the oppositeof true sympathy, true solidarity. This kind of poetry, and the idea that it connects people through some golden thread of fellow feeling conceals the fatal extent of the inequality existing between us.

Catharsis makes a fetish of working-class resilience; it ties that suffering to a marketable performance of identity, where your pain has meaning and value only in so far as it elicits a profound emotional response in your audience. Writing the poem may help us, but its efficacy in challenging the attitudes and conditions that produce those feelings is limited.

I live – we live – a continual, exhausting negotiation with and within language; with and within capitalism. Our use of language is both an organic response and a purposeful riposte to the non-language of bureaucracy, the populist sloganeering of governments, and the reductive stereotyping of the mainstream media.

I want to fight back against the misuse of lyric; against the easy absorption it sometimes fosters. Capitalism uses ease of assimilation to slide its most toxic messages past us on the sly. Those are the enemy's tactics. Our poetry must do more. If the state were a body, then poetry should tell us where it hurts; to keep pointing to the sites of failure and neglect and saying 'Look! Listen!'

They don't listen. If they did funding bodies and publishers would have already moved past the tokenistic representational model of working-class inclusion to make real changes to the way in which financial support for artists is allocated and accessed.

Applying for assistance - before coronavirus and during - is a bewildering process. Many give up. In poverty you're asked to account for yourself in a variety of ways every day, just to access what you need to survive. We live with a level of scrutiny and required 'proof' that is intrusive and stressful.  Impenetrable bureaucratic processes are not helpful. Funding bodies frequently assume a familiarity with their processes, but often people are unaware of what's out there, what they're 'entitled' to. And there are talented artists who don't have the vocabulary to present the 'best case' for their vibrant and necessary work. Who, among the working classes, can afford to expend time and attention on a process they feel sure will fail?

Attention to diversity means reaching out, talking about the opportunities for disadvantaged artists with those artists. Regularly. Systematically. People new to funding processes may have no previous experience navigating these systems. It is about making space for them, even if their work does not conform to some preconceived idea of how a working-class person writes or sounds. It means recognising that a middle-class audience is not the default. It means making money available to forms of art that the working class can actually practice.

To occupy the same spaces as our middle-class peers we are performing a phenomenal amount of extra labour; it's labour we shouldn't have to perform. But if we do, if this is really the best system our cultural gatekeepers can come up with, then we should be allowed to be angry. The idea that art should or indeed can be apolitical is patently ridiculous, and it's a fiction that serves those already comfortably ensconced in places of privilege.

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